Like a trombone-wielding Zelig, Big Sam Williams has been hitting media hotspots wherever he goes these days. First it was Denver, where he and the NOLA All-Stars (including the Meters, Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas) played the Democratic National Convention.
A few gigs later, the party relocated to Minneapolis for the Republican National Convention. And last Friday, he made his way back home to New Orleans, one day after the National Guard began letting residents back into the city.
All of which makes the Hurricane Katrina survivor and former Dirty Dozen Brass Band trombonist uniquely qualified to articulate the difference between the two parties in 2008. So how about it?
"Good question," he says, laughing, possibly stalling for time in order to come up with a politic answer. "It's funny how different the parties and their personalities are. In Denver at the DNC, they were absolutely loving it. Everybody was dancing and having a good time. In Minneapolis at the RNC, it was a little different, you know? Everybody was staying kinda distant from the stage, just standing there and looking. Of course, they couldn't help but enjoy the music, but only about 30 or 40 of them were into dancing. It was like night and day, honestly."
As are New Orleans and San Antonio, the Texas town to which Williams and his wife were forced to relocate after Katrina.
"It was hell, man," he says of his two-year exile, which didn't exactly help the career of his current band, Big Sam's Funky Nation. "San Antonio is a cool city to live in if you're a regular kind of dude or into being corporate, but as far as music, it's just not the place to be. I was literally driving four times a week to Austin just to jam with some people and hook up with my boy Ivan Neville and the rest of the Nevilles."
Ivan, in turn, lent some vocals to Big Sam's Funky Nation on its latest album, which derives its sound from both hometown heroes like the Meters and '70s funk artists in general. Its title, Peace, Love & Understanding, pays homage to a song popularized by Elvis Costello, with whom Williams was enlisted to play on the 2006 River in Reverse album (and subsequent tour) with New Orleans legend Toussaint.
"They're geniuses, and working with both of them at the same time was just an awesome experience," says Williams, who, not surprisingly, numbers Toussaint among his early heroes. Costello's singing, meanwhile, gave him the chills.
"I'm like, "You're a slick dude, man.' Because the ways he uses his voice, it's just weird how he goes in and out of I can't describe it. It's, like, slippery or something."
Williams' own singing, meanwhile, is as boisterous as his nickname implies.
"I'm not a great vocalist," he says, "but I get the job done. I get the party started."
Coincidentally, Big Sam's Funky Nation will be playing the Springs the same night the Dirty Dozen performs in Boulder. You can still hear how grateful he is that the group recruited him at age 19 (he's 26 now) and then recorded his song "Ain't Nothin' but a Party" months later: "It's the first song on Medicated Magic, and they still play it in their shows today, even without me being in the band. So that means a lot to me."