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Pittsburgh Artist of the Week: Steeltown Horns

Ron Elkman

Steeltown Horns formed almost a decade ago in Pittsburgh when trombonist Reggie Watkins moved back home from Austin. Soon after that, the band joined Dumpstaphunk – a New Orleans funk band led by Ivan Neville – and toured the world. Back home again, they just released "5 Years of Funk" – a record full of fun guests including Ian Neville, who plays guitar on “Cutting Room.”

Trombonist Reggie Watkins recently spoke with WYEP’s Joey Spehar about melding bands together and getting straight to the point, musically.

Steeltown Horns are:
Reggie Watkins – trombone
JD Chaisson – trumpet
Rick Matt – saxophone

This conversation may be lightly edited for content, clarity, or length.

What’s your musical history up to this point?

We formed the Steeltown Horns in 2014 when I moved back to Pittsburgh from Austin, Texas after a six year stint with Jason Mraz. We began playing with local bands including The Routines – a side project with members of The Boogie Hustlers that played b-side songs from Stax Records, Muscle Shoals and New Orleans funk records.

Shortly after forming we joined the band Dumpstaphunk, touring internationally and playing the Jam Cruise, Aruba Jazz Festival, The Peach Festival, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and recording with them for over three years. Moving forward, we decided to form our own band to perform live and we’ve played shows at The Rex Theater, The Roxian, Hartwood Acres, Thunderbird Music Hall, Monroeville Jazz Festival, Picklesburgh Festival and The Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival. We also wanted to work out our new original compositions. 5 Years of Funk is the result of this time period and is dedicated to the fans we encountered along the way.

How do you describe your sound? 

Our sound is instrumental funk influenced by jazz, rock, hip-hop, reggae and other genres. The songs are straight to the point, always groovy, and eclectic at times. We are a horn band loosely in the tradition of Tower of Power, but with our own approach.

Tell us more about the song “Cutting Room.” What inspired you to write it and what does it mean to you?  

We didn’t write “Cutting Room.” The song is by a relatively unknown Florida funk band called The Oceanliners, who later became the band in K.C. and the Sunshine Band, and was brought in by drummer Chris Parker when we were choosing tunes for The Routines. It seemed to fit us perfectly stylistically so we held on to it as a staple in our setlist. “Funk Pants,” the other cover on the record, is also by The Oceanliners. “Cutting Room” features guitarist Ian Neville, who we worked with in Dumpstaphunk. He is the nephew of Ivan Neville and is still with the band. Other guests on the album are Big Jus, Sierra Sellers, Bobby Sparks, Poogie Bell, and Brett Williams.

What was the first album that really changed your life?    

John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme"

Who are some other Pittsburgh artists you think more people should listen to?  

Gene Stovall, Bryce Rabideau, Sierra Sellers, Big Jus, Norside Trio, Anqwenique Wingfield, Roger Humphries, and the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Any other super interesting things we should know about you?

The Steeltown Horns, individually, are all members of the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra.

Check out previous Pittsburgh Artists of the Week here.

Joey Spehar is a Pittsburgh native who started as a volunteer D.J. at WYEP, fresh out of college in 2006. He took on any job they’d let him do like editing audio, engineering remote broadcasts, and shoveling snow.