Courtesy of Big Sam's Funky Nation
Mardi Gras celebrations will have come to an end by the time Big Sam’s Funky Nation arrives at the Rock Hall
for a concert that takes place at 8 p.m. on Friday. But that won’t keep the New Orleans-based group from having a good time.
“We like to think that we bring Mardi Gras with us wherever we go, you dig?” says cordial band leader Sammie “Big Sam” Williams in a recent phone interview.
Williams, who grew up in the Crescent City, played trombone in the Stooges Brass Band and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band before launching Big Sam’s Funky Nation.
He also played on Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s album The River in Reverse
had a recurring role in the HBO series Treme
“Growing up in New Orleans was great,” he says. “I didn’t know what I was getting into at the time. After growing up and becoming an adult and becoming how special our culture is, I realized how special the experience is. I’ve traveled all over the world, and there’s other place like my city. When people tell me they’ve never been to New Orleans and want to visit, I tell them, ‘Come down. You might end up moving down here.’ That’s what some people do when they come down and have such a good time. The music and food is so different. People come here and fall in love.”
Williams left the Dirty Dozen Brass Band in 2004 to start up Big Sam’s Funky Nation, but a tour and album with the late Toussaint, a great New Orleans musician, songwriter and producer, meant that Williams couldn’t put all of his energy into the group for a few years. Once Big Sam's Funky Nation got rolling, however, the band picked up some momentum.
In 2018, it released its latest effort, Songs in the Key of Funk, Vol. One
. The album opens with the incredibly funky “4 Da Funk,” a song that channels Parliament Funkadelic with its snappy bass line and deep groove, and the album shows just how many different types of music have influenced Williams and his bandmates.
“I wanted to do something different than what I saw in my city, but I wanted to incorporate that brass band feel for the stage,” Williams says when asked about the band’s eclectic approach. “Back then, you only saw brass bands playing on the street. I wanted to be bigger than that. I wanted to take it bigger and combine all of my influences into one musical bundle. I wanted to incorporate funk, and I incorporated some of my favorite influences, like Morris Day and George Clinton and the Gap Band. We brought in some of sounds of the Meters and Dr. John and Allen Toussaint and threw it all together to make it my own thing.”
The group recorded the album in New Orleans at Parlor Recording Studio.
“It’s this cat Matt Grondin [who runs the studio],” says Williams. “It’s a cool spot. It’s one of the newer studios in New Orleans. He’s not from here, but he built this state-of-the-art studio because we don’t have any down here. Nowadays, you don’t need that, but it was cool to chill there and get these songs out.”
The album shows incredible range as the band delivers one funk anthem after another and then capably simmers down for slow jams such as “Apple Pie.”
“That comes from playing for years,” says Williams when asked about "Apple Pie." “I’ve been playing for almost two decades. So much of my stuff is full speed ahead. It’s super-fast and high energy. For ‘Apple Pie,’ I had a friend of mine who told me that he respected me so much, but he said that we should throw a 'downplay' into the middle of the show. I said I would think about it. He said that it would give the band some time to breathe. I decided to try it and tone it down for a minute, and people loved it. It’s a great song."
Williams says a a follow-up album that he'll dub Volume 2
is currently in the works.
"I’m working on the songs," he says. "We have enough in the catalog to release another one. We just need to get it out."
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