Author Archives: John Swenson

Protecting Dave Bartholomew’s Legacy

The modest, wood-frame house at 1616 N. Galvez St. looks pretty much like all its neighbors, but the front door leads to a dynastic kingdom inside. Walk through the sparsely furnished living room and you come to the office of Bang-N-Records and the Bartholomew Boyz, where the sons and grandsons of New Orleans music pioneer Dave Bartholomew are still making records. The walls are lined with visual representations of the past 60 years of New Orleans music, from ’50s and ’60s album covers of Dave Bartholomew productions to large-scale posters of hip-hop artists produced by Dave’s son Don, better known as Don B.

Dave Bartolomew, Elsa Hahne, cover story, OffBeat Magazine, July 2014

Photo by Elsa Hahne

On this particular weekday night, Don B. is hunkered down at the back of the house in the production studio. Looking unruffled in his dark aviator sunglasses, Don B. sits at his computer keyboard, wearing headphones and oblivious to the party swirling around him as he concentrates on his work.

The room is filled with people laughing, smoking and generally keeping spirits lively, including Don B.’s sons Don Bartholomew, Jr. (Supa Dezzy), Blake Bartholomew (TrakkaBeats) and Chris McGee (Sup Crew Y.C.), and Bang-N-Records rapper Altonio (Ace B.) Jackson, but Don B. is all business, his hands flying across the keyboard as he lays down beats for the track he was concentrating on. You couldn’t hear what he was playing, only the flat percussive sound of his fingers triggering the rhythms he was crafting.

Eventually, Don B. pulled off the headphones and joined the party with a laugh.

“Now it’s perfect,” he says with satisfaction, like a point guard nailing a three-pointer and casually turning back up court.

Don B. was reflecting on lessons about perfection that are part of his upbringing. After all, those lessons came from the master, his father Dave Bartholomew.

Of all the patriarchs of all the musical families that make up the fabric of New Orleans’ unique culture, Dave Bartholomew may well have amassed the most impressive legacy. His catalog of achievements is nothing short of staggering, a recorded treasure trove that is a true cornerstone of American music, from the extraordinary output of figures like Bobby Mitchell and Smiley Lewis through the ingenious creation of such memorable singles as “The Monkey” and the Lloyd Price smash “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” to the jaw-dropping list of hits crafted for Fats Domino. Bartholomew’s own unit, a supercharged Cadillac of big-band R&B, was a Jazz Fest institution right up until Katrina scattered its elements to the winds.

Dave Bartholomew was a shrewd businessman and a taskmaster in the studio as well as on stage, but he was also a visionary who encouraged his son Don to pursue his own way in music without following in his footsteps. When I first met Dave in the ’80s as a reporter for United Press International, he immediately introduced me to his young son, proudly proclaiming that Don was a hip-hop producer.

Now Don B. has returned the favor as he prepares a release of his father’s music, The Lost Files, finishing up recently discovered demo tapes of sessions that were thought to be destroyed in Katrina. Don B. has assembled a group of contemporary New Orleans artists to complete these sessions, including Cyril Neville, Glen David Andrews, Wanda Rouzan, John Boutte, Deacon John, James Andrews, Delfeayo Marsalis, Charles Moore, Darren Thomas, Warner Williams and Donald Ramsey. At the same time, Don has encouraged his own sons to continue the tradition by working with the family’s production company, the Bartholomew Boyz. Dave Bartholomew’s grandsons are continuing the tradition, creating beats, making mix tapes and shooting videos of a variety of 21st-century urban music.

“My next project is what I’m calling The Dave Bartholomew Lost Files,” says Don B. “It’s 12 songs that my dad did as demos and never released. So I’ve got these demos with James Black, Bunchy Johnson, Wardell Quezergue, Chuck Carbo, Edwin Frank, Irvin Charles and Warren Bell. They were songs intended for a Fats Domino project that never got off the ground, new songs that have never been released written by my dad. I wanted the right people to sing the songs. Like Deacon John sings a song called ‘Backstreet Woman’ about a woman he’s seeing on the side, his ‘Backstreet Woman’—she’s kind of a stalker, knockin’ on his door.

Don Bartolomew, Elsa Hahne, cover story, OffBeat Magazine, July 2014

Photo by Elsa Hahne

“I’m keeping the basics of what Dave laid down, but definitely updating it to 2014 style. Instead of programming it, I used all real instruments, a real horn section, bass, guitars. The only thing I programmed is drums, but the way I program it sounds like live drums. No one could tell the difference.

“I use drum programs because it takes so much time to get the right drum sound for the part and, to be honest, the drummer that I would want to use is Bunchy or Smokey Johnson and I can’t use either one of them, so it’s left to me to program it to sound like Smokey.

It’s a lot of work, but if I program it I can be sure I’ve got the tempos right, the transitions right and it’s always in the pocket. And I want it to sound new, not retro, so that people today can appreciate it.

People who like old-school will relate to it because it has the lyric and rhythmic quality of custom R&B, but contemporary listeners will like it because it has a fresh sound.

“I was riding with my dad yesterday and playing some of the demos for him in the car. He said, ‘We really had our stuff together back then.’”

The 2005 flood following Katrina was a disaster for the Bartholomew family, which lost its homes, its studio and countless personal and professional possessions in the inundation. Like many members of his generation, Dave Bartholomew’s career was effectively ended by the turmoil produced by the flood and subsequent dislocation. Don B. had been a successful hip-hop producer before the flood, making cutting-edge New Orleans bounce records with Master P, Lil Wayne, Mystikal, Mia X, Souljah Slim, Curren$y, Birdman, Magnolia Shorty, Mannie Fresh and Cheeky Blakk; his business was also wiped out. But he and his brother Ronald, who runs the legal end of the family business, were determined to rebuild the Bartholomew brand.

“People don’t really know what it is to be displaced,” says Don B. “I don’t know how many trips I made back and forth between Dallas and Houston to New Orleans. There was nobody in the city. Before Katrina, I was making like $1,500 a week, but after I was doing nothing. Before, the studio was always full, making rap, R&B and gospel records. I had so much work I had to hire an engineer to help me out. When I first came back, I was making money in Memphis, Houston and Dallas, but not New Orleans. I’d be producing New Orleans artists, but in other cities, and the studio was damaged; it had mold and needed to be renovated. So I was really doing mobile work at that point, going from place to place and my son Don would travel with me.”

Katrina did have a silver lining for the Bartholomew family. Don B. had been trying in vain to get his sons involved in making music, but they were never interested until they were forced to move from New Orleans.

“It was my senior year in high school,” says Don, Jr., “so I ended up in a new school where I didn’t know nobody. They told me I had no credits and wanted me to go back to 9th grade. They made me re-do high school. I just wanted to go back home. That’s when I started taking the music seriously, when [Don B.] came home from one of these trips with a keyboard.

“That was a real difficult year for him,” says Don B., “but somehow it got him focused on music. I had been trying to get him and his brother interested in music before Katrina, but they wanted to do whatever teenagers do, hang out and play football. My son Blake, I think once Don got it, it took hold. He saw his older brother doing it and that got him into it. So in that sense, Katrina helped them out getting into music. After Katrina, when they moved to other cities, it gave them time to get into music because they didn’t know nobody there to hang with. So what are you gonna do with your spare time? ‘I’m gonna start making beats.’ When I moved back home in ’07, my son was living in Dallas with my dad. Three days later, he’s like, ‘I’m coming back—can I stay with you?’

“After we renovated and came back home, that’s when he started working a lot. A lot of the people that was movin’ back home was his age, so that was a natural thing for him. I think that was an incentive for him to get better and be in the studio a lot. I wasn’t working so much, but suddenly he was bringing in new people, a whole new generation. With my generation, most of the people was moved out of town. So now I had to either get with it or let him do what he do. So we kind of did both. After they found out through him that we were doing music again, we started building this word-of-mouth thing. People were coming home slowly, but surely, or they would call ahead to book time when they were in town. By 2010, 2011, it was back to normal. At first, nobody had money to make music; they were too busy fixing their homes or scraping money together to come back. We was the only house on the block that was functional. I had everybody living there. We had 10 people living there and the studio going at the same time, so you can imagine what that was like. Everybody wanted to come back so I gave them a place to stay.”

So now a third generation of Bartholomews is working with the post-Katrina influx of new artists, applying the same principles Don B. learned from the patriarch.

“I remember when I first started playing stuff for my daddy, he said, ‘Boy, I don’t know what that is, it’s got no chords,’” says Don B. “But he never discouraged me, so I just kept doing it. He said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing and you’ll figure it out. Just keep working.’ And that’s what happened. And I told my sons the same thing. Now I don’t gotta tell them nothin’. They’re doing things that surprise me. Two of my sons debuted projects—Supa Dezzy dropped SMD, which has some very talented artists on there like Ace B., who plays Lil Calliope in the HBO series Treme; and TrakkaBeats has an all-instrumental project entitled Frankenstone—both can be downloaded for free from Datpiff.com.”

Meanwhile, Don B. was realizing an unrecognized talent for acting as he graduated from being the hip-hop advisor on Treme to playing himself in a major role in Treme as Davis McAlary’s producer. Around the same time, he discovered the lost files.

“I found it all on a cassette,” explains Don B. “When I came back from Katrina, my dad had a bunch of cassettes in his office. Some of ‘em got wet. I went through them and I salvaged what I could. I started listening to it and I found these. He didn’t know it was there; he thought it was gone, that he’d lost them, that’s why I’m calling it The Dave Bartholomew Lost Files. The stuff is 35 years old.”

If you go into the Bartholomew studio complex today, you’re likely to hear three generations of Bartholomew family music at one sitting—Dave’s music being refitted for contemporary use by Don B., and Supa Dezzy, TrakkaBeats and SupCrew YC sprouting the soundtrack to life in 2014 New Orleans. Don B.’s brother Ronald Bartholomew sums up the family motto: “We have two jobs here. We have a job to continue to create music. We love music. But our number one job here is protecting a legacy.”

Treme at Buffa’s–You Better Not Leave

A New Orleans tradition was renewed Sunday night when people gathered in the back room at Buffas to watch the HBO drama Treme and hear one of the featured artists from the show.

Guitarist Alex McMurray was Sunday night’s host, performing with pianist Bill Malchow, and he provided the audience of familiar HBO regulars like Tom McDermott and numerous on screen extras with an appropriately humorous accompaniment to the episode. He explained that his band the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus wrote this week’s opening music. “It’s the first piece of music you hear at the beginning of the show,” he noted, “although we don’t appear in the show. They asked me to write an arrangement of Huey Long’s theme song, ‘Every Man A King’.” The song was played by DJ Davis as the backdrop to Election Day 2007.

DJ Davis and Cheeky Blakk with "The Real DJ Davis" in the background, a still from Sunday's premiere of the final season of Treme.

Treme started airing while the wounds from the Katrina flood were still fresh. The series at that point was a kind of docudrama covering events that had taken place so recently that to those of us who’d lived through the destruction of the city the show had the quality of a dream in which familiar places and faces are woven into a new story line. As we follow the narrative over the years and the fictional version of Treme moved further away from the historical reality it translates, the show takes on new perspective. Its fourth and final season opens with Obama’s presidential victory and how it was received on the streets of New Orleans. Five years later that night feels like a really long time ago, the first time I’ve had the feeling watching Treme that the events on the screen were not a reflection of the recent past. The characters pause to reflect on the larger meaning of electing a black president. Chief Albert Lambreaux argues gruffly with his children that it won’t change anything, yet later in the episode he’s on line at the voting booth and you can feel the transformational emotion overcome him as he pulls the lever. Many of my black friends uttered the line “I never thought I’d live to see the day…” after the historic event, but Lambreaux, deep in the throes of his battle with cancer, literally lives out that line. His deep friendship/romance with LaDonna Batiste-Williams, one of my favorite story lines from season three, blossoms into its tragically beautiful denoument as Treme moves towards resolution.

The series was originally scripted for five seasons and a narrative arc that made sense in the real time between 2005 and 2010, when the Saints won the Super Bowl and the BP oil spill proved that the flood was only the beginning of our era of disaster. Collapsing 20-something episodes of narrative arc into five hours means a lot of that story gets lost and a lot of plot lines are forced to a premature conclusion. It’s a sad reality but one that does not lessen the impact of Treme‘s premise, and in a strange kind of way it forces the writers to wrap things up with a flourish that includes some surprise endings, some inevitabilities and some ironic moments in which key plot lines are resolved in the fictional reality only to be proven as frustratingly elusive as ever in the real world.

The tragedy is offset by high comedy. The puckish Davis McAlary hits the skids with his terrible rock opera and a pathetic performance of “I Quit.” Cheeky Blakk suggests he quit in earnest. Davis Rogan, the “Real Davis” who the character Steve Zahn plays is based on, is in McAlary’s band and enjoys the irony of berating his fictional boss.

McMurray found extra ammunition for his performance in that story line. After the show, he ended his live presentation by singing a song. “If You Can’t Make It Here,” which he proposed as the new slogan for New Orleans: “If you can’t make it here, you better not leave.” As he delivered the sing along chorus McMurray shouted “That means you, Davis!”

 

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Revivalists Score at SxSW

The Revivalists played one of the shows of this young band’s life Friday night at SXSW. The crowd at the Holy Mountain backyard was packed with hardcore fans but also a large media contingent and talent scouts checking for the next big thing. The showcase nature of the gig forced the band into a tighter format which emphasized the intelligence of its song structures and arrangements and the compact interplay of the players. The Best of the Beat winners deserved the Best Rock Band award they took down in January. They are far more than the jam

The Revivalists impress at SxSW.

band too many dismiss them as — this is Crescent City Soul played with rock dynamics.

 

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LIVE FROM SXSW 2013: Hurray for the Riff Raff Plays Startling Song

Tell me what a man with a rifle in his hand is gonna do for his daughter when it’s her turn to go…

—Alynda Lee Segarra

Hurray for the Riff Raff is making a big splash this week at SXSW. Alynda Lee Segarra seems to be gaining confidence every time she plays and shows an understanding of the history of American music alongside a willingness to rewrite it on her own terms. The most dramatic example of this is a new song about gun violence that is riveting in live performance and could easily become an anthem for the growing gun control movement.

Hurray for the Riff Raff, Aaron Lafont, photo, SXSW 2013

Hurray for the Riff Raff (photo: Aaron Lafont)

The song, a murder ballad told from the victim’s perspective, doesn’t even have a name yet.

“We’re just calling it ‘Murder Ballad’ right now,” said Segarra as she sat in the green room at Austin Convention Hall after one of the band’s eight performances at SXSW. “We’re still figuring out how we’re going to produce it. It just came to me as I was driving, and it came to me very fast. It’s my response to the tradition of murder ballads, and I feel like we don’t need to continue with them anymore because they’re so focused on violence against women, and I feel that somebody needed to continue the conversation. In folk music, there’s this great history of conversation and response, and I feel that’s something that has been really lacking lately, like the conversation’s gone quiet. So this is just me giving my voice about it.

“I was listening to a song on the radio and thought how I was so tired of hearing that music as if I wasn’t even an audience member. I just want to get across this personal feeling of ‘That’s me you’re talking about, and you’re saying you’re going to kill me. You have detached yourself from that meaning, but I want to remind the singer of these songs what it really means what they’re saying. That was really my goal.”

Segarra wrote the song in December. Three days later a mass murder of children took place in Newtown, Connecticut.

“I was not coming from that place,” said Segarra, “but I have a line in there about how a man would feel if it was about his daughter. I realized after that event happened it gave the song a whole new meaning. It turns into this whole other conversation about how our country is talking so much about gun control right now and also just giving a different side of seeing a tragedy like that, that did happen to people’s daughters and sons.”

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Hi Ho Lounge Sold to Maison Owners

The Hi Ho Lounge, one of the anchor clubs of the St. Claude entertainment district, has been sold to the owners of the Frenchmen Street restaurant Maison.

Brian Greiner and Jeff Bromberger’s partnership officially took over the operation of the Hi Ho in early February from John Hartsock and his wife Lori Bernard, who still own the building at the corner of St. Claude Avenue and Marigny Street. Greiner has experimented with his bookings during his time operating Maison, rolling numerous bands and DJs through the venue.

“We were initially hired to do the booking and promotion by the previous owner of ‘Maison de la Musique’ in August 2009,” said Greiner. “When he was unable to run the venue anymore, we were able to acquire ownership in November of that year.” Since that time Frenchmen Street has become more and more of a high volume tourist destination, but Greiner sees the St. Claude district as a different market that is still in the developmental stage. “There will definitely be some crossover [bookings] even though they are much different audiences,” said Greiner.

“People on Frenchmen Street love that New Orleans sound… jazz, brass, funk etc. I think you can do a lot more variety on St. Claude… rock, bounce, electronic, hip hop, metal, punk… that the Frenchmen crowd wouldn’t embrace as much. But the New Orleans music scene is pretty diverse in that you may have someone who plays in a jazz band who also plays in a rock band, so there will be crossover in that regard. I think Hi Ho will give us a chance to discover bands that would be great with the Frenchmen crowd that we might not have known about otherwise. We are also excited to work with a lot of bands and people we haven’t had as much opportunity to work with as we would have liked on Frenchmen.”

Hartsock was in an expansive mood as he hosted his last Mardi Gras party at the Hi Ho, serving pulled pork and turkey to his guests and members of the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra and Red Baraat. Hartsock’s eccentric taste and homespun approach to booking the Hi Ho made it one of the city’s most unpredictable venues and the ideal home for the MGIO. ”We’ve had a great time here,” he said. “I’m relieved to see it end on such a positive note.”

The Orchestra was celebrating its fifth renewal, finishing Fat Tuesday with a flourish as Chief David Montana, wearing a white suit, fronted the band during a spirited final set that touched on the sacred music of “Indian Red,” the 19th century verses of “Little Liza Jane” and a new chant that Montana made up on the spot. The band itself sounded at its best whether backing Montana and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes or on hypnotic jams that ranged from funk vamps to harmelodic collective improvisation. The players knew this music by heart. Bassist Reggie Scanlan’s background playing New Orleans R&B and its second line rhythms with Professor Longhair prepared him to work as a fulcrum for the juggernaut of beat syncopation he partnered with drummer Kevin O’Day, and his bandmate in the New Orleans Suspects, keyboardist C.R. Gruver. Guitarist Camile Baudoin, who played with Scanlan in the Radiators, is the perfect accompanist for Indian funk, playing wicked rhythm patterns and fills. When Baudoin did step out you knew it, but he never overplayed.

The instrumental stars of the show were the universalist Tim Green on tenor saxophone and the ever-evolving Helen Gillet on cello. Gillet wore a white suit and played a white cello in the first set, then returned dressed in black and playing a natural wood finish cello. In addition to her virtuoso playing, Gillet sang Indian choruses and repeatedly jumped up from her chair to urge the raucous crowd on. Jazz and Heritage Fest scouts at the show told the band to be ready to close out opening day at the Heritage stage.

Hartsock, a millwright by trade, used his skills to rescue and remodel the fabled nightspot from the ravages of the 2005 flood. He and Bernard, who managed Cosimo’s French Quarter bar, ran the place together, but now have two young children and decided that the bar business was taking too much time from the family. Last year the Stooges Brass Band, who played a popular Thursday night residency at the Hi Ho, tried to take over management of the club, but when that arrangement didn’t pan out Greiner and his partners stepped in. Before the Maison, Greiner owned Handsome Willy’s bar and ran a nightlife promotion business called New Orleans Partying from 2007 to 2009. Bromberger was the GM of Ampersand Bar and Greiner’s brother Russ managed Lucy’s and Fellini’s.

The team has established itself as a force on Frenchmen Street. “I feel we built our presence on Frenchmen Street by doing stuff no one else was doing,” Greiner said. “Obviously our no-cover format has been great for exposing the next generation of Nola bands to a wider audience. Bands like Earphunk, Yojimbo, Brass-A-Holics to name a few are really starting to get recognition. We have also had hundreds of great national bands of all different genres come through from big names like Snoop Dogg to rising indie stars like Purity Ring.”

The changes in the music scene on Frenchmen are becoming obvious, as the eccentric, laid-back atmosphere of the city’s traditional entertainment industry is being influenced by younger entrepreneurs. To be sure, some of the nature of the city’s indigenous club music may get lost in the process, and the bohemian vibe of St. Claude may also be a thing of the past before too long. The homogenization of American culture is an inexorable historic inevitability, and New Orleans is apparently no longer immune to it.

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HBO’s Treme Finishes Shooting Final Season

It was a raw and misty late afternoon in February during Mardi Gras. Spotlights illuminated the gloaming Marigny shadows with a surreal, almost funereal light. David Simon and Eric Overmyer huddled inside a doorway across the street from the Spotted Cat, watching Davis Rogan do a run-through of “Godzilla vs. M.L.K.” before Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary would sing it for the shoot. The music rattled across Frenchmen Street as crew members directed extras and music director Blake Leyh checked levels on headphones at the production station in the alley next door to the club. It was to be the last club music shoot in the HBO series Treme’s extraordinary three years documenting the music and culture of New Orleans.

Bittersweet?

“That’s the word,” said Overmyer. “Every day as we approach the end of shooting we say goodbye to other members of the cast and crew who’ve completed their assignments.”

Rogan took a break and joined Leyh and me in the side doorway of d.b.a. at the circular Red Bull table where I was watching the proceedings. We joked about Davis getting married next month and ruminated on which local musician received the biggest boost from Treme’s run. John Boutte was the consensus pick but it was a difficult choice because so many local musicians were cast into new relief by the international exposure the series has given them. They left and I said to a woman who’d joined us, “I think Davis has gotten the biggest boost. He was able to quit his teaching job and now works full-time as a musician.”

She responded, as so many locals who’ve followed Treme as if it was a story told by relatives about their daily lives have, with a plot suggestion.

“They should do a story about these guys coming into town and making a TV show about all of us,” she said.

She walked off and everyone took their places. I was waiting for the call “action” when I saw OffBeat art director Elsa Hahne walk by and chased after her. A stern assistant told us to keep walking as we passed by Simon and Overmyer, who called out to me. I returned a few minutes later and apologized for not stopping to talk.

“Oh, it was just that the camera was panning on these two guys conspiring across the street and you walked by,” said Overmyer.

Just like that, the shot was over and another of Treme’s final moments was complete. The show’s dexterity in weaving stories of real New Orleans musicians into the storyline alongside actors playing New Orleans musicians is so intricate that I couldn’t even tell you who the players in the band were without spoiling a near-Shakesperian plot point.

There was much laughing and handshaking going on inside the Spotted Cat as the crew broke down the set and Simon and Rogan enjoyed a final Treme moment together.

“It was a great coincidence, you walking by then,” said Simon. “Your review of The Once and Future DJ in OffBeat introduced me to Davis. I read it and said, ‘Who is this guy?’ So I get the album and the first song I hear on it is ‘Godzilla vs. M.L.K.’ That’s how it started and now we’re here at the end listening to ‘Godzilla vs. M.L.K.’again.”

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Glen David Andrews Planning New Album

Glen David Andrews has only been back in New Orleans for a few months since completing an intensive drug rehabilitation program, but the trombonist and vocalist has already written and rehearsed enough material for a new record.

With support from Threadhead Records, Andrews plans to go into the studio in March with his regular band to make the album, which is based on his experiences during recovery and will be titled Redemption.

Six of the songs scheduled for the album were written during Andrews’ three months in rehab at Right Turn, an addiction recovery institute in Massachusetts dedicated to treating musicians. One of those songs, “Surrender,” has becomes a staple of Andrews’ live performances in recent weeks.

“When you wake up in the morning, think of three to five things that can do to make your life better,” Andrews told a packed crowd at d.b.a. on Lundi Gras, then proceeded into a powerful gospel-based performance of “Surrender.”

Andrews’ return has been an adjustment. His songs are much more tightly arranged and professional than they were in the amazing off-the-cuff nights that used to occur when he was under the influence. Back then watching Andrews often was like observing an Evel Knievel stunt, thrilling and astonishing as he leapt into the void and somehow managed to find his way to the other side on the sheer merit of his talent. Several songs on his Live at Three Muses album include such moments and give the album quite an edge. Now Andrews is more careful and precise, channeling the energy efficiently and staying within himself. The craziness of the night depends on the audience, and the Lundi Gras vibe was off the scale. Andrews, who has been studying to improve his trombone technique, is already a noticeably more accomplished player. At one point he and saxophonist James Martin left the stage and played an incendiary call-and-response as the crowd of revelers formed a circle around them and urged them on with shouts and waving arms.

“I don’t like how I sound on a lot of the Three Muses album,” Andrews said. “I wish I could re-cut some of those songs. I’m a lot stronger now, healthier, and it shows in my playing and singing.”

Andrews has lined up a series of New Orleans all-stars to guest on the record, including Ivan Neville, Irvin Mayfield and Paul Sanchez.

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A Month to Remember: New Orleans Shines in January

This past January was an eventful month of music in which New Orleans witnessed more highlights than most of the world’s top cultural cities experience in a year. Memorable shows were so numerous that it’s impossible for me to list them all here. Surely one of the best of these moments was the extraordinary Best of the Beat Awards Show, which opened with a spectacular performance from cellist Helen Gillet supported by accordionists Greg Schatz and Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and highlighted by a tribute to New Orleans R&B that included just about every remaining living legend from that era. Dixie Cups, Jackie Clarkson, Best of the Beat Awards Show 2012, Kim Welsh, photoThe Dixie Cups surprised everyone by recruiting councilwoman Jackie Clarkson to cover for an ailing sister; she pulled it off without a hitch and with no rehearsal. Al Johnson reprised “Carnival Time” once again and Clarence “Frogman” Henry displayed a Fatima moment when the power of the music prompted him to push aside his walker and let the force move through him. Ernie Vincent and his terrific new version of his classic funk band drove fiercely behind Robert Parker in a mini set that recalled the glory days of the fabulous Dew Drop Inn.

Tipitina’s put on one of the best runs in its history while celebrating its 35th anniversary. Highlights  included dozens of the city’s most creative musicians under the direction of Paul Sanchez in a spectacular Treme-sponsored benefit; two unforgettable reunion shows by the Radiators; and an over-the-top celebration of Art Neville’s 75th birthday with many of his family members. The Howlin’ Wolf hosted a benefit for the Musician’s Clinic with a special appearance by Dr. John and George Porter and a long set from the red-hot New Orleans Suspects, who were joined by John Gros and Bonerama during the show.

Royal Southern Brotherhood, Jerry Moran, photo

Royal Southern Brotherhood (photo: Jerry Moran)

Cyril Neville enjoyed a spectacular night at the Blue Nile after the Krewe Du Vieux parade, watching his son’s band open the proceedings, then burning down the house leading his own group, Royal Southern Brotherhood, with Devon Allman and Mike Zito.

At the Maple Leaf percussionist Chris Jones put on a marathon record release party for his groundbreaking Blue Brass project, an inspiring amalgam of rough-hewn bluegrass picking, brass band collective improvisation and Mardi Gras Indian rhythms. This kind of cultural mashup is definitive of the new era of New Orleans music that is in full development right now.

Clockwork Elvis

Only in New Orleans can the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birthday evoke a party that can make you think about what Presley might have sounded like if fame eluded him and he played clubs all his life. D.C. Harbold’s Clockwork Elvis did a trio of Presley birthday shows that were devoid of camp posturing and opened up the music beyond the tribute stage to explore its roots. Guitarist Tom Stern’s lines were filled with sly references to rockabilly, country and R&B touchstones that informed Scotty Moore’s playing with Presley. The show at the House of Blues, attended by scores of Elvis impersonators, was a formal, informative marathon of Elvisiana, but at the Kingpin, where the band was literally rubbing shoulders with the audience as it played and Harbold ended up trading choruses of “Suspicious Minds” with members of the crowd while walking the bar, we really got to hear what a bar band Elvis might have sounded like. Look for Harbold leading the Krewe of Rolling Elvi in the Muses parade Thursday.

Papa Grows Funk

Papa Grows Funk, press photo, on hiatus

Long-standing New Orleans band Papa Grows Funk has decided to go on hiatus.

John Gros softened the edge of his disappointment in having to announce the hiatus of his band Papa Grows Funk with a hearty lunch at Finn Mc’Cools.

“I don’t really have a plan yet,” he said as he munched on the bar’s signature boudin egg roll, “I have to put a band together based on what I want to be able to play. You have to have a certain kind of player to do the old R&B stuff and the Carnival songs,” he noted. “And I’m really committed to playing that music. Most of the people my age aren’t really interested in playing that stuff, it’s mostly the older guys who do it.”

Gros managed to see the bright side of the situation, of course. Getting off the road will give him a lot more time to play at home and enjoy the pleasures of New Orleans living. This Wednesday night, for example, he joins Lynn Drury for one of her songwriters’ showcases at Dmac’s. But his observations underscored an undeniable fact. The New Orleans that existed when Papa Grows Funk started playing in 1999 has changed dramatically. A little more than seven years after hurricane Katrina we are seeing the redefined contours of a city that was literally depopulated in the wake of the flood. Only a handful of legends are left from the city’s golden age of R&B in the 1950s and ’60s, and Lionel Ferbos remains the one living link to the traditional New Orleans jazz masters.

Red Baraat

These new artists form a picture of New Orleans that is markedly different from its storied 20th century identity but well on its way to developing a new, multi-cultural identity that reflects how much more interdependent the 21st century world is. Tradition is still valued but is seen as part of a larger whole. The young musicians and artists who’ve repopulated New Orleans are not just coming from other parts of the United States, they’re from all over the world, and it’s kind of amazing to see how these disparate cultures now fit so easily into the idiosyncratic contours of New Orleans life. We’re going to get a great example of this mix when Red Baraat hits town this weekend. This band from Northern India led by dhol player Sunny Jain plays an irresistible dance music hybrid of its native music with brass band, funk and hip-hop influences. The group has gone to school on the New Orleans second line since first arriving here in 2011 and has learned quickly. Red Baraat’s latest album, Shruggy Ji, is one of the hottest items on the world music charts and playlists. Traditional Indian instruments join with the brass band staples of trap and bass drums, sousaphone, trombone, trumpets and saxophones. Their performances are wildly celebratory whether in concert or at street parades, and we’re going to get opportunities to see both sides of the group. Sunday night they headline at the Blue Nile, where they blend perfectly into the mayhem of Frenchmen Street during Mardi Gras. On Lundi Gras they open for Galactic at Tipitina’s and there’s sure to be some great intergroup jamming before that night is through. Then it’s on to Mardi Gras day, when Red Baraat will join the Krewe of Just Us at 1 pm to parade through the French Quarter, then lead a parade from Frenchmen Street at 4 pm to the Hi Ho Lounge, where they’ll perform a set opening up for another example of the new face of New Orleans music, the 5th annual Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra, a group made up of Mardi Gras Indians, rock musicians and improvisational jazz performers. This astonishing band will consist of vocalists Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes (Big Chief- North Side Skull & Bones gang), Juan Pardo (War Chief- Golden Commanches), and David Montana (Second Chief- Yellow Pocahontas); guitarists Camile Baudoin and Sam Hotchkis; bassist Reggie Scanlan; percussionist Rosie Rosato; drummer Kevin O’Day; saxophonist Tim Green; cellist Helen Gillet; violinist Harry Hardin; and keyboardist C. R. Gruver. Don’t be surprised to see members of Red Baraat up on that stage as well.

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Dr. John’s New Management Talks

Dr. John completed a successful and tumultuous 2012 by signing with a new management team and parting ways with his Lower 911 band, the tight unit that has backed him since 2001. Even as he was enjoying his most high-profile success in years behind the Locked Down album with a band assembled by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys, Mac Rebennack was searching for new representation (see “Dr. John’s Next Maneuver” in the July 2012 issue of OffBeat).

New managers Sam Feldman and Michael Gorfaine are with separate agencies but work together for a variety of clients.

“Mike and I have been friends for a very long time and we keep each other in the loop on everything,” says Feldman. “My orientation is more toward the film business and management. If there are any big decisions to be made we’ll do them together. We’re great as partners. We haven’t put together a firm plan yet. Our first order of business is to sort out any ongoing issues and obviously finish up whatever obligations he has from before. We switched him to a different agent, Monterey International, and we’ve started creative discussions with regard to the next recording.

“We have some things in the works that will definitely raise Mac’s profile and make him more visible across the country. We’re involved in the process of revitalizing his career. He’s an icon, and a lot of fun to work with. Definitely one of the more unique guys on the planet.”

Though Locked Down was a success, Dr. John’s contract with Nonesuch was just for that album. The new management will be looking for a similar arrangement.

“With all our clients we try to avoid long-term record deals,” says Feldman. “It’s just not the way things work anymore. You really have to go project by project. You want to place the right concept with the most appropriate label for that project. So you’re not tying yourself up in some long-term deal where your career direction might not be consistent with what that label wants. You have to try to find the right fit and we’re capable of doing that. We’ll put him in the right place. Also, in this day and age when radio is such a difficult pursuit we try to get our clients’ music out there every which way we can. It’s a matter of matching the right song with the right film, things like that.”

Rebennack has retained his band leader and arranger, trombonist Sarah Morrow, who has been a key element in his recent successes, introducing him to her former schoolmate Auerbach and writing arrangements for his three-night career overview at the Brooklyn Academy of Music last spring.

Dr. John is currently rehearsing a new band. His next scheduled performance is February 6 at the Sacramento College of Performing Arts.

Check back here later this week for Swenson’s talk with Rebennack.

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Most of My Favorite Local Records of 2012

Reading the lists and catching some flak made me itch to put my own preferences down. What follows is necessarily incomplete because I can’t even pretend to listen to everything that was released this past year, but it’s a pretty good reflection of what I was actually digging in my own space.

Alex McMurray – I Will Never Be Alone In This Land. The subtitle could be “Nobody recording in New Orleans is alone as long as Alex McMurray is around.” McMurray plays on a number of the best albums made in the city this past year, and his latest solo outing is a great collection of songs conjuring up wild characters and wisecracking worthy of Randy Newman. Personal favorite: “The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot Liberty Valence.”

Greg Schatz – Where the River Meets the Railroad Tracks. Bywater Pied Piper writes positive-thinking anthems like “Don’t Give Up On Love.” Yes, that’s Alex McMurray on guitar.

John Boutté– All About Everything. New Orleans’ consummate vocalist on a Blake Leyh-produced set featuring great songs from Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” to Alex McMurray’s “Heaven’s Door.”

Debbie Davis – It’s Not the Years It’s the Miles. Long overdue solo masterpiece from the Pfister Sisters’ Davis features contributions from her peers, who include many of the town’s most thoughtful and creative musicians. Davis’ husband, bassist and tuba player Matt Perrine, wrote the beautiful arrangements on the disc, and the ubiquitous Alex McMurray penned three of the songs including the title track. Davis is equally at home singing the early 20th century Irving Berlin tune “You’d Be Surprised” and the Amy Winehouse vehicle “You Know I’m No Good.”

Paul Sanchez and Colman DeKay – Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans. The so-far complete score of this evolving theatrical piece based on Dan Baum’s great book. This isn’t the last we’ll be hearing from a production that is being worked up for an off-Broadway presentation at New York’s Public Theater. The record features performances from more than 100 local musicians, including Alex McMurray.

Ed Volker – Love in the Ruins. When the Radiators broke up, the band’s principal songwriter was suddenly free to concentrate on his own material the way he wanted to hear it. The prolific Volker has turned out seven new releases since then, a treasure trove of whimsical New Orleans verse set to DIY home studio accompaniment. On this release Volker revisited songs originally written 30 years ago and set aside. His rewrites, especially “Fool’s Game,” “Settle Me Down Easy,” “All the Good Ones are Gone” and the title track, speak starkly to the moment.

Tab Benoit – Legacy. This strong compilation shows what anyone who hasn’t been paying attention to the great blues guitarist, singer and songwriter has been missing.

Anders Osborne – Black Eye Galaxy. Osbourne’s After the Gold Rush. ‘Nuff said.

Soul Rebels – Unblock Your Mind. One of the most disciplined and creative brass bands in the city rose to the occasion to make this excellent recording, highlighted by a great version of Allen Toussaint’s “Night People” and the Staples Singers title-song hit, which features a guest vocal from Cyril Neville.

Gina Forsyth – Promised Land. Great album from a virtuoso fiddle player and tremendously underrated songwriter whose quirky socio-political observations are fabulously inventive. “Sweet and Sunny South” is a killer.

Dee-1 – The Focus Tape. Why is it that a hip-hop artist offering a positive message is considered some kind of gimmick? Are rappers only allowed to offer violent stereotypes as examples of Black American lifestyle in order to be considered “authentic?” If so, who’s really behind that idea? Dee-1 follows Chuck D and Master P. He rocks it on “Never Clockin’ Out.”

Theresa Andersson – Street Parade. My personal highlight of Mardi Gras 2012 was seeing Theresa Andersson flying above St. Charles Avenue singing the title song from the back of an enormous bird. The splendor of the vision matches the beauty of this record.

Dr. Michael White – Adventures in New Orleans Jazz Vol. 2. The great traditional jazz clarinetist has come to life since his magnificent Blue Crescent and sees all kinds of new ways to exercise his muse on material ranging from the warhorse “Tiger Rag” to the Turtles’ “Happy Together.” Dr. Lonnie Smith’s brooding epic “And the World Weeps” is the highlight.

Andy J. Forest – Other Rooms. Songwriter/harmonica virtuoso Forest comes up with another brace of great songs about life in downtown New Orleans. “That was Our Good Bye” is his remembrance of departed friends Coco Robicheaux and Kenny Holladay.

Derrick Freeman – Blurple Pain. A freewheeling romp through Freeman’s fertile imagination, running from consciousness-raising hip hop to puerile novelty tunes. In Freeman’s world Fallujah and Backatown are part of the same battleground. A great listen that starts out angry (“I got some shit I gotta get off my chest”) and ends up inspirational, dedicated to “all my fallen brothers /all the Sixth Ward soldiers who lost their lives in the struggle.”

The Honeypots – Something Sweet. A charming gathering of three talented local women songwriters – Lynn Drury, Margie Perez and Monica McIntyre.

Lost Bayou Ramblers – Mammoth Waltz. In our celebrity-worshiping culture too much has been made of the fact that the Violent Femmes’ Gordon Gano guested with the Ramblers. What matters more is that this young Cajun band has the vision to encourage such a collaboration and plot a future course for its indigenous music.

Radiators – The Last Watusi. A terrific document of this legendary band’s farewell concerts at Tipitina’s in June of 2011. The raw elegance, beauty and eclecticism of this Louisiana rock ‘n’ roll potpourri is captured in all its ragged glory here.

Hooray for the Riff Raff – Look Out Mama. When Alynda Lee Segarra sings “what’s lost can never be retrieved,” she’s reflecting the hard lessons that even a young band such as this learns on the street, and that people all over the world learn every day at every age. Hooray… reflects the city’s post-Katrina sensibility in a manner both unvarnished and exportable, a heady combination that bodes well for their future.

Galactic – Carnivale Electricos. New Orleans funk at its most daringly progressive.

Dr. John – Locked Down. Dan Auerbach plays the role of Dr. Frankenstein in this remake of the legendary Night Tripper saga for contemporary ‘viewers (STET Please pun implied).  Mac is certainly an amused if not fully involved participant in this drama.

Helen Gillet. Contemporary New Orleans is full of improvisers eager to try anything to expand their creative borders. Cellist/conceptualist Gillet is a great example of this phenomenon, alternately playing classical and theatrical music, French chansons and improvisational jazz. Her latest project has her experimenting with loops and digital delay in a dazzling hermaphrodite conception.

 

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