Big Al Carson is an essential element in the midway of exotic attractions populating Bourbon Street, but you really have to live in New Orleans, or a parallel universe, to appreciate his true value to this city. In that parallel universe of HBO’s Treme we have Davis McAlary’s Aunt Mimi invoking Big Al as an arbiter of New Orleans social behavior. Irked at Davis’ intransigence over his R&B opera, she finishes a boozy scene by walking out on him with the salty bromide “In the words of the immortal Big Al Carson, I’m taking my drunk ass home.”
You can almost see Aunt Mimi as one of Al’s acolytes at the Funky Pirate, guzzling Hand Grenades and making goo-goo eyes at the lascivious man-mountain as he rubs his Buddah belly in synch with the band’s undulating rhythm and coos suggestive pillow talk in her direction.
“Take Your Drunken Ass Home” is from the album of the same name, one of several cut since he began his Funky Pirate run with the Blues Masters 19 years ago. Al’s bawdy side, epitomized by “Dip My Dipper,” is well represented by the four volumes of Live at the Funky Pirate, but Al’s standing as one of New Orleans’ greatest vocalists and the skill of the Blues Masters is most obvious on the band’s latest album, 3 Phat Catz and 1 Skinny Dogg (Rabadash). Guitarist Harry Sterling, who’s been in the band since the start of the Funky Pirate run, plays expressively on “One Really Good Sad Song” and cuts a ferocious groove on the Average White Band’s “Schoolboy Crush.” Bassist Harold J. Scott and drummer Rodney Rollins lay down irresistible dance grooves across the record. 3 Phat Catz… features four songs by another mainstay of the Funky Pirate lineup, Mark Penton, Big Al’s own “Hip Shakin’ Mama” and a statement-of-purpose tune, “Back to the Old School,” by local musician Warner Williams. Produced by keyboardist John Autin, 3 Phat Catz… is an overlooked gem that demonstrates how much great local music never leaves the city.
“John Autin did a great job on that,” says Carson. “We wanted to showcase the whole group being as tight as we could. We wanted to show another side of the band aside from the live performance. When you play live you just do what you do but in the studio you can get a cleaner sound, work on some parts, if you don’t like the way something sounds you can do it again. It’s all about the music first for me. You try to make it your own. We even took some country songs and played them as blues songs. That was a big challenge for us as a group.”
Last year Big Al was stricken by a mysterious illness that forced him to discontinue his Funky Pirate run for months. Fears were quelled when the near-500-pound Carson was discovered to have severe gout, which improved with treatment and allowed him to resume his Pirate duties in an abbreviated schedule that now has him singing every Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
“The gout had me bad,” he says. “I couldn’t even get out of the house. Couldn’t go down the stairs. But I’m feeling pretty good now. I’m still moving a little slow but I’m doing all right. I gotta get off the carbs and stuff. I don’t drink any more. Staying as healthy as possible. My weight is pretty good, it’s up and down.”
Carson’s fans have been flocking back to the Pirate, but his standing in the community runs far deeper, back to his days as a brass band musician and a hero of New Orleans culture. His performances in concert, like his upcoming French Quarter Festival appearance, reflect that standing.
“We’re opening the festival Thursday morning,” he says. “We had a lot of success with that last year. A lot of people came out for that early. It made a good opening for the festival. Any way we can help New Orleans, the live music and the festival, we wanna do that. We put ‘em in the right frame of mind right away.
Carson and the Blues Masters bring a different mindset to festival than Pirate gigs.
“When you play a festival the energy has to come out right then and there, you don’t have time to warm up to the crowd or analyze them to see what they want,” Carson explains. You gotta hit ‘em hard and get right to the emotion. Hopefully the songs you pick are the ones folks want to hear. The limited time makes it difficult but we know how to get it done. You feed off of your crowd and New Orleans has a lot of positive energy.”