Stooges Brass Band, a mainstay in second line parades and bar shows around New Orleans, have earned growing recognition in the broader music world for their creative incorporation of modern musical elements within a brass band framework.

Recent accomplishments include winning the Red Bull Street Kings brass band competition in 2010 and traveling to Pakistan last year on behalf of the State Department to represent American culture abroad. This past January, they won accolades from NPR Music for a barnburner of a set at New York’s Webster Hall for globalFEST.

I had the chance to catch up with the Stooges before their set at the 2013 New Orleans Jazz And Heritage Festival.

The internet claims you guys got your start in 1996 through the combination of two rival bands, from John F. Kennedy and St. Augustine high schools. What’s the story with that?

Founder and bandleader Walter “Whoadie” Ramsey spoke up first. “That’s really what it was. The other band, from St. Augustine, we used to blow they ass out, and they was just like, ‘You know what, bruh? We tired of losing.’ So that’s how it happened.”

Saxophonist Virgil Tiller, quietly sitting off to the side, spoke up, “Man, make sure you fact-check everything you just heard.”

Second trombonist Al Growe III interjected, “See, he went to that other school!”

The room erupted in laughter and good-natured shit talking. When the ruckus died down, Ramsey chimed in, “So you can see that competition still goes on.”

What was Pakistan like? How did they respond to your music?

Drummer Garfield Bogan answered, “It’s a universal language.”

Ramsey: “I mean, they didn’t shoot us. They actually got into it. They was happy.”

So what’s next for Stooges Brass Band?

Ramsey looked me dead in the eye and said, “Well, we just booked a gig on the moon through Virgin Mobile.”

Is that right?

Ramsey: “Yes, with, uh, Richard Branson, yeah he’s gonna bring us up there. So we looking forward to that. I don’t know who we gonna play for, but you know…”

Can you get me on the list?

Ramsey: “I mean, he got a lot of his millionaire friends on there, so… I mean, he’s shooting us to the moon. I don’t know how we gonna keep gravity and play instruments.”

Ramsey pauses for effect as the room once again fills with laughter.

He continues, “On the real, we a fun band. The word ‘fun’ must be in the band. That’s why we joking all day long and stuff, we really live up to our name, Stooges. But we have more tours that we gonna be doing, more festivals. We got a record—like a real vinyl—coming out in June, and it’s gonna be a big record release party. It’s Stooges music, stuff that you can only get when we in New Orleans, that we don’t perform on no other shows. So it’s just, uh, real explicit. It’s like the raw and uncut shit. It’s BET at 2 o’clock in the morning.”

Tiller: “In ‘99.” More laughter.

Ramsey: “When you come to New Orleans and you come to a Stooges Thursday night show, you gonna get all that. But when we on stage and perform across the world, we don’t dish out all that. But we give a high energetic show.”

 

After the interview, Stooges Brass Band took the stage. It was cold, wet, and muddy. The crowd was sparse. Under the circumstances, the group would have been well within their rights to go through the motions with a short set, and wave the crowd goodbye before heading somewhere warm and dry.

Instead, from the first beat to the last note, the Stooges played their hearts out, bouncing around the stage, steady bantering with each other and the audience. The guys played with the precision and intensity born of competition while still keeping a certain looseness appropriate to the Stooges Brass Band vibe. The music was exactly as advertised, high-energy brass band fare infused with strong elements of rock and hip-hop.

Guitarist Nori Hirata effortlessly transitioned from subtle rhythm work to high-gain rock and roll shit, while percussionist Ace Free kept the beat intricate behind Hirata’s left shoulder. Trumpet player Chris Cotton acted as a lieutenant frontman, counterpoint to Ramsey’s dominance of the stage, and tuba player Clifton Smith held down the low end, moving around the stage like the giant horn was weightless. Production manager Royce “Flash” Jackson stood far stage right like a basketball coach, while friends and family endured the cold on stage left, giving the proceedings the atmosphere of a friendly gathering.

The muddy crowd steadily grew as they ran through their set, festivalgoers making their way through the slop towards the stage. By the end of the show, a respectable mass of people had gathered in front of the Jazz And Heritage Stage, getting down in the muck. The band even did an encore at the crowd’s enthusiastic request, a new song that Ramsey wanted to work into the lineup. He exhorted the audience to let the band know if they liked the song, and if they didn’t to “keep y’alls opinions to y’all selves.”

As the band left the stage, and people shuffled through the mud towards the exits, I was sure of one thing: Any group looking to dethrone Stooges Brass Band had better bring the best game they got.

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