This past January was an eventful month of music in which New Orleans witnessed more highlights than most of the world’s top cultural cities experience in a year. Memorable shows were so numerous that it’s impossible for me to list them all here. Surely one of the best of these moments was the extraordinary Best of the Beat Awards Show, which opened with a spectacular performance from cellist Helen Gillet supported by accordionists Greg Schatz and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and highlighted by a tribute to New Orleans R&B that included just about every remaining living legend from that era. The Dixie Cups surprised everyone by recruiting councilwoman Jackie Clarkson to cover for an ailing sister; she pulled it off without a hitch and with no rehearsal. Al Johnson reprised “Carnival Time” once again and Clarence “Frogman” Henry displayed a Fatima moment when the power of the music prompted him to push aside his walker and let the force move through him. Ernie Vincent and his terrific new version of his classic funk band drove fiercely behind Robert Parker in a mini set that recalled the glory days of the fabulous Dew Drop Inn.
Tipitina’s put on one of the best runs in its history while celebrating its 35th anniversary. Highlights included dozens of the city’s most creative musicians under the direction of Paul Sanchez in a spectacular Treme-sponsored benefit; two unforgettable reunion shows by the Radiators; and an over-the-top celebration of Art Neville’s 75th birthday with many of his family members. The Howlin’ Wolf hosted a benefit for the Musician’s Clinic with a special appearance by Dr. John and George Porter and a long set from the red-hot New Orleans Suspects, who were joined by John Gros and Bonerama during the show.
Cyril Neville enjoyed a spectacular night at the Blue Nile after the Krewe Du Vieux parade, watching his son’s band open the proceedings, then burning down the house leading his own group, Royal Southern Brotherhood, with Devon Allman and Mike Zito.
At the Maple Leaf percussionist Chris Jones put on a marathon record release party for his groundbreaking Blue Brass project, an inspiring amalgam of rough-hewn bluegrass picking, brass band collective improvisation and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms. This kind of cultural mashup is definitive of the new era of New Orleans music that is in full development right now.
Only in New Orleans can the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birthday evoke a party that can make you think about what Presley might have sounded like if fame eluded him and he played clubs all his life. D.C. Harbold’s Clockwork Elvis did a trio of Presley birthday shows that were devoid of camp posturing and opened up the music beyond the tribute stage to explore its roots. Guitarist Tom Stern’s lines were filled with sly references to rockabilly, country and R&B touchstones that informed Scotty Moore’s playing with Presley. The show at the House of Blues, attended by scores of Elvis impersonators, was a formal, informative marathon of Elvisiana, but at the Kingpin, where the band was literally rubbing shoulders with the audience as it played and Harbold ended up trading choruses of “Suspicious Minds” with members of the crowd while walking the bar, we really got to hear what a bar band Elvis might have sounded like. Look for Harbold leading the Krewe of Rolling Elvi in the Muses parade Thursday.
Papa Grows Funk
John Gros softened the edge of his disappointment in having to announce the hiatus of his band Papa Grows Funk with a hearty lunch at Finn Mc’Cools.
“I don’t really have a plan yet,” he said as he munched on the bar’s signature boudin egg roll, “I have to put a band together based on what I want to be able to play. You have to have a certain kind of player to do the old R&B stuff and the Carnival songs,” he noted. “And I’m really committed to playing that music. Most of the people my age aren’t really interested in playing that stuff, it’s mostly the older guys who do it.”
Gros managed to see the bright side of the situation, of course. Getting off the road will give him a lot more time to play at home and enjoy the pleasures of New Orleans living. This Wednesday night, for example, he joins Lynn Drury for one of her songwriters’ showcases at Dmac’s. But his observations underscored an undeniable fact. The New Orleans that existed when Papa Grows Funk started playing in 1999 has changed dramatically. A little more than seven years after hurricane Katrina we are seeing the redefined contours of a city that was literally depopulated in the wake of the flood. Only a handful of legends are left from the city’s golden age of R&B in the 1950s and ’60s, and Lionel Ferbos remains the one living link to the traditional New Orleans jazz masters.
These new artists form a picture of New Orleans that is markedly different from its storied 20th century identity but well on its way to developing a new, multi-cultural identity that reflects how much more interdependent the 21st century world is. Tradition is still valued but is seen as part of a larger whole. The young musicians and artists who’ve repopulated New Orleans are not just coming from other parts of the United States, they’re from all over the world, and it’s kind of amazing to see how these disparate cultures now fit so easily into the idiosyncratic contours of New Orleans life. We’re going to get a great example of this mix when Red Baraat hits town this weekend. This band from Northern India led by dhol player Sunny Jain plays an irresistible dance music hybrid of its native music with brass band, funk and hip-hop influences. The group has gone to school on the New Orleans second line since first arriving here in 2011 and has learned quickly. Red Baraat’s latest album, Shruggy Ji, is one of the hottest items on the world music charts and playlists. Traditional Indian instruments join with the brass band staples of trap and bass drums, sousaphone, trombone, trumpets and saxophones. Their performances are wildly celebratory whether in concert or at street parades, and we’re going to get opportunities to see both sides of the group. Sunday night they headline at the Blue Nile, where they blend perfectly into the mayhem of Frenchmen Street during Mardi Gras. On Lundi Gras they open for Galactic at Tipitina’s and there’s sure to be some great intergroup jamming before that night is through. Then it’s on to Mardi Gras day, when Red Baraat will join the Krewe of Just Us at 1 pm to parade through the French Quarter, then lead a parade from Frenchmen Street at 4 pm to the Hi Ho Lounge, where they’ll perform a set opening up for another example of the new face of New Orleans music, the 5th annual Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra, a group made up of Mardi Gras Indians, rock musicians and improvisational jazz performers. This astonishing band will consist of vocalists Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes (Big Chief- North Side Skull & Bones gang), Juan Pardo (War Chief- Golden Commanches), and David Montana (Second Chief- Yellow Pocahontas); guitarists Camile Baudoin and Sam Hotchkis; bassist Reggie Scanlan; percussionist Rosie Rosato; drummer Kevin O’Day; saxophonist Tim Green; cellist Helen Gillet; violinist Harry Hardin; and keyboardist C. R. Gruver. Don’t be surprised to see members of Red Baraat up on that stage as well.