There’s a new burrito joint in town. It’s across the river in Algiers Point, but don’t let the Mississippi stop you. Not only will you get a mammoth Mission-styled burrito, but odds are it’ll be grilled and folded by a tattooed Californian hipster hell-bent on bringing classic R&B back to New Orleans. In many ways, Eric Lindell is an anomaly; a West Coast-bred former skate rat having a way with both a spatula and a Stratocaster. More than anything, Lindell is what people call an “old soul.” Without a trace of cornball reverence for the old days, or misguided attempts at retro-chic, he displays a genuine old school aura that is both natural and refreshing. There is nothing forced or calculated in Lindell’s style or sound. He does his own thing, in his own way and at his own pace, and seems genuinely bemused at the sudden attention he’s receiving.Crossing the river on the ferry to Algiers Point, I made my way to Elcy’s, Lindell’s cramped but charming burrito café (as it has only one chair, “restaurant” would be the wrong word). Sure enough, in front of the smoking grill was Eric, cutting up with the locals and sweet-talking them into a spicy chicken burrito rather than the standard New Orleans lunch of a dripping roast beef po-boy. It seems before being Elcy’s, the building was a po-boy shop, and some of the more stubborn locals are having trouble with the transition. Along with the others, I’m easily won over and five minutes later I’m sitting across from Eric outside of Elcy’s with a gigantic tortilla wrap in front of me. As I take on my dauntingly large lunch, he begins to recount his journey from California surfer to West Bank guitar/burrito slinger.
THE RED SCARE
Eric was born and raised in San Mateo, California in 1969. Though his great uncle and his great grandmother were self-taught musicians, no one else in the Lindell household showed an affinity for the musical arts. In middle school, Eric got together with some of his skateboarding buddies and formed a skate rock band. He played bass, but his guitar had only three strings, and he only used the top two, so his range was limited to say the least. He continued with his bass playing through high school, eventually forming a ten-piece funk band called Grand Junction. They played a sound styled after Sly & the Family Stone (the female vocalist was the daughter of Sly’s drummer) and Fishbone. It was in this band that Eric began his early forays into singing and songwriting. They developed a sizable following in Northern California, but fizzled out after a couple years. He was introduced to blues by a friend, none other than Doyle Bramhall Jr., son of the legendary songwriter and performer that helped catapult Stevie Ray Vaughan into stardom. Picking up his guitar again, he began listening to a steady diet of Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, soon forming several blues projects until eventually streamlining into a tight four-piece unit called Eric Lindell & the Reds, the color red having apparently no real significance. Says Lindell, “It was just a stupid name I made up, having nothing to do with anything. We did a radio show with Johnny Otis [R&B great, writer of the infamous “Hand Jive”]. He was just tearing into us, yelling ‘The Reds? What are you guys—a bunch of communists?’” Despite confusion as to their political views, the band began creating a buzz on the West Coast, making consistent money, touring blues festivals on both coasts, and eventually releasing three albums of all original material. Big name musicians were beginning to take note of his talent. Blues heavyweight Charlie Musselwhite was a regular to his gigs, and low-fi troubadour Tom Waits and his wife could be found dancing at several of the Reds’ Bay area shows. In fact, Lindell still plays the same California gigs several times a year, consistently commanding a loyal fan base to his shows. For all practical purposes, the Reds fizzled out when Eric met his wife and moved first to New York and then to her family’s home in Algiers, Louisiana.
WEST BANK BLUES
Lindell was apprehensive about moving to New Orleans. He knew next to nothing of the city, and was moving into a back room apartment of his in-laws. He mistakenly thought New Orleans would be a clichéd blues haven. Recalls Lindell, “I thought I’d jump right out and pick up some blues gigs, but it wasn’t happening. There wasn’t a blues scene at all.” His knowledge of New Orleans music was limited to Lee Dorsey and Aaron Neville’s “Tell It Like It Is.” Though he was in a funk band out in California, they were modeled after Sly & the Family Stone. He didn’t know who the Meters were, which is considered a crime in these pocky way parts. It was a rocky transition to the New Orleans music scene. He had gone from drawing sold-out two night shows in California to trawling New Orleans for sparsely populated blues jams. Admits Eric, “When I first got here I kept thinking to myself, ‘Where the hell do I jive in this picture?’” His salvation was not in the storied venues Uptown or in the Quarter but in the West Bank dives of Gretna, Harvey and Algiers. He used to hang out at the C&M music store and shoot the shit with old swamp pop musicians of the area. “I used to play with these West Bank dudes when I first got here. Those guys were the only people I knew in town. They’d hear me play my originals and say, ‘Hey that’s swamp pop!’ and I’d be like ‘What the hell is swamp pop?’ I thought I was just playing soul music.” It was through these West Bank connections that Eric got his first real gigs in town. Insists Lindell, “I liked hanging out with those guys, still do. They were my first exposure to real Louisiana music.”
DRUMMERS GROWING ON TREES
A year after arriving in New Orleans, Eric bumped into Stanton Moore, his Algiers Point neighbor. As he was still mostly ignorant of anything happening on the other bank of the river, Eric hadn’t ever heard of the explosive funk drummer, let alone his hugely popular day job with Galactic. “I probably would have been too shy to approach him if I knew who he was,” admits Lindell, “I was down the street at the Old Point Bar having a beer listening to this band and this guy was killing on the drums. He had this magnetic energy, so afterwards I just started rapping with him.” Eric needed session musicians for an album he was going to record in New Orleans. He had all this great material, but no one to play it. He asked Stanton to play on the album, and despite having maybe the busiest gig schedule in the city, Stanton agreed. He still needed another drummer for other cuts on the album, and had been given a list of drummers from bluesman John Carey (Eric had recently begun playing guitar in Carey’s band). The list was a Who’s Who of New Orleans’ finest including Johnny Vidacovich and Willie Green, but of course none of the names rang a bell with Lindell. He finally came upon a name way down the list. Harold Brown. Not knowing that this was the Harold Brown of the infamous multi-platinum selling funk/rock band War, he asked Harold to play on a gig that was starting in two hours. Surprisingly Brown took the gig and the two hit it off. Needless to say, Lindell was quite abashed when learning the identity of his drummer. Getting Harold Brown for a last minute gig was one thing, getting him for the record was another. Recalls Eric, “Harold really liked what I was doing, but his wife did even more so. She gave him the green light. We were rehearsing in the back of his house, and she came out and was like, ‘Hey, that white boy’s alright.’” The self-titled record, which is known to Eric as the Yellow Album was released in 2002, and was received well by critics. Despite sophisticated arrangements, expertly crafted melodies, two of the finest drummers in the city, and Eric’s soulful vocals, the record went largely unheard upon its initial release. The Eric Lindell train had yet to gain steam. Things began to turn in his favor when he started gigging around town with his original material from the album. No longer was he confined to the West Bank. Stanton and Galactic bassist Rob Mercurio began sitting in with his band, and word started to spread. The city’s best musicians started showing up at his gigs, checking out this guy from California with the huge voice and the killer R&B material. He started seeing a different crowd at his shows. A turning point came when he opened up for Galactic in Santa Cruz, California. They had sold out a huge 1,500 capacity theater, and when Lindell went on stage with Stanton and the rest of Galactic as his backing band, he couldn’t believe what he was seeing. Says Lindell, “I got out there and saw the massive audience and was like, Who are these guys?” This is one of the most endearing qualities of Eric Lindell. He came to New Orleans, not trying to emulate Galactic as dozens of bands have done throughout the ’90s, but not even knowing who they were. Any success he’s had is from following through on his own musical vision.
NOT LEARNING SCALES AND LOOKING SHARP
Despite his association with Galactic, Eric Lindell’s style is much more laid back and song-oriented. “I guess we could sort of fit in that [jamband] category because we stretch our songs out a bit live, but my wife’s always telling me, ‘Get in and get out. I hate the jamming!’” Lindell’s musical heroes aren’t the Meters or Phish, or Medeski Martin & Wood (he most likely doesn’t know who these people are). They are Buddy Guy and Junior Wells, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding. He has a basic, melodic style to his guitar playing, as opposed to the over-the-top, play as many notes as humanly possible approach. Lindell relates a story about a blues gig with a big name guitarist in town, “He was doing all this wild, dueling guitar shit. I told him, ‘This is all I got bro. I can’t take it any higher. I just shot my wad there.’” His one guitar lesson he took was on the West Bank where a mullet-sporting guitar geek was harping on him to learn his scales, Lindell calmly replied, “Look, bro, I need immediate assistance. I got a gig tonight. How about this: I’ll play a progression while you solo. I’ll stop you when I like what you’re doing, and you teach it to me.” Lindell insists it was the best (and only) lesson he’s ever had. Lindell’s biggest strength may be his songwriting. His approach is to keep things simple and to avoid tired songwriting stand-bys. “I hate when someone writes a reggae tune and throws in a Rasta accent, or does a blues and feels like they have to mention the word ‘blues’ in the song. I just heard a new Bobby Bland song on the radio, and he’s singing, ‘I got the something something blues.’ Who the hell wrote this for Bobby Bland? We don’t have to establish the fact that he’s got the blues. That kind of shit just kills me.” His melodic sensibility and fresh approach actually won him 1st place in the prestigious John Lennon Songwriting Contest a few years back. “They called up and told me that I’d won, and I said, ‘Shut the fuck up. Who is this really?’ When they convinced me they were serious, they told me that I had won in the R&B category because my song had stood out. I guess everyone else sounded like Boyz 2 Men.” Old soul indeed.
One look at Eric Lindell and you’d think he plays in hardcore bands at biker bars where steel fences separate the audience from the stage. This is mainly because of the flock of tattoos covering his frame. Upon closer inspection, the designs are not aggressive at all. The most prominent is the word ‘Mercy’ emblazoned on the front of his neck just above his collarbone. It’s the name of his two-year-old daughter. Relates Lindell, “When I was first moving in, I was carrying my guitars to the house. My neighbors took one look at me and said ‘We don’t like that hard stuff.’ They assumed I played thrash music.” Needless to say, he doesn’t look like your typical R&B musician. Despite his tattoos, Eric still has one foot in the past when it comes to performing. Music is merely one facet to his performance, complemented by stage presence and appearance. Lindell was taken aback at the laid-back approach to performance in New Orleans. It was the opposite of California. “When I first got here I saw this amazing soul singer performing with jogging shorts and a tank top. I couldn’t believe it.” Looking sharp is important for Lindell and his band. Like the injured NBA players decked out in Gucci suits on the bench, Lindell and his bandmates have begun a healthy competition in out-styling the other at gigs.
DOMESTIC BURRITO BLISS
The decision to open a burrito shop was a relatively easy one. The rent was cheap, and the location was a block away, so he and his wife Kelly decided to go for it. Eric grew up on Mexican food, so the menu was a no-brainer considering the low overhead and the diminutive size of the place. Take out was the only option. Because of its location and quality of food, their burrito shop named Elcy’s ( a combination of their son’s name, Ellory, and their daughter Mercy), was successful from the start. The shop basically runs itself (they have one employee), and his gigs are all at night giving Eric plenty of time to spend with his two kids. Having children has had a major effect on his life. Eric had his first child, Ellory, with a previous wife and after the divorce, brought him up by himself, a tough experience for a full-time musician. Admits Lindell, “I always thought that I could barely handle myself, so how could I possibly have kids, but the paternal instincts really kicked in.” Now that he’s surrounded by his wife’s huge family, he has all the support he could ever need. They’ve made every effort to make him feel a part of the family. His introduction to their New Orleans family was trial by fire. His first visit to New Orleans and meeting the family was a memorable one. It was Mardi Gras and they drove straight from the airport to the Municipal Auditorium where his family was getting ready to ride in the Krewe of Babylon parade. They had gotten him a spot on the float and simply fed him to the wolves. Recalls Eric, “Here’s an example of how little I knew about New Orleans before I got here; I didn’t even know beads were involved, bro. I had just come off a plane and was suddenly on a float going down St. Charles with insane people screaming at me from the street to throw them beads, and all my crazy in-laws are calling for girls to show their tits, and I’m like, ‘I’m not sure if I should be moving here.’” All joking aside, it’s been his New Orleans in-laws who have truly made Eric feel like he is beginning to understand the city and its people. He still refuses to ride on the floats however.
At the beginning of 2003, Eric formed the nucleus of his first true band in New Orleans with Marty Joyce on drums, Casandra Faulconer on bass, Marc Adams on organ and Jason Mingledorff on saxophone. This was the line-up for their surprisingly high-profile slot at Jazz Fest that still has many ears buzzing. They released a short CD entitled Piety Street Sessions after Jazz Fest that beautifully captures the group’s tight chemistry in a live studio setting. Eric himself has just released an EP of material done with bassist/keyboardist Sean Carey (Jon Carey’s son). It’s an experimental record of three tracks that they recorded on the spot, with Eric freestyling vocals and Sean bringing a West Coast hip-hop vibe to the beats and the keyboards. His next project is to record an album of old R&B covers and undiscovered blues gems, with a large band and an emphasis on vocals and harmonies. There has been some flirting with major record labels, especially after their Jazz Fest performances, but Eric is not one to get too excited about commercial prospects. He’s well aware of his old school approach, and doesn’t feel he fits into the mainstream picture. Says Lindell, “I don’t think the industry is ready for my music. Nothing I listen to or enjoy could ever find its way on the radio. I just have to forget about it and keep writing and playing.” In truth, Eric does not look too worried about his future. He runs a successful burrito joint, plays his own music with what he believes to be the finest musicians in the world, and is the only musician in town who is considered hip both on the Uptown jamband scene, and the mullet-rocking West Bank. Most impressive for a former skate punk from California.