The Dirty Dozen Brass Band – Make me wanna holler
The band watched the rescue efforts with Shout Factory’s Amos in a hotel bar. As a helicopter picked someone off a roof, Towns — the band’s biggest Marvin Gaye fan — casually said, “Flying high in the friendly skies.”
When Towns quoted the Gaye title, Amos said, “That would be a great record to make.” The band wasn’t initially sure about re-creating What’s Going On, but they couldn’t deny the appropriateness of doing so.
“There’s a lot stuff going on in the world and people want to know what the hell is going on,” Lewis says. “Genocide and all these people killing each other and the price of oil going up. There’s enough money in the world for everybody to have some, so what is really going on?”
Agreeing on the concept became the easy part. The sessions were heated, partially because of the band’s compositional method — “throw everything against the wall and see what sticks,” Amos says. “And there’s a lot of healthy and sometimes unhealthy tension that goes on within the band.” And, lastly, because they had a hard time deciding how faithfully to stick to the original arrangements (by David Van De Pitte).
During one fallow period in the sessions, Towns told the band it needed to be itself: “If [Amos] wanted Marvin Gaye, he’d just play What’s Going On. He wants you to come up and just be the Dirty Dozen. Amen.”
That was easier said than done. Lewis remembers James Jamerson’s original bass lines being so complex they sounded like two parts (as, in fact, they are), so Joseph had to figure out how to simplify them for the sousaphone. “There are so many great string arrangements that the casual listener doesn’t notice because they’re hearing Marvin and the lyrics,” Amos says. “We really wanted to pull a lot of the stuff in the background on Marvin’s record and put it in the foreground on the Dozen’s record.”
When the band convened in Austin to play South By Southwest last March, they scheduled studio time, and Amos’ co-producer Anthony Marinelli brought in some charts that gave them a starting place. “When they had that, they could refer to that, then deviate from it,” Amos says. “From there, there was a lot of controlled and barely controlled improv as they made it their own.”
Higgins’ drums usually underpin the songs with a variation on the second-line snare pattern. It’s subtle in the reasonably faithful version of “What’s Happening Brother”, which sounds wise and real sung by Bettye LaVette. On “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”, the front half of the piece swings gently, but a phrase on the saxophone becomes the melody for the band to sing “Help me somebody” in unison. Rather than sounding desperate, though, the moment is joyous. In parade fashion, everybody is offering variations on the “Help me somebody” melody, while the groove is uptempo, with Joseph’s sousaphone grabbing a few quick high notes at the end of the phrase to create energy for another pass.
Amos says one of the breakthrough moments in the session came when Ivan Neville recorded his organ and vocal for “God Is Love”. The version is broadly funky as Neville’s organ style is firmly rooted in funk’s ’70s heyday. His vocal doesn’t sound churchy, nor does it sound like a singer singing a lyric. He sounds like a guy who hit on a simple truth. “Hearing him sing ‘God Is Love’, the band said, ‘Yeahhhh, right,'” Amos says. “We remembered why we’re doing this. He gave us such a great gift, probably more than he knows.”
It’s a year since Nagin’s interview. He finished it saying, “The city of New Orleans will never be the same,” and it won’t. Art Neville is the lone Neville Brother still in town. Irma Thomas is gone. So is Allen Toussaint. Of the Dirty Dozen, only Lewis remains, staying in the French Quarter while his house is rebuilt.
While we’re talking, writer Katy Reckdahl comes in the coffee shop with her son Hector, who was born in a New Orleans hospital August 28. Hector’s father is Kid Merv of the Treme Brass Band, which relocated to Arizona after the storm. When Lewis sees Hector, he forgets what he is talking about and says, “I see Merv in this one.”
He plays with Hector and starts telling old war stories, talking about why Fats Domino wouldn’t play California and the time when he was driving the Dozen’s van and ran over a dead deer, dragging it for miles as everybody in the van smelled cooked meat. “Tore up the whole underside,” he says, laughing, “We ended up riding to the next town sitting on the back of a wrecker.”
As he talks, Lewis is bouncing Hector on his knee and telling him, “Boy, we gotta teach you how to buckjump,” referring to a dance second-liners do. The poignant friends-and-family scene almost allows one to forget for a moment that that we’re in post-Katrina New Orleans, where communities are scattered and not even neighborhoods are what they used to be.
The Dirty Dozen and other brass bands are all about community, rooted in neighborhoods and paid to play street parades by neighborhood social aid and pleasure clubs. At the most literal level, brass bands have enough members to seem like communities unto themselves, and if things sometimes get heated, well, neighbors don’t always see eye to eye, either. Still, as New Orleans after Katrina has demonstrated, a community eventually pulls together, and so did the Dozen for What’s Going On. They’re united by shared values, including self-preservation and indignation at what the city and country are going through.
And they have the same questions. “What is going on?” Roger Lewis asks.
Alex Rawls edits OffBeat in New Orleans and has enough confidence in the city to try to buy a house. In the city.