COURTESY ROPEADOPE RECORDS
Roger Lewis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band strikes a sombre pose at New Orleans' famed St. Louis Cemetery.
Sacred sounds from the South
Since Katrina, Dirty Dozen Brass Band has been singing the blues
If Roger Lewis had the chance, he would rededicate his band's latest album to the victims of Hurricane Katrina. The saxophone player for New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band was grand marshal for the funeral procession that carried his friend Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lecan to the cemetery. The band's latest album, "Funeral for a Friend," approximates the traditional gospel played in the procession, intermixing the bluesy and solemn "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" with the jubilant "I Shall Not Be Moved" and "Jesus on the Mainline."
"Just a Closer Walk With Thee: The Sacred Sounds of New Orleans and Southern Gospel" featuring the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Dixie Hummingbirds
Place: Hawaii Theatre
Time: 4 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $10 to $35
Call: 528-0506 or online at hawaiitheatre.com
"My city almost died," Lewis said by phone during a tour stop last week in Moscow, Idaho.
"A lot of people lost a lot. ... There's been a lot of depression going through the city. It was so stressful experiencing that hurricane. It's still a bad, bad situation."
The band keeps to a busy tour schedule and was on the road when Katrina hit. "Our families are scattered all over the place. Same with our band -- one guy's in New York now, another in Falls Church, Va.; Atlanta; Jackson, Miss."
The band started an interisland tour with gospel legends the Dixie Hummingbirds on the Big Island Monday. After a couple of dates on Maui and in Laie Friday, the tour ends with a concert at the Hawaii Theatre Sunday afternoon.
Lewis' own family has been fortunate. He was recently able to move back to New Orleans with his wife and daughter. His wife, professional musician Marie Watanabe, and their 7-year-old daughter stayed on a friend's farm in Vicksburg, Miss., for three months after the hurricane, only going home when his daughter's private school reopened.
COURTESY OF ROPEADOPE RECORDS
The band has done its part to help New Orleans get back on its feet. They contributed the hearty "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now" to an uplifting compilation, "Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast," released on the Nonesuch label and featuring such N.O. musical notables as Allen Toussaint, Dr. John and Irma Thomas.
The song was recorded Sept. 21 in New York. Lewis admits, "it could've been anything, but we finally decided it would be the best song for the CD. It was like, 'You would be in trouble! Let me get out of this water!!' That's where I was comin' from, so I thought it was appropriate."
The Dixie Hummingbirds epitomize the power of close-harmony gospel singing.
THE DIRTY DOZEN Brass Band has been around for close to three decades. Saxophonist Lewis has been there for all of them, with fellow founding members Kevin Harris on tenor sax and trumpeters Efrem Towns and Greg Davis. (Davis is on loan to Festival Productions for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April, so 22-year-old Lemar Guillary takes his place on the tour.)
And while the band originally had separate snare and bass drummers, in keeping with 'Nawlins street band tradition, Terence Higgins keeps those rhythms a-thumpin' behind a standard drum kit. The band also includes guitarist Jamie McLean, and is rounded out with newer members Julius McKee on sousaphones and Sammie Williams on trombone.
"By the way," Lewis said, "we got our name from a social and pleasure club called the Dirty Dozen. We've never, ever had 12 players in our band."
In Sunday's concert, the Dixie Hummingbirds will take the audience to church, followed by a separate set by the Dirty Dozen. The two will join forces in the finale.
Lewis promises: "It'll be something for the body, mind and soul."
BACK TO TOP
The Dixie Hummingbirds’ music is rooted in rock, country and R & B
For longevity, it's hard to beat the Dixie Hummingbirds. The Who and the Rolling Stones have made it past 40 years together, but how will they sound after nearly 80? For the Birds, as they are known among gospel fans, age is nothing but a number. They sound wonderful -- and that's without the pampering and paydays enjoyed by top pop acts. They could mash up the Super Bowl, too, given the chance.
Gospel might be the most underappreciated American musical style. Rock, country and R & B have heavily borrowed (read: stolen) much more than gospel has taken in turn -- from steps to style to songs. To sing this music takes more than wardrobe assistants, hairdressers and marketing consultants; it takes unshakable commitment.
How else to explain the continued strength and stamina of Ira Tucker? The Dixie Hummingbirds' leader, now 80, joined the group as a 13-year-old in 1939. He soon made his mark not only as a gifted arranger and captivating lead vocalist, but for his showmanship -- jumping from the stage, running through the crowd and thrilling audiences in churches, schools, theaters and clubs.
As Tony Heilbut put it in his excellent book "The Gospel Sound," "The teenage Tucker anticipated all the frenetic workings out of soul music. 'Shoot, what James Brown does, I've BEEN doing.'"
To this day, Tucker's baritone is a marvel -- swooping, gliding, roaring, whispering, unraveling strings of notes like so many pearls. As a songwriter, too, he excels: "Who has the power to change winter to spring? / Tell me who wrote the lyrics for the robins to sing? / Oh, who can count the apples that will grow from just one seed? / Just as sure as you're born, it's God on His throne / He watches out for you and me."
Senior member Ira Tucker, third from left, of the veteran Dixie Hummingbirds gospel quintet, is one of the most influential singers in all of black music. The current lineup includes, from left, William Bright, James Williams, Tucker, Lyndon Baines Jones and Frank Frierson.
The Dixie Hummingbirds were formed in 1928 in Greenville, S.C. -- a hotbed of sacred and secular quartet singing, as were Tucker's nearby hometown, Spartanburg, and other Southeastern cities. All had their particular styles and well-known groups, plus blues and country singers, and young Tucker absorbed it all.
Instruments did not customarily accompany the quartets until the '40s, so for years everything -- melody, harmony, rhythm, foreground, background, call and response -- had to be conveyed by voice. The versatility and power that were required are still in the Birds' music.
If you have ever heard Paul Simon's 1973 hit "Loves Me Like a Rock," you have heard the Birds, and Tucker's arranging style. Sophisticated, rhythmic and sometimes bluesy or jazzy, it reflects his varied musical upbringing and his openness to contemporary flavors. One song that might be performed Sunday is Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." Tucker told the Star-Bulletin he has "changed a few phrases" and recorded it for an upcoming album.
Rounding out the Birds' personnel are William Bright, John Huff, Lyndon Baines Jones (also their guitarist), Cornell McKnight, Abraham Rice and drummer Toray Nettles.
If you would like to check out a CD or two before the concert, "The Best of the Dixie Hummingbirds" has several masterpieces from the '50s, such as Christian Automobile" ("Prayer is your driver's lights and faith is the steering wheel") and Tucker's virtuoso rave-up "In the Morning." On Thomas A. Dorsey's "Precious Lord," an early-'70s classic, "Hide Me in Thy Bosom" shows where soul harmony groups like the Temptations and Take 6 came from.
"Diamond Jubilation," from 2003, with Dr. John, members of Bob Dylan's group, and Garth Hudson and Levon Helm of the Band, has brought them renewed acclaim -- but in this music, one answers to a higher critic.
Any recording, though, pales compared with hearing the group in person. As Tucker says in "The Gospel Sound": "I'm a firm believer in giving people something for their money. Talent. A variety -- fast, slow, something sad, something with a lot of laughs."
And if you think you might not belong, remember: You don't have to be black and Christian to enjoy gospel, any more than you have to be dead and German to dig Beethoven.