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Pittsburgh Blues Festival brings good music for a good cause

| Wednesday, July 17, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Big Sams Funky Nation
Andrew Goetz
Big Sams Funky Nation

After 19 years, pretty much anyone still able to sling a guitar or pound a drum in a manner somehow blues-related has played the Pittsburgh Blues Festival — often several times.

Still, the blues has to be elastic indeed to accommodate the sounds of Big Sam's Funky Nation, the electric funk band led from New Orleans, led by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's former trombone prodigy, Sammy “Big Sam” Williams. The band is headlining the first night of the Blues Festival on July 19 at Hartwood Acres.

“Well, all our music comes from the blues or gospel,” Williams says. “We've done a lot of blues festivals. It's not blues, but it's related because it's good music. We tell stories within our songs, so it's similar in that aspect. But it's not like the typical 12-bar, 8-bar blues. You're not going to come to our show and hear a B.B. King song. You might hear those kind of lyrics, but it won't sound alike.”

For Blues Festival's programmer Ron “Moondog” Esser, it wasn't a tough call.

“I went to a festival last year in Johnstown and saw them,” Esser says. “They played late and on a smaller stage after a bigger act, and they just blew me away. I said, ‘Man, this band is incredible. We have to get them in Pittsburgh.' ”

Big Sam is indeed a big guy, with a sound to match. It's possible to play the trombone quietly, but he's not real interested in that. There aren't a lot of bands in which the trombone is the lead instrument, but that's not the case in New Orleans.

“People are trained to hear the trumpet (playing lead),” Williams says. “Trombone was always thought of as a background instrument. We can do the same thing that other horns can do, but we have an extra tool. We can slide. We can bend. We can ‘tailgate.' No other instrument does that.”

In New Orleans music, there are few bigger than the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, where Williams first got noticed.

“From the beginning, they were my inspiration to start playing music, when I was 15,” he says. “Four years later, I was playing with Dirty Dozen Brass Band. We showed up in Colorado, an empty field, and show time came around. And 20,000 people showed up. I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing.' I knew, at one point, I wanted to venture off and do my own thing, and make that happen for that myself.”

And so he has. He toured with the legendary Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello. He's played with everyone from Dave Matthews to multi-cultural rappers Ozomatli, to jam-band vets Widespread Panic. He got to play the re-opening of the Superdome in New Orleans (following Hurricane Katrina) on “Monday Night Football,” with Green Day and U2.

He even got a recurring role on HBO's series “Treme,” about musicians struggling in the aftermath of Katrina. One of the main characters was partly modeled on him.

“Wendell Pierce, who played Antoine Batiste, his image — the Kangol hat with a blazer and things like that — that was after me,” Williams says. “This was before I lost 150 pounds. I used to be 350.”

Doing that wasn't easy, not with all that terrific, rich New Orleans cuisine. It helps that he plays 200 shows a year, spending plenty of time on the road.

“It was so hard,” Williams says. “It took a lot of dedication. When I hit the road, I'd wake up and work out before we'd leave the hotel. My show is very high-energy, non-stop. I'd do the show, make sure I'm eating nothing but healthy foods, and then go back to the hotel and work out again. I was working out three times a day, probably burning about 4,000 calories a day.”

Everything was about working toward a further goal — his own band. Big Sam's Funky Nation is it. High-energy funk is the emphasis.

Williams is the great-grandson of Buddy Bolden, the legendary cornet player who added elements of blues and improvisation to ragtime in the early 1900s — possibly the very beginning of jazz. Though he was committed to a mental institution in 1907 and little survives in the way of recordings, he was an inspiration to Louis Armstrong, and was the first musical star of the jazz era. His song “Funky Butt” was also probably the first mention of the term “Funk” in a musical context.

Benefit concerts go on all the time. But few provide for as basic a need, or help as many people, as this one. The Festival is the primary fundraiser for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, and, this year, they hope to break the $2 million mark.

“One of the things that particularly hit me this year — one in seven kids in our region goes to bed hungry,” Esser says. “That's just crazy. Folks have money around here. And the Food Bank really knows how to stretch a dollar.

“If you've never been to the Blues Festival, on the night Big Sam's is playing, admission is free with a bag of non-perishable groceries. What you you got to lose?”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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