The brass band that found their niche in hip-hop collaboration brought acts from across the country together Friday, and the result was as much a party as a show.
The Soul Rebels are the needle that has successfully risen to the top of New Orleans’ massive brass band haystack with a simple formula: New York hip-hop collaboration. Over the past few years, they’ve performed with the likes of Nas, Prodigy, GZA and DMX. These legends came up spitting over boom-bap 808s and chopped samples, and they've found a home on the band’s snare-based grooves and horn harmonies.
On Friday, The Soul Rebels brought plenty of friends to the Joy Theater. The show wasn’t billed as a celebration or a party, but that’s what it felt like. The band, the guests and the venue brimmed with an energy that only grew more contagious throughout the three-hour show. The billed guest performers were Brooklyn rap veteran Talib Kweli, keyboard iconoclast Robert Glasper and New Orleans native Curren$y, but Nigel Hall of Lettuce and Grammy-winning singer Lisa Fischer also sat in, filling out a star-studded ensemble.
The Marcus King Band started the evening off with a short, bluesy set. The Soul Rebels came on around 10:30 and played for an hour or so before any of their special guests stepped onstage. Their dynamic range was immediately apparent. They sounded just as comfortable on hip-hop tracks like Lil Kim and Lil Cease’s “Crush On You” as they did on New Orleans brass standards, and added punchy arrangements to everything they played to keep things interesting. The Soul Rebels play every Thursday at Le Bon Temps Roule on Magazine St. for a $10 cover, so the guest performers were clearly the draw at the Joy, bumping GA prices to a whopping $30. Even so, the crowd seemed perfectly happy to jam with the house band for as long as it wanted to go.
Curren$y was the first guest to take the stage, appearing around 11:30. At 36 years old and over 15 years into a prolific rap career, he’s got more staying power than just about any other New Orleans emcee. His Jet Life label still hasn’t taken off and will probably be taxiing for the foreseeable future, but he’s still a local hero and a national name. He capped it off his quick, well-received cameo with between-song banter about how he went to The Joy as a kid to see a movie but never dreamed he’d be performing there, much less lighting a blunt onstage. Which he subsequently did.
After another instrumental interlude, it was time for the main event, which came in the form of both Talib Kweli and Robert Glasper entering the stage at once. Kweli toured Europe with The Soul Rebels this summer, and is probably the artist they’ve collaborated with most. He’s also performed frequently with Glasper, but as far as I can tell, this is the first time all three acts have performed together. They started things off with a rendition of “The Blast,” a standout from Train of Thought (2000), Kweli’s first Reflection Eternal album with Hi Tek.
Another first came when Curren$y returned to the stage to help Kweli with “Push Thru,” a collab track from Kweli’s Prisoner of Conscious that also featured Kendrick Lamar. It was the first time they’d performed that song together live, and the only time all three billed guests were together onstage.
Robert Glasper made his presence felt whenever he was on, putting his goofy persona on full display as he strutted around, clowning his fellow performers and fake-freestyling, attributing the silence of his rapped vocals to a mic failure. “It works fine when I talk,” he joked, in mock confusion.
His antics were a good time, but he was even better behind the keyboard. A fusion pioneer in the vein of Herbie Hancock, he’s been working for years to remove jazz’s stuffy stigma and infuse Dilla-style hip-hop instrumentals into his playing. It’s worked well for him, earning him guest spots on To Pimp a Butterfly and making him arguably the best-known jazz pianist of his generation. Unfortunately, his playing was mostly lost in the sea of horns on Friday, save for a few tasteful solos. He still sounded great, though, and made the most of the situation. The theme of the evening was celebration, and Glasper enjoyed himself thoroughly and infectiously all night long.
After a few Kweli tracks and a generous helping of banter and crowd interaction, the performers took a short break. The Soul Rebels returned shortly and played another 45-minute set, never wavering in their mission to keep the crowd dancing.
The closer/encore came in the form of an extended rendition of “Get By,” the biggest hit of Kweli’s career. The rapper returned to the stage alongside Glasper, and Lisa Fischer joined the team to add powerful vocals to the chorus. It lasted over ten minutes and featured solos from just about everyone onstage, perfectly capping a night of collective excitement at the Joy.