ASPEN - There are dozens and dozens of brass bands from New Orleans. Some are not so polished, just teenagers fresh from the ranks of their high-school marching bands. The great ones have been around awhile and are fairly well known to music lovers outside of the Crescent City: Rebirth, Dirty Dozen, The Soul Rebels. You can usually expect a great live show from any one of the three, whether you're in a Frenchman Street dive in their hometown or some top-notch music club in New York City.
Then there are some brassy outfits that fall just outside of the top tier, threatening to knock the best from their perch. Stooges Brass Band probably fits into this category. Though they've been together since 1996, their members are generally younger than the previously mentioned three, in their early to mid-30s. They also are more edgy with their style and lyrics, breaking the mold of what came before them while also remaining loosely respectful of the city's brass band traditions.
Walter Ramsey, the Stooges trombonist and band leader, says those who visit Belly Up Aspen on Friday will see a "high-octane performance." What separates the Stooges from the rest, he said, is their interaction with the crowd. Imagine George Clinton and Parliament in their heyday, with a lot of horns and a New Orleans flavor, minus the goofy clothes and the on-stage dance party.
"Everybody's part of the show, though they don't know it yet," says Ramsey. "It's gonna be a powerful show. You'll be entertained by us rather than just hearing a song, then another song, and then another song."
To him, just about any brass band can play well. But only the best of the best know how to entertain.
"We're more entertainers than just players," he said. "It's the show that makes us stand out from the other brass bands. And our musical quality. We don't just retread the regular brass band music, we have different ranges of music that other brass bands are not doing. We use different styles, anything from hardcore swinging jazz to hip-hop.
"We come in a different format, too. Usually a brass band has a snare drummer and a bass drummer. We come with a drum set, a percussionist. At various times you can catch us with a keyboard player. We have extra instruments to create extra sounds."
Lyrically, they also stand apart. Though they know the standard brass-band fare - it's hard to find an outfit that doesn't play "Liza Jane" or "Big Chief" - the Stooges' recent originals show them taking jabs at the establishment. Other tunes are highly explicit.
Take "Why They Have to Kill Him (Oh Why)," a song that pays tribute (sort of) to former Stooges member "Shotgun Joe" Williams. At the time of his death in 2004, Williams was a trombonist with the Hot 8 Brass Band. New Orleans police shot and killed him, under questionable circumstances, in full view of residents in the city's Treme neighborhood.
Williams, known by police to have a drug problem, was driving a stolen truck when police found him outside a store. They later said they shot him because he acted as if he was going to use the truck as a weapon against them.
The song struck a chord with New Orleans residents weary of a police force often accused of shooting first and asking questions later. "Why they had to kill him/they had the nerve/to say they protect and serve/oh why? ... Why they had to kill him/they need to change their logo/cuz we can't trust the po-po/oh why?"
Another fan favorite is the strongly suggestive "We Make 'Em Say Ooh," which for all of its sexual bravado, bordering on misogyny, shouldn't be taken all that seriously. "We got ladies to the left, ladies to the right/Stooges in the house, they gonna shake it all night/we like 'em with small tits, and big ol' lips/we like the way she work them hips."
Some might say the Stooges are super-cocky, but Ramsey defines it as confidence. In the last few years, they've been winning organized brass band contests and second-line battles on the street, victories that have resulted in physical confrontations with members of other bands, including the famed Rebirth. The street rivalries are similar to the minor fights that used to occur between Mardi Gras Indian tribes in New Orleans a few decades ago.
"They got mad because they didn't win," Ramsey says of a Red Bull-sponsored contest a few years ago that sparked cries of foul from other bands that said the Stooges didn't play by the rules. "I brought my A-game to the table. I knew before the competition that I was gonna win, because I knew how to outthink the other band leaders.
"We listen to the people, and what they want to hear, versus what the other musicians are telling us. We listen to the older musicians, our peers, but then before and after a competition it turns into a lot of smack talk. Those bands are great bands, but I know how to outthink them."
In hindsight, he says, a lot of the physical altercations were kind of silly. Everybody's friends now, Ramsey says, even after a street fight with Rebirth.
"The situation was, we were getting hot out on the street. And for many years, Rebirth was the band, you know, the most popular. They're like our big brothers, still today. They used to have a crowd of people following them and now they following us.
"They have a trumpet player, Glen Andrews, and we saw him when we were about to parade. The crowd was with us. He was pretty upset about that; he was mad. He came, and started talking. Before I knew it, he tried to hit me, but he missed; he swung and hit the sousaphone, which I was playing, and a big fight broke out."
That incident, and others, have blown over.
"We eating at each other's tables," Ramsey said. "We all cool."