I have never visited New Orleans, and this shortcoming ranks as one of my greatest musical failures. I realize it’s the birthplace of jazz and its busking is second to none. I’ve also heard stories of the powdery sweetness of a Café du Monde beignet, or the piquant bite of a seafood po’ boy, consumed at Jazz Fest making an experience complete. All these deficiencies make me appear entirely unqualified to genuinely appreciate the visceral aspects of one of New Orleans’ greatest exports, the brass band.
The same lack of cajun country experience afflicts Youngblood Brass Band. It seems inconceivable that the fabled charm and swing of New Orleans could transcend regions and transplant itself into the sounds and rhythms of this Madison, Wisconsin, troupe. However, one listen to their first release, Word on the Street, dispels all doubts. Despite questionable singing on some tunes, the musicality is high and instrumentals surge with energy and style, grounded by the strong playing of sousaphone player, and lead-songwriter and arranger, Nat McIntosh. “Crescent City” is a harmonious, even sentimental, tribute to their genre’s origins, providing a scenic stroll through the historic city. The title track pushes ahead with more rhythm despite holding back with a more conventional melody.
(Ozone; US: 22 Apr 2003; UK: Available as import)
But in Center:Level:Roar Youngblood goes far beyond the conservative and traditional sounds of a brass band. They march to the beat of their own drummer, notably percussionist and MC, Dave Skogen. The album finds the group dissatisfied with the solid yet modest sounds of Word on the Street and aggressively pushing the boundaries that have defined the brass band genre. The opening track, “To Come Together”, is a spoken-word manifesto in which Skogen decisively takes the lyrical reigns of the style-bending tour de force to come. Fittingly named, and establishing the rhythmic inertia that propels the album, “Round One” is thus unleashed on the listener. Soaring horns, intertwining harmonies and a cohesive tightness catapult the piece—and the album—forward. The syncopated rhythms tell one’s body to move, and dancing trumpet lines entice like sirens as a distant choir calls below them. The group’s sound is a distinct one of mythic proportions.
The team of Skogen and Tom Reschke on percussion creates a polyrhythmic tableau that touches on, but is not limited to, hip-hop, Afro-Cuban, Dixieland, and rock and roll. Sonic diversity also persists, and is best exemplified on one of the album’s strongest tracks, “Brooklyn”. As diverse as the borough itself, this track epitomizes Nat McIntosh’s composing and unique arranging to present a layered, well-balanced and penetrating wall of sound. Though McIntosh is the principal songwriter and arranger, his presence can be overlooked unless paying attention. However, it’s hard to miss his soloing on this track, and it brings attention to his profound virtuosity and innovative style. McIntosh uses “mulitphonics” by mimicing DJ scratching techniques and also harmonizing by actually singing into his instrument while playing it. The result is an entirely distinct, ostensibly synthetic, and completely mind-spinning exercise. With the ensemble’s punctuated playing, “Brooklyn” comes as close to an instrumental brass band pop hit as one can imagine.
Not that Youngblood Brass Band would ever shy away from a pop hit, either. Segueing into “Human Nature Pt. 2” from another powerful and moving track, “Diaspora”, the group launches into their blazing interpretation of Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature”, providing it with the energy the original lacks. In their live shows the group also regularly plays an instrumental rendition of M.O.P.’s “Ante Up”, performed debatably as hard-core as the original.
“The Movement” (the track’s name could easily derive from its symphonic-like length of 7:21), is yet another song of piercing rhythm and baritone energy. But, unlike its instrumental counterparts, it features inspiring lyrics from MC Dave Skogen that passionately convey the group’s penchant for social change and activism. He also dutifully pays respect to Youngblood’s brass band brethren.
One of the most endearing features of Youngblood—and one faithful to its instrumentations’ roots—is their ability to overwhelm an audience with punk rock energy and sound with a largely acoustic ensemble. Devoid of all the amplification, electronics, and gadgetry that so many of today’s groups depend on, Youngblood’s raw instrumental sound and competent musicianship is a refreshing reminder of the capability of seemingly ordinary things. Whether they’re playing as a throwback to Dixieland-era New Orleans or cultivating a rogue sound, one thing is certain: never has a brass band rocked so hard.
Live at Vibraphonic 2007