Before he was "a white kid in an all-black brass band from New Orleans" as the guitarist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Jamie McLean was singing and playing guitar in a band called One Flight Up. So, when he decided it was time to leave the Dirty Dozen to strike out on his own again, it wasn't a difficult transition to make back to the front of the stage.
"In the beginning, I was singing by default because no one had the balls to sing," McLean says of his early days. "I've always been comfortable with being the front man, but stepping away from that to focus on guitar was kind of nice. It took a weight off my shoulders. Playing guitar is what I do and I love it to death, but there's something about singing that connects me to the music."
The Jamie McLean band took shape while he was still performing with the Dirty Dozen. He would often fly out to do solo tours, but when calls started coming in to open for acts like the North Mississippi Allstars, Taj Mahal and Galactic, McLean knew he had to make a tough decision to leave the group.
McLean's own music doesn't have any of that New Orleans funk up front, but it would be hard to believe that some of that vibe didn't soak in somewhere after performing with the group for roughly six years. McLean plays more straight-up rock in the vein of The Black Crowes.
"[The Dirty Dozen] definitely influenced my singing," McLean says by phone from his home in New York. "I remember Dave Schools from Widespread Panic pulling me aside after a Dirty Dozen show at Madison Square Garden and saying, 'Man, you've got some soul in you!' I think that carried over in my vocal delivery now. I wouldn't say it's a New Orleans influence, but more of a rock 'n' roll influence."
He started with the Dirty Dozen after being asked out to play for a couple of shows in Colorado before being asked a simple question: "The next show is with the Meters. It's the start of a five-week tour. Do you need to get a toothbrush or anything?" McLean says that was it -- he was a member of the band.
McLean refers to that time as his "post-graduate" period of musical study, saying he moved to New Orleans shortly after and got a firsthand look at the area's music. "Rubbing elbows with Dr. John ... it was pretty neat," he says. "I recorded with Norah Jones before she was Norah Jones and got to play Madison Square Garden. [The Dirty Dozen Brass Band] taught me how to be a professional touring musician -- how to live out of a suitcase for two months, loading in, advancing shows. A lot of it was more music-oriented than business, but I saw all sides of it."
McLean says the band was supportive when he decided to leave and go solo, and made an appearance on his latest album. He says they will also share the stage if they're on the same bill for a festival.
Since leaving the Dirty Dozen, he's released two albums -- 2005's This Time Around and last fall's American Heartache -- and there's already a third one on the way. "It's a little crazy because American Heartache was released in September," he says. "We just had all this music and we feel really good about it. We tracked 17 songs in three days. It was completely nuts, but the timing was good for us with no tour dates."
While McLean's brother, Carter, plays drums on the albums, that duty on tour is done by Brian Griffin. He met the band -- Derek Layes on bass and John Solo on keyboards -- through Carter, but the reason he's not on tour is simple -- McLean says he wanted "to remain brothers and not kill each other on the highway." Griffin also helps out with background vocals.
He hopes the new album will be released in the summer or fall of this year. The band is also playing some of the songs live already. If he wasn't busy enough with recording and touring, McLean's also been flying to Europe in the early part of this year to play some gigs with some friends from New Orleans. "The money was right and it's hard to turn down a free trip to Europe," he says.
These days, most of his touring is taking place on the East Coast from Vermont to New Orleans, though McLean notes they've got a growing fan base in Colorado. "We'll probably branch out this fall into the winter, but with gas prices as high as they were it didn't make much sense until now," he says.
While he has had increasing success on his own, McLean doesn't mind the label of "former guitarist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band" being tagged to him. "If things don't work out, I could always go back, but I know what I want to be doing and I'm focused on my own project right now," he says. "The saying is 'once you're a Dozen, you're always a Dozen.' It definitely helped me get gigs in the beginning, but now I'd like to stand on my own two feet."
Jamie McLean will perform at the Double Door Inn on March 7 with Matter of Fact. Doors open at 8:30 p.m. Tickets are $12.