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More than a spectacle, it’s a Dirty Bourbon River Show


New Orleans act Dirty Bourbon River Show is more than a band. It's a show with extra biz. It's a lunatic parade; a collaboration. It's a concept. It's a blast of New Orleans brass punctuated by the reedy lope of the accordion and the sub-strata honk of the sousaphone.

It's a boundless endeavor of funky hooks and sonic contortion that goes way beyond the Big Easy idiom — and all that it espouses — to include Lisztian piano-driven ballads, Latin rhythms, blues, and a wild, bombastic hybrid that must be seen to be believed. On stage, it's a goddamn circus.

With a certain degree of madness spewing from the pulpit, Dirty Bourbon River Show urges you into the cauldron. Come on in; the bourbon's fine. The infectious energy will not be denied.

Dirty Bourbon River Show just released its 10th album, the aptly titled "The Flying Musical Circus," and is hitting the road hard to bring it to the faithful, and even to the philistines. Matt Thomas, the band's saxophonist and clarinetist, was kind enough to tolerate some questions from CITY. An edited transcript of that conversation follows.

CITY: Give me a little background

Matt Thomas: The band actually started out back in 2009, while the original members were still students at Loyola University New Orleans. Noah Adams and our original drummer, Dane Schindler, hit the stage at the one and only Tipitina's for Homegrown Night as a sort of one-off thing, and the ball began to roll. They picked up a saxophonist and a bass and sousaphone player and another vocalist along the way and hit the New Orleans scene hard for a few years, even picking up a regular gig as a backing band for a burlesque troop. 

Around the spring of 2011, I happened to be in the right place at the right time and assumed the role of resident sax and clarinet player when everyone graduated and decided to try to tour full-time. From there, we basically shed our worldly possessions and hit the road. We've been playing music together for around six years; played music in 43 states, released 10 albums, and traveled to Europe twice. It's been a hell of a ride, and there's still more to come.

What's the difference between you and other bands that have their sound rooted in New Orleans music?

That's the beautiful thing about New Orleans bands, is that no two are the same. The city has such a unique mix of different and vibrant sounds, flavors, smells, and sights, and the musical culture reflects that. Our own take on it is a blend of the very different musical backgrounds of our members mixed with Noah's prolific and unique songwriting. We go all over with our influences, from jazz to classical to funk to New Orleans brass band music to Americana and beyond. Every song is a little different and has its own personality.

Another thing I'd emphasize that helps us stand out is our stage show. We aim to pull you in, make you part of the party, give you something to look at, make you want to move your feet and drink whiskey with us after the show. We want the audience to remember the good time they had, and we pull you into the experience. Just like the name implies: we're a show, not a band.

What's an ideal show? Audience?

At this point, we've played all sorts of places: dive bars, listening rooms, world-class music halls, coffee shops, music festivals large and small, backyards, weddings, tattoo parlors, river boats, and even the Radio and Television Correspondents Dinner in Washington, D.C. Each type of gig has its unique perks, but I'll take an outdoor music festival any day.  When people are out in the sunshine en masse for the sole purpose of eating, drinking, and watching live bands do their thing, and they're engaged with our show and our music, I'm on cloud nine — especially when I get to take my shoes off and go join the party after an electrifying set. We always pull out the stops and go all out, when we hit a festival stage in front of a good crowd.

My ideal audience is always a crowd that can get down and party, but still appreciate the music we're putting out there. The cool thing about our show is that it tends to transcend age and style sometimes. We've played shows for children, shows at retirement homes, and everything in between. I just like to see our music touch as many different kinds of people as it can. That's part of what we aim to do.

What are some of your influences, both genres and artists?

Like I said before, we tend to be all over the place. We, of course, draw from the traditional jazz and brass band culture of New Orleans, but we also have a lot of rock and folk influence in there. We play around with Latin rhythms, Russian stomp style, classical themes, reggae, etc. Off the cuff, I'd say we draw influences from Tom Waits, Gogol Bordello, Man Man, The Beatles, Frank Zappa, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Franz Liszt, Rebirth Brass Band, Debauche, John Coltrane ... I could go on and on.

What's something people get wrong about your band?

Our name, all the time. I've seen so many creative misspellings of the word "Bourbon," and people often mix up the words (like Dirty River Bourbon Band). The worst for me, though, is when people substitute Band for Show. I really take pride in our stage show, so I feel like it's important to have that word in there. Dirty Bourbon River Show just has a nice ring to it, I think.

How do you balance your musicianship with your onstage antics?

The name of the game is to have fun with it. Learning music is a never-ending journey, and it can get really serious sometimes. When you do something for long enough, though, you learn to throw your personality into it and actually play. While it's important to really focus during some of those more intense moments, you can then loosen up and get creative for the less intense stuff. The way I see it, is that being a great musician is only part of being a great performer and entertainer. The skills you need extend beyond your instruments and to the audience you're trying to reach.

What's something you'll never do?

Quit playing music ... and probably eat human flesh. But definitely never quitting music.