Second Line in the Second City:
Mama Digdown’s Brass Band

The Green Mill
Chicago, IL
February 16, 2007

Mama Digdown
Mama Digdown's Brass Band
Mama Digdown's Brass Band
Mama Digdown's Brass Band

Story and Photos by Eric Miller

In an era when the jazz world is littered with blazing soloists, it is rare to find a band that focuses on developing fun grooves rather than exploring exotic melodic structures. However, this is precisely what Mama Digdown’s Brass Band managed to do Saturday night at the Green Mill. The band wrapped up a two night pre-Mardi Gras stand at the storied jazz club with a wild party that harkened back to a time when trad jazz was popular music.

Mama Digdown’s Brass Band is a traditional brass band from Madison, WI. Fronted by tenorist Roc Ohly, the band features two trumpet players, a rotating section of two or three trombonists, a snare drummer, a bass drummer, and the great sousaphone work of Erik Jacobson. Mama Digdown Though Ohly is the front man, the band clearly revolves around Jacobson. Without relying on virtuosic tricks, he holds down the solid grooves that make Mama Digdown‘s such a fun band. His big horn yelped, belched, and moaned as he pushed the front line through three long sets of raucous tunes. Despite his efforts, however, it took the group a while to get warmed up. More aptly, it took a while for the audience to get warmed up. Mama Digdown’s wild party vibe fell somewhat flat with the tame crowd at the 8pm set. The band sounded decent but lacked energy on their original tunes and even a cover of I Used To Love Her (But It’s All Over Now). Ohly kept up an easygoing banter with the crowd, but there was no Mardi Gras feeling in the air.

As the evening progressed and the patrons enjoyed the services of the Green Mill’s hardworking bar staff, the whole club began to loosen up. The second set got the growing crowd riled up with covers such as My Girl and Just The Two Of Us. Ohly’s vocals were decent, but secondary to the deep groove the band was working itself into. They shifted seamlessly from second-line soloing to R&B choruses and back again, keeping the energy up for the entire set.Mama Digdown My Girl turned into a sing-along as the front line danced, played, singed, and finally looked like they were having a good time. Ohly abandoned his pleasant patter, letting both covers and originals alike speak for themselves. They finally hit their stride by the end of the second set, which closed with a rousing rendition of the Rebirth Brass Band tune Do Whatcha Wanna. In true Mardi Gras fashion, the band paraded through the packed house and out the front door, wailing and jamming for passersby at the corner of Broadway and Lawrence. No one seemed to mind the subfreezing temperatures as dozens of people followed the band outside to dance.

The third set continued in the same fashion. By this point in the evening, the bar was jam packed and Mama Digdown’s was in their element. The blaring front line got down with several raucous originals. The three trombonists, Nat McIntosh, Darren Sterud, and Joe Goltz had spent the first two sets trading off on each tune, but all three were playing in full force for the third set. These three made an especially potent line-up. Although none of them stood out as a soloist, they complimented each other well within the ensemble. McIntosh was immediately recognizable for his fluid technical ability. Sterud’s facile range and bluesy melodic sensibility was a pleasure to listen to while Goltz’ huge, forceful sound filled out the section. Along with trumpeters Jeff Maddern and Ben Bern and Ohly’s tenor playing, the front line kept the energy high all the way until the end of the set. They finished off the night with a sing-along rendition of Let’s Get It On, milking the cheesiness for all it was worth.

Unlike a lot of the jazz one hears today, Mama Digdown’s Brass Band is not concert music. Close listening reveals how repetitive their tunes are. With an almost continuous swing march and basic harmony, this is trad jazz in one of its earliest incarnations. Even the R&B covers blended in with the originals and traditional second line tunes. However, the band brings something else which is all too rare in modern jazz: a party. Playing a lively urban club on the Saturday before Mardi Gras, they fit the bill perfectly. Mama Digdown’s is a party band in the purest sense of the term. By the end of the night, everyone from the band to the audience to the bartenders were dancing, singing, and grooving away.

Mama Digdown Mama Digdown
Mama Digdown

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