On a recent Saturday night, the variety of music available in New Orleans was enough to generate an Excedrin headache in even the most earnest of aficionados. The French Quarter, as always, was saturated with a cacophony of blues, Dixieland and top forty renditions that tourist-types apparently adore. Tipitina’s played host to retro-rockers Ed Cassidy and Randy California, who replicated the sound if not the, well, spirit of the sixties. Further uptown, both blues and Cajun music could be found at respective clubs within the 8300 block of Oak Street. Yet, with every imaginable sound and genre at the disposal of the conscientious music consumer, the largest crowd of the evening was convened not to witness blues, jazz, zydeco, soul, or for that matter any music for which New Orleans could claim birthright.
They were instead squeezed into Jimmy’s (in what was essentially a functioning humidor), flailing and screaming wildly, much like the band on stage. As the animated trio launched into an impromptu Ramones medley, it became apparent that the clearest distinction between audience and band was clothes: the 400 or so in attendance were draped in sweat-soaked ones while the band on stage had removed most of theirs. Actually, the drummer still appeared to be fully clad, but then he was behind a drum set.
The band is Dash Rip Rock, the brightest light in New Orleans’ ever-expanding alternative music scene. In the last five years Dash has churned out a volatile mix of rockabilly fire, roots rock power, punk rock velocity, and frat house humor before an ever-growing, primarily collegiate audience; only the Neville Brothers and the Radiators are bigger draws on the local club circuit. In a city boasting such significant contributing factors as three major universities and a thriving art scene, however, alternative music such as theirs has consistently faced an uphill battle for recognition against the more traditional sounds that have long been ingrained as both cultural and economic determinants of the city.
Dash Rip Rock, whose current album on Mammoth Records is entitled Ace of Clubs, is only the second band from New Orleans playing what could be described as “new music” to have nationally distributed a record. It might surprise someone not familiar with local history to find that, despite the altogether lack of national attention, a vibrant if not exactly thriving alternative music underground has long persisted, owing not much more than propinquity to New Orleans’ musical heritage.
Even if Dash hasn’t quite risen to the mythic proportions of the Nevilles or the Rads, new Dash drummer Chris Luckette still qualifies as a local ersatz Ulysses, running the gauntlet from punk to new wave to post-punk to post-mod and remaining relatively unscathed. It was Luckette’s band the Normals that revolutionized local music in the seventies. The legendary Normals were one of New Orleans’ first punk bands and certainly the first to draw crowds larger than solely friends and intimates of the band to their shows. Many still claim the Normals’ incendiary live shows to be the best they’ve ever seen.
“I think the scene was bigger back then,” said Jimmy Anselmo, whose club Jimmy’s opened in April 1978. “Kids were expressing themselves like they’d never had the chance to do before.” After some early exhibitions at odd venues like the Contemporary Arts Center, clubs such as Jimmy’s, the Beat Exchange, Jed’s University Inn, the Warehouse, Ole Man River’s, and the Rose Tattoo offered receptive environs to acts not exactly fit for the Blue Room. “The other clubs said ‘He’s crazy’ booking the kinds of bands I was,” recalled Anselmo. “I was the first to do new music in the city.”
Not many people under 25 would even recall such contemporaries of the Normals as the Backstabbers, RZA, the Sluts, Sexdog, the Men in Black, or the Skinnies. Despite an absence of national attention, a number of 45s and two compilation albums (N.O. Experience Necessary and No Questions, No Answers) emerged from the period. While these records today are valued primarily as relics of that bygone era 10 years ago, they did receive substantial airplay at the time on WTUL, the campus station of Tulane University and a longtime epicenter of underground music in New Orleans. “We’ve had a New Orleans show since 1976,” noted Shepard Samuels, music director at WTUL from 1976 to 1982. “Most of the bands at the time would stop by with their latest singles or for interviews. There was a real communion between WTUL, the local bands, and alternative record stores like the Mushroom and Leisure Landing.”
Following the breakup of the Normals in 1979, yeoman drummer Luckette went on to provide the beat for the band that would soon eclipse the underground popularity of the Normals. No local new music band has managed to break the attendance records the Cold set in their heyday.
They emerged as a clean-cut alternative to the safety pin/combat boots punk scene. The Cold displayed a Merseybeat sound very much influenced by the pop-rock of the sixties and at times similar to the B-52s. They built a tremendous following of both old Normals fans and suburban teenagers, at whose C.Y.O. dances their new-wave rock was a fixture. Crowds at Cold shows averaged a phenomenal 700 to 1,000. Anselmo, who enlarged his uptown club in part to accomodate Cold shows, still regards their failure to sign a national record deal as “the biggest sin in music business history. They had everything. On MTV, (lead singer) Barbara Menendez could have been bigger than Madonna or the Bangles. I don’t know—maybe they were just a little ahead of their time.”
Before their breakup in 1982, the Cold released several singles that accomplished the Herculean task of gaining airplay on B-97, the most popular local top 40 station; even today no other local band has duplicated the feat. Two albums came out in the wake of their breakup and a brief reunion circa 1985. Both 16 Songs Off a Dead Band’s Chest and Major Minor captured the sound of their shows, but it was clear that their moment of glory had passed.
One contemporary of the Cold’s to follow a meteoric path to national success was the group the Red Rockers. The Red Rockers began, much in the style of the Clash, shouting Socialist dogma to slam dancing punks at Jed’ s, one of the city’s legendary music clubs. After cutting a locally-released independent album, the band latched on with San Francisco’s 415 Records. In 1983, they became the first new music band from New Orleans to have their album Good As Gold nationally distributed by CBS. Gold or not, they did garner an MTV hit with their decidedly Euro-Bourgeois-sounding “China.” A disappointing third album followed and soon the Rockers were no more. Today, lead rocker John Thomas Griffith is back playing the local club circuit, older but wiser, and waiting for another opportunity.
Since that time, very few bands operating outside of the New Orleans tradition have managed to land national recording contracts. In 1989, however, the environment is stronger and more receptive to new music than it’s been since the early ’80s. Following a post-World’s Fair depression that saw many music clubs close their doors, the late ’80s has seen the rise of at least 10 clubs booking primarily alternative music as well as records released by several newer bands.
Jimmy’s, at 8200 Willow, is by far the oldest area club to continually showcase new music. “I don’t base my success on national acts,” said Anselmo, who cites young bands such as Metal Rose, the Mix, Made in Japan, and House of Characters as some of his current headliners. A popular attraction instituted at Jimmy’s are the frequent “All Ages” shows, allowing underage fans (and sometimes band members) to enjoy a fun, legal night of musical entertainment at the club.
While many of the younger bands to play Jimmy’s today lean towards a mainstream rock sound, Muddy Water’s, 8301 Oak St., has in the last two years earned the reputation as a premier club for new and unusual bands. Owner Pat Sullivan brought his family all the way from Australia with the dream of opening a music club in New Orleans. “It seemed like a wise move,” observed Sullivan. “It’s relatively cheap to get involved here and New Orleans has a reputation as a city that likes to drink.”
Today, Muddy Water’s highlights musical terrain similar to Jed’s and Tupelo’s Tavern, two other legendary clubs formerly occupying 8301 Oak St. When asked to describe the differences between running a club in New Orleans, the soft-spoken Sullivan earnestly replies that Aussie patrons “tend to be a little rougher.” The “New Band Showcase” is a frequent and popular attraction at the club. On most such occasions, five new music bands are presented in a marathon show that often packs the cozy club to its capacity. And when bands don’t happen to be on stage, you can still enjoy a variety of specialties from the kitchen or play tunes on an Aussie-packed juke box, featuring the Hoodoo Gurus, Easybeats, Radio Birdman, and loads more esoterica.
In the Faubourg Marigny area, a more artsy, avant garde scene has developed around Cafe Brasil and the recently reopened Dream Palace. An equal sprinkling of tie-dyed hippies and mohawked punks can often be found loitering about, reading subversive literature, or enjoying an espresso. Both clubs specialize in eclectic sounds by such local artists as Nuclear Choir, Skinsect, Primitive Faith, and Insect Chandelier.
Ironically, the club least known as an alternative venue is also the club currently providing new music the highest profile exposure: Tipitina’s. Every Monday night Tipitina’s presents the ‘TUL Box, a program of local and regional new music produced in conjunction with WTUL FM. Jill Ainsworth, WTUL’s New Orleans Music Director, works with Tipitina’s in booking alternative artists who might otherwise never be afforded the opportunity to play a facility the caliber of Tip’s.
“The ‘TUL Box was modeled on a similar show in Liverpool, England,” related Ainsworth. “Originally, the plan was to give virtually any band that could produce a listenable demo, even if it was with a boom box in their mom’s garage, the chance to play under the bright lights. Well, we soon found out that very few people in New Orleans were willing to come out and see three bands they’d never heard of and might never hear from again. We began booking established local and regional bands along with the hest new bands we could find, and the attendance tripled. The cheap beer specials Tip’s introduced probably helped, too,” she added.
The ‘TUL Box is broadcast live each week on WTUL, which offers the added bonus of much-needed radio exposure. The success of the ‘TUL Box was a major reason that WTUL was recently nominated as best college station by the Gavin Report, a noted trade journal. Ainsworth granted that it is a tad disconcerting to see “cabs bring wide-eyed tourists to Tip’s on Mondays expecting Prof. Longhair’s cousin or something and instead finding some Gothic punk band from Houma on stage. The more open-minded tourists stick it out and have a good time anyway.”
Several local clubs now offer New Band Nights, which highlight even more bands still fresh from the garage. Lisa Mednick and Alison Young of the local band The Song Dogs introduced a novel forum with Sunday “Hoot Nights” at Carrollton Station, 8140 Willow Street. Hoot Nights, booked by Young and Mednick, feature local singer/songwriters performing primarily acoustic material. Often, shows feature solo appearances by members of established local bands such as Dash Rip Rock or Shot Down in Equador, Jr. Two Headed Dog, a Song Dogs offshoot featuring Mednick and Young, is also a regular.
Another significant boost to the local scene was provided in 1988 in the form of a project undertaken by LSU business students David Zimbler and John Arrizza. Noting a void in the local recording industry, the two intrepid entrepreneurs formed Martini Records and released Mislabeled, the first progressive compilation record in Louisiana since the early ’80s. The watershed release documented a cross section of the alternative music scenes in Baton Rouge and New Orleans and featured seven area bands. Zimbler and Arrizza followed the successful release with individual records by two of Mislabeled‘s bands, Lower Chakras and Multiple Places. Other bands represented on Mislabeled include Overhang, Shot Down in Equador, Jr., Tabula Rasa, Beyond Einstein’s Eulypian Bats, and the Black Problem. The album’s artists have little in common other than geographic proximity and a commitment to music that extends beyond commercial considerations. One gets the feeling with Mislabeled that underground music scenes from across the country c. 1988 would sound much the same: noisy, eclectic and positively determined.
Currently there are at least thirty bands playing the local circuit, and each reflects lip individual spectrum of influences. Incubus and Exhorder, for example, appeal to the heavy metal crowds, while an entirely different crowd flocks to hardcore shows with bands like Catch 22 or the Black Problem. While there’s far too little space here to accurately describe all the bands one might encounter in some local club hopping, the following are a few of the more interesting and, yes, offbeat bands one might stumble across.
The Blue Runners: Hailing from Lafayette, La., the Blue Runners have been described as Zyde-billy, and that does neatly summarize the band’s influences: equal parts zydeco and rockabilly. If a Cajun two-step is your idea of a boisterous dance, then you’d better stay clear of the dance floor, where energetic pogoing is much more apropos. The Blue Runners and Mamou are two examples of bands that have recently begun to fuse Cajun roots with a predominantly rock and roll beat.
Beyond Einstein’s Eulypian Bats: You already know that they’re winners in the Best Band Name category, but they’re also one of the most original bands New Orleans has spawned in quite a while. Drummer Bill Brandt claims that the band has been evolving over the last three years, but only recently began performing the occasional live gig. “We didn’t bother doing live shows because what we did didn’t lend itself to that. My goal is not to be in a band but to be an experience,” said Brandt. The band soon plans to add a keyboard player and dancers to complement their often jazzy, often dark improvisations. John McLaughlin, Terje Rypdal, and experimental jazz of the late fifties are a few influences that Brandt could mention. Many of their songs consist of poetry recited over instrumental accompaniment, yet the occasional cover crops up. “In Heaven,” that nugget from the cult film classic Eraserhead‘s soundtrack, is not to be missed. The Eulypians are ready for New Orleans, but the question remains, “Is New Orleans ready for the Eulypians?”
Cliff Fauver House Levelers: The House Levelers are one of the most entertaining new bands in the city, but also one of the least experienced. Only drummer Sterling Roig had previous experience in a band. Still, bassist Pete Ficht claims that they’ve already written 38 original songs, but admits that the primary reason they’ve opted against the obligatory covers is “we didn’t know how to play them. We’d try to write a Cajun song or something and it would come out sounding totally different.” The band had its origins playing Hoot Night at Carrollton Station doing what they describe as “thrash folk,” a skewered hybrid of bluegrass, R&B, the Beatles and Monkees, Violent Femmes, and other odd sources Ficht and guitarist Grayson Capps digested in their small-town youths. “We’re learning how to write longer songs,” promises Ficht. As it is, the reckless abandon of their live shows rivals only that of another band known for sub-two-minute songs, Dash Rip Rock. The House Levelers are destined to be a local force. Now if they could only keep their instruments in tune.
Shot Down In Equador, Jr.: Taking their name from an obscure Mary Tyler Moore episode, Shot Down has built up a considerable following both in New Orleans and the South in general. “Psychedelic Hootenany” is their description of the Shot Down sound, and it’s best displayed in the obscure covers that fill out their live shows: Link Wray’s “Rumble,” Dr. Feelgood’s “Let’s Eat,” the Flamin’ Groovies’ “Teenage Head,” Love’s “7 and 7 Is,” and like-minded gems from Tom Jones and the Osmonds. If you see them on the right night, you’ll get the bonus of a psychedelic slide show presentation.
Multiple Places: Probably the longest-lived new music band still performing around town, Multiple Places has been together 7 years. The band is currently in a rebuilding stage of sorts following the suicide last year of vocalist Duncan McCord. The band dedicated their Martini Records album Duncan to the late vocalist, and all proceeds from the album will go towards the treatment of the mentally ill. “It would have been a shame not to have been able to commemorate Duncan’s time with the band,” said bass player Marc Boudousquie. Settly Smith, the original guitarist, is also sticking with the band. With original drummer Rodney Rollins back in the lineup for good and new vocalist Brian Berthiuame settling into his role, the future looks bright for these long-time favorites. “A lot of new music acts have fallen by the wayside in the last few years,” noted Boudousquie. “Determination is the main reason we’ve stayed together.” While Boudousquie acknowledges the fad element to their slightly psychedelic dance sounds, he believes that “the Cold was along the lines of a fad and that hurt them. We do have fad elements, but also musical integrity and a wide range of appeal.” At times resembling the Cult and at others L.A.’s Three O’Clock, Multiple Places throw in liberal doses of psychedelic Beatles covers and an occassional Echo and the Bunnymen song.
The band is currently hoping to latch on to Campus Attractions to enable them to tour more regularly. Even given the historically stagnant state of local new music, Boudousquie sees the scene as “managing a few bright moments despite little or no support” and regards coming from New Orleans as “definitely not a hindrance and possibly even a help.” With Duncan being distributed by three companies in the U.S. and one in Europe, more and more are realizing that New Orleans nurtures more than Marsalis and Neville siblings.