Big Sam brings the Big Easy to the Blind Tiger

by Ryan Snyder

Big Sam leads the second line at the Blind Tiger. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Anyone who ever thought truth in advertising was dead needs look no further than one of New Orleans youngest and funkiest bloods.

If there were a barometer of funk, its needle would rotate from funky, past New Orleans-funky and finally tip at Big Sam’s Funky Nation. In what was close to becoming a Memorial Day-ish tradition at the Blind Tiger, former Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist “Big Sam” Williams brought his cultural melting pot to Greensboro last Tuesday in what might have been one of the last truly great shows to grace the stage at the esteemed venue, and with a few local guests in tow.

Through only two appearances in HBO’s breathtaking post-Katrina NOLA odyssey “Treme,” Big Sam has somehow managed to stand out among the show’s stream of incredibly sweet, ongoing cameos of Big Easy allstars. First he was blowing too enthusiastically on his trombone during a vivid recreation of the recording of Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s homage to the city The River In Reverse. The second and most recent came this past Sunday, when he was allowed to liberate his ridiculous chops during a scene at the famed venue Les Bon Temps Roule, as actor Rob Brown’s character Delmond Lambreux sat in with the band on trumpet for the Funky Nation’s own “Come Down to New Orleans.” The day after news broke that the space the Blind Tiger occupies had been bought and owners were given 30 days notice to vacate, Big Sam and his Funky Nation were fully unleashed as the club kicked off its swan song (at least at its longtime locale).

Just like “Treme” destroys conventions about how an hour-long drama should be paced — long musical interludes give the middle finger New Orleans style to traditional dramatic arc — Big Sam redefines how a front man should be equipped and advances how they connect with the audience. He wields his ’bone with the mastery and cocksureness of the great metalhead guitar shredders of yore, almost daring the crowd to cease bouncing long enough to appreciate his deft precision. The thing is, that’s easier said than done when he’s setting the pace for the groove with his tenacious second lines.

The astoundingly agile Big Sam shuffled hisfeet with hypnotizing ferocity as his band laiddown Meters’ standards “Just Kissed My Baby”and “Hey Pocky Way,” but Funky Nationshouldn’t be confused for a cover band, or evena New Orleans tribute act, however. It is theroux for this gumbo, but Funky Nation drawsdeeply from the general good-time aestheticthat dominates the Big Easy’s storied history.Guys like Big Sam and friends and contemporarieslike Trombone Shorty and Corey Henryare leaders of the New Wave of New Orleansentertainers that turn the big, brassy sound intoa musical fondue of rock, punk and hip hop.Originals like “We Gon Do It” and “ComeDown to New Orleans” were phrased playfullyinto all-time great fusion cuts like HerbieHancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups,” withguitarist Takeshi Shimmura taking point on thesong’s stone-cold groove.Sometimes it was simply the treats that theythrew in for the astute listener that made theirperformance most compelling. They breathednew life into the Isley Brother’s “Living forthe Love of You” by arranging their cover ofGnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” so that it featuredthe former’s sampling in the latter as a moredefined counter melody, rather than just a spedupundercurrent.Evidence that Funky Nation are a masterfulgroup of arrangers abounded in the show’severy movement, with solos from every angleflowing in and out organically The most amazingthing is, while he’s the undisputed presidentof this Funky Nation, it’s arguable as to whoin the band possesses the baddest technicalchops. Every member of his band can throwdown, as was seen during a rhythmic interludethat saw bassist Eric Vogel slap and pop hisway into Larry Graham territory with drummerChocolate Milk leaning over the fretboard toinspect his absolutely silly finger work.The show was given a bit of local flair withguest spots from local trumpeter Lynn GrissettJr. adding a rather reserved, tasteful element tothe show. Just as unhinged as the headliners,however, were a pair of young ’uns from theBrand New Life, as Evan Frierson dueled downChocolate Milk on congas and Big Sam anointedsax player Walter Fancourt as “Baby Skerik”from both his angular resemblance to the notedreed man and his similarly wicked snarl.It was an absolutely exhausting Tuesdaynight and from the river of sweat pouringfrom the brim of Big Sam’s flat cap, the crowdwasn’t alone. It wasn’t the last show at TheBlind Tiger if indeed this is the end of its22-year run, but it was one of the most memorable.!