Sunday, February 1, 2015

All About That Drum and Horns

I am nothing if not a devoted fan.

Back in 2007, I saw a fairly new 11-piece group called No BS Brass Band and fell in love with their ten horns and a drummer audio onslaught. A webcast producer at the time, I wasted no time in inviting them into the studio to play for a show.

My rationale was purely selfish; I wanted to see them in what amounted to a private show for me and my staff. From there, it snowballed and I rarely missed an opportunity to catch them playing where ever that might be, including a street corner downtown during lunch hour.

When their first album came out, they thanked me in the liner notes, not that I realized it. It was years later when someone pointed it out to me. The irony was that they were thanking me when I was the one grateful not only for their music but their enthusiasm for the Richmond scene.

But if someone as musically illiterate as me could spot their massive talent and overall good vibes, it was inevitable that the rest of the world would follow. Performances at the Kennedy Center, Lincoln Center and NPR's Tiny Desk Concert series proved it.

So there was no way I was missing their performance with the Richmond Symphony at Center Stage tonight.

A $10 ticket in the next to last row of the nosebleed section was all I could afford, but history had proven to me that the sound of No BS reaches the rafters and beyond. If I needed further proof, it was in the attendants at the theater offering patrons complimentary ear plugs, the first time I've experienced that at the symphony.

"Do I need them?" one geezer-looking man asked. "Well, it's going to be a little loud," the attendant explained tentatively. He took a pair for himself and another for his wife. I kept on walking.

Once in my seat, I saw two little old ladies with stiff helmet hairdos who looked to be straight off the Cedarfield bus trying to rip open their cellophane wrappers. I'm willing to bet it was their first ear plug experience, but they were there. You go, girls.

Around me, seats were being taken by what I can only assume to be No BS fans because they certainly didn't look like the usual symphony crowd. If the goal tonight was expanding the audience base, mission accomplished.

The lights darkened, conductor Steven Smith came out, lifted his baton and music began. When drummer Lance walked onstage, cheering began followed by the sounds of ten brass musicians playing just offstage and then walking on playing "Jalapenos on the Side."

Not going to lie, there was a thrilling frisson in the air, an excitement that rippled through the fan base in the crowd.

"I feel like I'm overdressed," the conductor joked about the more casual attire of No BS before returning to the podium and leaving center stage to them.

"All right, y'all, how you feeling?" trombonist/vocalist Bryan hollered to the hopped up crowd before singing "Runaround," a song that caused some of the oldsters to look worried. Oh, no, Mabel, what kind of music is this anyway? You could just see the concern on their faces.

"Infamous," written by trumpet player Marcus got an MGM-sounding start from the symphony before No BS took over and it tore it up the way Marcus had intended it to sound. You haven't lived till you've seen Stefan wailing on that tuba.

Maybe because they knew they were playing to a lot of fans, but we were treated to a song they've never put on an album, "Get Slow," which writer Bryan described as, "A song about when you think you know what life is supposed to be or who it's supposed to be with and then life says whoa! Slow down!"

I think we've all had our get slow moments and anyone who says they haven't is lying.

Many of the novice members of the audience were flummoxed by trombonist Reggie's six-movement suite, "The Ballad of Eagle Claw," randomly clapping throughout. He explained that the piece had been inspired by a martial arts movie he described as insane and recommended it highly for those who like such things.

Beginning with just Lance and Reggie onstage in front of the symphony, the rest of the band eventually came out to join them, leading us on a cinematic-sounding journey that mimicked a villain, a centipede and much fighting. You know, insane stuff.

No surprise, the band that excels as ambassadors of and cheerleaders for Richmond closed out their set with the anthemic "RVA All Day!" with Reggie instructing the boisterous crowd, "Y'all know this. Feel free to sing along!" Even better, they did a call and response on the chorus. They sang, "RV," we sang "A!" They sang, "All," we sang "day!"

It was one big No BS love fest, unfortunately with no room for dancing, but a memorable moment nonetheless.

I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was still a bit disappointed when the lights came up for intermission and many of the younger attendees bolted for the door. Sure, they'd come for No BS, but apparently they're unaware of Karen's three-song rule for shows.

Many is the time I've gone to see an opening band with no interest in seeing the headliner. Even so, I make myself stay for three songs so I can at least have an opinion about them instead of a presumption. When I went to see Muse, I had zero interest in My Chemical Romance, but I gave them three songs before bolting for the door. Fair is fair.

Talk buzzed around me about No BS's performance during intermission. Several people mentioned that it had been almost impossible to hear the strings over the horns of No BS.

"You don't realize how much like a symphony they sound by themselves till you hear them play with a symphony," one guy said. Exactly why I'd felt sure my cheap seat would serve me just fine.

The second half of the program began with the conductor saying, "Happy Mardi Gras, guys! Now, straight from New Orleans, here's Dukes of Dixieland."

Granted, it's a little over two weeks until Mardi Gras, but there was no way a band whose home base is the Steamboat Natchez wasn't going to flaunt its NOLA jazz roots and they did with not one but two Mardi Gras medleys.

A finely tuned entertainment machine, albeit one with solid musical chops, they were swinging that music every which way.

The trumpet player sang and provided the polished patter. The pianist (who had his back to us so we could watch him play) stood on his bench to play with his hands and one foot on the high keys. The bass player opened his mouth to sing and turned out to be a ringer for Louis Armstrong's gravely rasp.

The classic "It's a Wonderful World," done as an instrumental, got cheers from the first few notes for its instant familiarity. While all three horns soloed on the extended arrangement, the clarinetist's was the sweetest and most moving.

When it came time for the drummer's solo, he moved from behind his kit, drumming on everything he encountered: microphone stands, the floor, even the upright bass the bass player was playing.

Impressive as that was, they took it to a new level when the drummer grabbed the bass to play it and the bassist took the mic to begin singing "All About That (Upright) Bass."

It was probably the most perfect moment of their entire set because it was so unexpected. Then the drummer returned to his soloing.

For the big finale, No BS returned to the stage to join the Dukes of Dixieland for "When the Saints Go Marching In," trading off solos and each band playing separately and together while the symphony swelled behind them.

Unlike his fellow musicians, though, bandleader Reggie was playing triangle (of which he is a master) instead of trombone, eventually trading it for tambourine as the three musical entities wound up for a slam bang finish

In the screaming standing ovation that followed, it didn't matter that some misguided fans had already left. The faithful remained, the first-timers were rewarded and we all got a showstopper of a finale that left little doubt that No BS is the real deal.

They help make RVA all day a wonderful world. Any idiot could have seen that from the start. Oh, wait, I did.

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