The blues-rock band revives the ghost of Muddy Waters while trying to not get washed away.
The members of Stavin’ Chain, who spike their rock with a generous portion of mean, 180-proof Delta blues, seem to have a special affinity for sub-standard housing.
Both bassist Joe Sherman and guitarist John Lawrence did time on Religious Street. near the St. Thomas projects. “Guys would come by and pulI knives on my dogs.” says Lawrence. “Every night you’d hear the rapid-fire machine guns.”
Then Sherman, Lawrence and guitarist/vocalist Grayson Capps lived for varying lengths of time on South Front Street, a bizarre, isolated block-long island that faces a wide field and a stretch of Mississippi River wharves and warehouses. It Is as dysfunctional a stretch of urban life as can exist in New Orleans. Its residents have included hookers, drug addicts, a church, a horse, several dogs — and three fourths of Stavin’ Chain.
None of the houses in the little musicians’ collective on Front Street had all the usual utilities. so the neighbors would pool their resources, cooking and taking showers in whomever’s home was equipped with the necessary electricity or gas. “It took me one February shower,” says Grayson. “to realize I needed gas.”
The band’s rhythm section eventually found more sensible lodging. But Capps and Lawrence still live on the edge of civilization. Their most recent neighborhood was along the Mississippi River near the Orleans-Jefferson Parish line — on the wrong side of the levee.
The half-moon of no-man’s land whose size fluctuates with the height of the river is called the batture. It is concealed by a stand of willows and covered with a jumble of vines and banana trees, old tires and driftwood, broken-down trucks and rickety walkways.
A hodge-podge of 10 or so houses in various states of disrepair are perched above the river sand on poles — a sort of Appalachia-on-the-river. John Lawrence’s dwelIing is one of the smalIest; his one-room shack is more of a tool shed than a home. It has no electricity (“I have other things I want to do before I get electricity,” says ,Lawrence. “Like musical equipment. I can go to my girlfriend’s for air-conditioning”).
In late spring, when the ice and snow of the mid-west melts and swells the Mississippi, the water laps at Lawrence’s porch. “It starts rising around Mardi Gras,” he says. “and by Jazz Fest. it’s up to the porch.”
But the rent is dirt cheap. And its saving grace is its back porch: 10 waterlogged planks that sag under the feet of the musicians. The view from the porch is a perfect picture window of the Mississippi, framed by fronds of willow trees, Bono of U2 has reportedly visited the porch, when a friend of the previous occupant brought the singer by to sample the ambiance.
Capps and Lawrence, shaggy modern-day Huck Finns. led relatively bucolic lives there (at least until recently-Capps’ landlord; whom he had never met. materialized from Mexico one day, and started making accusations and threats directed at Capps; he will likely move away). They hosted parties around bonfires and played music for their friends. Lawrence appointed himself caretaker of a grassy puddle teeming with tadpoles, feeding them fish food and carting water up from the river when their pond was low. Massive ships as big as planets passing on the river lend a quiet drama. “Sometimes you’ll feel this presence,” says Grayson. “It’ll be quiet, except for a low hmmmmmm. You look outside and see this big fucking thing” — he stretches his arms out wide — “that takes up your whole field of view.”
“When you sing down there, it totally eats up everything, so your voice sounds pure-all you hear is what you’re yellin’, instead of the echoes off of walls and doors.” says Capps.
“I come sit,out on this porch and play,” says Lawrence. “You hear that hum across the river? There are a lot of weird sounds like that floating around that you get in tune with and play with. I haven’t had a day job for a while. so that’s been my day. sittin’ out here and playin’…”
Grayson Capps moved to New Orleans from rural south Alabama to study at Tulane. After graduating, he stuck around, for he had discovered the joys of performance on the music stage. He and his “thrash-folk” group, the House Levelers, gained some notoriety. They released one album on the Tipitina’s label. No Definitions, and toured throughout the eastern United States.
But the Levelers always seemed like two bands in one: bassist Pete Ficht (who now fronts Noisecandy) wrote and sang songs that tended toward the nasally. sneering tone of the Violent Femmes, while Capps wrote and sang earthier, country-flavored tunes with his deep-chested baritone. The styles were destined to diverge from one another, and finally did two years ago.
Lawrence came to New Orleans seven years ago, after growing up in Connecticut and working as a commercial diver harvesting sea urchins in California. He was a late bloomer on the six string — he had given it up in high school in favor of the saxophone, and only picked it up again after he reached New Orleans and enrolled at Tulane.
He was not a natural-born killer on guitar. “The first time I met John,” remembers Capps. “I was rehearsing with Pete, and a [mutual] friend [of Capps and Lawrence) said, ‘You guys should jam.’ I was playing some chord thing, and John was going dink, dink. I was like, ‘Man, this fucker can’t play.'”
No one knew that more than Lawrence. He began an intensive, solitary period of woodshedding. “Next thing I know,” says Grayson, “John’s a maniac, locking himself up and playing.”
“That was back when I had a record player,” says Lawrence. “I spent nights just pickin’ through songs, learnin’ them, wearin’ the record out.
“Before [moving to New Orleans], I was listening to Robert Johnson, but when I got here I was able to see people play that stuff. I’d go see John Mooney or someone, and I’d learn a lot by watching.”
He learned his lessons well; like Robert Johnson, when Lawrence emerged from his cocoon of isolation, he was a real player. “I moved next to him on South Front Street,” says Capps, “and I’d hear him play through the walls, and sometimes I’d think it was the record. Then I’d realize it was John. He learned everything he knows in three or four years.”
Armed with acoustic guitars — neither one of them owned electric instruments at the time — Capps and Lawrence worked the sidewalks of the French Quarter. Eventually, they realized they had the foundation for a band, and set out to find a rhythm section.
Mike Barras had been the Levelers’ drummer in the band’s final incarnation. A New Orleans native, he started pounding the skins at 14 with a series of punk bands. Eventually he hooked up with classic rocker Dino Kruse, and spent nearly eight years on the road with Kruse.
After leaving Kruse, Barras joined the House Levelers and tried his hand at original alternative rock. When that band fell apart, he went back to working the kind of jobs-session work, Gulf Coast casino gigs with R&B cover bands — that have allowed him to support himself as a professional musician for years.
But he stayed in touch with Capps. “I had a lot of faith in Grayson as a front person,” says Barras. “As a ‘sideman, you’re always looking for a frontman with charisma — that’s hard to find.”
When Capps’ new project looked like it would be blues-based, Barras was not filled with enthusiasm, fearing it would not leave him much room to experiment as a drummer. But this was more “super-heavy, Led Zeppelin blues,” and Barras found that Capps’ arrangements still let him be a rocker. He was in.
Joe Sherman, too, did not yearn to play the blues. He had picked up bass his senior year at Syracuse University. After graduating with a psychology degree, he decided the suit-and-tie world was not for him, “so I figured I’d stick with bass for a little while.” He saved money from his bartending gig to buy equipment, and joined a three piece rock band in Massachusetts. The night before that band’s first big show, the guitarist had a nervous breakdown. Sherman took that as an omen, and left town.
He had liked New Orleans on past visits, so he “floated down on a prayer” — and, for his first local job, found himself working security at the Krewe du Vieux party with Capps, whose new band was still bass-less.
Like Barras, Sherman was inclined to take a pass on what he thought was a blues band. After checking it out, though, he discovered, “it was a lot more rocking than I had anticipated. I thought it was going to be strict blues. But there was room in the songs to throw in a little funky part and do what I wanted.” (Thus, you will see the bassist in this band slapping the strings with his thumb when necessary.)
Exactly what Stavin’ Chain is is something of a mystery.
“Since we started out, we’ve had trouble labeling it, or describing it,” says Sherman. “It’s got a definite sound …most people who come out to hear it say it’s ‘blues-rock.'”
“I think we’re just starting to hit our sound,” says Capps. “It incorporates the blues sound, but it’s also got an edge. I think we’re a perfect balance between Pearl Jain and John Mooney. We’re the missing link. There’s such a difference between alternative bands and blues bands. We’re not an alternative band, we’re not a blues band, we’re …I don’t know.
“I like blues, but I get bored, with basic blues. I like the rawness and the balls of the blues, b!lt a lot of blues can, with better lyrics…It can be taken in great directions. A lot of blues guys ride on their guitar playing, and the lyrics are just there to have lyrics. I want something simple, a darker, rootsier thing with no limitations. We’re not saying we’re a blues band. We’re just a band, and we’re coming up with the shit we come up with.”
It has served many an artist well to become the de facto house band at some joint, a venue where the performers can make a stand, where the only way to go is up. For the late Shreveport bluesman John Campbell, whose growling, rocked out blues is a close cousin to that of Stavin’ Chain, the place was Crossroads, in New York’s SoHo. For the Neville Brothers, it was Benny’s Bar, on Valence in Uptown.
And for Stavin’ Chain, it is Pasquallies (where they will perform Oct. 14th &- 29th; they play Carrollton Station on Oct. 1st and the Howlin’ Wolf on the 6th), which occupies the ramshackle space that once was Benny’s.
“Five hours is kind of rough, but it’s a good workout,” says Capps. “You can’t do any bullshit there — you’re in a gutted room with a bad P.A: You’re either good or you’re bad — it’s a stark reality.”
There is a common thread that runs through Pasquallies, Stavin’ Chain’s music, and the places where the musicians live.
“There’s a kind of rottenness to it that’s pure — it’s got a basic honesty,” says Capps. “You get caught up in the city, you get off the ground. But here you’re definitely on the ground” — he stares out over the Mississippi — “and on the water.
“Hopefully, I’ll get to a point where I’m like, ‘I remember those days–that was great.’ Now it’s like, ‘Give me money.'”
He laughs. “Even if I had money,” he decides, “I’d still like to live here.”