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Bring in Da Funk 

How New Orleans' Soul Rebels Brewed a Potent Blend of Old and New

Lumar LeBlanc assumes a laid-back tone as he begins to discuss the present state of affairs. With a comfortable chuckle, he says he's been spending his day working on some new material. There are big things comin' up, he says.

Soul Rebels Brass Band, a New Orleans staple, never stops. Onstage, the band's energy is incredible. Offstage and back home in the South, they stay busy fleshing out original tunes and new, dynamic takes on classic compositions. Occasionally they gig with, say, Metallica or Galactic, or any number of wildly different acts. At other times, they're working their main gig as the house band at Uptown's Le Bon Temps Roule.

For years, the band has grown considerably in terms of reach, but they've always seemed to maintain their roots. LeBlanc says it's a testament to the band members' dedication to the craft and to the enthusiasm of a worldwide fanbase.

Unlock Your Mind, the band's seventh album, dropped last year to vast critical acclaim. It's a groove-laden kaleidoscope that perfectly distills the Soul Rebels' danceable sound into a tidy 13-song package.

"It's a whole entire commitment and we're living up to it," LeBlanc says of the Soul Rebels' ongoing journey. It's a story that started many moons ago in a bustling city quite far from here. It's a story of family and music. Of adhering to traditions and breaking down barriers every step of the way.

The band is coming off a recent stint aboard the annual Jam Cruise, a mid-winter trip through the Caribbean with the likes of moe., Big Gigantic, Steel Pulse and more. They quickly returned to NOLA, set to work out new material for the road ahead.

And in the middle of this quick tour the band will find itself once again in a very high-profile setting at the NFL Honors show on CBS Feb. 2.

"We were picked out of an august body of bands to basically be the house band," LeBlanc says of the upcoming gig. It'll be a slick hometown event for the band and yet another notch in a long-running history of music.

"We've been real busy," LeBlanc says, laying thick emphasis on his words.

And, truth be told, hell yes they've been busy. The band's been working non-stop for the past 20 years or so.

The Soul Rebels originated as a very unique — some have said controversial — concept in the early '90s when LeBlanc and Derrick Moss, two young percussionists, were actively seeking something new and daring.

They were kicking around some of the fresh sounds coming from their radios —contemporary pop-type stuff that all their friends were getting into. It was a far cry from their city's brass band tradition (think "When the Saints Go Marching In" and second lines in Central City). As the band was coming together — over the years reeling in trumpet players Julian Gosin and Marcus Hubbard, trombonists Corey Peyton and Paul Robertson, saxophonist Erion Williams and sousaphonist Edward Lee Jr. — they took heat for not being cut from the traditional brass-clad cloth.

NOLA's civic heritage has always been close to the guys' hearts — and always will be — but riffing on the diversity they were witnessing in other corners of the musical world maintained equal importance.

Their songwriting began drawing on mid-'90s hip-hop, infectious funk throwdowns a la Flea and Co. and dancehall sensibilities from across the Caribbean. It made sense, really. They had grown up in a cultural melting pot; why not echo that attitude in their music? So as young men with formal training in area high school marching bands and other budding brass ensembles, they took to the small clubs in and around The Big Easy. In many ways, it seems, it's the perfect town to cut your teeth as a musician.

"You're kind of put on a stage instantaneously. You can hone your skills early on," LeBlanc says. "When you perform in the French Quarter in front of that audience, it's like a rehearsal. You're able to see if what you're doing actually works."

So, in short order, the Soul Rebels sound was cropping up in all corners of the city. They simultaneously blended in while sticking out in the spotlight. But they had time on their side and an unbounded creative wit. They massaged the music and it gave unto them the sort of meaningful thymos for which most bands destroy themselves. The Soul Rebels, you see, have maintained an ethos of brotherly good vibes and fun, fun, fun.

By 2013, the longevity of the band has proven its worth not only to excitable fans around the world, but to themselves, as well. "It's a tribute to all the members of the band," LeBlanc says.

This weekend's show on a small stage at a 100-year-old bowling alley in Lakewood is simultaneously unorthodox and absolutely perfect for the band. They've performed on massive stages to crowds of thousands, but they've also crammed into corners of dive bars and let loose in front of, oh, say, a few dozen rhythmic boozehounds who are there at 2 a.m. to shake their asses and get down.

"That's part of the magic that Soul Rebels is able to possess: to play all different styles and all forms of music," LeBlanc says. But it's not so much that the boys will bring the flavors of New Orleans to the inner-ring paradise of suburban Cleveland this weekend — it'll be a global trip based on a shared love of music, dance and celebration.

From their down-home roots of the deep South to international audiences of all ilk, the cats that make up Soul Rebels have cast their vibes across a wide swath of this planet.

"The audiences that we experience across the world are so inviting to the grassroots New Orleans funk sound," LeBlanc says. "I think we're opening the ears and eyes of people all over the world."

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