The best way to learn innovation and workmanship is from the pros. Just ask trumpeter Riley Helgeson, whose experience as a student and teacher at Shell Lake Arts Center put him in contact with guitar genius and University of Minnesota-Duluth Professor Billy Barnard, known for his diminutive, Yosemite Sam-like presence and superior ability to shred on guitar.
“When I was on faculty at Shell Lake, I got to party with Billy Barnard,” Helgeson said. “[It’s] tame; he tells a lot of stories with a lot of swear words. For some reason, he has a Southern accent; he kind of talks like Elvis.”
The spirit of industry journeymen like Barnard characterize the scrappy, can-do attitude of McNasty Brass Band, a cadre of funkified horn players 50 years Barnard’s junior.
The band formed in 2011 under the tutelage of local trombonist and McNally Smith professor Scott Agster as a strict, traditional New Orleans brass band.
Since the musicians graduated, the band incorporated modern funk and gospel sounds to make the classic brass band music their own.
“We went to New Orleans, had a great time,” trumpeter Hayden Fihn said. “Then, we left McNally and added these guys and some other sweet horn players. [We] went through four tuba players, and now we’re here.”
Friday’s show at Icehouse is sponsored by Bauhaus Brew Labs and situated in an upscale, sexy environment. This is the second show McNasty Brass Band has ever headlined, but they’re up for the challenge so long as some yokel doesn’t hijack the microphone.
“There’s some people in the band we don’t want to talk on the mic,” Fihn said with a laugh.
Such concerns stem from the ragtag sideman nature of the ensemble. None of the horn players have experience fronting a band, so finding an eloquent, effective frontman
has proven difficult.
“As a horn player, you’re typically cast as a sideman; you’re usually for hire,” Helgeson said. “Once your front line is seven horns, a sousaphone, a bass drum and a snare drums, [it’s] like, ‘Oh my god, who has experience in this band as a frontman or being the person that talks?’ ”
“We’ve got seven band geeks on the front line trying to figure it out,” trombonist Sten Johnson added.
The witty banter and humor that characterize the band seems at odds with their laser-pointed professionalism. McNasty Brass Band rehearsals are exercises in focus, and thanks to Johnson’s relentless yet paternal command, they stay on track — more or less — for the two-hour periods.
“As resident band dad, I can attest that this is the only way,” Johnson said of how he keeps the rest of the ensemble on track during practice. “I have to repeat myself three times and trust that everybody is going to do what they need to get done. The kids are growing up; you have to give them a little freedom.”
The kids are growing up indeed, enough so that McNasty Brass band has helped redefine the conception of the genre in the Twin Cities.
While groups like Jack Brass Band take the traditional road and Black Market Brass bring Afro-beat influences to the table, no one else is adapting the classic New Orleans grooves for modern times.
“I think we’re changing the way brass bands are perceived in general,” Fihn said. “We’re the only band in the Cities doing the thing we’re doing; I’ve been saying ‘brass band’ a lot in the past five years, and a lot of people, the first thing they say is McNasty. They don’t even know I’m in the band, and that’s what gets brought up, just because it’s [a] more millennial vibe.”