Red Priest need only gaze into his back yard for a tangible, very large reminder of the days when he and his fellow Songdogs were at the forefront of the local music scene.
There it sits: a big ol’ Greyhound bus, a ‘51 Flexible to be exact.
“If you watch that Taco Bell commercial with Willie Nelson, there’s one in there,” offers the guitarist by way of description.
The Songdogs’ take on a roots music foundation spiked with pop flourishes and fiddle riffs had attracted a sizeable hometown following by the late ‘80s. The bus in Priest’s yard carted the seven Dogs on the occasional road trip along the Gulf Coast or to Chicago or Austin.
When the musicians went their separate ways three years ago, Priest held on to the bus. He says it would take a couple thousand dollars to get it rolling again, but all it took to spark a Songdogs reunion was a chance to play at the Jazz Fest and fond collective memories of a good local band that didn’t quite make the leap to the next level.
In addition to a May 1 performance at the Fair Grounds, the group will perform that night at the Howlin’ Wolf on a bill with Pat McLaughlin, on April 25 at the Maple Leaf with the Observers, and again on April 28 at Muddy Water’s.
The Songdogs debuted in April 1986, opening for the original Continental Drifters (the plugged-in forerunner of the subdudes). Based primarily at the Maple Leaf, the Dogs attracted a diverse crowd that cut across age groups. “It was a laid-back crowd,” recalls Priest. “They bought a lot of expensive drinks. The bartenders used to tell [the band], ‘We love you guys.’
“The fans were real loyal. That was a big part of what kept the band growing.”
But after nearly four years and several personnel changes, “the band was showing signs of diffusing,” says Priest. “With a seven-piece band, people had lives to get on with. We’d had a lot of close calls with major record labels. None of them worked out, so everyone decided to go try something else.”
So in December of ‘89, the musicians parted company on good terms, leaving Live Without A Leash, a live album recorded at Tipitina’s, as the Songdogs’ only official legacy.
Some moved away, but none could stay away from the stage. Vocalist Alison Young relocated to New York City, where she has been “heavily influenced by Hawaiian music—apparently that’s the thing up there,” says Priest. Keyboardist Lisa Mednick teamed up with Michelle Shocked for a tour, then recorded and toured with a New Zealand based band, the Chills, until that group disbanded. She now calls Austin home, and fronts Lisa Mednick and Friendly Fire.
Both guitarist Bruce MacDonald and drummer Paul Santopadre are active locally with the Hooligans. Paul Clement (who replaced Lenny Jenkins as the Songdogs’ bassist) was the original bassist with local rock champs Cowboy Mouth, and continues to gig with Woodenhead. Violinist Nancy Buchan (who came on board after the departure of founding member Tom Marron) was Evangeline’s violinist until recently. And Priest has remained active with the New Orleans Blues Department, a “clubhouse for the blues” characterized by “very little maintenance or hassle.”
The reunion ball got rolling when Clement called Buchan and suggested reviving the group, since neither latecomer had really had enough of it.
“We only got in on the last year, and weren’t tired of everything yet,” says Buchan. “For us, it was just starting to jell—we had new parts, and weren’t just filling other people’s shoes.”
After Buchan received positive feedback when she mentioned the possibility of a reunion to folks at the Jazz Fest office, calls went out to the other musicians and “it was immediately unanimous” that reforming was in order.
By early April, most of the members had reported for rehearsal.” Everybody thought they would have forgotten more than they did,” says Priest.” We all jumped in and had a great time.”
They plan to dust off 25 or so old originals, and toss in new compositions written individually since the break-up.
With two members now living elsewhere and everyone heavily involved in other projects, carrying on beyond the Jazz Fest season seems unlikely, though Priest refuses to dismiss the idea.
“We’re not ruling out any possibilities,” says Priest. “It was a good band.”