Mountainside Mardi Gras in Denver, Colorado

Geoff Anderson By

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Mountainside Mardi Gras
Red Rocks Amphitheater
Denver, Colorado
August 8, 2009

A good-sized chunk of the New Orleans music scene landed at Red Rocks Saturday for an 11-hour funk and Dixieland marathon. Eight different bands and dozens of musicians left their sea level, horizontal environment to play a mile high in the vertically oriented, rock-rimmed amphitheater just west of Denver. Billed as the "First Annual Mountainside Mardi Gras," the festival brought together some of NOLA's big names, some up-and-comers and several in between. But they all came to play.

First the bad news: the audience turn-out was sparse. When the first band came on about 1 P.M., about 100 people were present. That's not much of a dent in a 9000-person venue. I've been to Red Rocks numerous times when nothing was going on with more people present. Fortunately, the crowd filtered in over the next couple hours but never seemed to get much beyond a thousand people. It's hard to know the economics of the show, but the size of the audience would not seem to bode well for a "Second Annual Mountainside Mardi Gras." Nevertheless, a woman who worked for the promoters confided that she hadn't ruled out a show for next year since, as she put it, the musicians really enjoyed performing here rather than living the life of a road warrior. Here, at least, they were able to all hang out together for awhile. Speaking of the musicians, not one appeared fazed or disappointed by the attendance. On the contrary, everyone played like the house was packed. The play by play:

Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes

Johnny Sketch plays guitar and sings and is backed by two saxophones, a trumpet, bass and drums. These guys had a funky sound tinged with more rock than many of the other acts Saturday. Sketch gazed beyond the crowd to the red rocks looming over the amphitheater and commented that there were "six minds being blown" right then. Wait, there were more people at the show than that. Oh, he was talking about his band. OK. Sketch played the most unusual instrument of the day: an electric cello. In a funk band?? The first time he broke it out, the drummer was working on a jungle rhythm, making for a crazy sonic contrast. The next time he put bow to strings, he evoked a Bach fugue. Again, in a funk band? O.K.—why not?

Big Sam's Funky Nation

Big Sam Williams is big. Perhaps that should be obvious, but after hearing a cello in a funk band, you can't take anything for granted. Sam plays trombone Fred Wesley style, wielding it like a weapon, which it just might be. He was joined by a trumpet, keys, guitar, bass and drums. Big Sam likes audience interaction with plenty of call and response. For a bit it was like being in a sweaty roadhouse at 2 A.M. with a pulsating crowd shouting on cue. But actually, it was a beautiful, low 80s, sunny day in the Rockies. Another contrast. Sam previously played with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and indeed he brings their brassy sound to his own band but adds an A.C. undercurrent (i.e. electric bass and Hammond B-3) for a punchier sound. Since it's his band, the horn section (Sam and his trumpet player) are right up front; loud and proud. Sam's other distinguishing feature is his dancing. Although the midday sun was beating directly down on him and he was wearing all black, he demonstrated his second line dance moves whenever he wasn't playing.

Papa Grows Funk

PGF's website announces that the band is "Rebuilding New Orleans One Groove at a Time." These guys laid down more than one groove Saturday. It was one groove at a time, but it was one after another. PGF is led by "Papa" John Gros on organ and vocals. He demonstrated his NOLA team spirit by wearing an Archie Manning football jersey—all black—in the sun. But it was a dry heat... Along with bass and drums, the band included a tenor sax and overall had the jazziest sound of the afternoon to that point. Gros himself looks a bit like jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco in both girth and facial features, though these days DeFrancesco might have a few pounds on him. Despite the jazz influence, the funk was undeniable. For instance, the band played "We Like it Stanky." Whenever the word "stanky" comes up, you know you're at least hip deep in the funk.

New Era Brass Band


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