Me and the Hot 8 go way back – well, until 2013 when I saw them at Satchmo Summerfest. Coming on stage on a clouded, stifling Sunday afternoon, they immediately lifted the energy levels of the crowd by about a I-don’t-know-what-a-plex and, for me, were the best performance of the festival.
I later read more about them, in particular in the really excellent book Roll With It: Brass Bands In The Streets Of New Orleans by Matt Sakakeeny (who I also saw speak at that same festival). In it, I learnt about the band’s beginnings in 1994 (they were originally called the Looney Tunes Brass Band), their involvement with much success in the musical and material politics of playing brass band music in New Orleans, and the tragedies the band has endured. Three of its members – trumpeter Jacob Johnson, trombone player Joseph Williams and drummer Dinerral Shavers – have died of gunshot wounds. Terrell Batiste, another trumpeter, lost both his legs after being hit by a car.
Overall, the band’s sad but inspiring story seems to sum up the whole bittersweet history of brass bands in New Orleans. “There is much to celebrate here in the way that these young men use tradition to provide people with a sense of community through music, their success in reconfiguring tradition to resonate with contemporary experience, and their ability to accumulate status and earn a living by playing music in diverse contexts,” writes Sakaheeny. “But there is also much to condemn in the way they remain vulnerable to various forms of risk.”
This duality seems to me to be there in my two favourites of their songs, both from their first album Rock With The Hot 8. In one, “What’s My Name?”, we hear an upbeat, very confident announcement of the band’s name and its musical identity. The other, a tender yet insistent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”, is a sad but hopeful love song, tinged with both with the sadnesses of Gaye’s life and death and those of the band. Like all great songs, both are specific to a tradition and the individual lives of particular musicians, yet also might say something to people everywhere.
Which brings me back to Hot 8’s recent London gig. I couldn’t see them here because it was totally sold out. I’ve written before about London’s love of, and affinity with, New Orleans’ brass bands, and the Hot 8 seems to be no exception. “Y’all raised da roof #london What a night!!!”, the band tweeted afterwards. I wish I’d been there.
(A final note: I’ll be taking a break from posting for the Easter holidays for the next couple of weeks. If it’s something you celebrate: Happy Easter! Hope everyone has a good few weeks, whatever you’re doing.)
Image: The Hot 8 Brass Band