To hear Laine Kaplan-Levenson interview the What Cheer? Brigade on WWNO public radio, click here.
Approaching the Allways Lounge on St. Claude Avenue, I could hear the music from across the street. The very loud music.
Walking inside, I saw shiny reflective horns spilling over the slightly elevated stage onto the floor, rubbing shoulders with the crowd as the What Cheer? Brigade opened the show. Six trumpets, six trombones, and six in the percussion — and those were only the members of the band able to come on tour.
It’s hard to define what type of music the What Cheer? Brigade plays without listing most genres known to man. This rambunctious blend of brass is a workout for everyone in the room, whether you’re jumping up and down as though at a metal show, or kneeling to the ground like you’re in a Greenwich Village coffee shop.
But why are there so many of them?
Dan, who plays sousaphone for What Cheer, says it’s all volume. “It’s the legacy we’ve inherited from the noise scene in Providence, and so if you’re a band that’s completely acoustic and you want to be really loud, you need a lot of people.”
CJ, who plays the cymbals and is the band’s newest member, attributes it to the party factor.
“I think it was Athens, Georgia, where we showed up to a house party and I thought it was like really bumping inside and I was like, all right, this is gonna be really great; it was just us and like three other people.”
Naturally, they love New Orleans. For the past eight years, the group has been coming down to play gigs and march in Mardi Gras parades, and discovered that this city has a lot in common with their hometown of Providence. Especially the people, says percussionist Chop Chop the Chimp.
“The people we know in both cities really seem to possess this do-it-yourself-attitude — finding a place where they can afford to do it yourself, finding a place where there aren’t the hindrances you might have in other places just to make what you want to happen happen.”
But trumpeter Nick Horton says the music scenes are really different.
“In New Orleans, obviously there’s years and years of appreciation of brass music and you guys are blessed for having that. We unfortunately don’t have that in Providence; the high schools don’t bring people up playing music, there’s not that same tradition in marching bands or anything like that. But people still love it.”
And people love What Cheers’ own traditions — the game-day/warrior face paint, the frenetic intensity, and the party tricks, like bass drummer Norlan’s newest one: playing his drum while standing on it, crowd surfing. Norlan says that playing in New Orleans makes them bring their A game.
“You don’t want to show up to New Orleans playing songs that carry the tradition of New Orleans horn players and do them sloppy or bad, so it puts you on your toes in this good way where it puts a little pressure on you.”
In most towns they visit, the New Orleans songs are crowd favorites. But here they avoid the standards, not just because they don’t want to mess them up, Dan says, but because their role here is to bring a different kind of brass.
“When we’re in a place like Columbia South Carolina, we played like all of our New Orleans songs, because people there are going to associate the sonic pallet that we have with that style of music more, and be more ready to hear it. When we’re here, it’s funny; we have this built-in audience of people that are ready to go on a whole other journey with us.”
With no second lines or jazz funerals in its home territory, What Cheer? creates its own cause for an occasion. This is part of a new trend of activist street bands that support protests and community organizing.
The band took a stand with sousaphone player Joey when he decided to quit his job at a hotel after four years of what he felt were unjust working conditions. The “Joey Quits” video went viral on YouTube, as in 4 million views, interviews on CNN, ABC 20/20, and a slew of Serbian reality TV appearances (don’t ask). Check it out:
Chop Chop the Chimp recalls the band’s beginnings.
“We started partly from a true love of Balkan brass music, and true fascination with bands like Extra Action, one of the earlier brass bands out there doing that sort of no-holds-barred, we’ve-got-unplugged-instruments-so-we-can-go-where-we-want sort of situation.”
Chop says it’s not having the history of brass music that allows for this interpretive freedom.
“There’s no place in Providence that says ‘we need a brass band for this.’ So instead we just said, hey we’re a brass band; this is the music we love to do; this is the environment we create and we just do it.”
It’s actually happening here, too. Local bands like Panorama Brass Band, Why are We Building Such a Big Ship?, Tuba Skinny, and Sweet Street Symphony are taking the history of New Orleans brass and making it something new, with Eastern European and Afro Brazilian beats. And then, in the blink of an eye, leading straight into St. James Infirmary, proper.
Which What Cheer can play, too. They just don’t do it here.
Laine Kaplan-Levenson writes about New Orleans for NolaVie. She also is a producer at WWNO radio.