When these tribes meet, turn up the heat. Big Chief Juan Pardo and the Golden Comanche bring Mardi Gras Indian rhythm, chant, and splendor to the party. The New Orleans Suspects supply groove-heavy music inspired by New Orleans’s classic funk and rhythm and blues. United in music and culture, the combined entities become Tribal Gold.
Tribal Gold made its debut at this year’s MOMs (Mystic Krewe of Orphans and Misfits) Mardi Gras Ball. The group will perform again May 19 at Bayou Boogaloo. Tribal Gold festival appearances are also scheduled throughout the country this spring. Recordings are in the works, too, with a vinyl 45 rpm single slated to be the new group’s debut release.
The union of the Suspects and the Golden Comanche has been in the works for a decade. Pardo first joined the Suspects on the road and later in the studio. He co-wrote “Round Up Dem Suspects,” a track on the Suspects’ 2016 album, Kaleidoscoped. The song merges Pardo’s lyrics and singing with the band’s contemporary take on old-school funk.
“Juan and the band wrote that song together,” Suspects guitarist Jake Eckert said one recent afternoon at the Rhythm Shack studio in Uptown. “It worked great. Fast-forward a few years, we’re writing music together again in the same way. The blocks just fit together.”
The New Orleans Suspects began in 2009 as The Unusual Suspects. The band soon expanded from its club of origin, the Maple Leaf Bar, to nationwide touring. Its current membership is Eckert (The Dirty Dozen Brass Band), “Mean” Willie Green (The Neville Brothers, Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Paul Simon), saxophonist Jeff Watkins (James Brown, Joss Stone) and keyboardist CR Gruver (Outformation, Angie Aparo). Newest member Eric Vogel (Victor Wooten, North Mississippi Allstars) replaced former bassist, Reggie Scanlan of Radiators fame, in the Suspects’ lineup.
Pardo contributes Mardi Gras Indian authenticity and a wealth of musical experience; from 1996 through 2005, he worked in the hot Atlanta hip-hop scene as a producer and beat maker. Since his return to New Orleans in 2006, he’s recorded with Galactic, Bo Dollis, 101 Runners, and performed with Dr. John, Monk Boudreaux, Trombone Shorty, Patti LaBelle, Cyril Neville, and Anders Osborne.
“As culturally powerful as Juan is in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition,” Eckert said, “he’s also a great singer who understands the language of music.”
Pardo’s musical and production knowledge impressed Suspects member Watkins, too. “We just got invited to the table,” Watkins said, as he sat with Pardo and Eckert in the Rhythm Shack.
Pardo credits the Suspects with seeing beyond his Indian suit. “Because there are stigmas that follow the Indians,” Pardo said. “Whereas some people only know, ‘Yeah, he’s an Indian,’ Jake, Jeff and the whole Suspects crew, they hang with Big Chief, but they also know Juan.”
Pardo and the Suspects see Tribal Gold as a new expression of classic 1970s albums featuring Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias (with Willie Tee, Snooks Eaglin, Earl Turbinton Jr., and Alfred “Uganda” Roberts) and The Wild Tchoupitoulas (with The Meters and the future Neville Brothers band).
“Everybody remembers when they first heard They Call Us Wild and The Wild Tchoupitoulas albums,” Eckert said. “The Wild Tchoupitoulas was like nothing I’d heard before. Those albums have such strong writing and arranging and performing. They are staples. But now it’s time to create something new.”
“This is the right situation,” Pardo said, “to explore what we’ve been talking about over the past ten years. And what makes this unique is that, although it’s complicated to take on the tribe, in every possible occasion the Tribal Gold project features almost the whole Golden Comanche tribe on stage.”
“It’s not just Juan,” Eckert added. “It’s the whole gang.”
In 2017, during a performance of “Round Up Dem Suspects,” Pardo experienced a magical moment at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with the Suspects and Golden Comanche spy boy Isaac Kinchen. “When it got to certain parts of the lyrics, I stopped, just to let the crowd take it,” Pardo recalled. “I watched people sing the lyrics back to me, as far out there in the back as I can see.”
“It wasn’t contrived,” Eckert said. “That was when we first knew this really works well together.”
If Tribal Gold’s March appearance at Tampa’s Gasparilla Music Festival was a sign of things to come, audiences throughout the country are ready for the Suspects’ and Golden Comanches’ new fusion of music and Indians. “People weren’t sure quite what to expect,” Eckert said of the Tampa show. “Some people have heard of the New Orleans Suspects, but not many had seen Mardi Gras Indians. That’s one thing to remember—when you leave New Orleans, there’s not much knowledge of the Indians’ culture out there. Many people have never actually seen it in action. But in Tampa, a few thousand people were in awe.”
“It’s time for a resurgence,” Watkins said.
Sunday, May 19
Friends of Bayou St. John Orleans Stage, 4:40 p.m.