by Daniel Fishman, volunteer blog writer
On Wednesday, music lovers from the Triangle have an opportunity to listen to a band whose enthusiasm for brass music, kindness, and dedication for their hometown city continues to change New Orleans for the better.
Over the past decade, Hot 8 has endured more than any humans should. Since the band formed in 1995, they’ve lost four band members. 17-year-old Jacob Johnson was murdered in a home invasion, and Demond Dorsey died from a heart attack at age 28. Months after Dorsey died, Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams was shot while unarmed by police, and the latest victim, drummer Dinerral Shavers, died after an armed turf dispute. Band members have lost friends in Hurricane Katrina and lost limbs in car accidents. Throughout it all Hot 8 never stopped playing music. If anything they played more frequently—sometimes playing up to nine shows in a single day. They’ve aligned with grassroots organizations like Save Our Brass to keep the long tradition of Louisiana brass music alive, and they are active supporters of the anti-violence group Silence is Violence.
Reporters and artists have turned the group into a symbol of New Orleans’ perseverance, and, partially as a result, they’ve garnered national attention through documentaries like Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and HBO’s hit series Treme. But—backstories aside—Hot 8 is and should be known as a group of eight very talented musicians. Their sets are marked by infectious shouts and gutsy trombone runs, both kept in check by the strong sousaphone lines of bandleader Bennie Pete. They’ve toured the world, sharing brass music in places as distant and unlikely Japan and Scandinavia, guested on albums by electronic musicians Basement Jaxx, and played alongside hip hop stars Mos Def and Lauryn Hill. Despite what they’ve had to overcome, the group is consistently recognized as one of the most skilled brass bands playing on the streets of New Orleans, the world-historical hub for brass music.
Wednesday’s set at Raleigh’s The Pour House marks the band’s second stop on an international tour following their newest album, Tombstone. Hot 8 made the record in order to honor recently deceased brass musicians, and, though the themes are somber, each track remains upbeat, boisterous, and remarkably catchy. There’s a joyous, six-minute reggae and funk-influenced track devoted to tuba player Kerwin James, nicknamed “Milwaukee Fat.” The aforementioned “Shotgun Joe” has a festive track with his name on it, as does drummer Eldridge Andrews. For Bennie Pete, the album was a way to process their deaths and to pay them their rightful respects. “To move forward we needed to put out dedication songs and to put that chapter of our lives—at least musically—behind us,” Pete said.
Hot 8 has always made what Pete calls “feel good music,” even when times have been really bad. When the lyrics evoke sadness or frustration, the band’s accompaniments compensate, becoming more upbeat. Hot 8 knows that even the blues can feel like celebration, given the right rhythms and the right tones. That being said, most of the songs on Tombstone are at least somewhat optimistic, and Pete tries to include a positive message on every track. “There’s the message to keep your head up,” Pete said, “and the message to enjoy the fun times while they last.” That’s something that the album has in common with many of the songs played at New Orleans’ famous funerals with music—often called jazz funerals. At the funerals, the brass bands will play dirges and, later, up tempo grooves. “People cry and people laugh,” Pete said, describing funeral attendees. “The same people cry and then laugh.”
For a long time, Hot 8 have responded to tragedy by doubling their commitment to their community and to their music. The problems that have plagued the band are regrettably common in New Orleans, a city that has struggled for decades with drug-related violence. Over a decade ago, the band became so fed up with the deaths of their friends and neighbors that they decided to throw all of their resources at minimizing violence. Whenever possible they meet with schoolchildren in order to share their music and, once they’ve gotten their attention, advocate against violent behavior. When Hurricane Katrina hit, the band brought their music to temporary trailer parks and evacuee shelters, boosting the morale of those most devastated by the storm.
Hot 8 probably won’t talk too much about what they’ve done for New Orleans when they perform on Wednesday, but the band’s resiliency and reverence for life translates through their music. If Pete’s good on his word, the concert will be a “life-changing experience.” “New Orleans is coming to you,” Pete said. “We can’t bring the food, but the music and the atmosphere—it’s coming. You just have to meet us halfway.”