Denver’s Brothers of Brass stay loud, proud despite challenges

Brothers of Brass has an advantage over most Denver bands when rehearsing for the city’s highest-profile musical gigs: They’re always ready.

Whether busking on the 16th Street Mall or busting out songs in front of Mayor Michael Hancock at the 2022 State of the City address, the band’s mix of traditional, Southern brass music and pop hits from Beyoncé and Michael Jackson can’t help but draw curious crowds.

Along with holiday fireworks and emergency sirens, they are the loudest thing in the city.

“We keep the wardrobe and music on deck so we can just show up and do our thing,” said band leader and founder Khalil Simon, who plays tuba in the NOLA-style band. “Our songs and dress attire have evolved over the years, but we always try to keep ourselves mentally ready.”

The band, which varies from six to eight members these days, has found much of its success at unofficial locations up and down urban Denver’s corridors — including their self-defined role as a “let-out” band for Phish and Dead & Co. concerts, and events at the Denver Performing Arts Complex. They can earn thousands of dollars in tips in a couple of hours at those events, band members said.

“We used to make quite a bit more when we rolled up (to public spaces) with an eight-piece, but that’s diminished,” said Armando Lopez, 30, who plays saxophone. “We were able to do a living wage for probably six to eight people during the peak of it, but that was short-lived.”

The band, which started in Atlanta in 2014, has increasingly secured private and public bookings on indoor stages. That includes Tuesday’s daytime set at Meow Wolf Denver, to celebrate Mardi Gras, when they took time to speak to The Denver Post during a hurried load-in. The unique mix keeps them nimble: guerrilla gigs in the egress of public venues, but also middle-school auditoriums, jazz festivals and, on Saturday, March 4, a free concert at Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox. (After that they’re scheduled to play Estes Park’s Frozen Dead Guys Days fest on March 18.)

As the group prepares its new single, “Mile High,” for March 3 release — also known as 303 Day — on Denver-based Color Red music label, Brothers of Brass is moving forward with attempts to cross into the pop-music realm. But downtown Denver’s trickle of pedestrian traffic, and the band’s ongoing quest for legitimacy with the city, still threatens to keep them at arm’s length.

“We were one of the first bands to play (publicly) after the pandemic started because everyone wanted to have their private parties,” Simon, 29, said. “So the song (‘Mile High’) is an anthem inspired by the city of Denver and recorded in my basement, because we couldn’t do anything during the pandemic. We’re trying to diversify our portfolio … not everyone is a fan of brass-band music.”

The band loves and has played all over Denver — and the country, with gigs outside Madison Square Garden and other national venues — but its unapologetic pop-ups have, at times, placed them at odds with angry city officials and some downtown residents. As with most artists, the pandemic has ravaged the group’s earning potential by pausing and restricting performances and audiences. But their conflicts started before that.

Brothers of Brass in the past has clashed with police for playing in front of the Denver Performing Arts Complex, where shows from the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Opera Colorado, Colorado Ballet and Colorado Symphony empty onto the corner of 14th and Curtis streets.

There they play for crowds of more than 1,000 people, who must weave around them and their incredible volume while snapping photos for social media. (The band also live-streams on its own social accounts.) Nearby downtown residents have been known to berate them face-to-face over their volume and call in noise complaints to the Denver Police Department, in addition to turf wars with local businesses and other street musicians who are drowned out or displaced by the act, according to Westword.

That came to a head in the late 2010s when the city of Denver began looking for ways “to bring us down,” according to Simon.

“Denver Arts & Venues and (the band) were in mediation during 2017 and 2018 over permitting issues, which were impacting patron egress and sound quality in the theaters,” a Denver Center spokesperson wrote in response to questions about their confrontations. “During this time frame, the mediator asked that Brothers of Brass refrain from entering venues and interacting with staff. Unfortunately, the mediation was not honored, which led to several interactions with DCPA staff members. Ultimately, the police were called to intervene.”

Denver Center officials opted not to press charges, and the relationship has improved since then, Simon said.

“We have been legitimized by the city in other ways, like playing for city council members,” Lopez said. “And last Christmas — our busy season — we didn’t get any interference playing for the ‘Nutcracker’ and ‘Christmas Carol’ audiences. It would be cool to have the official OK so we’re not looking over our shoulders for somebody trying to shut us down.”

The band’s most lucrative gigs are still to come this year, although Simon is still the only full-time member at the moment. Lopez, a chemist with a degree from Colorado School of Mines, and the others have plenty to keep them busy outside the band’s schedule. But as Simon noted, they’re ready to don their matching dress outfits and horns at a moment’s notice.

“Our main uniform in the Brothers of Brass shirts with the horny octopus (as in horns for arms) on the front,” Simon said. “In the winter we all wear Timbalands, and in the summer, we wear black pants and Jordan Ones.”

They’re more than a brass band, and always have been. This year is the time to prove it.

“I think (the single) ‘Mile High’ has a kind of Chance the Rapper, hip hop/pop vibe,” said Simon, who was inspired to write about his experiences in Denver ranging from fireworks at Coors Field to parking tickets and disappearing into nature. “I’m from Louisiana, where there are a lot of natural disasters, so I talk about how you can forget about the earthquakes and hurricanes and stuff like that in Denver.

“Brass-band music doesn’t reach everybody, and not everybody is a fan,” he added. “But that’s not the only thing we do, and that’s not the only thing this is about. We’re all very multicultural and multitalented, and we’re ready to show people that.”

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