The line of people snakes from the back room of Balliceaux, at least 80 feet and growing, to the outside doorman collecting $5 for the show. The waiting crowd ranges from 21-year-old minimums to 30-something professionals to the gray-haired and no-haired.
Up until the last minute, the members of No BS! Brass band blend into the crowd. But when they take the stage they snap into a coherent, metallic mix of crisp, complex drumming, breast-thumping soul show-band dance moves and the joyous roar of horns at play.
In its earliest days, the group often set up right in the middle of the audience, the better to sweep everyone up in a wave of collective vibration. Now the same trick works from the stage, creating a porous boundary between performer and patron, between the long reach of the trombone slide and the air-pumping fists from the front row.
No BS! Brass doesn't just want to be a successful band, it wants to be Richmond's band, carrying the banner of the city's burgeoning music scene in a series of quick but far-ranging tours — an out-and-back flash of a visit the military might call a lightning raid. With the group's growing fame and steady travel, it can still seem like a surprise when it shows up for its frequent local gigs around town, drawing the dancing, singing-along, happy masses like some funky Pied Pipers.
Belying the assumption that brass bands often are limited to high-school halftimes and the streets of New Orleans, No BS is a Swiss Army knife of an ensemble, an improbable number of musical devices within a sleek and streamlined package. This summer especially, what might be dismissed as genre music from a provincial city seems to be everywhere. Not least in Richmond.
Its dozen or so members have carried the evolving RVA brand — a coveted reputation as a haven for youthful artistic innovation — far afield. They blast out unison lines in the elegant precincts of Lincoln Center, play Michael Jackson's "Thriller" while storming the Forbes Magazine offices (with former presidential candidate Steve Forbes in tow) and speed rap through a megaphone over a wave of funk during a Tiny Desk Concert at NPR.
In return they're getting shout-outs from the usual new-music suspects such as Spin and Paste for their populist recent recording "RVA All Day," and from tonier outlets such as the Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and "All Things Considered" for "Fight Song" — a just-released project focused on the music of late jazz giant Charles Mingus. And they're winning enthusiastic praise from some of the top horn players in the country.
Posting on Facebook, perennial DownBeat poll-winning trumpeter Dave Douglas calls them his favorite brass band. Asked by email to expand on his comment, he writes: "No BS! Brass is the real deal! Grooving, rocking, kick-a$# brass playing with real impact and an imperative to dance. Lance Koehler's drumming is totally mesmerizing and, when matched with that fat marching tuba and the sickest arrangements on the scene, it is over-the-top fun. Bryan Hooten and Reggie Pace take the cake for 21st-century brass hipness. They make me mad. Every time I hear them my face hurts the next day from smiling so hard."
When the time comes to look back at 2013, this may just be the breakout year for Richmond music. Performers who once played locally for free now take the stages in far flung locations for paying audiences. Big band jazz experimentalist turned visionary singer and songwriter Matthew E. White has become an international sensation, with multiple European tours and a high-profile gig at the iconic Sydney Opera House with Justin Vernon of alt rockers Bon Iver, which won the 2012 Grammy for best new artist. After a decade of Tuesdays at Café Diem, DJ Williams plays guitar with premium jazz and jam band Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. Reggie Pace earned a measure of fame with multiple national television appearances with Bon Iver, spending the better part of last year on the road, and part of last winter with Vernon in Minnesota working on a new Blind Boys of Alabama recording.
But No BS isn't about individual glory.
"I could never put my face on the front of a record," says Pace, the most recognizable of the bunch. The co-founder's distinctive appearance, a big, sturdy frame topped by a headband-accentuated Afro, made him the visual standout in multiple television appearances with Bon Iver, including on "Saturday Night Live," which put him up front in promo spots.
And perhaps even more than the globe-hopping White, who mentions Richmond in every performance, No BS closely identifies with its home city. Its approach, at once historic and youthful, traditional and cutting-edge, is a near perfect analog of Richmond's 21st-century identity. As multiracial evangelists for the local scene, they're betting on Richmond. But they also carry a fresh image of the former capital of the Confederacy into the world. So the city has a stake in them. They expect their heart-on-sleeve native pride to resonate with audiences who have parallel affection for their own hometowns.
It's an idealistic strategy, but so far it's working.
From the start, No BS has been a crowd-sourced band, evocative of and deeply connected to the unique creative energy of the city. It's no accident that "RVA All Day" is the title of its breakout record. Riding a wave of publicity, the band's on the verge of achieving escape velocity — the level of fame and financial security required to leave day jobs behind and live the high-flying life of a nationally performing artist. Yet they don't want to escape their sense of place — unless, of course, everybody else can come along.
Despite his standout presence, Pace is most comfortable working inside the mix. "I like being part of a horn section," he says. "It's like a football team — the front line blocking is as important as the quarterback. Those chords have to be in tune for Marcus [Tenney] to carry his solo over the top."
The team concept extends to the audience. "I want the city and the fans to feel that they are part of it," Pace says. "That's why we wear the same shirts we sell. We want that identification. Live shows are a dialog between the players and the audience. It's impossible to play as well in practice as in front of people. It takes the audience accepting us and going on the journey with us that gives us the juice."
Building a broad audience required shattering the preconceptions of what a brass band can be, he says. And it influenced the sound. "We want use this city as our source material," Pace says, "bringing in everything from punk rock to hip-hop to nerd core, kung fu funk stuff. We to expand the horizons of the instrumentation, to find a different kind of groove."
The band's musical DNA draws heavily from the funky street bands of New Orleans —the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth Brass Bands — recombined with other genres and mutated into a new kind of creature. "We didn't want to sound like a party-time New Orleans second-line band," Pace says. "Unless you are from there, trying to do that — using that language and naming your songs after New Orleans neighborhoods — just seems wrong, almost racist."
Trombonist Bryan Hooten has moved increasingly into the frontman role, leading the audience call and response and singing and rapping through the megaphone. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Hooten came to Virginia Commonwealth University to get his master's degree, and has stayed on as an adjunct instructor and leader of one of the university's jazz orchestras.
"Over the years the band's arrangements have become more complex and sophisticated," Hooten says. "You want to simultaneously exploit the fact that it is a huge brass band that is capable of myriad textures and orchestrations. But you also have to write music that fits in our voice. It has to be fun. It has to be danceable. It needs to hit you in your chest. It also needs to be reasonably memorizable — we have five albums of music in our heads."
Pace traces the band's serious but freewheeling ethos to the Devil's Workshop Big Band, a sprawling Monday night meeting ground for local talent in the early 2000s at the old Bogart's Backroom — where Balliceaux now stands (Bogart's moved a few blocks away to Cary Street). Many of the original players also were in Yo' Mama's Brass Band, a crowd-pleasing group that relied heavily on neo-traditional New Orleans arrangements.
"I was just not satisfied playing in a cover band," Pace says. "I wanted to start a band that wrote its own music. It turned out Lance did too."
The band's drummer and co-founder, California native Lance Koehler transplanted his idealistic, low-cost Minimum Wage Studio to Richmond in the early 2000s. Audio engineering is a natural business for drummers, good listeners accustomed to schlepping around large quantities of gear. Soon his business was a haven for almost every creative musician in town, including Brian Jones' far-ranging jazz explorations and new grass of Special Ed and the Short Bus.
Koehler swiftly found his feet in the local performing scene, including playing bass drum in Yo' Mama's Brass Band. He and Pace became fast friends and started planning their next move. "We already had the name laid out," Koehler says. "We wanted to do something new and vital, and Reggie knew exactly who to call."
The Minimum Wage studio was, and remains, an ideal rehearsal space. The band's first gig was in 2007 at ADA Gallery. It was sponsored by the Patchwork Collective, the mid-decade local arts initiative set up by then-VCU undergrads, including Matthew E. White and Scott Burton. No BS came on after two free-jazz bands, and played every arrangement it had — all three of them. Soon afterward it had a regular gig every second week Emilio's. "It took about a year of that before we really started to develop and play outside the standard [verse and chorus] brass-band form," Koehler says.
The legendary New York City slide trumpeter and arranger Steve Bernstein has followed the band since 2009, when he spent two weeks in Richmond collaborating with White's Fight the Big Bull. "The first time I heard them I was amazed," he says, speaking by phone between gigs. "They were all so young. Now, four years later, I was really blown away. Who is that lead trumpet player? [It's Marcus Tenney.] He plays beyond the instrument. No one should be able to play that trumpet so well, on such a pure level. Other trumpet players think he should be arrested and have his hands cut off."
Five of the group's original lineup are still with the band, along with Koehler, Pace and Tenney, contrabassist Stefan Demetriadis and trombonist Dillard Watt. Others have inevitably moved on — saxophonist Jason Arce to New York, trombonist Sam Savage and trumpeter Scott Frock to New Orleans. Trumpeter Mark Ingraham leads Beast Wellington in addition to playing in DJ Williams Projekt and other sideman gigs. Bass saxophonist and singer Reginald Chapman just spent the summer playing Disneyland with the All-American College Band.
New players have come in as well. Taylor Barnett — certainly one of few funky brass band players with a doctorate — started hanging out during the band's first recording ("Where Is Stefan") and soon became a member. Gentle giant David Hood stepped in to replace Arce on the woodwinds. Helping add sizzle on the top are trombonist John Hulley, who also leads innovative new local big band Brunswick, and trumpeter Rob Quallich — "one of maybe 10 guys who can play those high Maynard Ferguson notes," Pace says. Recent VCU graduates such as Sam Koff are young substitutes who have become permanent members. The nonplaying support team includes Koehler's girlfriend, Heather Bailey, who sells merchandise, and George Creamer, that rare breed of roadie who attends every rehearsal.
Hooten, despite being at the first No BS gig (albeit in Fight the Big Bull) didn't join until a couple of years later, when trombonist Savage moved to Florida.
The size of the band adds diversity, which Hooten views as strength. "One of the things that is unique about us is the variety of age groups," he says. "We have a constellation of perspectives. Some of the guys have just finished college. Taylor has a wife and two daughters. Lance is running a successful business and Reggie spent a lot of the past year on the road."
Being an all-acoustic group also offers flexibility — its members can travel light, and they don't need to be plugged in to play. That helped in their earliest days, taking to the streets to find their audience, initially at First Fridays Art Walks and now whatever fresh place they happen to be. "Every time we go to a new city we make it a point of busking on the street," Koehler says.
To build their local audience, Pace became a pioneer in the Paleolithic dawn of social media, posting funny band announcements back when MySpace ruled. "We were one of the few bands doing that," Pace says. "Now every young player is asking you to 'like' his Facebook fan page. They haven't done anything yet so what exactly are we liking?"
The band also used more conventionally clever ways to grow. Performing at local high schools is a long-term investment in a rising fan base. Inviting student groups to open for it at gigs inevitably brought in the parents. And looking beyond the familiar boundaries of the city hipster and jazz scene, it started playing the annual hardcore and punk swim party Best Friends Day, their muscular crunch meshing seamlessly with a roster of head-banging bands.
Its members have championed their Richmond connection at every show as they've increasingly toured from North Carolina to New Hampshire in the temperamental band bus they've dubbed the Meat Wagon.
"Sometimes I feel like we are one of those little countries in the Olympics going for the gold medal," Pace says. "But we've had no losses on the road. Everywhere we play there is a person or two who is familiar with the band, who sings along with the songs. We play up in Manhattan and there are a bunch of No BS shirts in the crowd. We play in Brooklyn and every piece of merch is sold."
"Mail order has been picking up from all over the world," Koehler says. "Not only the U.S. but Europe, Russia, Japan. It's really cool to know that the sound is pushed out that far, that some brass head in Tokyo is geeking out over our music."
Part of the credit for the band's burgeoning fame is its relationship with ace public-relations outfit Shore Fire Media, which promotes such wide-ranging brands as Toyota, Dunkin' Donuts, Wynton Marsalis and Bruce Springsteen. That kind of representation confers credibility.
But the company's choosy about whom it works with, says Pace, who struck up a conversation with a Shore Fire rep during the after party of Jimmy Fallon's late-night show, where Bon Iver appeared. "You can't fake your way through these things," Pace says, "just say 'I'm hot like Katy Perry, give me my day in the sun.' I sent them music and they decided we were cool."
In the wake of the Shore Fire initiative, positive news coverage poured in. "All Things Considered" hailed No BS's "party soundtrack with a wild and deep groove." Time magazine previewed the title track of its Mingus project "Haitian Fight Song." Time Out NY called its act "part football game half-time slot, part sweaty punk show."
"I'm not sure what we are paying them," Hooten says of Shore Fire. "But whatever it is, it's worth it. It's nice to have that task delegated to someone else who's good at it."
Speaking of money, all this fame hasn't sent No BS players into riverside mansions by the James. Every member has a second source of income — in some cases, a second, third and fourth. But they're in a good spot, they say. "It feels how I want it to feel," Pace says. "Traveling and making money with my buddies? Even if things go bad and the bus breaks down I love it."
The summer campaign was supposed to end with a triumphant No BS! Brass appearance at Lincoln Center Plaza, arguably the epicenter of serious jazz. What took place instead was an odyssey that, in the words of Hooten, "Defies the boundaries of time, space and human endurance ... ending with a radical shift in fortune."
The concert was scheduled for 6:30 p.m. The band's temperamental bus, the Meat Wagon, left Richmond at 8 a.m., allowing 10 ½ hours to make what Google Maps estimates is a less than six-hour trip. The group got as far as Dumfries when one of the vehicle's two batteries died. After frantic calls, AAA intervention, renting two additional vehicles and Hulley's parents diving up with the family minivan, they were back on the road.
But when they reached the border, they found the southern stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike closed by an accident, forcing a detour onto parallel Interstate 295. That required a minimally marked dogleg maneuver. They missed their ramp and quickly ended up across the Delaware in South Philadelphia. With time running tight, and the batteries in their mobile phones dying, they made it back to the New Jersey Turnpike heading north only to find that it had congealed into a slow-moving jam. They pulled into the Lincoln Center lot at 7:45, missing the deadline, only to find that the agonized rush was all in vain. A big summer thunderstorm had swept through the city. The gig was canceled.
"It was the worst day of our lives," Pace says. "Then suddenly it was a million times better than what was planned."
They got the chance to do a mini-set after the New Orleans all-star tribute band the Hot 9 playing on the main outdoor bandstand. It went over so well they were invited to play in the center's indoor atrium. "It wasn't on the calendar, it wasn't advertised but it was a packed audience," Pace says.
"You know they have to be young," says the famous trumpeter and band fan, Bernstein. "That is some heavy-duty physical playing. A lot of guys in the New Orleans brass bands have that energy but ... and I don't want to put this the wrong way ... all they have done is play brass. They've learned how to march all day and party all night. The No BS guys have all of the same hip-hop energy and soul... but they also have all this refined technique. That's an unbeatable combination."
The epic emotional roller-coaster ride ended with two standing ovations at Lincoln Center, the first after the band's suite of Mingus tunes, the last at the end of its set. "I was emotionally exhausted for the next two days," Pace says.
No BS! Brass is at an inflection point. Its members may have the luck, timing and career momentum to break through to national commercial renown. So far their self-released recordings have made the Billboard jazz charts and risen as high as No. 4 on the iTunes jazz sales. "If we can just put the band in front of enough people, there is no limit to what we can achieve," Pace says. "I don't think No BS has peaked."
As for how far a brass band can go in the chaotic modern music business, Hooten says: "The question is not open to useful speculation. Just do what you do, as my yoga teacher says. Honor your effort and your intention and release all attachment to the outcome. It's not what instruments you play that matters, it's what feeling you create when you are playing."
"If you are doing something you really love, with your friends, you've made it," he says. "The rest is just numbers."
No BS aspires to reach something deeper than a target demographic. It doesn't just appeal to the 20-something hipsters or their 50-something parents, but to their inner 14-year-olds who may have once marched in their middle-school band, or had a special affection for their own undervalued town or neighborhood. Or to anyone who can feel a fundamental connection to a band of brothers unified by that big, burnished brass sound.
For all its big sonic bluster, the band's secret weapon is the intimate, close-up magic of empathy. The boisterous camaraderie blaring from the stage envelops the crowd in an equivalent unity. The performers' enthusiastic joy in playing engenders joy in listening. In this context, their trumpeted Richmond pride transcends provincialism and becomes something universal, an echoed pride in wherever you happen call home.
"It's a lot more universal than I realized," Pace says. "We never really have to turn a crowd, they come ready to receive. We just have to stand and deliver." S