Playing music in a parade looks like fun, but while it is, it’s also hard, sometimes thankless work. OffBeat spoke with members of four nightclub bands who, during Mardi Gras, transform into street bands. Sue Ford fronts Mardi Gras’ first rock band, Pink Slip, once an all-woman group that now includes her husband, drummer Jimmy Ford. Ben Schenck, clarinetist of Panorama Jazz Band, has for 12 years guided a flock of 12 musicians, some of whom come into town for Carnival to play in Panorama Brass Band. Geoff Douville (banjo) and Eric Belletto (trumpet) of Egg Yolk Jubilee take their feet off the Zappa pedal once a year to play sing-along trad standards, and Michael Hurtt returns from Detroit to front his Haunted Hearts, who, for the parades, add a drummer and more electric guitar to Hurtt’s well-curated selection of hillbilly music, swamp pop and rockin’ R&B covers. These musicians discussed the highs and lows of parading and how they survive the parades.
How did you start parading?
S. Ford: We moved here from Massachusetts and we’d go to the parades and see jazz bands and Dixieland bands, and I thought, “There are so many different types of music in this town, all of them should be represented.” They should at least have a rock band. People said, “You can’t do that. These are coveted spots that have been there for hundreds of years and it’s been this kind of music.” Then came along this new krewe, Muses, and they wanted all-female musicians, bands, and not the typical jazz and blues and stuff. We played for Muses and then booking agent Warren Serignet who books almost all the parade bands started booking us for a lot of parades.
We’ve been kicked out of a few. We didn’t realize Proteus was this ancient parade with ancient carts with wooden wheels. The guys freaked out, and they were right. We didn’t fit. We are perfect for the Tucks parade.
Hurtt: I asked Sue in Pink Slip how to go about doing it, long ago, before the Haunted Hearts, when I wanted the Royal Pendletons to play a parade. Matt Uhlman and I moved here from Indiana and we loved Mardi Gras parades and really wanted to do it. We saw Pink Slip, which was the first parading rock ‘n’ roll band, and we thought, “Why don’t more rock ‘n’ roll and cover bands do this?!” Sue told me what I now tell people who ask: you kind of have to figure it out on your own. For us, our bass player was in a jazz band that played in a parade, and he was able to get the info for who we needed to call and send our music. Fortunately we weren’t ignored.
Douville: Egg Yolk Jubilee started playing clubs in 1996. Krewe Du Vieux asked us if we wanted to do a marching band combination in 2002.
Belletto: Nah, it was earlier than that because our original business card said, “weddings, parties, funerals.”
Schenck: Our band started in 1995. Then in 1997 at a Passover Seder someone was riffing on the name Krewe De Vieux, and L.J. Goldstein said “Krewe Du Jieux.” I told LJ that if he organized that krewe, I’d organize the band. He got us into Krewe Du Vieux.
These days it’s only because of Warren Serignet and the St Anthony Ramblers that we have a brass band at all. There’s no other way to get these busy musicians together unless they’re getting paid. For a 12-piece band it’s really light bread, about a dollar a block, but if we get enough parades it barely becomes feasible.
Amplified bands must provide their own float. Tell us about yours.
S. Ford: Jimmy got help from the Lion’s Club, who already had the float. But then you also need a generator to power your PA, and you’ve got to get someone who knows how to engineer all that, then you’ve got to get a bathroom on board.
J. Ford: And a bar.
S. Ford: You have to build a bar. People think it’s all fun and games but it’s work.
How is playing parades different than club shows?
S. Ford: Onstage, you’re always trying to find that connection with the crowd. At a parade, it changes constantly. This block might hate you, but then for the next five blocks they’re rushing the float. Then the next block they have their arms folded.
Douville: Our bass player becomes our bass drummer, our drummer becomes snare, and I become incomprehensible playing banjo no one can hear. I look good but can’t be heard. I often walk to the perimeter of the band as close as I can get to the crowd; that way, I am the one closest to the hot chicks.
Belletto: The crowds on the street are looking for something to love. In a club, sometimes people are like, [folds his arms] “Impress me.” At the parade, they’re out to act a fool.
Douville: In its best moments, a parade gig beats a club gig because a euphoria grips people, especially during Krewe Du Vieux. People from Dubuque are like, “Oh my god they’re openly showing an effigy of a penis!” They don’t get to see a brass band every day, so people scream at you to play for them to create that titillation. People scream at you to play for them, to create that euphoria.
How is the club version of your band different from the parade version?
Schenck: A lot of our brass band moved elsewhere after Katrina, and all come back for Mardi Gras. We have our tunes arranged for 12, so if we come out with eight there are holes. For 17 days out of the year, between Krewe Du Vieux and Ash Wednesday, we work our asses off. With what we’re paid, our members who come from New York just break even, but it’s a spiritual pilgrimage. I feel like I get through all the mundane day-to-day life stuff all year because I have so much fun during that two-and-a-half weeks.
Hurtt: In clubs we’re more of a rockin’ hillbilly string band with some electrified guitars but no drums. At first, we did the float as a three-piece: acoustic guitar, lead guitar, standup bass and vocals, and I remember feeling like we barely had a band. We were playing rockabilly and western swing and the energy was good, but it wasn’t very loud. Everyone was frustrated. The next year we fell back into R&B and South Louisiana rock ‘n’ roll. John Trahey quit playing the standup bass on the float; he plays the electric bass. J.D. Mark, our regular guitar player plays drums, and I play electric guitar in a ‘50s rhythm and blues style, and that defines what we do on the parade route.
S. Ford: Pink Slip has a rotating cast. When picking the crew, it’s like going on a canoe trip. First you’re thinking about all the great friends you want to bring. Then it starts raining and the canoe gets stuck and you think, “Okay, who would not deal with this well?” and you start crossing people off that list. This year we’ll have Sean Yseult playing keyboards for us, with Aeryk Laws on guitar and synth.
Douville: In the club, just one person sings on the mic. But on the street, we all sing in an attempt to get as many people to sing along as possible. We are one of the only parade bands that do that.
Belletto: I love that part. Plus it gives my lips a rest from playing the trumpet. When I do Ninth Ward Marching Band [Belletto has done all their horn arrangements since its inception] and with any military style marching band, there are cadences where everyone gets a break while the drums roll. But with Egg Yolk, we are pretty much playing all the way through. You have to learn how to walk and play and breath, that coordination. I remember when we first were going to march, we were like, “Okay, let’s go outside and practice playing and walking at the same time.” We head down Chartres to Decatur, into the Quarter about a half a block, and this cop turns on his lights and is like, “You’re parading without a permit. You’ve got to go back.”
What is the biggest challenge, playing in a parade?
J. Ford: Getting good sound.
S. Ford: One minute you’re rolling down St Charles closed in by oak trees, then suddenly there are tall buildings, then the sound’s bouncing around under I-10, then Canal is a gigantic open field. You need a soundman on board to deal with that.
J. Ford: I run everything through the PA. No amps whatsoever. We do a good dry control room sound.
Hurtt: We’re still working on our sound, but it’s always going to be amps. We can’t compromise. We bring a friend with us whose job is to jump off the float and run off and check how it sounds on the route.
Schenck: It takes a lot more strength to play outside on the streets. No matter how much I practice for Krewe Du Vieux, I always blow out my chops before we reach Esplanade. The air is escaping from the corners of my mouth by the time we hit the R Bar. By the third parade though, I am good to go.
What about rain? I have been to some cold, rainy parades.
S. Ford: You drag out the tarps and tuck all the mics into the vehicle, then cover your own ass best you can because there’s nowhere to go. Or, we go into kamikaze mode and play through it, but I lost a Wurlitzer doing that. After that we made a rule: no more quality instruments on board.
How does your playing change from the start to the end of a five hour parade?
S. Ford: You become more uninhibited and start stretching things out. You’re playing this three-minute song and it’s almost over, but the crowd up ahead hears you playing it, and if they’re going nuts you’re not going to stop. We have hand signals like baseball. [Jimmy pats the top of his head] That means “from the top.”
You find yourself doing a lot of different new things with the songs. Susan Cowsill and I will be like, “You sing lead on this one this time, then I will next time.” It’s like doing 100 gigs in one gig. It’s a real workout for a drummer, and if they haven’t been working out for it there’s no way they’re going to last.
Hurtt: As it goes on, it gets more intense, more raw and hopefully more energetic. It does start to move into that kind of looseness where you’re not worrying about anything too much.
How do keep from getting too drunk?
Schenck: We have a little nip on the way, but we’re walking and it’s really physically demanding, so nobody gets super loaded. That’s not our M.O. because we really like the work.
Douville: You have to tactically approach your drinking, especially as you can’t pee for three hours.
Belletto: When we play clubs we drink beer, when we march we drink whiskey. That’s a big difference.
Hurtt: All of us are guilty of it in some form, but I do not get too loaded. You’ve got to get home afterward and break down, and lots of times take everything off the float and put it back where it’s stored. For that, you want to make sure your mindset is right. Regardless of the beer and whatever else, you just played for three to five hours.
S. Ford: I warn the novices about the “chocolates” going around and the alcohol. You can’t really drink and play at the same time. People start doing shots and halfway through the parade they forget what they’re doing. I pull the plug on them. [Being in a parade] is a big deal. It’s a coveted spot, I sign a contract. I have to make damn sure who I’m putting on that float has their shit together from beginning to end. Or else I will throw you overboard.
What is your favorite parade, or favorite parade moment?
Douville: I would have to say ‘tit Rex. We’ve become their go-to band.
Belletto: We dressed like giants one year because the floats are tiny. Or like Godzilla. The first year I came as the Jolly Green Giant and was the only one in costume.
Douville: This year they want us to learn “Fight for Your Right to Party” because of their well-documented conflict with the Rex organization.
J. Ford: Ms Mae’s. We stop no matter what at Ms Mae’s, and she would come out and give us a tray of lemon shots.
Schenck: The most exhilarating moment is going under the overpass, Melpomene. We try to stall out there. All the band’s friends know to meet us there, and they all come out into the street and get down for three minutes until the cops shoo us away. There are people I only see once a year, and it’s on that corner during the parades.
Hurtt: Turning the corner from Napoleon to St Charles signals the real start for me. The energy is still high, and hopefully we’ve beaten down any sound problems we’ve had. We always try to pick a ringer of a song when we come around that corner, like “Trouble Bound” by Billy Lee Riley.
How do you pick parade songs?
J. Ford: We base a lot on Muses’ theme. One year we had to learn all these James Bond songs.
S. Ford: Last year Muses’ theme was dance, so we had dancers, and when the parade would stop they’d do the Soul Train dance line to us playing “It’s Your Thing” or “Dancing in the Streets,” Marvin Gaye, Kool and the Gang.
J. Ford: These kids in McDonogh’s band were lined up on the sidewalk as we drove past playing Earth, Wind & Fire’s “Shining Star,” and the marching band busted into it with us and got the whole street was dancing.
Schenck: When we go past Touro Synagogue—we’re kind of the house band there—we always try to be playing klezmer. We try and stop and turn and salute and play something especially for them.
Hurtt: “Pass the Hatchet” by Earl Stanley and the Stereos, and “Congo Mombo” by Guitar Gable. People react to those instrumentals. We play them for 30 minutes, but people only hear 30 seconds. We always end up doing “Getting Drunk” By Johnny “Guitar” Watson on Canal Street, by which time we’re fairly drunk ourselves. And in the same way St. Charles signals the beginning, Canal and that song signal the end is coming and we have to go for it.
Douville: We play trad covers, and about three originals. We have an Egg Yolk theme. We do that Dylan song that everybody knows as “Everybody Must Get Stoned,” [“Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”]. A few years ago rounding some corner during Krewe Du Vieux, we were playing that and people went nuts. That tune is a big one.
Original music doesn’t go over as well?
Hurtt: In 2009, we released a 45 single of “Lonely Mardi Gras,” a song we wrote to be played on the parade route. To know that one of our own songs has now been enshrined in the lexicon of Mardi Gras music is otherworldly.
J. Ford: We have “I Wanna Die in New Orleans,” which I helped write with Dave Catchings, who’s playing guitar on the float this year.
S. Ford: On Canal once, a police officer tapped one of the girls and said, “Can you all play that song, ‘Die in New Orleans’? My buddy, he’s a rookie, I want him to hear it.” After Katrina, I didn’t think it would be apropos to play it. We’re parading on St. Charles and another cop says, “Can you please play, ‘Die in New Orleans’?” I was like “absolutely,” and I turned to Jimmy and started playing it. Now the song’s back.
What’s your biggest frustration, or your biggest triumph at a parade?
Douville: People show up and start playing with you, like, “Hey brah, we’re friends! It’s New Orleans!” They follow the whole route and play. Then at the end of the night they get mad you won’t pay them!
Hurtt: An unnamed musical guest—we have a lot of guests—tried to commandeer the band and play cheesy Carl Perkins covers like “Blue Suede Shoes” and didn’t even get the words right. I had to right the sinking ship and had to get the guitar away from him. Some of the guests don’t understand that it is to be taken seriously. You want it to be good.
S. Ford: One year we lost our generator and had to play “Iko Iko” for three hours on just drums.
J. Ford: Another time I spent the whole day rigging up the float and was exhausted. I got off the float and told them, “Good luck, girls.” I walked to Ms Mae’s to try and get a ride home, and suddenly I got a call.
S. Ford: The truck pulling us broke down. One minute you’re a fucking rock star and everyone loves you, and the next minute it’s “get the fuck out of our way!” The cops are shouting at us. The girls had to get off the float in our miniskirts and push. The crowd had to part. And if you don’t cross the finish line, you don’t get paid.
J. Ford: Sue calls and tells me to get another vehicle. I run into my buddy on the neutral ground and talk him into using his big truck, but we have to get up on the Huey P. Long Bridge and go all the way around via the West Bank to get to the girls.
S. Ford: The parade marshal is on the phone with her people, making it so Jimmy can cut up Melpomene.
J. Ford: We go flying up Prytania the wrong way. At every stop the cops tell us, “You ain’t getting in.”
S. Ford: Meanwhile, we’re sitting waiting and we see the fire truck go by, signaling the end of the parade just as Jimmy gets to the float. We had to transfer so much shit to this new truck. The whole time Jimmy’s yelling, “Start the generator! Tune those guitars!”
J. Ford: We pulled in right behind that last float.