It's cold, though not freezing, in Cleveland when thoughts of New Orleans slink through Scene
's downtown office. Still, the city's mid-winter reputation for icicle-clad streetlights and frosty lines outside music venues reaches the home of Big Sam — a stalwart of the NOLA funk scene and a lively, rockin' trombonist. He's planning on arriving in the middle of February, thousands of miles and a few dozen degrees Fahrenheit away from his balmy refuge.
He's at home in New Orleans as we speak, where, besides the music and food, the winter weather is simply divine. Early mornings bring the upper 50s, but by noon the city is relaxing beneath a nice 70 degrees. "I'm loving it," Sam says.
Big Sam fronts Funky Nation, a contemporary force of funk and rock from down south. Culled together from years of talent and collaboration, the band is one of many bringing the sweet sounds and vibes from New Orleans to venues around the world. Cleveland, always very open to the funk, plays host this weekend.
For the trombonist, it's another notch in a long career of bringing smiles to people's faces.
When Sam started getting into music, his biggest inspiration was the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. "I told myself that one day I was going to play with that group, or one day have my own group like it," Sam says. Sam, see, is a goal-setter. He shoots high and tracks down the sounds he wants to create.
This was when he was all of 15, studying at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. ("Any musician you know from New Orleans probably went to that school," Sam says.) He began crafting his sound and helping found the Stooges Brass Band. By 19, he had joined the Dirty Dozen. Simple. Ascendant.
After a year with that band, his desire to branch out began pulling in the curiosity other musicians, other friends. With vision and dedication, Funky Nation was born.
The first few years were kind of rough, he says, because the band was mostly non-existent. At the time, he was still touring with the Dirty Dozen, a band that regularly throws down 200-plus shows a year.
To launch the band as a genuine New Orleans force, the band picked a up a weekly gig at the Funky Butt. Still, though, Sam was on the road with the Dirty Dozen, so the guys in Funky Nation had to perform many shows without him. "A lot of times the audience was like, 'Where is Big Sam? Who is Big Sam? When is Big Sam gonna be here?'" Sam says. The whole thing took a while.
Around 2004, Sam realized that if this is to take off, he needed to drop out of the Dirty Dozen. So he did. "I had to take a leap of faith."
So Funky Nation began playing more shows around NOLA and continuing to grow their sound at regular gigs around town. There was no pressure. Things were still building in their gentle, methodical ways. ("That's the time for you to build your sound. It gives you the chance to play with all kinds of ideas that you might not do at a show if you're putting on a full-on concert," Sam says.) But, again, these things take time. He soon thereafter got a call from none other than Allen Toussaint, who wanted him to play with his band. Sam had to. He took the gig.
He played a bunch of shows as part of Toussaint's massive band, touring ultimately for two years. During that time, though, Toussaint was all wrapped up in a number of different projects, allowing Sam to skate back to NOLA and nurture his own band. "I had that freedom to do what I wanted to do with Funky Nation," Sam says. By the time 2007 round around, Sam was back in town full-time, 100-percent in on the Funky Nation trajectory.
"I've been up and down with my sound," Sam says. "It started out being more like an instrumental jazz-song type of group. Then over the years it evolved into a James Brown style, then it even got pretty rockin'. We started rocking pretty hard. It's weird, because I love all music. Like Funkadelic: They're funky, but it's pretty edgy and rocking. I'm going back to the funk now. It's so much more fun to dance to. When we play a funk beat, everyone's got smiles on their faces.
"I didn't know it when I was younger, but people all over the world love New Orleans music. They have such a great appreciation for it."
Indeed, Sam has found that people all over the world cherish the musical traditions coming out of New Orleans. Imagine: The first time he played New York City — this young guy from NOLA — he sold the place out. The crowd ate it up, dancing all night.
That's the key: Bring the unseen energy from his hometown to the more distant corners of the county and the world. Share the love from the Crescent City.
New Orleans, really, is a timeless city. Sam has seen the city's musical traditions keep the nightly vigil for years, arcing across the break wall of 2005's Hurricane Katrina. He says the city's scene isn't changing so much — that just doesn't happen, really, in New Orleans — but rather that it's growing. Katrina, on one hand, brought even more attention to the city's music community, which fed hungry young artists.
Nowadays, Sam is an elder statesmen in the city's funk world. He says there are teenagers coming out of the city's school system — kids! — who can throw down with the best of the top brass onstage. "There's so many of them, so fast, I can't keep up with them!" Sam says. And these kids are forming 10-piece bands, which spawn additional bands down the line. It's evolution.
Sam likens the city's growth to the everlasting circle of life: He found himself as a young man inspired by the guys in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He cultivated a sound based on those inspirations — a lineage that can be traced through time. Now, Sam can hear young guns rocking trombones in corner bars — and they sound just like the stuff Sam and his band are working out.
"It's weird when you're walking down the street, and you hear cats that sound like you," Sam says. "You know where they're coming from. Like, 'Y'all coming up, and y'all better than we were at our age!'" It's a community of love and tradition.
Big Sam's Funky Nation with Your Brothers
8:00 p.m., Sunday, Feb. 14, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd. 216-383-1124. Tickets: $13 ADV, $15 DOS, beachlandballroom.com.