Sorrow and happiness in equal measure are all over the band's most recent album "Funeral For A Friend," dedicated to New Orleans legend (and former band member) Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, who passed away earlier this year. It's a concept record of sorts, presenting traditional songs like "Down by the Riverside" and "Amazing Grace" in a manner reflecting the traditional New Orleans jazz funeral.
"We start with a slow hymn, as the body is coming out of the church," Lewis explains. "We play that as the band walks in front of the hearse down the street, then after we cut the body loose at the grave site we start playing joyful music as we go to what we call the 'Re-pass,' where friends and family gather to talk about the deceased and eat."
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band is an eight piece outfit trumpet, trombone and three saxes with guitar, drums and sousaphone that knows tradition. The group first came together in 1977 as the house band for the informal Dirty Dozen Social and Pleasure Club.
The club developed in the late 19th century to provide proper burial for members of the community who couldn't afford services. At the time of the DDBB's inception, both the social clubs and traditional brass bands were on the wane in the Crescent City. Lewis takes pride in helping to revive these aspects of New Orleans culture.
"I'm not patting us on the back or saying we're the only ones responsible for it, but we came along at a time when the brass band thing was dying out. Now, they're popping up all over."
While "Funeral For a Friend" taps into the band's roots, they've always been a flexible unit ready to work with anybody. The last 10 years have seen the Dirty Dozen focusing on collaborations, with records heavy on guest stars of every imaginable discipline.
They helped emerging rock band Modest Mouse present a more eclectic sound on their breakthrough record, "Good News for People Who Love Bad News." "Great session," says Lewis, "they recently sent us a gold record." And they've also recorded and toured regularly with jam circuit staple Widespread Panic, but these names are just the beginning of an extremely long list. "Norah Jones, David Bowie, Elvis Costello, B.B. King, it goes on and on and on," Lewis says. "We want to play with everyone and spread some joy and happiness throughout the land."
The Dirty Dozen show with the North Mississippi Allstars and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Band should be a raucous overview of the last 140 years of Southern music culture. Fife and Drum is a Civil War-era form that combines martial drumming with African rhythms accompanied by the piercing call of a flutelike fife, while the North Mississippi Allstars put a postmodern rock spin on the blues.
For his part, Lewis promises to cover the bases. "I always tell people we give you something for your mind, your body and your soul. You get three for one when you get the Dirty Dozen." S
Dirty Dozen Brass Band plays at the Canal Club on Friday, Oct. 8. Doors open at 8 p.m. Tickets are $17.50 in advance at Plan 9, Richmond Music and online at thecanalclub.com. This is an all-ages show.
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