Before reading any further, stop to picture in your mind what you think of when you hear the words “New Orleans music.” I’ll wait.
Now, what did you see? If you are like most of us, you probably envisioned an old Creole slouched in a chair with a clarinet in his mouth. Or perhaps a young brass band in Jackson Square playing for tourist dollars. Or a second-line funeral procession followed by hanky-waving, umbrella-twirling revelers. Maybe the swing of the Marsalis family, or the low-down funk of the Neville Brothers comes to mind.
But how many of you envisioned a rock band? Let’s be honest.
It is ironic that the roots of rock ‘n’ roll can be traced right back to New Orleans, but that New Orleans is not usually associated with rock. Local fans know better.
New Orleans was seminal in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll. As Ernie K-Doe once postulated, all music came from New Orleans. This is a gross over-generalization, of course, but as most American music derived from the blues (even though Chicago and Memphis may lay claims on the blues today), its seeds were planted by floating upstream on the Mississippi River from New Orleans.
The blues’ contribution to rock ‘n’ roll and a further derivation—rock—cannot be overstated. The lineage follows: today’s Motley Crue copied Eddie Van Halen who copied Eric Clapton who copied John Lee Hooker.
Rock ‘n’ roll was first recognized when white musicians like Elvis and Bill Haley appealed to restless youth by following the lead of black musicians in New Orleans, Memphis and elsewhere. Parents immediately protested that the “jungle beat” corrupted youth.
New Orleans played a major part in the early days of rock ‘n’ roll. Antoine Fats Domino emerged as the premier New Orleans rock ‘n’ roller by simply playing the New Orleans rhythm and blues piano style of the time with a heavy 6/8 beat. Domino and many others, including Little Richard, recorded many hits using New Orleans musicians at the legendary Cosimo Matassa’s studio.
But that was then. Today, the “New Orleans sound” is not usually associated with rock ‘n’ roll, perhaps unjustly. Part of New Orleans’ appeal could stem from the fact that it contains so much music that is not rock, and there is plenty of rock ‘n’ roll in the world, so why come here to find it?
The local Uptown crowd, however, consists of many college students and graduates, and they love their rock. Two major rock clubs that feature local acts, Jimmy’s and Muddy Water’s, sit a couple blocks from each other in the Carrollton area.
Jimmy Anselmo, owner of Jimmy’s, says that the identity of New Orleans as a jazz and R&B town is a myth. “There is less than a handful of R&B that really does well. Rock does better.”
Pat Sullivan, owner of Muddy Water’s, explains that the predominance of R&B clubs is a tourist phenomenon.
While rock remains the most popular music of choice for young people, and since they continue to be the ones who go out to clubs the most, it follows that rock does better than any other style of music.
So why the shortage of rock clubs? “This city is not big enough to accommodate more clubs,” said Anselmo, “or else it would.”
Anselmo says he usually gets 200 to 300 people on a good night, or 500 to 600 for Dash Rip Rock and other top draws (though many local acts will attest that a weekday night at Jimmy’s can be lonely).
The rock scene is not as indigenous to New Orleans as the R&B and jazz scenes are. Rock musicians in general are not nurtured and raised by the local rhythms as much as the other styles, but borrow more from their favorite national acts. Still, several bands are easily recognizable as having that New Orleans beat behind them.
The Radiators, perhaps the premier rock band from New Orleans today, combines Southern slide guitar and honky tonk piano with the funky R&B rhythms of New Orleans. The Rads’ unique brand of “fishhead music” began to get national airplay several years ago with the release of the excellent Law of the Fish album. They continue to draw packed houses for the occasional two-night stands at Tipitina’s.
Perpetually waiting in the wings of discovery, Tribe Nunzio combines localized funk grooves with progressive art rock like a hard-edged Talking Heads.
Together for several years, Four-For-Nothing has evolved into one of the area’s tightest rock units, a band with a legitimate claim to the “New Orleans rock” tag. They show their heritage not with second-line rhythms, but through Caribbean-influenced percussion and a global scope with their lyrics and outlook. .
Dash Rip Rock is not immediately recognizable as a New Orleans-sounding band, but they definitely have the Southern thing down. With a brand-new live album out (Boiled Alive, on Mammoth), they continue to draw large crowds and perform one of the liveliest shows in town with their whiskey-drinking, bottle-throwing Southern thrash with a tasteless humor chaser.
Fronted by drummer Fred LeBlanc and guitarist John Thomas Griffith, Cowboy Mouth plays pop/rock with hard-core energy and vigor. LeBlanc continues to live up to the legendary stage antics he was famous for in Dash Rip Rock, beating the shit out of his drums and, before all is said and done, his body.
The remarkable thing about him is that, along with the reckless abandon, he has a beautiful and powerful voice, making him a new, somewhat demented, mutant breed of the all-around entertainer.
For national acts, Tipitina’s Monday night TulBox, broadcast live over Tulane’s WTUL 90.5 FM, features progressive and alternative rock. Originally set up for local acts, it has featured more national acts of late, including Drivin’ and Cryin’, Firehose, Poi Dog Pondering and Throwing Muses.
For local alternative rock, Metairie’s Howlin’ Wolf had become the preeminent venue until owner Jack Groetsch closed the club down to re-open in the Warehouse District (at press time, Groetsch was shooting for a mid-September opening, and said he planned to throw a little more traditional music into the alternative mix).
Muddy Water’s, with its Sunday alternative series, has balanced its traditional line-up with alternative acts. Pat Sullivan’s club may feature Shot Down in Ecuador, Jr., the “thrash-folk” of the House Levelers, funk-tinged Smilin’ Myron, the Vince Berman Trio, Moving Targets and Black Piranha. Muddy’s regularly features several bands in one night, so you can get an earful of new sounds.
Jimmy’s books the more popular local rockers, including Dash Rip Rock and Cowboy Mouth (Anselmo predicts that these two will soon outgrow his club). He also regularly features Tribe Nunzio, the classic rock of Metal Rose, and the House Levelers. Anselmo recommends the folksy pop sounds of Peabody, and the Phantoms, which he compares to the Black Crowes. Newer acts include Overload and Black Diamond.
Spirits has come in to fill the hole the Howlin’ Wolf left in Metairie by featuring progressive rock on Saturday nights, at least for now. Metal heads will want to check out Neo Beach for the occasional heavy metal show, including Cinderella on September 8.
In the meantime, we’re still rooting for that one great band to put us back on the rock map.