With bass smacking, conga thumping, reggae grooving, New Orleans-inspired funk, the music of Soul Brat can best be described as party-fuel.
Seeing the group rekindle after nearly a year was like being privy to one big, inside joke—one that you actually get.
“That’s how it was back then,” said founding member Harby Howell of the early days when he formed Soul Brat nearly 20 years ago.
Reuniting with fellow founders Todd Eagle on bass and drummer Clay Green, Howell flew in from Texas for the occasion. Guitar in hand, Howell—who was all smiles—radiated joy onstage, no doubt reveling in the moment of gigging with the boys again.
With humor and a bit of ‘tude, the charismatic Eagle took the stage to introduce the band at the Billings Outpost’s 10th annual Tuney Awards on Sept. 12 at Yellowstone Valley Brewing Company. Eagle announced, despite rumors, the band was anything but dissolved.
“God you look wonderful!” he said to the crowd—at its peak nearly 300 but dwindled to a core fan base by the time all the awards were passed out and Soul Brat took the stage. “You’re all wonderful people! If only I had half the beers he had…”
Eagle, who possessed the energy of a teenager with a biting sense of humor to match, introduced members with wit and charm, calling guitarist Ron Schuster the Arch Duke of Cannabis Jokes and mentioning by the time saxophonist Ernan Cortez joined up with the group “it all went to hell.”
They launched into a conga-style jam that evolved into a groovy cover of Chris De Burgh’s “Lady in Red.”
“This is a song about love,” Howell mentioning he’d only been divorced once, so he knows a thing or two about love.
Eagle then turned the stage over to Schuster, describing him as “one of the sweetest, dearest, most talented people I’ve ever met.”
Schuster, his eyes closed, in a white tee and peppered hair, seemed to reach deep within to summon his inner folk star and rolled out his raspy Dylan-esque voice.
“If I’m the brat,” Eagle said, “he’s the soul.”
Not to be overlooked, the hardest working musicians of the night Clay Green—who performed in six of the seven acts of the evening—gracefully and occasionally tossed his drumstick in the air, catching it without a blink. A machine of talent Green may have been set at the back of the band, but there wasn’t a doubt he was at its core.
Adjacent to Green was the conga rocking cymbal crashing percussionist Brad Edwards, who at one point drummed out a melody on Eagle’s bass. Multi-instrumentalist Ernan Cortez was a man of few words but one of great passion on the sax.
The band closed with a medley of classic songs including Bruce Cockburn’s “See How I Miss You” that morphed into a doo wa ditty extended jam that included Chip Taylor’s “Wild Thing.”
“Dissolved my ass!” Eagle announced, and with that, those wild things made everything groovy.
Prior to Soul Brat a wealth of talents shared the stage, starting with Brown and Green’s Soul Machine, a creation of Green’s and Parker Brown (on guitar). When he took the stage, Brown said it is one of their first times playing together.
“There is so much talent in Billings, but you all don’t need me to tell you that. You hear it all the time,” Brown said to the crowd and rolled into “Another Man’s Blues,” a song the group wrote inspired by a Ryan Kabeary tune.
Sprinkled with jazz, rock, an a myriad of blues influences, the group also contains Phil Griffin on upright bass and Thomas Burke, a saxophone instructor at Rocky Mountain College, on sax. At 17, Griffin just started his senior year in high school. The youngest performer of the night, the barefoot Griffin, his black curly locks framing his boyish face, seemed right at home onstage.
Adding Kabeary to the mix, the group became Known By Name. The dynamic drastically shifted with Kabeary, the group’s grooves became more approachable and rollicking. Kabeary’s amiable voice gives a distinct sense of comfort and familiarity, as though you were listening to a well-known song.
“This is the best place to play music,” said Kabeary of Yellowstone Valley Brewing Co., “and without this we probably wouldn’t have much of a scene.”
Between the opening group and Known By Name, the Jaded Ladies took the stage. The group attained this year’s Tuney for best Folk/Americana act. Frontwoman Jessica Lechner was genuinely surprised and humbled by the award.
Lechner and bassist Becky Sappington were backed by Green and Brown (the group also includes violinist Trevor Kriegor, a member of Known By Name as well. Kriegor was working that night as a firefighter/paramedic).
The Jaded Ladies performed a set packed with original music, Lechner’s unique take on the world exposed through her lyrics. With a full backing band (Lechner and Sappington often perform as an acoustic duet) the group is impactful. Plenty of smiles were shared onstage, showing off how much the musicians enjoy playing together. They closed with a song by Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, one of Lechner’s favorites.
Following Known by Name, The Ron Schuster Exploration Orchestra took the stage. The group opened with the bluesy “I’m Crazy ‘Bout My Baby.”
Schuster, a pillar of the Billings music community, appeared onstage as a quiet, subtle man. When asked about his involvement in so many talented groups, Schuster said, “I’m just along for the ride.” He mentioned how he watched Parker grow up and referenced a photo he has of Parker playing drums when he was just 5-years old.
The group’s last jam included Howell guesting on saxophone. The improvisational jazz group the Tiny Trio followed.
With thumbing bass grooves, Tiny Trio dove off the deep end of jazz. The group featured Brown on upright bass and Alex Naumam on guitar. Green followed right along setting the beat, and Burke jumped in on sax as their final song evolved into an epic last jam.
Billings-based indie rock group Flowers From Her rounded out the lineup. With a graceful flair, the group brought a distinct flavor to the venue; their music honed with new bassist Graham Wolfe. With Shan Denning on Drums and Daniel Gillispie on guitar, Addam John Ostlund fronts the group.
To honor the musicians that volunteer their time to perform at the Tuneys each year, and in memory of a dedicated and influential musician, teacher and mentor in the community, the proceeds from the Billings Outpost Tuney Awards will establish the Pat Hansen
Young Musician Scholarship Fund, created to help fund music lessons for budding artists in collaboration with local talents.
The fund is held in trust by Perfect Pitch, a nonprofit organization that is to serves as an incubator for the live music culture in Billings and also support and fund educational opportunities. In alignment with the Perfect Pitch mission and to honor the memory of Mr. Hansen, the fund will bring together vetted musicians who have a desire to teach and unite them with youth needing financial assistance to obtain musical instruction.
This year’s event raised nearly $1,500 to begin the fund. Scholarship applications and applications to teach will be available soon. Watch the Billings Outpost for details or email email@example.com.