Infected with funk

I don’t know whether it’s the water or weird pagan witchery, but this town is riddled with the need to dance. From breakdance battles to free Sunday capoeira classes, Asheville displays a ravenous appetite for the groove (and boasts a complex palate, at that).

I’ve seen b-boys and girls take the “hammer” (modern-dance equivalent of the soft-step) to gravitational complexities that would send a ballerina into rehab. Ballistic bodywork and a perpetually kinetic crowd make Asheville shows a warm departure from the typically stiff Southeastern audience.

Well, ladies and gentlemen, prepare to put your money where your booty’s at. The ReBirth Brass Band is on its way, packing horned New Orleans heat — and they don’t take prisoners.

“We just go grab the audience right off their butts — get ’em up and attack ’em with the music,” warns bandleader/tuba maestro Phillip Frazier. (Tori Reid, a native Brooklynite, testified after her first show, “I was a virgin to ReBirth. I shook what my mother gave me and then some!”)

Revered as the undefeated champions of the brass-band renaissance, ReBirth’s signature sound surpasses that of the average New Orleans parade troupe. Into traditional jazz roots they infuse hip-hop, reggae, free jazz and a sweaty staccato rhythm section, inciting a jubilee of urban exhilaration. The occasional employment of a Rick James, Steve Wonder or even TLC tune spices up the band’s existing repertoire of multitextured standards and originals to the point of combustion.

Conceived in 1983 to play a CB (as in “10-4, good buddy”) convention, ReBirth’s original line-up consisted of eight teenage friends who, at the time, played together in the Clark High School Band. Sometime member Roy Dominique recalls the performance his mother helped coordinate while participating in the convention.

“The funny part is that we broke into my mom’s ice chest and drank all their alcohol — everything. After [the band] finished playing they still wanted to continue drinking, so they decided to go out to Bourbon Street and play to get some money so they could continue drinking. That was one of the first times I actually drank, and I was so drunk I couldn’t hang — and it was wine coolers, can you believe that?”

Since that infamous beginning, ReBirth has gone on to share stages with the likes of The Ohio Players, George Clinton and The P-Funk All-Stars, The Grateful Dead and Ani DiFranco. They’ve been known to frequent European jazz festivals, and in 1993 ReBirth embarked on a State Department tour of Africa, which lingers as the most significant outing of all.

“That was touching, straight to the heart. They responded beautifully. It was like going back home and finding our roots. We checked out the local music. We got a chance to mingle with other musicians, let ’em sit in with us. We had a good time,” remarks Frazier.

With the recent re-release of The Main Event: Live at the Maple Leaf (Louisiana Red Hot Records), ReBirth is aiming its horns at a soaring target: They want to be the first brass band to go platinum.

“We want everybody to get ahold of that CD,” says Frazier, “because it will move your soul, make you forget about your problems, keep you happy on your toes.”

The band wanted the record — originally distributed as a limited edition of 500 copies — pressed in time for the 1999 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Needless to say, their stock didn’t last long.

“The record was so hot,” remembers an enthusiastic Frazier, “it was like, man, we can’t cheat the people like this, we gotta let ’em hear more of this record, because a lot of people didn’t get a chance to get their hands on it. And now I think it’s probably gonna be the first brass-band [record] to sell a million copies. That’s what we shooting for.”

On their latest effort, Hot Venom (Mardi Gras Records, 2001), ReBirth takes a hiatus from the easygoing second-line tempo to unload a burly round of hard-core brass from their songbook. Take heed: This is not party music for weaklings. On the contrary, it stands as one of the few jazz records to sport a parental-advisory warning. Tracks like “Rockin’ on your Stinkin’ Ass,” “You Don’t Want to Go to War” and “ReBirth/Casanova” come at you with the muscle and mayhem of a midnight street fight: Imagine Wu Tang Clan played in jazz dynamics.

And the fun doesn’t stop there, kids. ReBirth resurrects the smutty love song with “Pop That P•••y,” utilizing the ubiquitous Latin pop hit “Macarena” in a raw choral chant. Yet as nasty as this and similar tracks get, you can’t help but love these guys for it. After all, they’re just flexing their funk, and there’s no crime in that.

At home in New Orleans, ReBirth is notorious for playing Sunday street parades, Tuesday-night jamborees at the Maple Leaf and weekly gigs at Joe’s Cozy Corner and Kemp’s Lounge. Frazier refers to these clubs as “showdown places.”

“That’s when all the real hard-core second-liners come out. We have a big showdown to see who’s the top dancer. It’s phenomenal.”

All you disco ninjas, prepare to have your skills clocked and inspected — because ReBirth demands to be impressed. Come equipped with your best Roger Rabbit-robot-crouching-worm maneuver, don’t forget the tiger-striped spandex jumpsuit, and get ready to duke it out with all the mojo you can muster — because your backside is going into battle this Saturday. Be there and beware.

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