Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs recently performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. Before the show, the New Orleans trumpeter, singer and rapper and his band were warned that their audience in the nation’s capital probably wouldn’t dance.
“At pretty much every center we do,” Allen said, “people are like, ‘We know what type of band you guys are. You always want people to dance. But if no one gets up, don’t feel bad, because nobody ever gets up.’
“So, at the Kennedy Center we’re like, ‘Yeah, OK, whatever.’ And by the time we got halfway through the show, everybody was on their feet dancing. It was a different environment, very, very laid back, but we got them going, like we usually do.”
Allen and the Underdawgs, who’ll play Friday at the Little Gem Saloon Ramp Room in New Orleans and Saturday in Baton Rouge at Mud and Water, saw the same thing happen during the band’s Department of State-sponsored tours of the central Asian nations of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan in 2011 and Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan in 2012.
“Turkmenistan has rules where they actually can’t dance,” Allen said. “But I’m like, ‘Man, you know what, we’re still going to get them up and make them have a good time.’ So, everybody was on their feet dancing and having a good time.”
Another Department of State tour is in the works for 2013, to Russia, Kazakhstan and beyond. Not the typical New Orleans band when it comes to leaving home, Allen and the Underdawgs want to travel.
“For me it’s a no-brainer,” Allen said. “We’re ready to hit the road for as long as we can, anytime that we can.”
Allen’s out of town gigs include a 2011 show at the White House with Harry Connick Jr. And at a town hall meeting in New Orleans in 2008 featuring the then-newly-elected President Barack Obama, Allen played the national anthem. Of course, the atmosphere at the event was quite different from the raucous club shows he plays.
“I really never, ever, ever get nervous,” he said. “I don’t get star struck by much. But when I saw the president, I was like, ‘Oh, my God.’ But after I got past the first few notes, the nervousness was gone.”
Allen’s forthcoming album is still in production, but he’s already picked a title for it: True Orleans.
“I don’t do typical New Orleans music,” Allen said. “Well, I do it, but that’s not all I do. I try to create my own style.”
Allen’s genre-hopping approach to music leads to some misunderstandings.
“A lot people in the city, the critics, don’t really think of what I do as a New Orleans sound,” he said. “But it really is, because it’s me, and I’m so New Orleans it’s ridiculous. I’ve played with every brass band, every funk band. Everybody.
“Everything about me, it says New Orleans. The way that I talk, the way that I carry myself, the way I play my music.”
Allen’s first album, Meet Me On Frenchmen Street, is his jazz album. He followed it with 2009’s Box Who In?
“When I put out the jazz record people were like, ‘Oh, he’s the next Louis Armstrong.’ But they were thinking about Louis Armstrong in a suit and tie, playing jazz all night. When I think about Louis Armstrong, I think international pop star of his time. That’s what I’m trying to get to. So, before I let them do me that, I put out Box Who In? That was a statement saying, ‘Yeah, all right. I can do jazz but don’t limit me to that. Check this out.’ ”
Allen plans to follow his muse wherever it leads him.
“I just do whatever’s in my head and it’s me, because I did it. I try to do things different. In music, the people you remember, they didn’t just do what everybody else was doing. You think about the Beatles, Prince, Michael Jackson, James Brown, the Rolling Stones, Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin. They changed something about the music.
“I don’t feel like I changed anything yet. I’m just doing what I want to do. It’s not like you can search for the change. It’s something that happens automatically. One of those chemistry-type things.”
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