Empire Strikes Brass
with Free Radio
DOORS: 5:00 PM
STARTS: 6:00 PM
Live on the Outdoor StageGenre: Funk/Rock
Age Limit: All Ages are Welcome
Free Parking; Rain or Shine; no refunds
Listen to Empire Strikes Brass:
About Empire Strikes Brass:
Empire Strikes Brass (ESB) is a high energy Brass-Funk-Rock band hailing from the city of Asheville, North Carolina. Formed on the streets of their hometown, ESB is rooted in the New Orleans Brass Band tradition of second-line parades and deep moving grooves reminiscent of old school funk. Combining complex musical arrangements with thoughtful lyrical song structure, ESB can stretch out and dig deep when they are feeling it or keep things tight and concise. The fat sound of the horns paired with one dirty rhythm section makes the music downright psychedelically nasty! Founded in 2012, ESB intentionally stretches the boundaries of the stereotypical brass band paradigm, fusing sounds from various genres and weaving them together with the common thread of brass. The diversity of the music within their sets keep audiences guessing what is next to come.
Featuring rich group and strong lead vocals including Grammy Award winner Debrissa McKinney (Secret Agent 23 Skidoo), ESB not only takes its audiences on a ride to the dark side and back instrumentally, they also use the force of soaring melody and lush harmony to transport the listeners to another dimension. The band released its debut album, “Theme For A Celebration” in 2017 and it was tapped as one of the top 100 album releases in 2017 by WNCW 88.7 radio. Since their conception, ESB has been a consistent fixture at various festivals throughout the east coast. They’ve had the pleasure of having Warren Haynes (Allman Bros. Band and Gov’t Mule) sit in with them at New Mountain Amphitheater in Asheville, NC and the honor of headlining four years in a row celebrating the life of Dizzy Gillespie in his hometown of Cheraw, SC, for the South Carolina Jazz and Heritage Festival. ESB has co-billed with such artists as Dr. John & Lettuce. In 2019 the ESB horns were featured with Shpongle Live Band and Papadosio at Red Rocks Amphitheater. The horns have also sat in on performances with Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Galactic, Rubblebucket, The Big Something, and many others. ESB horn players JP Furnas, Paul Juhl and Alex Bradley are also featured on the live album compilation from world-renowned artists Beats Antique entitled “Creature Carnival” released in 2015. In 2019, ESB flexed their musical muscle with the release of their 2nd studio album, “Brassterpiece Theatre”. This sophomore album is a testament to the band’s creativity in composition, arrangement and production. Another highlight in the band’s career was a 2-night run at Harrah’s Cherokee Center (Asheville Civic Center) in support of Billy Strings and Umphrey’s McGee in Feb 2020. ESB horns sat in with UM for several songs in one of their signature mashups and then ESB welcomed UM keyboardist Joel Cummings and UM bassist Ryan Stasik to an afterparty on night 1 for a very special “Umphrey’s Strikes Brass” performance.
Members of the band have also been expanding their musical resumes and repertoire. Notable side projects and performances include keyboardist Lenny Pettinelli’s recording and performing with Jazz is Phsh featuring such artists as Jeff Coffin (Bela Fleck, Dave Matthews Band), Chris Bullock (Snarky Puppy), Michael Ray (Sun Ra, Kool and the Gang), the Chase Brothers and many more. The band’s founder, saxophonist Paul Juhl, performed with John Oates (Hall and Oates) at MerleFest. In addition to her work with Skidoo, Debrissa McKinney has performed with artists such as Karl Denson and George Clinton.
About Free Radio:
The Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina are steeped in old-world mystics, ancient medicines and a potent connection to nature. On the surface this might not seem synonymous with hip-hop but the roots of music run deep. This is the community that Asheville’s Free Radio has risen from.
Formed in 2012 by forever friends Austn Haynes and Johnny Reynolds, they released their debut album, “The Powers That Be” (produced by Haynes), that same year. Fueled by Austn’s beats that dig into everything from classic soul to classic rock and modern pop to space- age lounge, both Austn and Johnny are accomplished emcees, and around western North Carolina, Johnny’s syrupy flow has become a thing of legend.
Over the past decade Free Radio has taken different forms, won multiple awards for “best hip-hop group” by local newspapers and shared the stage with heavyweights like Wu-Tang Clan, Ice Cube, Slick Rick, Nappy Roots, Digable Planets and Warren Haynes, and the band even swapped coasts for a few years when Johnny and Austn moved to San Francisco. But today, back home in Asheville, Free Radio has found its most powerful configuration with the addition of Grammy Award winning singer Debrissa McKinney and Datrian Johnson, whose deep, soulful vocals (think a modern day Barry White or Isaac Hayes) have enough power and authenticity to become the voice of a generation.
The addition of Debrissa and Datrian can not be overstated, “I feel like the universe put us together” says Johnny. “We all came from different walks of life and found ourselves in this time and space.” It’s the old adage where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “When Datrian and Debrissa come together it’s just magical” continues Austn. “One thing Johnny and I are not as skilled at is being vulnerable, and to have them bring that balance and soulfulness, to bring it back to a heartfelt level, I’ve been manifesting that for years.”
It’s odd that Debrissa, who currently also plays sax and sings with Empire Strikes Brass and has recorded and played live with stalwarts like George Clinton, Gov’t Mule and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe, as well as the children’s hip-hop band Secret Agent 23 Skidoo, for which she earned a Grammy, had the time to join Free Radio. She’s collaborated with them in the past and has been a huge fan for years, but it was only because Covid disrupted the world that she had the bandwidth to put her energy into Free Radio.
Datrian is the type of natural talent that stops you in your tracks. He was singing in church as soon as he could stand and by the time he was 12 found himself featured on BET’s “Bobby Jones Gospel.” He tasted the limelight singing at larger events like “400 Uhuru Rising – A Musical Journey To Freedom” and a premier for Aretha Franklin’s “Amazing Grace” film, but the dynamic of being in this band with these people is allowing Datrian to push himself in ways he never has. And that drive and that energy is opening windows for Free Radio’s music that simply didn’t exist before this lineup coalesced.
Together, as a quartet, they are creating cosmic Appalachian hip-hop that owes as much to Dead Prez and Tobe Nwigwe as it does the Mamas & the Papas. They are collaborating with other like minded Asheville artists including Saint Disruption which features John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) and Jeff Firewalker, and with the help of mixer and producer Philo Reitzel, their first album as a unit strives to unite the heart with the head. They recognize these are dark days for many. Covid, lockdowns, financial stress and mental unrest, but it’s also a time of transformation and inspiration. We all face the dark, but some of us find the light. Do we tune out, dumb down and give in? Or do we rise up? Free Radio is shining that light in the darkest of days. Free Radio is holding out that hand to help us all rise up.