This Hot 8 Brass Band article was written by Bethany Roberts, a GIGsoup contributor. Edited by Zoe Anderson
Escaping from a gloomy winter night into the warmth of Colston Hall, the Lantern (second hall) is filled to maximum standing capacity for tonight’s transatlantic treat. The Hot 8 Brass Band – who actually comprise around thirteen members, but only tour as an 8-piece – look genuinely delighted by the enthusiastic response they receive from the eager crowd as they amble onstage, dressed casually in colourful t-shirts and hats. It’s their big 20th anniversary celebration tour, and they have shared a truly remarkable trajectory, albeit pockmarked with tragedy; four of their members have passed away, another lost both legs in a terrible car accident, and, like all New Orleans musicians, Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on their lives. Despite this, Hot 8 have pushed the expectations of marching band music far beyond its traditional life on the streets of the city and into concert halls, following the example of fellow New Orleans brass bands Rebirth and Dirty Dozen.
However it’s evident as they launch into their first raucous tune that the audience are in more than capable hands. Hot 8 were born on the streets in Second Line parades, and have stayed blissfully free of pretension or piety. From the first bass note gorgeously belched out by the sousaphone, the audience is on their side, boogeying and bouncing and heeding every hollered command to put our hands in the air.
Each tune follows a similar recipe, usually comprising four essential ingredients: an irresistible, rollicking marching band backline of sousaphone, bass drum and snare drum; antiphonal singing and chanting, usually with lyrics simple and catchy enough for the audience to pick up in one or two refrains (and impossible not to join in with); blindingly impressive horn solos, delivered with such ease and nonchalance that it’s hard to believe their quality of tone could be that good; and glorious instrumental sections in which they slam the audience with a full wall of brass, arranged in perfectly spaced chordal textures that throw the ear back to the gospel roots from which jazz and funk were born. All of this is offered to the audience with genuine wit and good humour as the musicians chuckle and dance their way through the set, laughing at us, at each other, at the joy of playing music together.
As it’s their anniversary tour, the set is stuffed with classics, including their wonderfully full-bodied version of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Sexual Healing’ – the very tune which attracted UK label Tru Thoughts a few years ago and helped them achieve international acclaim. The audience are thoroughly over-excited, enthusiastically joining in with every singalong section in each tune. The band play a mix of originals and covers from the last two decades, and a highlight is signature tune ‘Rock with the Hot 8’, and a mischievous cover of The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’. Even though most tunes follow a variation of the aforementioned recipe, each one feels fresh and imaginative.
Suddenly, however, the gig finishes in a rather abrupt fashion, as half the band walk offstage without much fanfare at the end of a lively tune, followed by the remaining members, who wave as they leave; it’s only been an hour so far, and the audience – perhaps expecting longer – seem a little perplexed. But the sousaphonist quickly returns to the stage and hypes the crowd for an encore, and the musicians return with a blasting rendition of original tune ‘Rastafunk’, a seriously funky number with enough reggae bassline and offbeat bounce to please the dub-happy Bristol crowd. The show was a little on the short side, but every second was brimming with energy, originality and optimism.
Hot 8 have bottled the zeitgeist of New Orleans and brought it all over the world, and it’s a zeitgeist that not only captures the city’s contemporary musical life but equally pays lip service to its enormous musical history. It’s impossible not to share their enjoyment of the music and spirit they share each night, and everyone files out of the Lantern with a much bigger smile than they carried in.