Roughly 15 years ago, a performance by New Orleans’ famed Dirty Dozen Brass Band at Lynagh’s Music Club was in the usual throes of merriment. But something was especially jubilant about this show — or rather, someone. Right in the middle of the group’s longtime front line of horn players was a trombonist in his teens, playing, smiling and dancing with an abandon that befitted a Crescent City party.
Fans that night didn’t know who this young enthusiast was, so I asked the band’s road manager.
“Oh, that’s Big Sam.”
Big Sam Williams was a player versed in New Orleans tradition but infatuated with the bountiful funk of the past four decades from outside the city. He also felt a need to combine all of those inspirations into music of his own. Thus was born Big Sam’s Funky Nation, whichbrings Williams to the MoonTower Music Festival this weekend for his first Lexington appearance since those long-ago Dirty Dozen shows.
Never miss a local story.
“A lot of people like to consider us a brass band,” Williams said. “I have a brass band upbringing, but the Funky Nation isn’t a brass band. So when people hear us, it’s like, ‘Oh man, this isn’t a brass band at all. This is, like, some real funk right here.’
I like to incorporate into my show all the music that I like.
Sam Williams, Big Sam’s Funky Nation
“You get a little bit of Dirty Dozen in there because I came up with some of that New Orleans brass band tradition. I’m a trombone player, so naturally I’m going to hear that. But some of my main influences also come from Prince, P-Funk (Parliament-Funkadelic), The Gap Band and Cameo. So I like to incorporate into my show all the music that I like.
“A lot of other cats from New Orleans don’t have those same influences. It might be the Meters. It might only be the Neville Brothers or Dr. John or the Wild Magnolias, those kinds of acts. But for me, I mix it up a little bit with a lot of the mainstream funk acts that I came up listening to.”
Williams doesn’t discount his New Orleans heritage. In fact, one of his most important formative experiences was playing with the city’s esteemed composer, song stylist and bandleader Allen Toussaint. Williams was part of the extensive international tour that Toussaint undertook in 2006 with Elvis Costello to promote their collaborative album, “The River in Reverse.”
“Allen, he was one of those cats where the way you thought of him was how he really was,” Williams said. “He was cool. He was such a gentleman. He was a class act who took care of his band. He was very professional, but you know what? He was still hip. Allen was just that dude.”
Williams is just as appreciative of his time with the Dirty Dozen, which led to gigs alongside established rock outfits including the Dave Matthews Band, Gov’t Mule and Widespread Panic.
“Being with those cats really showed me how to entertain a crowd, how to rock the show, what to do and what not to do. I didn’t want to leave, but I had to do my own thing. They didn’t want to see me go, either. But like Roger Lewis was always telling me, ‘Once a Dozen, always a Dozen.’ So we’re still family. Whenever I see them, we play with each other. It’s always a good time — nothing but love.”
If you think you’re coming to this kind of show to relax and enjoy some ‘jazz,’ you’re in for a rude awakening.
Expect the Funky Nation to chart a different musical course at Moontower. The band — rounded out by trumpeter/vocalist Andrew Baham, guitarist Keenan McRae, bassist Jerry Henderson and drummer Andrew Jordan — opts for a massive funk sound that befits its name, along with the party atmosphere that comes with it.
“What we do, … it’s not one of those shows where you just come and sit down and drink your wine and all that. No, no. It’s not that kind of party, folks. I play a horn, but it’s not that kind of party. If you think you’re coming to this kind of show to relax and enjoy some ‘jazz,’ you’re in for a rude awakening.
“The response I get a lot from people is usually like, ‘I totally wasn’t expecting this, but I love it. I can’t wait to see you guys again. I haven’t danced like this in 30 years.’ I’m just glad I can bring that kind of joy to people.”
If you go
MoonTower Music Festival
When: Aug. 26
12:30 p.m. DeBraun Thomas Trio
1:30 p.m. Vita & The Woolf
2 p.m. Tyler Childers
2:30 p.m. Elise Davis
3 p.m. Blackfoot Gypsies
3:45 p.m. Big Sam’s Funky Nation
4:30 p.m. The Record Company
5:15 p.m. Todd Snider & Eastside Bulldogs
6:15 p.m. The Travelin’ McCourys
7:30 p.m. Cherub
8:45 p.m. Benjamin Booker
10 p.m. Umphrey’s McGee
Where: Masterson Station Park, 3051 Leestown Road