It’s not likely you’ll find another band that’s opened for both Lionel Richie and Widespread Panic, in the same year no less. Call it a perfect example of the high-energy celebratory versatility of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, a four-decade New Orleans musical institution that’s well known for delivering good time horn-driven grooves.
“We just play music, man, any style,” said founding Dirty Dozen baritone sax player Roger Lewis, when reached by phone at home in the Crescent City. “That’s what we do. We can adapt to anything. That’s called being a musician. I’ll play with anybody. I don’t care what it is.”
Lewis went on to ring off some of the band’s other notable collaborations, a lengthy list that includes Elvis Costello, Dizzy Gillespie, Branford Marsalis, Dr. John, Norah Jones, and Modest Mouse. “Everybody except Lady Gaga—now that would be interesting,” he added with a weathered laugh.
The Dirty Dozen formed in 1977, starting as a nightclub house band in New Orleans’ Sixth Ward. The group shook up the traditional brass band format by adding a baritone saxophone in place of the clarinet and infusing a street-born second-line style with elements of be-bop, funk, R&B, and rock.
“That’s what made our band different,” Lewis added. “We still play a lot of the traditional music of New Orleans, mixed in with our own compositions.”
In the early ’80s the band’s popularity took off, eventually garnering the group status as worldwide ambassadors of a Big Easy party. Crowds started to swell at jazz clubs and festivals in the U.S. and abroad in Europe and Japan. The 1984 debut album My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now features many of the band’s most enduring live staples. Reinterpreted traditional favorites like “St. James Infirmary,” a reworking of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan,” and the hopping title track, exemplify what the band best delivers—upbeat, dance-friendly rhythms, rousing chorus chants, and plenty of big brass blasts.
Membership has changed through the years, which has often evolved the band’s sound. Certain incarnations have featured guitar, keyboards, and a full rhythm section. Longstanding original members like Lewis and trumpet player Gregory Davis have helped foster the careers of latter musicians like popular New Orleans trombone player “Big Sam” Williams, who went on to form Big Sam’s Funky Nation, and guitarist Jamie McClean.
“Every time you bring in new members the music takes on a different feeling,” Lewis said. “We keep on reinventing ourselves, but it always sounds good. It’s an institution.”
The group has also been creatively liberal with its studio output. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina the band channeled its frustration with recovery efforts through a song-by-song remake of Marvin Gaye’s classic soul album What’s Going On. The 2002 effort Medicated Magic was a guest- and cover-filled affair that featured help from Panic’s front man John Bell, pedal steel wiz Robert Randolph, and Olu Dara. The band’s latest album, 2012’s Twenty Dozen, was its first in six years and found the outfit looking to the past and present with the inclusion of the ubiquitous standard “When the Saints Go Marching In,” as well as a take on Rihanna’s “Don’t Stop the Music.”
The band also hit TV screens with an appearance in the second season of the HBO series “Treme,” David Simon’s look at life in New Orleans during the Katrina aftermath. Lewis said he’s sad to see the show, which is in the midst of its fourth and final season, end its run, calling it an “accurate representation of what happens in New Orleans. It gave our musicians a lot of exposure and put a couple of dollars in our pockets.”
Touring, though, is still the band’s lifeblood. While Lewis estimates the Dirty Dozen have averaged 300 gigs a year for over two decades, the group has now scaled back to approximately 100 shows annually. The band was in Central Virginia in September, performing a collaborative set with the Soul Rebels at the inaugural Lockn’ Music Festival in Arrington, and it will be back in Charlottesville on Tuesday for a special New Year’s Eve co-bill with Southern tunesmith Jason Isbell at The Jefferson Theater. While the show culminates another year of hard work, it hardly signifies a slowdown, as the band has a slate of dates booked in early January and February. Lewis, who plays with a handful of additional brass bands when he’s home in New Orleans sums it up easily: “There are always plenty of gigs.”
Tuesday 12/31 485-45, 9:30pm. The Jefferson Theater, 110 E. Main St. New Years Eve with Jason Isbell, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and special guests Grits ‘n’ Gravy www.jeffersontheater.com