Many bands rely on local gigs to pay the rent and keep the lights on, but how do they keep loyal fans coming when they have largely the same songs to play each night?
Susan Cowsill solved the problem in 2005 when she started her “Covered in Vinyl” series, for which she and her band would play one classic album for a first set and her own songs for a second.
Recently, rock band The Breton Sound started a similar “Desert Island Discs” series by playing Weezer’s “Blue Album,” and even though they tour regularly, The Soul Rebels will mix songs by soul singers Marvin Gaye and D’Angelo into their show Saturday night at Tipitina’s.
“This is coming from a commercial place,” drummer Lumar LeBlanc says matter-of-factly of the series. He says he’d be just as happy going out every night and playing Soul Rebels songs, but he also likes the idea of saluting the soul greats.
“I’m a soul man,” he said, laughing.
But it’s not simply commercial. LeBlanc says The Soul Rebels will continue to do shows that pay homage to other classic and contemporary influences, and they’re contemplating future shows that will include brass band versions of songs by female vocalists, funk bands and jazz artists.
“It’s showing the evolution of the music,” LeBlanc said. “That’s what we stand for. We’re trying to bring brass band music to a more modern place.”
Shows like these can provide insight into the artists who perform them. It’s easy to hear the influence of Linda Ronstadt, Simon and Garfunkel, Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac in Cowsill’s music, and Weezer is a touchstone for many rock bands with a pop sensibility like The Breton Sound.
For The Soul Rebels, playing Gaye and D’Angelo songs puts the band in a new context. Just as their 2013 mixtape “Power = Power” subtly pointed to the connection between the brass band and hip-hop, playing songs by these singers puts their music on the broader R&B spectrum
Trumpeter Julian Gosin is a Gaye fan. “He’s classic,” Gosin said, then added, “D’Angelo is in a class by himself.”
He likes D’Angelo’s recent album, “Black Messiah” — his first since 2000’s “Voodoo” — but doesn’t think they’ll play anything from it.
“ ‘Really Love’ — that tune is really cool, but it’s mellow. It’s not an in-your-face dance song. It’s chill, like you’re at a poet session.”
To choose the songs they’d cover, The Soul Rebels got together and listened to tracks to make decisions about what to do. They didn’t want to do anybody’s greatest hits, but they knew they wanted a few hits. Some songs they liked didn’t translate well to what they do, while others didn’t have the right groove.
“The groove has to be there to get the drums right,” Gosin said. Just as important is a strong melody, particularly in the chorus. “Marvin Gaye, he had melodies all over the place. We’re covering the song ‘After the Dance,’ and if you listen to the melody line, you probably don’t know what’s going on. He has three different melodies going on at one time, but you do know the chorus when you hear the chorus.”
Cowsill can appreciate those issues, some of which you have to be a musician to understand. For her, the gigs were always harder when the album was originally sung by men. “When we do a ‘dude’ record, the keys are way too low, so we need to find better ones for a female range,” she said. “That can sometimes change a song greatly, so I have to work harder interpreting it.”
The Soul Rebels hope these shows will give them time to work on new material and let it grow organically instead of having to rush songs into the set to keep their shows fresh. They’re working on a new album, but it’s only in the planning stages.
“We’re constantly creating,” LeBlanc said. “We go in the studio to lay things down and experiment. We’re trying to put something together for an album, for a concept we have. We’re trying to see how it works out.”
Russ Broussard, Cowsill’s husband and drummer, says the challenges of doing cover-heavy shows change over time.
“At first, it was learning the material and getting inside the feel and voice of each artist,” he said. “After a while, the muscle of learning songs got strong, so the challenges are more about scheduling rehearsals with some of the most prominent and in-demand musicians we’d like to hear for each particular album we choose.”
The potential rewards for such shows are many. When Cowsill’s band played The Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls,” they were more engaged with the songs than the Stones were for many nights of that tour, and for the band, such shows put something at risk.
“The fun is being on the tightrope with the band, willingly resting in that space where we are potentially one note away from disaster or brilliance,” Broussard said. “I find that space to be thrilling and inspiring.”
Cowsill agrees. “The fun is the night of the show. The sense of accomplishment, the amazing versions we have come up with through the years. We always say, ‘Now that we have it right, can we do it again?’ ”