Few bands can say that they’ve collaborated with acts as wide-ranging as metal titans Metallica, jam-rockers Gov’t Mule and the String Cheese Incident, and rappers Rakim and the Roots’ Black Thought. Yet that’s the world of the Soul Rebels, a New Orleans brass band whose 2015 tour of Japan added sit-ins with hip-hop duo Macklemore & Ryan Lewis and dark prince Marilyn Manson.
“By instrumentation, we’re always going to be affiliated with New Orleans and jazz,” Soul Rebels snare drummer Lumar LeBlanc says. “But what we do is play the music in such a modern fashion. We’re able to get our point across where you realize, ‘Wow, I’m not missing a guitar or electric bass, and it’s just as exciting.’ ”
LeBlanc and bass-drum partner Derrick Moss both served with New Orleans’ traditional Olympia Brass Band before co-founding the Soul Rebels on the side in 1991, taking that name from Cyril Neville after opening for the Neville Brothers.
“He helped fortify that persona,” LeBlanc says from his current home in Houston. “Though we were heavily reared in the Olympia [brass] tradition, we also came [up] in the era of funk and hip-hop, so we wanted to incorporate that in our music and to not disrespect the older guys. So we wore two hats.”
That breadth’s not unusual on the live scene in New Orleans, where musicians might play seven days a week—and even multiple gigs per day. “You’re called to play so many different styles,” says the classically trained LeBlanc, who grew up as a fan of the Doors, Parliament and Miles Davis while admiring drummers from second-line marchers to Rush’s rock virtuoso Neil Peart. “We play it all because we were exposed to it all coming up.”
For a Feb. 20 show at the Sinclair, his group appears as the Soul Rebels Sound System featuring Talib Kweli. “He’s very professional, a gifted lyricist and also a very socially conscious individual, so he’s definitely aligned with [us],” LeBlanc says of the Brooklyn-based guest rapper. “When we started the Soul Rebels thing, it was all about freedom of expression and standing up for people who couldn’t stand up for themselves and the oppressed.”
The band has been practicing Kweli’s songs as well as their own originals for him to perform over. “He understands live instruments,” LeBlanc says, comparing Kweli’s style and flow to that of Black Thought. “When we get together, we’ll be more able to see how he wants it. Maybe he’ll want it slower or to play it faster live for the energy. … It’s different for different people. With Metallica, it was the whole gamut of articulation. Some loud, some low. Tempos change, and you really have to follow.”
The Soul Rebels run their own gamut with shiny, slippery acoustic textures from sousaphone player Edward Lee Jr., trumpeters Julian Gosin and Marcus Hubbard, trombonists Corey Peyton and Paul Robertson, and tenor saxophonist Erion Williams, in addition to separate drum specialists LeBlanc and Moss, who honed their chops in school marching bands. “You have 20 or 30 people trying to sound like one,” LeBlanc says, “so that’s why Derrick and I have that ear to sound like one drummer.” And all eight members deliver their own soulful and animated vocal lines, whether sung, rapped or interpreted on horns.
The Soul Rebels haven’t commercially released an album since 2012’s Rounder CD Unlock Your Mind, which included covers of the Eurythmics, Allen Toussaint and Stevie Wonder. In 2013, however, the band also released Power=Power, a free digital mixtape that sported frisky interpretations of Jay Z, Daft Punk and Kanye West hits.
“It’s such a funny business now with actually physically selling CDs—we’re blessed that we do a lot of live shows,” LeBlanc says of the Soul Rebels’ crowd-pleasing focus on concerts. “Once the energy transfers between the audience and the artist, it takes on a life of its own, so you can ride off that.”