Editor’s note:  

There’s a deep connection between the Grateful Dead and New Orleans music. Part of it is personal—the Dead played quite a number of shows with the Neville Brothers and played at least two of their songs, “Aiko Aiko” and “Hey Pocky Way”—but ultimately it’s that both kinds of music are about celebration. No wonder the band and Deadheads glommed onto the Mardi Gras parades with such enthusiasm. So Skull and Roses 2022 will bring you one of New Orleans’s finest young bands, the Soul Rebels. It’s an eight-piece band, and we talked specifically with Lumar LeBlanc (snare) and Erion Williams (saxophone). 

Erion: I began music in church more than anything, but a lot of us in the Soul Rebels started in a marching band and marching bands are very prevalent in New Orleans. It’s a whole culture and it’s a whole society, you know, and we love it down here. Down here we started in the high school, even the middle school marching band. And then it evolved to like going to college you know, and also we started to learn on the street like most New Orleans musicians do, you learn everything on the streets, second line parades and everything, but I think our more formal training was in high school. High school marching band, and for a lot of the guys in the group college marching band. I did marching band in high school and I majored in music in college. Those things, and hanging around different bands growing up, listening to different bands. I was a fan of Soul Rebels before I even got in the band, so I was listening to Soul Rebels,. listening to Rebirth, listening to the Dirty Dozen, Hot Eight, the Stooges. That’s where I lot of my formal training came up. 

I went to St. Augustine High School [editor’s note: home of the Marching 100, possibly the best high school marching band around]. I wanted to go there ever since I was in 7th grade, after seeing that band march down Canal Street during Mardi Gras and marching at football games and doing different parades, the Rose Bowl parade, Macy’s Parade on Thanksgiving, I had to do it. And being a drum major of that band was one of the highlights of life. 

[One of the Dead’s other musical connections to New Orleans is Branford Marsalis, whose father Ellis Marsalis founded NOCCA, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.]. 

Lumar: Oh yeah, yeah, several of the members went to NOCCA and NOCCA is always in the repertoire as far as schools we support and institutions that we do things for. Derrick, the bass drummer and percussionist for Soul Rebels, an original member, his sister actually taught at NOCCA and went there. Julian (Gosin, trumpet) went to NOCCA. That’s the ones that went to NOCCA. We have a long standing history with NOCCA. 

Erion: I started with the band in 2005.

Lumar: We started in 1991. I’ve been blessed to be an originator and one of the creators of the group. Myself and Derrick Moss helped start Soul Rebels as an offshoot of Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band. Being a musical historian, I’m sure you know of them. Mr. Harold Dejan and Mr. Milton Batiste and Noel Glass and Boogie Breaux and Tuba Fats, Anthony Lacien, those guys, and Doc Watson. They took us under their wing. Because Milton wanted to pass on which he was successful at doing, and Mr. Harold, they wanted to pass on the tradition of brass band music to a younger generation. And Mervin who was one of the original members of Soul Rebels, he’s kin to me so we had a direct linkage to the band. 

But Cyril Neville and the Neville Brothers had kin to another original member, Emmanuel Steib. He’s kin to Cyril. So they had started a group called Deaf Generation which I’m sure you’ve heard, which was the younger offspring of some of the Neville Brother originals. And some of those guys, Emanuel and Derrick and Merv were in Deaf Generation along with Curtis Watson. They were in a brass band with me, the Young Olympia. So through that, Cyril got involved with us and Cyril started to give us gigs with the Neville Brothers. So he said y’all going to have to get a name, you know, to call y’allselves because we were—we were becoming more aggressive. I don’t want to use the term aggressive, but we were becoming more assertive in our originality and in our repertoire as a brass band. 

Erion Williams

From the start, as Erion said, we all played in high school, elementary, and college marching and symphony bands. That’s my direct initiation into music. It was in the symphony—concert band we called it in elementary school. So all of us had that same training, so we all knew each other in some way or another because New Orleans really is a small community, especially when it comes to music. So when Cyril got involved, he started giving us gigs where we could display kind of our alter ego, where we were doing more stage-oriented music, more hiphop, funk, Meters-Neville Brothers type music. So when he asked us what we wanted to be named, we really didn’t have another name. We were still Young Olympia Brass Band, but we were doing the gigs really without an official name, and we came up with a name which was totally left field that didn’t work, and Cyril said why don’t y’all be the Soul Rebels. When he said it, the name was just so awesome we adopted the name. 

And we went to the different homes of the Nevilles and we played for so many people that were affiliated with Bill Graham. We met him early on, you know, fortunately before his untimely death. And we played the festival by the bay every year for several years [a Bill Graham production at Shoreline Amphitheatre]. And so those things you name, the Grateful Dead and some of those concerts, we knew early on. So that’s how our musical journey started, the band was an offshoot of Dejan’s Young Olympia.  Had it not been for Dejan’s Olympia Brass Band and Cyril Neville, there would be no Soul Rebels. 

Dennis:  You mentioned on the website that you like The Doors. 

Lumar: Oh, I love The Doors. That’s one of my favorite groups of all time. When I first—my mom was an eclectic person as far as style, fashion and everything. And she kind of introduced me to The Doors through a local radio station in New Orleans at the time—it might even still be around. I know Erion might know more about me than that. It was called WTIX and they played a lot of vintage rock. 

Lumar LeBlanc

Erion: More talk radio now. I think I think it might be more talk radio now but they are still around. 

Lumar: Okay. They would play a lot of vintage rock music in the early 70’s when I was a very young child and my mom would listen to the station. So the first time I heard “Light My Fire” it just stuck with me. My mother and father, bless their souls, they always fortified whatever I wanted to do, so she would buy the records. And my mom was an avid reader, so I had stacks of books and magazines, and in one of them I saw The Doors Jim Morrison, got into the poetry, so it kind of stuck with me and oh yeah that’s—I know so much of the music, the culture that’s been put out there by the literature of the group so yeah,that’s one of my favorite groups. 

Erion: Like I said, growing up I was more in the era of hiphop and especially New Orleans hiphop, but with my family especially with my dad, my influences like being at Saint Augustine I got more into jazz. I got more into funk and everything like that. Rock music, I would be more into it now just as a professional musician. I mean I’ve been exposed to it, I would hear it all the time, but you know — we opened for Metallica back a couple of years ago. We did a couple shows with them, their 25th anniversary, we did shows with them in San Francisco where we opened for them. We met them in London. We were doing the Jools Holland Show there, a variety show, and Metallica was on as well. Once we finished, we were waiting for a cab to go back to our hotel and Lars from Metallica he was waiting for a cab as well to go back to his hotel and he saw us and was like, man, you all great, man. Man, look we love to work with you all? Sure sure sure. And exactly how y’all is laughing we laughed like that like yeah, sure, cool, like we know you all Metallica you all great man like thank you like everything is cool. Sure enough, a couple weeks later our manager called and said that Metallica’s manager called, and they want you all to open for the 25th anniversary…like, are you serious? Like a brass band from New Orleans opening for one of the most famous rock bands in the world?

And we had the learn their music and everything like that. And I think that’s when my appreciation for rock music came in like learning the music was—yeah this is the real deal, that was definitely an experience. Really, I think all the guys in the band are into every genre, we all pull inspiration from everything that helps us to write, helps us to create. Which we put into our new album, Poetry in Motion—check it out!

Lumar: Soul Rebels has two trumpets, Marcus Hubbard, Julian Gosin. Two trombones, Paul Robertson and Cory Peyton. One tenor saxophone, Erion Williams, that’s who you been talking with. And then we have the rhythm section of—on bass, on sousaphone, is Manuel Perkins, myself, Lumar LeBlanc, on snare drum and cymbal, and Derrick Moss on cymbal, bass drum, and percussion. 

Erion: We’re definitely bass heavy, hip-hop and funk style with a deep bass drum, deep sousaphone. We like the stage to rumble a little bit. The band is based on a traditional New Orleans band sound, but like Lumar said, the Young Olympia band, I don’t know if I want to say break away from it, but they just wanted to expound upon it and they wanted to branch out to the music of the time, right now. We can play any New Orleans traditional song, but at this stage we’re more funk based R&B, hiphop, reggae, ska, we do different things like that. And incorporate contemporary second line music into the center as well, where it’s deep bass, deep driven, and a lot of horns. We come up with different concepts and just like try to be in your face.  And we’ve taken it everywhere. 

Lumar: Oh my goodness, we’ve been all over the globe. I mean Africa, Cuba, Japan, China. 

Erion: Outside of Antarctica— seven continents, we traveled six of them. 

Lumar: We never—even though you play with an anticipatory spirit, we never envisioned, I know personally I never envisioned this mega traveling reach that our music brings. And I mean obviously Olympia initiated that kind of foresight for brass band because you got to realize Olympia went everywhere. I mean they’ve been to Russia. They did everything. And so the ground work had already been laid as far as a brass band goes for that. But we were able to do so much in a more  I don’t know what you want to call it, in a more pop commercial sense that has afforded us the ability to grace the stage with so many people. You know, the Metallicas—I mean I can’t remember all of the people. It’s just a humbling experience to think that eight guys playing acoustic original style instruments were able to do this and we just continue to want to be able to bring this to the world. New Orleans is our home. New Orleans will always be in us, in the instrumentation, in the way we present ourselves, but just to be able to go to those different places…I mean it’s been an amazing journey. 

And the pandemic just laid a whole ‘nother layer on it…I always try to speak candidly and truthfully. It’s been a mixed bag. When the pandemic first hit—we tour and play so much, man. We really do.  I’m a married man with kids. It gets hard. I mean I miss my family so much. I love them so much and so when the pandemic hit I was personally able the spend more time with my family and I loved that part of it. Unfortunately it had to come at the you know expense of the corona virus which took so many lives and has affected so many people in a negative way, but that side of it for me gave me much more time to focus on my family, my inner self—because I give 110 percent of myself to Soul Rebels. And you know sometimes your family has to bow down to that. 

Yeah my wife lit up so much me being home more. My sons, one of my sons stayed in New Orleans so I see him when I go to New Orleans more. But my son here (Houston)—it was such a pleasure for him to see me every day. So that part was good for me but unfortunately I had to have time away from the brothers in the band which was hard. Because you know we are family whether we want to face it or not. We’re together so much. And that part of the family had to kind of chill for a while due to the Covid. And that was hard. That was difficult, not being able to actually play. I mean like Erion—Erion probably touches his horn so much.  It’s nothing like performing, but I can’t be beating a drum in my neighborhood every day. You know so some days I couldn’t beat on the drum, I’d just have to beat on the practice pad or a pillow or something. But not being able to play the drum as often and play—definitely the energy from playing with the band this much, that was hard. Covid is a big bat, man, with a heavy swing, you know. So the emotional and physiological features are always on our mind even when we’re trying to do music. So it’s had a big affect. It’s had a very big affect on us. 

Erion: I agree with Lumar a hundred percent, like it’s had an intense affect on this band. I agree with the family thing, you know, like it was more of a reconnection of sorts on my end, because we were gone so much and I hadn’t… I would see my family, but sparingly, because I was always on the road, so I think people were so happy that I was back around. But it was very, very weird. Like Frenchmen Street in New Orleans. (it’s a street just lined with music clubs for several blocks). To see a street where we basically cut our teeth as a band and it is completely empty, boarded up, like it looks like a hurricane is coming. Dark. Bourbon street completely dark, nobody walking around, it was like you felt like you were in a time warp— it was absolutely nothing. We play every Thursday and suddenly I don’t have a gig tonight. I can’t go to the Blue Nile or Tipitina’s. I’m literally sitting in my house every night doing absolutely nothing. I think that was the hardest thing. We’re creators, so we got to be doing something and to get that  to get that break or get that that just stoppage of everything. I think that was the weirdest part for me. 

And I found out a lot about myself when I  when corona started I found out a lot about myself. I knew I liked playing music, but I also found my love of family. My love for this city and my love for these brothers. It’s been crazy and now for it to kind of be back to normal but still not really… Like Lumar said, we’re super conscious of everything that’s going on with Omicron and everything and we’re just trying to be as careful as we can and still be out here and entertain everybody because they need it.