A quick glance at the blues of Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone, Andy J. Forest, Blues With A Feeling and N.O.B.D.
It’s time again to ask that question — where are the blues in New Orleans? Or more to the point, perhaps, what are the blues in New Orleans and who is playing them?
The answer is as diversified as ever. The blues is woven into the fabric of nearly every music associated with New Orleans: rhythm & blues, funk, brass band music, traditional and modern jazz. It is everywhere. It’s found in the yearning gospel-based plea of Marva Wright, rompin’ and stompin’ in the ferocious sounds John Mooney rips from his guitar, growling in the alley with J. Monque’D, stretching out almost unrecognizably in the steamy funk of the Meters, being given unique treatment by the “human jukebox” Snooks Eaglin, and recreated by the indomitable Earl King. The blues are abundant in New Orleans; they’re just not very easily defined.
Here, then, is a look at some of the lesser-known working bluesmen on the New Orleans scene.
Harp Player Johnny Sansone, otherwise known as Jumpin’ Johnny, is perhaps this area’s hardest-working “unknown” blues player. Johnny has been working in New Orleans for several years and appears at local clubs regularly, participates in the annual “Blues Harmonica Showdown,” has appeared at Jazz Fest, and has done extensive session work, mostly at King Snake Studio in Sanford, Florida. He has two albums of his own out, Where Ya At (on King Snake with Ronnie Earl) and Mr. Good Thing (also recorded at King Snake and featuring Lucky Peterson, Kenny Neal and C.J. Chenier). He is working on a third recording of all-
originals, to feature Joe Cabral, Rod Hodges and Derek Huston from the Iguanas (all three were members of Johnny’s first band) plus Sonny Landreth and Jon Cleary.
Sansone tours extensively (most recently to Europe and Canada), and Is one ,more example of, as Johnny says, “Revered abroad, neglected at horne …” His original songs are wry and witty, and stretch the classic blues traditions. He plays a more-than-passable accordion and possesses a gritty blues voice.
But his coup de grace is his manipulation of the harmonica. He’s learned from the best, having hung out with James Cotton and Junior Wells early on in his career. He can blow big fat round notes reminiscent of Cotton or sweet and soulful like Wells on slow blues and ballads.
His current band’s live set includes equal parts covers and originals. Sansone’s own songs run the gamut of blues styles and include the caustic jump blues “She Wants Money” and the rockabilly-esque “Anything Anytime.” He peppers the rest of his repertoire with covers by his favorite blues heroes, featuring tunes by Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf,James Cotton, and Muddy Waters.
On the road and in session Sansone favors sidemen Rick Olivarez on guitar, Jim Starboard on drums and Steve Riggs on bass. Johnny sometimes sits in at the Absinthe Bar on Bourbon Street, with Bryan Lee’s excellent band, and at the AbSinthe on Sundays and Mondays with Blues With a Feeling.
Harmonica player Andy J. forest has recorded nine albums, plays 200 dates a year, and manages to get better sidemen (for sessions, road and in-town gigs) than almost anyone else. Case in point: his latest CD, Bluesness As Usual, on Italy’s Appaloosa Records (the title tune is about Checkpoint Charlie’s), features Jack Cole, John Mooney, Earl Turbinton, Johnny Vidacovich, Billy Gregory, Marc Adams, and David Lee Watson.
Although he calls New Orleans home, Forest spends seven to eight months a year in Europe touring, and has recorded most of his product for European labels. Bluesness As Usual is one of two CDs available in the States at this time (but most are available by mail order). That partially explains how he gets those premium sidemen to play with him: steady road and studio work.
His latest CD is 100 percent originals. While most of his songwriting is reminiscent of the blues originals Forest learned early on, his lyrics are poetic slices of real life and make the songs uniquely his own.
His live set Is a mix of originals and covers. His harmonica heroes are Sonny Terry, Little Walter, Big Walter Horton, Charlie Musselwhite and Paul Butterfield. His powerful blowing and tasty riffs pay tribute to all. He sprinkles his original tunes in between material by Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon, and turns in a smokin’ version of Jimmy Forrest’s “Night Train.”
Forest possesses the key to good harp playing: he keeps it interesting and avoids lapsing into runs up and down the instrument for fill. A recent night at the Rivershack found Forest in fine form with, as usual, a stellar supporting group: the incredibly fluid and tasteful Billy Gregory on guitar, rock steady bass man David Lee Watson, and solid timekeeper Chewy Brown on drums. A highlight of the set was “Crazy Legs,” an updated “Willie-and-the-Hand-jive” type tune that Forest wrote and on which he accompanied himself on rubboard.
Although he graces us with only brief appearances a couple of times a year, when Andy is in town he definitely kicks the blues listening level up a notch.
As the saying goes, 100,000 tourists can’t be all wrong. The frequent buzz heard from visitors to our city is to check out Blues With A Feeling at the Absinthe Bar. The band got started 10 years ago when Bryan Lee (the AbSinthe’s nighttime mainstay) booted Red Westin out of his band. The Absinthe wanted a band to fill the late afternoon time slot and back up a young singer by the name of Marva Wright. Westin obliged and put a band together and has been there since. (He originally came from Wisconsin with Lee and today the two bluesmen are good friends). As Westin put it, “This [the Absinthe Bar] is the real House of Blues.”
For most musicians, working on Bourbon Street is a blessing and curse. On one hand, it’s a steady and, usually, regular gig (they often play six or seven nights a week), while at the same time it’s somewhat of a dead-end job, in the sense that there is little room to stretch out and be creative. This particular version of Blues With A Feeling, however, seems to avoid the mundane by employing two of the city’s finest guitarists as front men and vocalists, Mem Shannon and Michael Bacon. Bacon is a multi-instrumentalist — he plays fiddle, mandolin and banjo — who doses his guitar playing with equal parts Stevie Ray, Albert King and Michael Bacon. His style is more rock-oriented than Shannon’s, but the beauty of the combination is that they compliment and support each other so well. While Shannon’s forte might be a slow blues like Albert King’s “Angel of Mercy,” Bacon shines on the more up-tempo material, such as a funked-up version of Robert johnson’s “Crossroads.” While one solos the other provides creative support as a rhythm guitarist, bringing back memories of the Elvin Bishop/Mike Bloomfield combination in the original Paul Butterfield band. Backed by the firm foundation laid down by Westin and Roger Martin on drums, this band is as professional and soulful as it gets.
NOBD (New Orleans Blues Department) has been around for years and has employed, at one time or another, a virtual who’s who of New Orleans musicians. Revolving around the core group of Red Priest (formerly the Songdogs’ guitarist), Spike Perkins (bass) and Denny O’Toole (drums), the unit has served up at various times some powerhouse local musicians: Michael Sklar and David Raynor (Willie Lockett and the Blues Krewe), Tom Fitzpatrick (Walter “Wolfman” Washington), Willie Panker (Sun pie Barnes and formerly the Iguanas), Snakebite (Thunder Blues Review), and, on a recent night at Vic’s Kangaroo Cafe, a visiting Nancy Buchan (formerly of Evangeline).
The band has been an on-again off-again affair, mainly due to other commitments of the musicians involved. But it keeps coming back together for one reason: a love of the blues. Here again, with a glance at their songlist, one sees the blues broadly defined. One of their signature tunes is Lee Dorsey’s rock & roll favorite, “Ride Your Pony”; they cover other material by New Orleans musicians such as Earl King and Snooks Eaglin.
According to Priest, the band’s repertoire is determined by who is in the band at the time and their particular musical proclivities. Priest is a big Freddy King fan; thus, the band regularly includes “Tore Down,” “Have You Ever Loved a Women,” and “Hideaway.” At any given time, you’ll always hear a lot of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, as those are mainstays of the band’s program.
This is a band that plays for fun as opposed to grinding out meticulous historical renditions of the blues — this is a low-pressure project. Not to say they don’t play well — the musicians involved are all seasoned vets — they just play juke-joint style: loose and easy.
The blues are alive and well in New Orleans. The Absinthe Bar, Rivershack Tavern, Vic’s Kangaroo Cafe, Mid-City Bowling Lanes, MasIigan’s, Dixie Taverne, Checkpoint Charlie’s, Dragon’s Den, House of Blues and Rhythms all serve up blues bands on a regular basis.
Other good local blues performers worth hearing include Merritt and the Bloodhounds, harp men Rockin’ jake and J. Monque’D, Paula and the Pontiacs, guitarist/vocalist Coco Robicheaux, vocalist Marva Wright, and Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters.