Ken Field & The Revolutionary Snake Ensemble: The Musical Road Less Taken
"Much of what we do is very spontaneous," says Field, "both through my own direction in the studio or on the stage, but also through individual choices that anybody makes. For variety in the sound the individual choices that the individual musicians make are so important. We don't have full-out arrangements written up that we abide by every time we play. For a four-horn group, that maybe a little unusual, but we come up with structures spontaneously. There's a great aspect to spontaneity and to the energy you get from seeing or trying a tune for the first time that you never get again; you're taking some risks by doing that, but if you don't take some risks, you don't get the benefits."
While the RSE has recorded two discs, there's certainly the impression that it's live where this group shines. Just like the brass bands of New Orleans that provide RSE with much of its inspiration, live performances provide a fuel that cannot be easily recreated in a recording session. And as Mardi Gras approaches in the Crescent City, the RSE prepares to embark on what has become an annual pilgrimage and perhaps the ultimate live performance for a group that feels a connection to New Orleans. The group takes the train down and performs along the way, culminating in a march in one of the city's premiere parades, the Krewe of Muses.
"Being in the city where this music that has had such an influence on the band and on me is awe inspiring," Field says, "and, of course, being hired to come down and march in one of the paradesyou know there's plenty of unbelievably great brass bands down thereso we're ridiculously honored that that is the case. One year we played a benefit for the New Orleans Musician's Clinic and we were playing out in the street in front of the place and people just assumed we were a New Orleans band. That's an extreme compliment."
But what started as a unique gig, became much more after hurricane Katrina devastated the city in August 2005. The months following the storm's landfall and the flooding that followed were difficult times for both residents and those who loved the "city that care forgot." As governments quarreled and bickered, residents looked for any opportunity to feel normal again. Mardi Gras 2006 seemed to provide the first opportunity for healing, yet the event that in many ways brings the city together each year was itself a source of division. Many felt it was too soon to throw a party, while others felt it was the right thing to do to promote a return to normalcy. Field struggled with those very emotions as RSE debated a return.
"After Katrina, we really wondered: 'is it appropriate for us to go down there; even though we were invited, are we helping or hurting?' You know, does this really matter? All of our friends, everyone we talked to said, 'Yes, I'd wish you'd come down.' It's kind of like people visiting you when you're in the hospital, just being there matters and that's how we felt. We felt that just being thing was a positive thing. The way people celebrated that very first Mardi Gras after Katrina, was very much like a New Orleans funeral. There were months and months of hard work and sickness in terms of the physical nature of people and the city itself. And then it was time to celebrate life. Celebrating life is the message and we were very honored to be part of that celebration."
The word celebration provides an appropriate description of the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble's musical mission. Less concerned with categories and more concerned with making good music and having fun, RSE provides something for every listener. To find a large group capable of creating something new, while staying true to the traditions of their influences is rare indeed.
With an eye on greater exposure through movies, television and even more importantly touring, Ken Field and the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble appear set to continue their musical travels, taking roads that may defy logic. While Robert Frost didn't know the Revolutionary Snake Ensemble, he certainly understood the spirit of the group and its founder, Ken Field. If Frost were alive today, he'd certainly approve and would likely be listening to RSE on his iPod.