How does the Hot 8 deal with being in demand? Double up.
Sunday night after Bacchus, The Hot 8 Brass Band will be at WOW Hall in Eugene, Oregon and at The Howlin' Wolf's Den for its weekly gig (free this week). The band left for the tour earlier this week, but tuba player Bennie Pete stayed behind, and he'll hold down the show this month. The Hot 8 have 12 or so members, he explains, including a road tuba player. The other members of the auxiliary will play the band's in-city dates. "It keeps us from having to call anyone from another band," Pete says. "It keeps it unconfusing."
There is a long history of brass bands sharing members in a pinch, and it was particularly the case after Hurricane Katrina when few bands had a full lineup in town. When Rebirth Brass Band's Philip Frazier suffered a stroke, Pete got the call to sub for him on some gigs. "We all know each other's original tunes," Pete says of the brass band community. "We don't perform them, but we could if we had to."
He's staying close to home partly because he's the father of a newborn and has pressing parental duties, but also because he is dealing with health issues. He had a seizure about three weeks ago, and no one has yet pinned down the cause. "Doctors told me to take it easy," he says.
Nothing has been easy for The Hot 8 Brass Band, and if any band can call its second album The Life & Times of ..., it's them. Two members have been killed, one by the police. Trumpet player Terrell Batiste lost his legs when he was hit while fixing a flat on an Atlanta freeway after Katrina. They recorded the album when they had time on the road and at home from 2008 to 2010. Before that, they weren't thinking about studios.
"When we were dealing with the storm and the death of a band member, we weren't really worrying about recording," Pete says. "We were on automatic. We weren't in business. We weren't thinking, We need to have a new project out. We had gigs so we were gigging. We were going through the motions; we really weren't there. We were dealing with the death of Dinerral Shavers, right after Hurricane Katrina the loss of different family members, and Terrell Batiste had lost his legs. We were all over the place." Once they got on the road, they realized it was time to record again. Audiences loved them, but all they had was Rock with The Hot 8 to sell. "It wasn't a good representation of the present band and the musicianship of the band," Pete says, and he wanted to let people hear the band's growth.
They grabbed studio time when they could, and found those sessions on the road productive. "Our free time is really free time so if we go in a studio, we're relaxed."
For the album, the Hot 8 cut two covers, but since their label Tru Thoughts is based in England, they wanted to do covers of something other than New Orleans or American music, something that would demonstrate that although brass bands come from New Orleans, their music isn't limited to New Orleans. They chose Basement Jaxx's "Bingo Bango" and The Specials' "Ghost Town," the former because they'd met Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe of the British electronic dance group and thought the percussive samba made sense for them. Their label suggested "Ghost Town" and told the Hot 8 of the song's original context - British industrial communities that had been abandoned by business and the government, leaving a simmering resentment looking for expression. "We saw fit to do it because we could relate to it," Pete says. "The statement behind the tune more than the music." Pete is one of a number of band members who grew up in the Ninth Ward, and its current semi-rural nature made the song resonant, so much so that the Hot 8 filmed a video for the song there. "It was still like a ghost town there in the Ninth Ward. The French Quarter's all fixed up, but the community's still like a ghost town."
Touring has forced the band to think about how it relates to the world outside New Orleans, and dealing with out-of-town audiences required some adjustment. In other parts of the country, people sit down to listen to jazz, and at first that threw the Hot 8. "We used to beat ourselves up afterwards," Pete says. "We used to be mad at each other" when the audiences didn't dance. But after shows, fans told them how much they loved the show, how unusual it is to dance at jazz shows and the band came to a realization: "The audience is just shy." They then worked to figure out how to make audiences more comfortable, often by putting someone on the spot and bringing them to the stage to dance, then doing that with another audience member and another until people feel like they have permission to dance. It's how they learned from Tuba Fats. Pete and some of the guys would go to Jackson Square to see Tuba Fats and play with him. "He'd introduce us, then turn to the crowd and say, Take it away. It was the best practice."
Still, there's no place like home. "If we don't get the right response from the local crowd, we're all over each other," Pete says. "They're the hardest crowd. They're the crowd that knows you the most. They remember when you had to catch a bus to the gig. It keeps you grounded." On the road, they play a 90-minute set, usually playing 12 to 15 songs with breaks between songs. "We can play a song and stop, and the crowd will applaud and ask us to play another tune. In New Orleans, you've got to keep it going. If we stop, people are going to be, What's going on back here?! This ain't the Hot 8 I know. Y'all tired?