The ReBirth Brass Band, The Main Event: Live At The Maple Leaf (Louisiana Red Hot Records, 1999)

Did you know how funky the tuba can be? ReBirth is the granddaddy of the fusion brass band scene coming out of New Orleans, a jarring collective taking a somewhat obscure tradition and bringing it into the modern era. The Main Event is a live showcase of some of the hottest music to come out of the American south in years.

The brass band tradition began in the aftermath of the American Civil War. Freemen, finding discarded bugles and the like in former battlefields, took up the instruments, creating a sonorous blend of traditional African styles and what became known as Dixieland. In the following decades, many of the musicians and bands became part of what were known as social clubs, societies in lieu of insurance companies for the poor. Helping to raise funds for these organizations, these bands would play at funerals, creating a celebratory atmosphere in understandably sad occasions. Although the tradition was in its death throes in the 1960's and early 1970's, groups like the Dirty Dozen and ReBirth helped to rejuvenate this incredible music.

ReBirth are no revivalists, however: mixing the tradition with the sounds of modern R&B, funk, and rap, they helped to create a new awakening of this music. On this disc, listen to them blast through "It's All Over Now," taking a great R&B song and not only placing it in the brass band tradition, but making it sound like a standard. The group blurs the lines between contemporary and traditional by playing both in rapid succession, proving, in the end, it's not about where it comes from, it's all music.

Composed of five brass players and two drummers (one snare, one bass drum), ReBirth have been together since their high school days twenty years ago. Yet the music is not about super-tight arrangements and complex charts: often, two horns will carry the melody line, while the others will play fills around them. The feeling is loose, if not sloppy at times, and yet always spontaneous in ways that no chart can capture. And fun too: these guys enjoy the sounds they make. Audience interaction is paramount to their performance as well. At times, one can't figure out what background vocals are coming from the stage or the floor. The two-way interaction is incredible, as both performers and audience instigate changes in tempo, mood, and even songs. With enough stage banter and calls of "let me hear you say yeah!" to put your average rapper to shame, the band ensures that line called the stage is kept at a minimum.

The centerpiece of this disc is the title track, a half-hour medley that mixes traditional and modern in a blend of horns, drums, audience sing-along, and party atmosphere that defies description. (The stamina of these guys is incredible!) Right when you expect the music to let up, they return to another theme, take the intensity up a notch, and wail. Incredible stuff.

Check it out for yourself: on their Web site; there are plenty of audio examples, and a fantastic documentary that places both the band and the tradition in context. This disc is well worth tracking down, probably the funkiest thing released in the last five years. Oh, and by the way, the tuba is beyond funky.

[Big Earl Sellar]