Big Sam's Funky Nation to Play at For the Funk Of It Music Festival
● By Phil Reser
By Phil Reser
IMAGES OF BRASS BANDS marching through the streets, particularly in conjunction with jazz funerals and second line parades, have come to represent the distinctiveness of New Orleans.
Typically, the brass band is made up of a tuba, trombones, trumpets, clarinet and/or saxophone, snare drum and bass drum.
The portability of the ensemble has allowed those bands to travel beyond the streets and onto the stages of neighborhood barrooms, concert halls and international festivals. The history and significance of these musical groups continues to evolve.
Led by trombonist and singer Sam Williams, Big Sam’s Funky Nation draws heavily on the New Orleans brass band culture with a horn-heavy front section, as well as the booty-shaking funk of The Meters and The Neville Brothers.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Sam grew up just six blocks away from famous Uptown music hall Tipitina’s.
“It was hood. It’s a lot different now because of gentrification. But it was a great community full of love. Everyone looked out for each other. By playing on these streets, you learned how to work your craft and entertain an audience. It comes naturally in New Orleans. I’ve been here my whole life and rocking these streets. Even during Hurricane Katrina, I drove nine hours from San Antonio every weekend for two years just to play live.”
Though Williams grew up hearing music in the streets, he didn’t pick up an instrument until middle school. He joined the marching band and was given a slide trombone, discovering he could more or less play it right off the bat.
“I went home and played two tunes by ear: ‘When the Saints Go Marching In’ and ‘Wild Thing’. Who would have thought that it would end up being my way of life?”
His music history began with the Lil Stooges Brass Band and the Soul Rebels. While working with those groups, he remembers going to a birthday party at Dirty Dozen trumpeter Efrem Towns’ house. When he discovered he was in the home of one of his musical idols, he walked up to Towns and said, “If you ever need a trombone player, please call me.”
And down the road, he recalls, “I got a call from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They wanted me to go on tour with them, and they were leaving the next day.” He ended up playing with the Dirty Dozen for the next four years.
Due to his popularity as a horn player, by 2006, he was playing with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint on their Grammy-nominated “The River in Reverse” album and performing with them on their international tour.
Following that experience, Williams got the itch to do his own thing. He began to work on his own side project, Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
“When I started the band, I wanted people to know that a trombonist can front a band, we don’t have to be just sitting in the background. I wanted people to say, ‘Hey, the trombone isn’t a geeky instrument anymore. It’s pretty hot; it’s pretty cool.’”
Sam’s trombone work still stands front and center, though it is most prominent on the instrumental cuts where he stretches out and struts his stuff. He’s glad to be a part of the movement that has helped increase the popularity of the ‘bone.
Big Sam ensures you’re not just a part of the crowd, but a part of the show through dancing and singing along. Williams learned his own ultra-smooth footwork when he was getting his feet wet with the Soul Rebels, participating in their hot steps and choreography.
“Before that, I was the shy kid. I didn’t say much, I just played my horn. They brought the dance out of me and later, I was dancin’ on all of the Dozen’s shows. Eventually, it became part of what I do. I broke out of my shell.”
Funky Nation recently released its sixth full-length album, “Songs in the Key of Funk, Volume 1.” The resulting album is a simmering mix of the many styles of music that make New Orleans the heart and soul of American culture: funk, jazz, brass bands, bounce, rap, R&B and even rock and roll.
Big Sam’s Funky Nation aims for the heart by using its music to urge us to take a breather and celebrate being alive. •
Big Sam’s Funky Nation • Saturday, August 11
For The Funk Of It Music Festival, Belden (Plumas County)