When the Funky Butt Brass Band, St. Louis' long-running New Orleans-inspired combo, celebrated the release of its latest album in late January, the mood at Off Broadway was effervescent; FBBB is a party band, after all. But you could be forgiven for thinking the show was a little subdued, at least by the band's standards.
Coming right between two major holiday bookends — the band's weekend-long Christmas shows at Delmar Hall and the upcoming Mardi Gras season — the release show for Onward didn't have the pomp or production value of those high-profile gigs. But instead of playing its iterations of yuletide classics or second-line stompers, the band dug into its own compositions and a handful of reworked pop and rock cover songs.
"I'll tell you a little secret," trombonist Aaron Chandler says. "All the years we've done the Christmas shows, our first show back in regular rotation is usually pretty rough. By then it's been a month since we've played together in a room; we're usually about Christmas-ed out after those shows."
Given that FBBB could keep busy with its high-profile holiday shows, corporate gigs and regular stops at the Broadway Oyster Bar, it's a fair question to ask why the band wants to write and record its own material. As the group has settled into its second decade, Chandler sees these compositions and arrangements as integral to keeping the band active and interested.
"I think we'd be so stagnant that we would die off," Chandler says. "When we get together to write songs, it helps us grow as individuals and a band."
"Aaron came up with the title," guitarist and singer Tim Halpin notes of Onward. "It reflects that sentiment of not resting on your laurels and not going through the motions. It also reflects the changes that have happened in the band." Saxophonist Austin Cebulski recently left town for Colorado, so Bryan Fritz has sidled into his role; both horn players are on the recording, with Fritz adding baritone sax to Cebulski's tenor leads.
"He's been a great fit; he slid into that chair without speed bumps at all," Halpin says of Fritz. He says that the band has been lucky in finding new collaborators as the original line-up has shifted. "You find somebody and they bring a whole different perspective to what you're doing. It's all part of that musical growth and moving onward."
Given that Funky Butt is a well-loved institution at this point, it is easy to forget that before its inception, St. Louis didn't have a true New Orleans-style brass band. Halpin and drummer Ron Sikes used its experience in the more zydeco-flavored Gumbohead to spearhead the horn-heavy group.
"When we started, New Orleans' brass band music was our touchstone — our setlists leaned in that area," Halpin says. "As we got to know one another and we brought our musical experience to the band, you're doing P-Funk and James Brown and Prince. We just weren't thinking that way at the beginning — it's taken us to some pretty interesting places."
Some of the cover songs on Onward show both sides of that divide. Prince's "Cream" gets reworked here, and Chandler notes that this arrangement recalls NOLA legend Professor Longhair. "It's a little swampier. It's a little more organic, more rootsy," Chandler says.
The set-closing cover of Dr. John's "Such a Night" is a more overt tribute to the band's roots. "It really came out of Dr John's passing," Halpin says. "We really wanted to do it in tribute."
Given the predominance of horns in Funky Butt — along with Chandler and Fritz, trumpeter Adam Hucke and sousaphonist Cody Henry round out the core sextet — Onward appropriately kicks off with a few brass-driven songs. Many were written by Henry and built up by the group.
"Cody is the unsung hero of this record," Halpin says of Henry, who joined FBBB a few years back. "He brought a bunch of songs in from the get-go; he wasn't pushy about it, but we had some ideas to flesh it out."
And while most of the horn players contribute vocals, Halpin is the group's de facto lead singer, if only by virtue of not having a mouthpiece to contend with. He notes that he was in "a little bit of a fallow period as a songwriter," but his contribution "Elizabeth" is both a loving tribute to his wife and a more purely pop composition from a band with a jazz and soul pedigree.
"I am fortunate enough to be married to a wonderful woman," Halpin says of the song's inspiration. "I wanted to try to put it down in a way that was sappy but not overly saccharine. It took a while to figure it out from the band perspective. I'll be the first to admit that it doesn't sound like a Funky Butt song."
Chandler pipes in to note that the song's atypical nature was what made it so appealing to the rest of the band. "It was an opportunity to grow and do something completely different," the trombonist says.
Given that Mardi Gras celebrations take place this coming week, the Funky Butt Brass Band will be busy again. Its highest-profile gig is the Mayor's Ball, but the rest of us plebeians can get down with the band at the Bootleg on Saturday night and at the Broadway Oyster Bar on Fat Tuesday.
One place you won't find them is in Soulard amid the revelers on parade day. A few years' worth of freezing temperatures, PortaPotty mishaps and traffic gridlocks have cured FBBB of that desire.
"There was a time when it was fun to get up at 7 a.m. and be stuck there," Halpin says, "but there's a time where that ceases to be enjoyable."