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By Sonya Harvey
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By Nathan Smith
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Even as the freakishly named Tropical Storm Gamma lumbered through the Caribbean far to the south, the arrival of our first proper norther last week finally put Houston's long, unnatural Indian summer to an end. Things have been downright surreal in this city ever since September 1. First we watched the Big Easy drown and then empty into Houston, and the very day I got somewhat over that, there commenced the first rumblings of the Great Rita Runaway Texodus, followed immediately by the Astros' alternately elating and agonizing road to the wrong end of a World Series sweep. And along the way, once-invincible-seeming politicians like Tom DeLay and Dubya crashed and burned Hindenburg-style. And the heat just dragged on and on
No doubt Art Bell and George Noory would say the End was nigh, and all of it was enough to make me consider investing in a tinfoil hat. By the way, did you see MIT's recent study on the efficacy of three models -- the Fez, the Classical and the Centurion -- of tinfoil headgear? They discovered that the hats do block out most radio waves, but in fact amplify the frequencies associated with federal government use, and thus they posit that the whole craze was concocted by, you guessed it, the government, in order to better control some of our society's more "independent" thinkers. "We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings," they conclude. (They're kidding, we think. Anyway, the study is here: people.csail.mit.edu/rahimi/helmet.)
At any rate, with 2005's catastrophic hurricane season finally safely past, it seemed as good a time as ever to check in on some of those most affected: the evacuees in the temporarily Houston-based New Birth Brass Band.
Outwardly, they are doing great. Every Wednesday evening, they play to a marvelously enthusiastic midweek crowd at Under the Volcano, and they also have standing Friday- and Sunday-night gigs at St. Pete's Dancing Marlin and a Sunday-afternoon affair at Dan Electro's. At the Volcano gig last week, despite the absence of their trombone player, they were simply smokin'. Trumpet and sax interwove over tuba boo-yahs amid the polyrhythmic rumble and clatter of bass drums, snare drums and hissing tiny cymbals -- this stuff is a syringe full of pure China white heroin for you beat junkies out there.
And like Volcano owner Pete Mitchell says, nobody can sit still at these shows. Sure, half the room (there were about 100 people in there on a midweek night) might not be dancing outright, but they're either tapping their feet or nodding their heads. And dancing is what this band is all about. The New Birth feeds off the crowd, and the crowd feeds off the New Birth. People holler encouragement and sing along. Guys dance with girls, girls dance in packs, guys dance alone, blacks and whites and evacuees and locals dance together -- and the people who sit boogie on the way to the bathroom when they go take a leak. I'm a pretty inhibited guy and no kinda dancer, but at one point I found myself cutting a rug with a girl I had just met when all I intended to do was go get a beer. The vibe is terrifically hellafied: Where there is the New Birth Brass Band, there is also the infectious joy of New Orleans.
I talked to three twentysomething women -- Volcano regulars who had never heard of the band before stumbling into one of their sets a month or so ago -- who have become staunch converts to the New Birth cause. "There should be more people here," says account executive Laurie Chidlow. "There are lots of Houstonians who love New Orleans, and if they knew this was going on, I think they would be here."
"Laurie told us about it, and this is our first time here, and we are very impressed," adds financial analyst Susie Hale. "We are gonna be here every Wednesday from now on, definitely."
"They are so New Orleans!" says Chidlow. "And not the creepy New Orleans -- not the 'Let's go to Pat O'Brien's and pay $9 for a drink' New Orleans," adds their friend Katie Edwards. "This is like you're on the street and a band plays and you're dancing in the street."
And Edwards, Hale and Chidlow all hope the New Birth is here to stay. Hell, all of us would love that; right now New Orleans is a culture without a city, and in many ways Houston is still a city without a culture.
All of us, that is, except for the members of the New Birth and the New Orleans natives at the show. I caught up with New Birth bass drummer and bandleader Tanio Hingle between sets and asked him what he missed the most about his hometown. "I just miss it -- just the whole nine yards, just bein' in our neighborhood playin' music -- bein' able to step out the door and just start playin' music Seein' everybody -- family. I miss my family -- I got some people who ended up in Atlanta. My mother, grandmother and a bunch of others are up there. That's one of the hardest parts: not bein' around my family, because I am a family man."
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