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Big Sam’s Funky Nation lands at the Essence Festival

30th June 2014   ·   0 Comments

By Geraldine Wyckoff
Contributing Writer

Years ago when Sammie “Big Sam” Williams walked into the band room at Edward Livingston Middle School, the band director asked him what he wanted to play. His response was simply whatever instrument they needed someone on. “He said, ‘Okay, I’ll put you on the trombone,’” Williams remembers. “And then I asked him, ‘What is that?’ Who would have thought that it would end up being my way of life?”

Williams took that horn and ran with it, traveling the world as leader of the group he formed in 2001, Big Sam’s Funky Nation. The aptly named ensemble lands at the Essence Festival on Saturday, July 5 at 7:15 pm to once again take a superlounge stage. Williams estimates that it’s the fifth or sixth time the Nation has performed at the festival. That stands as a remarkable number of appearances at an event that books a limited number of local bands with few repeats.

Sammie 'Big Sam' Williams

Sammie ‘Big Sam’ Williams

“For some reason they took a liking to me and they love the vibe I bring to the festival,” says Williams who digs the fest and finds it a unique setting. “It’s more of an urban festival,” he notes. “What I like about that is that normally you only have hip-hop artists, R&B artists and mainstream people that you hear on the radio. Yeah, these are some young Black cats on stage but we’re not necessarily doing hip-hop or R&B we’re playing rock, we’re playing funk, we’re playing instruments. It gives a little diversity to the show. Plus Essence Festival brings the Black community out and everybody has a good time.”

Williams also gets involved with the Essence Festival as a spectator. “I always check out Charlie Wilson – Uncle Charlie. He’s a hell of an entertainer. Last year I caught Janelle Monae and Beyoncé and will definitely be in attendance for Prince.” Williams made sure in advance that he and the Funky Nation, which tours some 200 days a year, weren’t booked on that date. “I have to be there,” he exclaims with excited anticipation. “He’s my favorite performer in the world. He’s a genius. He’s brilliant.”

Big Sam’s Funky Nation is in celebration mode following the recent release of its fifth, dance-provoking album, Evolution. It takes the group further into the rock arena than previous endeavors, heightened by some blazing guitar from Joshua Connelly as is immediately heard on the opening cut, “Breaking the Rules.” There are also shades of influential funksters such as Sly and the Family Stone on cuts including “Love on My Side.”

“When the band first started it was more of jazzy funk kind of thing – and then maybe a funk and brass thing because that’s where I came from,” explains Williams who before forming the Nation played with the Dirty Dozen, Soul Rebels and the Stooges brass bands. “Then the music just started evolving and became real heavy and edgy.”

Another element that has changed the Funky Nation’s overall sound is that it has gotten away from the jam band style with Williams, along with trumpeter Andrew Baham, concentrating on writing songs and most importantly songs with hooks. All of the material on Evolution comes from Williams’ pen or in collaboration with the other band members. More songs, of course, also means more singing.

Williams was inspired to starting writing music during his time touring with the legendary songwriters and musicians Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint in support of their 2006 album River in Reverse. Standing on stage, Williams, who was also on the album, was impressed by the crowd singing along to all the songs. “I thought, ‘This is like amazing.” He then went to Baham to figure out a formula to keep the Nation’s core style but come up with tunes with lyrics that tell a story. The results can be heard on the new album on tunes like “I Need You,” a sexy, screamin’ number.

Williams’ trombone work still stands front and center though it is most prominent on the instrumental cuts where he stretches out and struts his stuff. He’s glad to be a part of the movement that has helped increase the popularity of the ‘bone. “When I started the Funky Nation I wanted people to know that a trombonist can front a band – we don’t have to be just sitting in the background. I want people to say, ‘Hey, the trombone isn’t a geeky instrument anymore. It’s pretty hot; it’s pretty cool.’”

Considering Williams’ ultra-smooth footwork, it’s surprising to learn that he didn’t really dance until he was a member of the Soul Rebels that included a lot of hot steps and choreography in its shows. “Before that I was the shy kid, I didn’t say much, I just played my horn,” he says. “They brought the dance out of me and {later} I was dancin’ on all of the Dozen’s shows. Eventually, it became part of what I do. I broke out of my shell.”

Big Sam Williams more or less stumbled on the trombone just like some of his Essence Fest audience stumble across Big Sam’s Funky Nation as they circle the lounge level of the Dome. “They might hesitate because as soon as they see a horn they think jazz. They’ll say, ‘Hell with that. I don’t want to listen to no jazz. But then they might say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know I liked this kind of music.’ From that moment it’s like, “Gotcha!”

There’s been many “gotcha!” moments in Sammie Williams’ career in the Superdome and around the world. There’s more to come in the ever-evolving universe of Big Sam’s Funky Nation that now rocks hard yet with one foot in the streets where it all began.

This article originally published in the June 30, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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