The Soul Rebels arrived in Evanston Thursday night fresh on the heels of appearances at Jazz festivals in Ottawa and Toronto, at the end of a month that took them from Bonnaroo to Metallica’s Orion Festival in Atlantic City. The mere thought of seeing these ambassadors of a proud New Orleans brass band tradition in the intimate confines of Evanston’s outstanding Space had me excited for a rare opportunity. To say I walked away fully satisfied only begins to tell the story of the joy of music these eight talented musicians represent.
With a 5-piece brass section, one saxophone, and two percussionists, the band worked their way through an impressive range of sounds, and a groove that barely paused over the course of a 90-minute set. Their opening instrumental set the tone for the dance party that was to follow with up-tempo beats and alternating solos from each of the men on the front line as a way of introducing themselves. Two trumpets, two trombones and Erion WIlliams’s great saxophone work played melodies and harmonies over the stellar bass grooves Edward Lee, Jr. pounded out on the sousaphone all night. Many times I found myself looking around for a secret bass guitar helping with the funk, but this was not a night for electronic instruments. This was all about the physicality and power of brass, sax, and percussion.
Their chant of “ain’t nothin’ but a party y’all” at the start of their second song brought to mind the work of the recently deceased Chuck Brown or Trouble Funk, both masters of the DC go-go scene years ago. It got the middle of the room dancing – the people seated at tables on the sides would have their turn in an hour or so. But the Soul Rebels wouldn’t be content with referencing just one type of music or song. Quite the opposite. By the end of the night I felt like they took my whole record collection and reworked it, reshuffled it, and made it their own. So when Julian Gossin and Marcus Hubbard quoted Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” on their trumpets, it just fit right in with the flow. Songs by turn included Afro-Cuban rhythms, Latin beats, Calypso, Reggae, and, dare I say, all that jazz.
The set included many songs from their widely-praised cd from earlier this year, “Unlock Your Mind” (Rounder). “Turn It Up,” “My Time,” and “Showtime” were standouts along the way. As the infectious groove kept rolling along, largely due to the tight and relentless beats from Derrick Moss and Lumar Leblanc, the band wanted the people seated at tables on the sides to join in the party. They found a perfect solution in a dynamite cover of Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” which segued into Parliament’s “Give Up the Funk,” but only long enough to be the perfect tease. “In New Orleans we don’t have chairs,” Williams told the crowd, “so get on up,” while the band provided the perfect James Brown quote to go along with the sentiment.
Paul Robertson and Corey Payton’s work on trombone was a thrill to watch all night and earned a new level of appreciation of its range from me. Corey and Julian took center stage as the mood turned to hip-hop as the set turned to a close. It was a daring reach for a group with such deep traditional roots. I asked him about it afterward and he said their goal is to “touch on every aspect of music” with “no limitations” so they can “reach everyone we can.” Powerful thoughts – ones they’ve proven by their appearance at Metallica’s 30th anniversary last year. When asked about how that crowd received them, Corey glowed: “They took to it! It was all about acceptance.”
The set came to a close with an ode to the area code of New Orleans, “5-0-4,” followed by their biggest hit, a cover of the Eurythmics’ “Sweet Dreams Are Made of This.” By then, the whole room was dancing. When the band finished their set, people stuck around for pictures and hugs with the band – nobody wanted the love to end.
A quotation from a reviewed posted on the Soul Rebels website speaks of them as “the missing link between Public Enemy and Louis Armstrong” – their music and stunning performance tonight proved that true. Be sure to catch them when they return to Martyrs’ in late August – they’ll be busy touring Europe and elsewhere in the meantime, converting music lovers into members of their beloved 5-0-4.
Reviewed by Neil Rigler on 6/28/12