Erik Brown, chameleon in brass5/8/2013
My first experiences playing in public were in nursing homes,” Erik Brown recalls while sitting in House of Bricks. “As a 12-year-old, I was petrified because it was just me, on my own, playing ‘Georgia on my Mind’ for a bunch of 90-year-olds.
“(But) It was such a healing thing. All these old people wanted to shake my hand and hug me, and they wept, and it was such an emotional attachment. I was like, ‘Of course. This is what I want to do. I want to heal people with music.’ ”
To hear Brown play his trumpet is to hear what beat poetry sounds like without the words. Brown understands that behind any good musician is a story worth telling. And that’s what Brown sets out to do: Tell a story. Every note that jumps out from that crooked Dizzy bell — pointed toward the sky like a clarion straight to God — is another page in the story of Brown’s life. It’s a story he shares, over and over, with people in Des Moines who love blues. Or Americana. Or Folk. Or whatever genre his band, The Maw, gets thrown in with. Because Brown’s greatest strength as a performer is his mutability. Brown’s story isn’t carved into stone or etched into steel; it’s something that he can mold and conform to his needs like a great artist molds clay or spreads paint. Give Brown an audience, and he’s going to reach them.
Brown has played in town with highly respected acts like Stutterin’ Jimmy and the Goosebumps and Johnny Reeferseed and The Highrollers. But he can most commonly be found performing as a part of The Maw or along with folk/Americana act, Thankful Dirt. The two sounds are some of the most dissimilar in the city, but Brown brings his story to each one.
“I’ve had to cut my teeth on the folk Americana,” Brown admitted. “Blues is my wheelhouse. I can go sit with any blues player in the world. Once you’ve learned the ins and outs of blues, then you learn your own voice, and then you get confident speaking in your own voice. That’s one of the hardest things to develop: Do you have a story, and is it worth listening to?”
That’s what Brown looks for when he performs with someone. If a musician’s life is worth talking about, that’s more important than where they’ve trained or what they can play.
“There was something very kindred with (Stuttern’ Jimmy). When he approached me, it was like we’d known each other for 50 years. I was like, ‘I don’t care that you have no musical training, you’ve got a story to tell. So yeah, I’ll help you tell it. We’ll tell our stories together.’ ”
Brown never looks to overpower an artist’s vision. He’s not there to take over a band’s sound or to distract from the song, because to distract from the song is to distract from the story.
“Sometimes I’ll think, ‘Oh, man, I can put this lick right here, and it’ll be sick! And people will hear it and go nuts!’ But how does that help the song? That’s just me showing off. I’ve heard musicians overdo it. I get that you know all your scales and arpeggios, and I’m really glad that you’ve had plenty of time to practice them, but you’re not auditioning here. It goes back to me playing in those nursing homes. I didn’t have a lot of cool notes to play in ‘Georgia on my Mind.’ I played it real simple with big, whole notes, but I meant what I was playing. And I saw what that did.” CV
Chad Taylor is an award-winning news journalist and music writer from Des Moines.