Largemouth Brass Band speaking softly, for now

Andy Downing
Largemouth Brass Band

Since forming in Athens, Ohio, Largemouth Brass Band has generally lived up to its loud, exuberant name, crafting boisterous brass tunes steeped in soul, funk and hip-hop and designed to be heard in packed clubs and at crowded street festivals environments that largely evaporated when the coronavirus hit the scene in March 2020.

At the time, Largemouth, which features eight regular members and a rotating cast of subs, had recently come off of a pair of Mardi Gras shows and was putting the finishing touches on writing songs for a new album,Repilot, which the musicians envisioned would power a busy summer festival season. “I think we had finished tracking three of the tunes, and then we had just released the single, ‘Night Lightning,’ maybe two or three weeks before the shutdown happened,” said trumpet player Taylor Leonard in a recent phone interview. “It wasn't long after that we realized that putting [the album] on hold could be a longer-term thing.”

In the early days of the pandemic, Leonard, a school band director, read every study that surfaced on how the virus could be spread among brass and wind players. In particular, the musician pointed to a University of Colorado study commissioned bythe National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), the College Band Directors National Association (CBDNA) and a coalition of more than 125 performing arts organizations, which looked at the distribution of aerosol generated while playing wind instruments, singing, talking and even dancing, hoping to capture a better sense of the extent of viral spread associated with each activity.

“I was super involved, trying to collect as much information as I could about what is safe, and what kinds of procedures a wind player could put in place to continue making music at this time,” Leonard said, detailing steps such as placing plastic covers over instruments to create a barrier for droplets and germs. “There are some really crazy things out there because everyone wanted to know the things we could be doing in order to keep making music.”

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For Largemouth, this generally meant recording in distanced bursts, with two or three musicians tracking in the studio at a time. To help keep sharp, the musicians also joined for occasional full-band pop-up shows at different outdoor city parks, in addition to occasional distanced rehearsals at a large indoor space. Still, there were debates over whether to move ahead and releaseRepilot or to hold onto it until later in 2021 in the hopes that greater vaccine uptake could again make live shows a possibility by summer or fall. Eventually the band relented, though, dropping the new album online in mid-January.

“We all eventually came to the realization that we don’t know what the future will be,” Leonard said. “We initially thought this thing was going to last two weeks, so there’s no guarantee that if we wait until June we’re going to be in any better position. And beyond that, we love this album, we worked hard on it and we want people to hear it.”

Additionally, Largemouth has already started working on new material, including a couple of songs shaped by life amid stay-at-home orders. The unreleased track “Distance,” which might surface as a single in the near future, takes some of its musical cues from our current realities. “It literally is a more spare sounding tune, where there’s more space between the notes and between the instruments,” Leonard said.

Regardless, don’t expect the band to radically reshape its sound moving forward, with Leonard assuring that the musicians intend to hew to the same good-time vibes they have embraced from the group's earliest days.

“The design of the band is to stay true to this high-energy thing. It’s really the hallmark of what we do,” said Leonard, who then hit on one small silver lining to releasing the new album at this somewhat darker point in time. “Maybe it’s something that can take you away from those gray windows, where you can dive in and enjoy some of those bright colors we bring sonically.”