People who live in garden variety cities only have to plan music for their wedding ceremony and reception. In New Orleans, however, there’s a third category of musical fun: the brass band “second line” parade that usually fits right between the two.
Second lines, which originated in West Africa and flourished in New Orleans, are now commonplace at many of the city’s celebrations. The key ingredients are brass instruments, drummers and jubilant dancers. The term “second line” itself refers to the group of people who spontaneously follow along behind a more organized parade.
So, sure, a string quartet performing Wagner’s “Bridal Chorus” during your wedding ceremony is de rigueur. Watching someone’s inebriated great aunt dance to “Uptown Funk” at the reception can be … interesting. But nothing beats the jolt of energy a brass band can bring to the moment when a new couple is introduced to the world.
“When we come on it’s basically the highlight of the evening,” said Percy Anderson of the Kinfolk Brass Band, a group that’s been named the city’s best brass band for weddings by The Knot, the bridal registry and wedding website. “We basically welcome the bride and the groom as a married couple and we start playing ‘Yes, Sir, That’s My Baby,’ ‘Little Liza Jane,’ ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody’ or something like that. We provide uplifting music, party music. And the energy we give them creates a long-lasting memory.”
Kinfolk is one of the most in-demand brass bands in town for wedding gigs. Other outfits include the Treme Brass Band, the Young PinStripe Brass Band and the Knockaz Brass Band. If you google the topic, you’ll find plenty more. As a matter of fact, big-time touring acts like Rebirth Brass and the Hot 8 will also do weddings and special events, but they’ll likely be more expensive — and don’t expect them to wear the traditional black pants and white button-down shirts.
Kinfolk, which has been around for 10 years, has perfected the art of weddings — and the group sometimes performs at more than a dozen of them on a single weekend, even during the pandemic. Since gigs usually last less than a half hour — and setup is minimal to nonexistent — Anderson and his bandmates are able to get in quickly and do the job.
But what is that job, exactly? To hear Anderson tell it, his responsibility is to get wedding attendees to loosen up and prepare to party.
“It’s like the brass band has given you the green light that you don’t have to hold back,” he said. “It just opens up everybody to be excited. They just start dancing and doing whatever they feel like doing. We bring a good time, good energy and good fun.”
Typically, the band’s cue to start playing is when the wedding celebrant announces the newly married couple and the attendees begin to clap, whistle and cheer. Then he and his fellow musicians will lead the wedding party from the church to the reception. If the wedding ceremony is at the St. Louis Cathedral, for instance, the group may dance its way through the French Quarter to one of the city’s downtown hotels. Depending on the scale of the occasion, there may or not be paperwork in place to turn the whole thing into a proper parade.
If a walk from the ceremony to reception doesn’t fit into plans, the band will often perform at the end of the night when the new couple is leaving the party — but a parade from the church to the reception is definitely high on a lot of couples’ wish lists.
“A wedding second line is pretty much the premier package for someone having their ceremony in New Orleans,” said Anderson, who plays trumpet in the group. (His co-founder and brother Richard is a trombonist.) “All of the brides and grooms are seeking it. They want a brass band to take their family and wedding party for a walk in the street. If they get a permit, the permit people will make a little route where it will maybe last maybe 15 to 20 minutes. And we will get them from their A destination to their B destination. And that show in the streets of New Orleans is something exciting so when they get to the reception, they’re just so live.”
Anderson said guests will talk about the experience for years afterward — and he witnessed an example of how powerful the moment can be a while back during an expected bit of bad weather.
“The forecast didn’t call for rain, but you know New Orleans is unpredictable,” he said. “When we started, it was totally dry. And we might have gotten a few blocks, not even 10 minutes into it, and then just a whole bunch of rain started coming down on everybody. But the funny thing, man, is nobody flinched. They were having such a good time. We were all wet and we still did the parade nonstop, got to the venue and everybody was still excited.”