Brass band brings a taste of New Orleans to Iowa

Music in Muscatine

Photo courtesy of Rebirth Brass Band's Facebook

By Rod Peck

I’ve had a fascination with the city of New Orleans and its musical history all of my life, and this is part of what fueled my high anticipation for the show by the Rebirth Brass Band at Iowa City’s Englert Theater on Thursday, Jan. 23.

In preparation for the big night, Terri and I had been watching the HBO series “Tremé,” which features members of the band in various capacities, on DVD at home all winter. By the time the big night arrived, we were like kids on Christmas Eve bursting with excitement for what proved to be a revelatory night of music that we’ll never forget.

I would love to be able to say that Terri and I had dinner at a restaurant featuring New Orleans cuisine, but such a place is missing from the otherwise quite diverse Iowa City culinary landscape. However, we made up for this by going to our very favorite IC eatery, the famous Hamburg Inn #2 at 214 N. Linn Street. The Hamburg’s reputation is such that it is a popular place for campaigning politicians to stop and be seen, with the assumption being that if you’re eating at the ‘Burg, people will automatically believe you must be one of the good guys. In terms of food quality, the Hamburg features an All-American menu that isn’t just good; it’s real gooooood, with ambience to match. General Manager Seth Dudley informs that in addition to their second location at 2221 Rochester, a third Hamburg Inn will open this spring at 746 Coral Ridge Ave. in Coralville, with further expansion, including a food truck, in the works. Maintaining the quality of the food at a new location will likely be the easy part, and it will be interesting to see how the rustic charm of the original translates into a new building. If you go, I suggest the chocolate bourbon pecan pie shake for dessert!

Terri and I decided to get seats in the front row for the general-admission event at the Englert, which was filled to about half its capacity of 725. With no opening act, the band came out right on time with no fanfare and instantly launched into some of their trademark up-tempo, danceable music that defies easy categorization. It’s best to say that the Rebirth Brass Band’s music is a combination of traditional New Orleans Jazz mixed with a little bit of everything else, a veritable gumbo of American music. From the opening note, it was impossible for folks to keep their toes from tappin’ as the band blasted its way through their repertoire, which happily for me included their own take on Hank Williams’ classic ode to Louisiana culture “Jambalaya” and the Rolling Stones’ “It’s All Over Now.”

Little by little, I noticed the beginnings of what became a truly beautiful, magical musical phenomenon happening right before my eyes, something I’ll never forget, but in retrospect I shouldn’t have been surprised about. At first, there were just a few people dancing off to one side of the stage. Then, a few more on the other side were shakin’ it up. Next, some people came right down the middle aisle to the front and broke into spontaneous movements along with the music. We had chosen the front row in part to get an unobstructed view of the band, but before I knew it the entire area between the stage and front row was filled by jubilant, uninhibited dancers! As Terri and I are decidedly not dancers, after the first set we elected to check out the view from the balcony, and the party continued unabated once the second set began.

The whole event only served to whet my appetite for a trip to New Orleans, and of course part of the Rebirth Brass Band’s mission is to be ambassadors for this great American city and its culture. The RBB was founded in the early ‘80s by brothers Keith and Phillip Frazier and other members of their high-school marching band, which included famed trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. The band has gone through many personnel changes over the years, but continues on with their musical vision intact. In 2012, the band won a Grammy for Best Regional Roots Music Album for their Rebirth of New Orleans offering. As I write this review, I’m looking forward to this evening’s Grammys, as the RBB is nominated for the same award, this time for their live album recorded at last year’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. It’s also worth noting that members of the RBB founded, sponsor, and actively participate in a program for under-privileged children known as The Roots of Music. The RBB’s tradition of playing the Maple Leaf Bar on Tuesday nights in New Orleans is something I’ll definitely have on the agenda when (not if!) Terri and I finally make it down to The Big Easy.

As regards the Englert Theatre itself, I positively love the place, and not just because it consistently books musicians I’m interested in seeing. The Englert isn’t some fancy-shmancy big-city theater; it’s the small-town Main -Street theater just like the ones I grew up going to in the ‘70s that were common all across America before the advent of the multiplex cinemas at suburban shopping malls. If you’re a sappy sentimentalist like me, it’s impossible not to get hit by a wave of nostalgia the moment you walk in the door, as the essential character of the place remains unchanged by modernity. The vintage marquee, the carpet, the lobby, the bathroom fixtures: all of it serves to remind one of an earlier, simpler era. Every time I’m there, part of me feels like a young boy filled with excitement at getting to go to the movies when such things were still a novelty, and that’s a feeling I hope never to outgrow.