warning: If you're not dancing or nodding your head during the performance of Big Sam’s Funky Nation at The Continental Club this Thursday, you might need to visit a doctor. Led by trombonist Sam "Big Sam" Williams, a founding member of the Stooges Brass Band and longtime member of the groundbreaking Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the sound of Big Sam’s Funky Nation is an infectious hybrid of New Orleans funk, classic and modern hip-hop, and punk and stoner rock. And as a globe trotting ambassador for a city devastated by Hurricane Katrina, the band is a testament to the healing power of music and culture.
Born and raised in New Orleans, Williams grew up just 6 blocks away from the famous Uptown music hall, Tipitina’s. “It was hood. It's a lot different now because of gentrification. But it was a great community full of love. Everyone looked out for each other,” says Williams. His mother, who passed away a few months after Katrina, was a social worker. “She pretty much raised me on her own. She taught me very valuable life lessons, and I still carry those lessons in my life today.”
Though Williams grew up hearing music in the streets, including jazz funerals and Mardi Gras Indians, he didn't pick up an instrument until middle school. Finding he was too big to play basketball with his age group, and looking for an extracurricular activity, Williams joined the marching band.
"The band director said, ‘What do you want to play?'" says Williams. "I said, ‘Whatever you need somebody on.'" Williams was given a slide trombone, and was delighted to discover that he could more or less play it right off the bat.
“I went home and played two tunes by ear: 'When the Saints Go Marching In' and 'Wild Thing!'” says Williams, laughing at the memory.
Seeing how much her son loved music, Williams' mother bought him Ears to the Wall, an album by New Orleans' groundbreaking Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who introduced bebop, funk and rock music into the traditional jazz format.
And what was Williams' reaction to the music?
"Man! I want to play with this band!" Williams fondly remembers thinking. Four years later, at the still tender age of 19 and finishing up his first year at the University of New Orleans (where he earned a 4.0), Williams got a call out of the blue to join the Dirty Dozen for a three-month tour. Williams thought it only appropriate that he check with his mother before leaving school to become a full-time musician.
"Eventually, after she saw the success I was having," says Williams, "she finally got it. She told me, 'You're doing what you were going to school for.'"
Touring with the Dirty Dozen, and later with Elvis Costello and the late great R&B musician Allen Toussaint, inspired Williams to start his own project. Big Sam's Funky Nation draws heavily on brass band culture, as well as the booty-shaking funk of The Meters and The Neville Brothers, all delivered with the raucous immediacy of post-punk bands like Green Day. Listen hard, and you'll also hear some serious love for bebop and contemporary jazz, though getting people to move and groove remains the band's prime directive.
"I get to do what I love," says Williams, remembering the support and advice given to him by his mother, and the unexpected opportunities that have come his way. "Not everybody is so fortunate."
March 30 at 10. $15. The Continental Club, 3700 Main St. 713-529-9899. continentalclub.com/houston