EGG YOLK JUBILEE: THURSDAY, MAY 4—LAGNIAPPE STAGE, 5:30 P.M.
For 20 years now, the members of Egg Yolk Jubilee have practiced in the “Jefferson Orleans North” ballroom in Metairie, performing their songs for what looks like an empty senior prom. The seven current band members set up their gear on the dancefloor. Long white drapes frame the vast main room. In the hall’s center a glimmering chandelier hangs near a spiral staircase that rises to the white heavens. The sound of horns warming up fills the vast space. Behind the band, at every single practice for 20 years, has loomed a full bar. This alone would have killed a lesser band long ago.
But here we are, celebrating the 20-year anniversary of Egg Yolk Jubilee, and the hard-to-describe yet consummately New Orleans band’s closing set at the Lagniappe Stage (5:30 to 6:30) at Jazz Fest on May 4.
I made the sacrifice and drove out to Metry just to listen to them practice their upcoming set. This year will represent only the third time EYJ has performed at Jazz Fest. “I think the last time was in 2008,” sax man and guitarist Paul Grass struggles to recall. “I can’t speak for anyone else in the band, but I can’t remember anything about it. Not even because I was fucked up. It was just so great! I just remember I couldn’t believe I was playing at the fricking Jazz Fest! I remember we pleaded with drummer Charlie Kohlmeyer to play that gig with us and he learned all our songs in two weeks.”
Since then, much has changed for the band, mostly for the better.
In their beginnings, you might have described Egg Yolk as what Zappa woulda sounded like had he procured a wicked New Orleans horn section and concerned himself a bit more with making people dance. They were fast, and they were funny. But EYJ has also always had what they call their “roast beef set” down pat. “The roast beef part of the set list is all the old-sounding stuff, our old originals, like Paul’s ‘Candy Store’ from [1999’s] Champions of Breakfast,” says bassist Mike Hogan. “When you’re playing events, like weddings or Mardi Gras corporate events, there is always the ‘roast beef’ collection of music you’d play while everyone is at the carving table, eating, before they get liquored up. The more trad stuff gets pushed to the roast beef part. Then when they get liquored up you can push into the more experimental territory.”
In the ’90s, Egg Yolk’s wicked horns made them the most trad band playing at the Dixie Tavern and other punk and rock venues with acts like Lump, Black Problem and others. But the band members agree that the wing of New Orleans’ music scene that once housed the more esoteric, non-traditional bands has shrunk considerably since the “alternative” ’90s. “When we first started out we were kind of media darlings,” remembers trumpet player Eric Belletto. “We won a Best of the Beat Award, then a Big Easy Award. But I think Paul mouthed off to Emeril Lagasse,” he hypothesizes when asked why the band hasn’t played Jazz Fest in almost a decade. “At the Big Easy Awards, Emeril came over to meet us and Paul said to him, ‘Make me food!’ Which was a quote from when Emeril was on the show Space Ghost Coast to Coast—but Emeril just walked away.”
The band later recorded a jingle meant to sell Emeril’s cookware, so clearly the powerful chef has not kept the band off the Jazz Fest stage all these years. Still, there lingers the inescapable feeling that Egg Yolk Jubilee are now oddballs in New Orleans’s current music scene—no genre, no peers.
“These days we are too rock for the jazz crowd and too jazz for the rock crowd,” Belletto bemoans.
I meet the whole band again at the Second Line Brewery to discuss its new 20th Anniversary Greatest Hits record, which features three new songs. After one beer, I’m loose enough to boss the bartender to play this “new” Egg Yolk CD over the main speakers. He says he’ll do what he can. To be safe, I also give a copy of the CD to the bar’s manager, and press him a little too.
As we talk on about the music, we hear Paul Grass’s song, “Whatcha Doin’ Baby,” from 2008’s Labor of Lunch album, begin to play over the PA outside on the bar’s patio. As we discuss the song’s particulars, another version of the same tune begins playing on another set of speakers inside the bar. I stand to go ask the manager to please turn one of the CDs off, but the band stops me.
“It’s sort of fitting,” Paul Grass smiles as two versions of the same Egg Yolk song smash into each other in a disorienting tangle overhead.
“We are the Murphy’s Law band,” admits Geoff Douville. “Whatever can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Finally someone notices the Egg Yolk sound clash and turns one version off in time for one of the record’s new songs, “Black Droz,” written by Belletto, who explains, “It’s about a specific pair of underwear I wear when I’m feeling like a bad motherfucker; I wear my black droz.” The song’s repeating refrain fills the brewery: “If I go out tonight, there might be a fight/ I’m not takin any chances/ I start preparing with what I’m wearing, underneath my pantses.”
Belletto, who teaches band at St. Bernard Middle School and helps manage horns for Quintron’s 9th Ward Marching Band, joins Grass on sax, tuba player Glenn Barberot (whose family owns the Jefferson Orleans North building), and the newest and only young member of Egg Yolk Jubilee, 27-year-old Mac McCann (who, for those keeping score, was six years old when Egg Yolk formed). McCann first met Mike Joseph at a second line parade in 2014, and Joseph initiated him into the 9th Ward Marching Band, which led to the permanent Egg Yolk gig. “Their early stuff was more erratic,” says McCann, whose appreciation for Egg Yolk runs deep enough for him to drive out to the wedding hall in frickin’ Metairie every Thursday. “The new stuff we do is way heavier, I feel. It’s weird music, but it’s fun.”
During our interview, the name Mike Joseph pops up in every answer to every question. Joseph passed away last year, and Belletto especially cannot speak of Egg Yolk at all without constantly mentioning the multi-instrumentalist and band co-founder. Joseph is much missed in the band’s horn section, though he’s certainly still there in the sound. “When Mike was in the band, there were a lot of double trumpet parts that now can’t be replicated,” says Belletto. “Mike would actually switch between trumpet and baritone during one set—which I’ve tried to do, and there’s no way. It’s absolutely a different set of muscles. And it’s a tribute to Mike Joseph the superman musician that he could pull that off—even if it wasn’t always pretty.”
Guitarist Geoff Douville provides much of the band’s rock edge, only sometimes backed on rhythm guitar by Paul Grass. Mike Hogan not only plays bass but also guides the band’s recording sessions, mixing and mastering.
The biggest and best change in Egg Yolk’s world has been the addition of tight, reliable, rock ’n’ roll engine: drummer Keith Hajjar, formerly of Rock City Morgue and New Orleans Bingo! Show. Pre-Hajjar, Egg Yolk had more than twice as many drummers as Spinal Tap, and not really to their benefit. “We are not the kind of New Orleans band you can just sit in with,” attests Geoff Douville. “We have songs, and they have a lot of changes, so you have to learn our songs first—which means every time we switch drummers, it’s completely different styles of drumming, and everything is an adjustment. But in my opinion this is the best we have ever sounded, with Keith.”
Mike Hogan, who joined Egg Yolk in 2004 and has played with six different drummers in the band since, concurs: “Keith became a glue we never had, someone I could really rely on and communicate with, someone who remembers the cues and does not leave you hanging out in the cold. Keith really tied it all together like a nice rug.”
Hajjar, however, happened to join EYJ in the summer of 2010, just as the band was really beginning to cultivate their alter ego as a street-walking brass band, which today marches with five or six different parades each Mardi Gras season, including the diminutive ’tit Rex parade. “We actually started the brass band version of Egg Yolk for Krewe du Vieux in 1999,” remembers Douville. “Davis Rogan talked us into that, since we were already doing all that goofy trad jazz—the roast beef set. Davis has actually talked us into quite a few things over the years. He’s a persuasive guy.”
Hajjar, however, did not have his “roast beef set” down yet. “It’s so much fun to play that stuff now, but at the time I had no experience with traditional music at all,” says Hajjar. “And they started me right off in the second line, dropped me in the Treme, with black kids laughing at me everywhere, like ‘Let’s see what you got,’ and I’m like ‘I don’t know what I’m doing!’” Hajjar says that Belletto has used his teacher superpowers to get his trad chops up to speed. “I’m still always learning from these guys and this music,” says Hajjar. “It’s an amazing educational experience.”
The band today is in a decidedly different position than the last time they begged a brand new drummer to help them eke out a Jazz Fest set in two weeks for 2008. Hajjar has now played with the band for seven years straight, and EYJ has added a decade more of experience to its odd name. “This is hands down the longest relationship of my life,” Douville laughs.
“And this time,” adds Paul Grass, referring to Egg Yolk Jubilee’s long-awaited return to Jazz Fest, “we’re gonna be ready.”