Imagine, if you will, a brass instrument whose head resembles the oversized offspring of a boa constrictor attempting to engulf an open parasol and a gramophone’s swollen speaker. Then give it a long, thinnish, looped body that encircles the victim, er, musician, causing him to adopt a posture similar to that of a bagpipe player, with the instrument’s inflated, gaping aperture rearing above his left shoulder as if primed to receive microwave transmissions, intimidate passing flying saucers and—possibly—project bowling balls over vast distances at frightening speed, like a warped cannon.
This mighty beast of sonic onslaught is the sousaphone, which, in a world sadly lacking the synchronicity of appearance and performance so rife in cartoons, is a gloriously, ludicrously brazen optical statement of aural intent. The trombone may be the jovial slurring of a jowley deep-voiced fat man, and the tuba the cheerful yet penetrating result of his unfortunate penchant for baked beans, spuds and ‘slaw, but the sousaphone is a titanic blast of vista-flattening flatulence that Godzilla would be proud of. By now it will be crystal clear to everyone reading this that, for all the sad failings of the modern music industry, and the floods of unfortunate, annoying blandness it spawns, the solution is cheap and quick: we need more sousaphones, everywhere. Possibly with some ex-Mouseketeers writhing suggestively on them.
Now, if you have witnessed a full-sized American university marching band holding tumultuously forth, then you will be familiar with this barbaric marvel, but over here in Europe they are virtually unknown, if not totally extinct (doubtless held captive or destroyed by those dreadlords of the grim and grey, major-record-label bosses). So we over here have to rely on the likes of the Youngblood Brass Band (whose performance in Bristol at the end of the month is not taking place without yours truly), and them here Dirty Dozen to spread the rebellious, jubilant word (and seismic vibrations). Julius Mckee wields the heavy artillery for this motley gang, and his playing on their recent live album We Got Robbed! was of such raucous force that it probably leaves most heavy metal bassists whimpering under a collapsed wall of their feeble Marshall amps. His lungs must be the envy of blue whales.
On this album, he’s much less of a presence, which is unfortunate but understandable given its conceptual existence as a tribute to former member Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, whose passing in January heralded a four-hour procession through the streets of New Orleans. Whether they were worried about damaging the studio equipment, or simply threatened to deny Mckee alcohol unless he let them get a tone in edgeways, the rest of the band are hardly shy about releasing their enthusiasm; this album is as infectious a display of unrefined revelling in shared performance as I’ve heard since their live album, really. Cheers to Neil for getting this CD to me, by the way.
Rather than approaching the concept of death and loss as Nostalgia 77 did earlier this year on his conceptual debut Songs for My Funeral, with an air of stately stoicism and free jazz, these louche individuals combine to target the heart, head, and the soul by having a righteous party, in true Fat Tuesday style, whilst they cover a collection of old Christian standards (from “I Shall Not Be Moved” to “Amazing Grace”). Reverence for the soul then, but also soulfully fluid jazzy interplay that’s a delight to the head, and cleverly co-ordinated, cohesive swing backed by thumping drumming for the heart and legs. Opener “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” loses its formality two-thirds of the way through, slipping into a grinning, looser exploration; “Please Let Me Stay a Little Longer” has light calypso overtones; “John the Revelator” has moments straight off the Pink Panther theme (which is where the band’s dress code might have sprung from, too), and “Jesus on the Mainline” accelerates from joyous gospel chanting into a flying, pedal-to-the-metal call and response meltdown, like jazzed-and-brassed-up Holmes Brothers on speed.
Wherever you are, Anthony, they’re having a great time remembering you, and so will anyone else who follows the call of the wild sousaphone to this exuberantly testifying record. If this life is the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s party, just imagine what a riot the after-party’s going to be