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The Funky Side of Protest: New Tracks From the Mighty Souls Brass Band


Mighty Souls Brass Band
  • Mighty Souls Brass Band

By now, the Mighty Souls Brass Band (MSBB) is a staple of life in Memphis, arguably the first New Orleans-style brass band to establish itself locally in this century. But it might not have turned out that way if it hadn’t been for Spike, the album Elvis Costello released in 1989. “I was sitting in my friend’s Cutlass on the way to high school, and he’s listening to this Elvis Costello record,” recalls Sean Murphy, founder of the MSBB. “And I immediately was like, ‘What is that?’ He said, ‘It’s something called the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.’ And the next time I was up at Cat’s, I filled out one of the old order forms, with the catalog number. Two weeks later, my order showed up, and that’s how I got my first Dirty Dozen album. It was completely life-changing for me.”

From that point forward, playing in a brass band was one of Murphy’s chief goals, but it took some time for the world to catch up. “I actually started a brass band in the late ’90s here in town, but Memphis was not ready at all at that time. And me and the musicians I was playing with, college guys, we weren’t ready either. But post-Katrina, an explosion of New Orleans culture took place. And suddenly that’s what everybody wanted. Jim Spake got called to play a funeral, and he got me and Jeremy Schrader and Earl Lowe and maybe one other person. And we played this funeral, and I was like, ‘You know what? This has to happen. I’m tired of not having this outlet for myself and all of us.’ And that was really how the band got started. It coalesced on its own, without me really trying.”

Just as organically, the band soon established itself as a mainstay of local stages, filling a niche here that had been unoccupied for many years. Naturally, they still play a lot of gigs around Mardi Gras, even if, as Murphy points out, they’ve grown beyond a simple adherence to one sound or genre. “Over the years, because it’s really become more and more about the compositions and tunes that I want to do, there’s a lot of not-so-specifically New Orleans sounds going on. Obviously, bringing guitar player Logan Hanna into the band changes things pretty drastically. And I’ve been working with Paul Taylor a whole lot, and he definitely does all that New Orleans drumming stuff, but he’s also just got that nasty funk groove thing that he can do, like very few other people. So that’s really allowed me to work on those sorts of tunes.”

Those original touches are more apparent than ever in two new tracks the band is now releasing. For example, the light-hearted “Gourmet Thunder,” to be released online this Friday, was originally inspired by the title track to the 1957 Duke Ellington album, Such Sweet Thunder. As Murphy recalls, “I was playing around with that groove at our Wednesday night dance improv. And when we got done performing, my friend Sarah said, ‘Oh! That was so gourmet!’” It’s a dish only distantly related to the five-course meal by Ellington/Strayhorn, but its pleasant four-on-the-floor stomp is sure to become a favorite at future shows.

Mighty Souls Brass Band
  • Mighty Souls Brass Band

Meanwhile, events conspired to make the other new track more relevant than ever. “People Over Profits” combines a catchy crowd-chanting chorus with MSBB’s trademark syncopated funk. Released last Friday, the video has been one of the first artistic responses to the current mass protests against police brutality, though it wasn’t exactly conceived with today’s riots in mind.

“I wrote the song in response to Trump being elected. And, like many of us, I was incredibly pissed off, and I’m still incredibly pissed off about where we’re at. So it became a staple of our live show, and I thought, ‘This is a tune we have to record. I want it to come out before the next election.’ And then we thought, ‘Maybe we’ll put out a ’45, whatever. We’re gonna hold onto it till it feels right.’

“So we were working on the video when the George Floyd protests started, and, like everybody, I felt this huge weight. I said, ‘We need protest footage on this video.’ And so Tom Link put the video together, using footage from the Occupy Wall Street protests. And then he wanted to just flash on brief moments of images, kind of Fight Club-esque. And it seemed right, so we launched it on Friday.

“And it was definitely [so that we could] dedicate it to all the people that have died so far, from COVID and putting profits over people, which was why we weren’t as prepared as we needed to be. And then to address the murder of George Floyd and continuing murder of people of color, and the legacy of treating people as chattel. So it was a big relief for me, personally, to be able to write that and release that in the midst of all this. ‘People Over Profits’ is almost a catchphrase now, all over social media. So it feels like we just need to get it out there.”

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