A most unusual concept album, Funeral for a Friend visits the stations of a traditional New Orleans funeral proceeding, with gospel music serving as its thematic foil. From a parade succession to the arrival at the cemetery and the celebratory trip to the riverside, with changes in mood and tempo woven into the track selection and arrangements, the album is amazingly realized.
Eerily forecasting the departure of founding member Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, who passed away earlier this year shortly after the album’s completion, it’s startlingly fitting that this musical epitaph from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band should prove arguably as strong an album as any in their impressive catalog. As they’ve been somewhat overshadowed in recent years by the exceptional roll call of artists who’ve lined up to have them contribute a few brassy accents to their albums, the vigor and enthusiasm with which the Dirty Dozen attack this set of traditional gospel tunes is nothing short of astonishing. From the pensively reverent “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” to the vaguely funky “Down By the Riverside,” this is a band that has fully digested Dixieland to the extent that it’s refracted into a stunning array of sonic motifs.
Add a gospel choir on tracks like the swirling “Jesus on the Mainline” and the rollicking “I’ll Fly Away,” and you have a statement that’s nothing short of stunning for its breadth of emotion and resilience. The arrangements swing and rattle with visceral immediacy, the sound bold and organic, bristling with the energy and urgency of a live performance. As the band seemed to settle into a comfortable—if admittedly prolific—rut since it burst onto the scene over 25 years ago, the imagination and inspiration with which the Dirty Dozen approach such played-out standards like “I Shall Not Be Moved” and “Amazing Grace,” twisting and reconstructing them into something that transcends the conventional gospel and jazz templates upon which they’re built, proves their standing as true giants in their genre.
Funeral for a Friend is an album that’s timeless sentiment and inspired performances are not only a study in New Orleans culture but a deeply resonant statement on how we pass from life to death.