Author Archives: Treme Blog

Treme: A Tale of Two Cities
(S4 E5, Series Finale)

David Simon’s Treme, the American auteur’s loving and unflinching portrait of New Orleans, is now history after Sunday’s final episode. People compare it to his masterpiece, The Wire, which similarly lacked big viewership numbers while it was running, but became a cult hit once it was over. Treme is a different animal from The Wire, but the two shows will continue to be linked if only for the strength of the performances of its two common actors, Wendell Pierce and Clarke Peters.

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HBO closes out its Treme series on December 29, 2013.

Ironically, both actors turn in stronger performances in Treme than they did in The Wire. Antoine Batiste, the ne’er-do-well trombonist who Pierce plays so forcefully and humorously in Treme, is the most fully developed character in Treme’s storyline. The growth that he displays over the course of the four season as he discovers his purpose in life and the meaning of his family relationships is one of the narrative triumphs of the series. While many character story lines have definitive endings, or, as in the case of Davis McAlary and Janette Desautel, end up more or less where they started, Antoine Batiste feels like a character with much more in store for him.

Big Chief Albert Lambreaux’s character in Treme seems doomed from the start, but the steely resolve and outright defiance Peters brings to the role is a high point in American television, Shakespearian in its tragic dignity. The critics who were unmoved by his performance complained that it wasted too much effort on insignificant details like the Black Indian custom of laboriously sewing  suits for Mardi Gras day, but such willful ignorance of the importance of ritual in culture is no longer germane now that the show has become part of history.

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LaDonna Batiste-Williams at home in her bar.

Time will only ripen the contours of this story, a tale about real people fighting against a political system bent on destroying them. New Orleans was almost completely depopulated after the 2005 flood that followed Hurricane Katrina when most of the city’s levee system failed and nearly all of its housing was ruined or damaged. Citizens were not permitted to return to the city for months after the flood, during which time New Orleans was literally occupied by the National Guard and a haphazardly-organized police force from all over the country.

This is the first time in history a major American city was depopulated in this fashion. Reacting to the disaster, rebuilding the city and restoring its citizens to their homes became a sociological proving ground and a textbook-worthy example of urban planning.

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Hurricane Katrina re-visited on HBO's Treme series.

Those citizens were betrayed from the moments the levees failed by every level of government. Tens of thousands were abandoned, some to die of thirst and lack of medical care, in the first week after the flood as rescue efforts took a backseat to shoot-to-kill behavior from a police force in chaos. The mostly black residents of the city were sent to far-off locations and given no aid or encouragement to return. For many of those residents, this was the final chapter in a generations-long Diaspora from their ancestral homes in Africa.

Treme took on the task of telling this story from two perspectives – the determination of those who returned after the flood to piece their lives back together and restore their unique culture, which was threatened with extinction; and the cravenness of those in power who used the disaster to brutalize the victims and/or enhance their own wealth. Several character stories, like the fate of newbie Annie, floated along without satisfactory resolution, but the issue stories, like the collapse of the city’s education system, real estate development scams that exploited the poorest residents, unchecked street-gang violence and a police force that behaved like one of the street gangs itself were handled with the same deft police reporter’s eye that Simon demonstrated in The Wire.

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Wendell Pierce as Antoine Batiste with the Stooges Brass Band.

That eye managed to capture what may be the most difficult subject matter a storyteller can take on, telling the story of a city, which Simon did so brilliantly with Baltimore in The Wire. New York has its Mean Streets and Annie Hall, works in which the city itself was one of the main characters. But after countless films, television shows and videos have used New Orleans clumsily as a bacchanalian backdrop, this city has remained a place that defied capture – until now. The depiction was always skewed, often laughably. New Orleans had been best described, it seemed, in print, where the imagination left just enough room for the numinous parts of the city’s soul to seep in. Treme finally captures some of that soul visually. The city itself is the most important character in the series.

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Davis and Chef Janette share a quiet drink.

Of course the people who live in and run the city are the ultimate determinants of its character, and Treme dramatized the efforts of the citizens with the least power to prevent their culture from being wiped out by those with the most power. That is an ongoing story. Right now we are watching New Orleans change into something unrecognizable before our eyes. Developers are calling the shots in neighborhoods around the city, changing the nature of its housing stock. National chains are driving out local merchants. The New Orleans city council is inexplicably pushing a noise ordinance that will effectively allow second lines, brass bands and any unauthorized parades to be outlawed. Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal has cut off funding to the Musicians Clinic as of January 1, effectively pronouncing a death sentence on some of the city’s greatest musical resources. Mardi Gras Indian icon Bo Dollis, who relies on the Clinic for his dialysis treatments, is one of the most prominent city elders at immediate risk. Jindal is also responsible for the evisceration of the city’s music education programs, which are key elements in providing alternatives for young people to joining violent street gangs.

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Delmond Lambreaux contemplates his role in preserving his family's heritage.

Treme chose to draw attention to all the above problems as an element of its narrative. In a world of light entertainment and escapism, David Simon and his co-producer Eric Overmyer wanted to say something meaningful about one of the most important cities in the last 500 years of human history. In that sense, Treme is far more than an American story. It’s a story about humanity itself. What we’re all up against, as a species, as inhabitants of a planet ruled by short sighted and corrupt economic oligarchs.

In years to come, Treme will be one of the key reference points historians will have to understand what happened to this place after 2005. But right now, today and tomorrow and next month, Treme is a rallying point for those of us around the world who still care about the issues the show addresses. Sign the petitions to stop the city council from outlawing music. Vote against the politicians who work against your interests to satisfy their wealthy patrons. And if all that fails, take to the streets and make your voices heard in nonviolent protest.

– John Swenson

 

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Treme’s Legacy (S4 E4)

Here’s a good question: If you died today what would you leave behind that you would be remembered for?

That’s the question being asked in the penultimate episode of HBO’s Treme.

No matter what happens in next Sunday’s final episode, the question now hangs over the entire series.The question takes on even greater weight in light of the growing critical backlash against Treme’s existence, which not surprisingly mirrors the show’s diminished ratings. Very few people in the world of contemporary American punditry appreciate anything but a clear winner.But today’s winner is tomorrow’s Lady Gaga.

LaDonna and Big Chief Albert in a touching moment from Treme.

Americans like their entertainment frothy and disposable. Give them teenage vampires, zombies, lovable serial killers and an endless supply of colorful mobsters rubbing each other out for sport. Anything to distract the viewers from the bad things that are being done to them in the real world. And they like “reality” television. That’s why the biggest show on earth stars a phony Christian moralizing about other people’s sexual behavior in terms characteristic of a seasoned connoisseur of pornography. Advice to TV producers: Don’t ask hard questions, unless they’re couched in some relentless overindulgence of sentimentality.

So David Simon, the journalist, novelist and unapologetic teller of stories with unsettling endings, gives us television about the tale of a depopulated city and the people who try to return and restore its culture despite a political apparatus designed to crush the life out of them.So it is that the next-to-last episode of Treme opens with a terrific live performance of the swing classic “Sing Sing Sing” being broadcast over live radio. The disc jockey hosting the broadcast compliments the players then starts ruminating about death. The DJ is the antic and always unpredictable Davis McAlary, so his performance is only mildly disturbing, but it does prompt Debbie Davis of the Pfister Sisters to ask “Davis, you OK?”

This is the point where Davis McAlary brings up the notion of legacy.The musicians responsible for the original music are all dead, Davis says morbidly, but at least they’ve left behind their music.

“A Legacy!” Davis notes.

The fool, which is McAlary’s role in the series, is able to utter the most simple of truths. The trigger for his sudden plunge into existentialism is his approaching 40th birthday, but the question he poses hangs over everyone in the production.It is particularly relevant to the character of Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, among the most defiant players in a notoriously defiant cast, the man who returned to New Orleans and refused to let his Mardi Gras Indian culture die. His jazz musician son Delmond had turned his back on the culture, but Lambreaux’s determination won him over. And now, on his deathbed, the Big Chief passes his role on to his son.“I’m not gonna make that walk,” says Albert, admitting that he won’t be around to lead his gang on Mardi Gras Day. “So you take my crown and adjust it so it fits.”

That’s legacy.

What is the legacy of HBO’s Treme? When the show has finished its run next Sunday, what will it be remembered for?

We’ll get to that next week. One thing I know for sure, though. When the ratings no longer matter, when the pundits stop wagging and the historians take over, HBO’s Treme is going to have a legacy that everyone involved will be proud of.

—John Swenson

 

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Joe Krown, Lolis Elie, Chef Blanchard Guest at Buffa’s 12/22 Treme Viewing Party

There are only two episodes left of HBO’s Treme series. It has been a fun and interesting four years having the HBO crew in town, painting a picture about life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina for the (televised) world. This Sunday, December 22, the second-to-last episode of Treme airs at 8 p.m. (central) and the legendary little music joint, Buffa’s Lounge on Esplanade Avenue, once again hosts their free public viewing party. This Sunday’s edition though will feature some very special guests in the house, making for a surreal viewing experience.

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Joe Krown

Chuck Rogers and the good folks at Buffa’s have organized the appearance of some of the show’s featured artists for December 22, including keyboardist Joe Krown, Treme contributing writer and historical consultant Lolis Elie and chef Jacqueline Blanchard (whose likeness Janette’s character is based on) of John Besh’s famed Restaurant August.

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Lolis Elie

Joe Krown and special guests will perform live on the intimate stage of Buffa’s Back Room, while Elie and Blanchard sign copies of Elie’s Treme Cookbook (in which Blanchard has a few recipes). Blanchard will also serve as guest chef in the Buffa’s kitchen on Sunday, whipping up her Korean Chicken & Waffles and collard greens for Buffa’s dinner specials. Treme Cookbooks and Buffa’s recently released CD, Live From The Back Room, will be available for sale.

As always, admission is free on December 22 and Buffa’s will screen Treme at 8 p.m. and again at 10 p.m. Live musical performances begin at 7 p.m. and run between screenings until Midnight. Full kitchen and cash bar available. But like most good things in New Orleans, the space is intimate, so early arrival is suggested. Buffa’s Lounge is located at 1001 Esplanade Avenue in the Marigny.

Follow OffBeat‘s Treme Blog here to catch up.

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Chef Jacqueline Blanchard

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Treme S4 E3: Those Bells Are Tolling For Us All

In season four of the HBO series Treme the narrative force of this post-Katrina epic is dwindling along with the fortunes of its characters. Death and failure weave through the story like the cats-claw ropeweeds climbing the walls and roofs of the city’s houses. Big Chief Albert Lambreaux, defiantly living his last days to the full as he battles cancer, goes to a New Year’s party at Rosy’s to hear his son Delmond play trumpet with Papa Grows Funk, but before the set is through, Lambreaux is hurting so bad he has to be helped out of the club by his girlfriend, LaDonna Batiste-Williams and his daughter Davina.

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Chief Lambreaux and LaDonna hit a hard place.

LaDonna herself is defiantly staring at the abyss, powerless to do much for the two sons who are living with their stepfather, Larry. Her relationship with Larry is breaking down to the point that she can’t come into the house because his new girlfriend is there. She is going to divorce him, but to what end? LaDonna’s mother asks her about her first husband Antoine, her second husband Larry, and her new friend Albert. LaDonna has to tell her that Albert is very ill.

Meanwhile, Antoine is still reeling from the senseless murder of one of his students and the impact that tragedy has had on his other students, including the promising Jennifer, who he hears is playing on Frenchmen Street. Antoine goes to find Jennifer and apparently convinces her to return to his tutelage by promising to teach her how to play the “Ghostbusters” theme the way the Pinettes do it.

The beautifully ripening romance between Detective Terry Colson and activist lawyer Toni Bernette hits the rocks under the stress of the ongoing corruption in the New Orleans police department and the city’s legal system. Their individual frustrations dealing with a system totally stacked against their thirst for justice eats away at their own relationship. More than any other characters in the ongoing real-life aspect of this drama, Terry and Toni are doomed to failure. Terry tells his FBI contact that the attitude among his fellow officers is “Smug. They beat the state of Louisiana and they know they can beat the feds.”

Toni vows vengeance on the whole Danziger Bridge mob, along with “Henry Glover and whoever else the NOPD killed after the storm.” But as we know in that real life, even after Glover was shot dead, then burned in his car to cover the evidence, the murderer was acquitted “by a jury of his peers” only a few days ago.

The sense of loss even touches on the music itself. Papa Grows Funk, so glorious in that New Year’s Eve show burning through “Stanky,” no longer exists as a band today. And in a colossal piece of irony that was scripted after the infamous firing of his New Orleans band, the Lower 911, a year ago, Dr. John’s former manager Ed Gerard tells Antoine that Mac “can always use a great New Orleans ‘bone player.”

Not, apparently, any longer.

Davis McAlary has lost his band but not his purpose. This ever-more bizarre character, a self-proclaimed expert in New Orleans history who is still incapable of the correct pronunciation of Cosimo Matassa’s name three episodes from the end of the show, decides to make the return of live music on North Rampart Street his new crusade. “It was like getting a message from the universe,” he tells Janette Desautel, whose attempt to start a new restaurant on the site of the old Bywater Barbecue on Dauphine Street is apparently doomed by the legal restraints her former employer has imposed on her and the economic realities that have her running out of champagne at 9:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Davis and Janette rekindle the relationship they were in as the series started with a New Year’s sleepover that has them both wondering about the future.

“Is something going on?” he asks her.

“I’m not sure,” she replies with a smile that says more than her words reveal. “Do we have to figure it out today?”

No, but there are only two more episodes left.

– John Swenson

 

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Treme S4 E2: Death’s Grip On New Orleans

HBO’s New Orleans-based drama Treme is down to its final three episodes. The action is picking up dramatically as story lines resolve with Shakesperian suddenness and finality. Those of us who’ve followed the series from its inception will soon find the familiar characters who seem so much like neighbors moving out of our lives forever.

Sunday night’s episode was rife with bad news. Chief Albert Lambreaux, the noblest character in the story, is feeling great in the first flush of autumnal weather and the intoxicating beauty of his concomitant late season love affair with Ladonna Batiste-Willaims when his doctor informs him that his cancer has spread to his liver. Like the series itself, the Chief has been handed a death sentence. He uses the news as an opportunity to claim what little time he has left as his own. He stops his chemotherapy, drinks a beer with clear, satisfied relish, and reviews his life, driving around the city with his daughter and showing her places where he grew up.

And he spends quality time with Ladonna. “Aren’t you afraid?” she asks.

“All sane men,” he replies, “are afraid to die.”

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Wendell Pierce plays Antoine Batiste in Season 4's second episode of Treme.

Death comes in stupid, unnecessary ways as well. One of Antoine Batiste’s students saw her brother gunned down in a drive by shooting. She didn’t witness the shooters, but by the end of the episode she is dead herself.

“They saw her as a threat,” the cop tells Batiste. “That she might testify as a witness.”

Treme is filled with teachable moments, and this is one of the most dramatic. Wendell Pierce, the actor who plays Antoine Batiste, commented on the story line.

“Violence is the number one issue in New Orleans,” said Pierce, who appears on the cover of this month’s OffBeat. “It’s key that we understand first of all that it’s not just one element that creates the violence. I always find in discussions of this that people are looking for the one cure-all. But you have to understand that as detached as you may be from the people perpetuating the violence we all have a contribution to make to this dynamic. And change it. We’re contributing to the paradigm one way or the other -– our inaction, our indifference, is a vote of complicity in my eye. I think you have to make a difference.

Violence has always been part of the American culture. And it’s always been countered by education. In the wild west they would say go get a school marm to teach these wild men out here. Give them an opportunity to go on the road to where they make a different choice. We have to create an economic environment where there’s a chance for employment. These young men who are running and gunning  were 12 years old when Katrina happened. What did we do or not do in this period which led them to pursue this lifestyle, which is having an impact on so many. It’s because what we take for granted as opportunity, that road that we were put on by our mothers and fathers, what we have to realize is we have to start building a culture not just for those who understand the importance of that opportunity. We have to ensure that we build a culture for those who don’t understand that. What choices and opportunities are built in to the education system?

We know what they are for those students who have great paths, who know how to take advantage of the choices that they have, but you should actually build a system for all of those students that don’t have great parents and won’t know about all the different choices that they have. We have to adopt the principle that we own all of our youths’ time and we have to fill every hour. My mother and father always told us that even when you have some recreational time or down time you ought to have some focus to it. When we were young the city helped to prepare us for jobs. They had classes in how to conduct a job interview. How to comport yourself on an interview. How do you prepare a resume. We were preparing our youth not just to get an education but to join the work force. We have to prepare these kids to be able to join the American labor force. That’s how I got my first job.

I was part of these training sessions where I was taught how to work in corporate America and given these training sessions. When I asked ‘Who did that?’ my mother said ‘The mayor’s office did that.’ So you have to engage. Just for example, my store is hiring. I know if some of those kids took a job at my store it would put them on a different path. If they want to get involved, it’s about how to give them the access to be able to get involved. If they don’t have access to the normal economic circles they will go to the underground social circle and that will have a negative impact on their lives. Involving ourselves in the youth of New Orleans is key. And that is how you put an end to violence.

The police are a deterrent, but policing violence is always a reaction to violence that’s already happened. The police come after it happens. We have to be preventative.  Nothing should happen in New Orleans without a youth corps attached to it. That’s a part of what being seriously active is about.  That’s what Jazz Fest is about. We should have a full day designated for youth. You have to involve them. You saw how Antoine takes his kids to hear music. Even then, though, the violence in New Orleans touches them. These kind of programs and this kind of commitment to action is the only thing that is going to change the paradigm.”

– John Swenson

 

DID YOU CATCH OFFBEAT’S BEST OF THE BEAT AWARDS
IN LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE OF TREME TOO?

Here’s a clip of “Annie” with her Best of the Beat Awards for Song of the Year,
filmed at House of Blues — where our Best of the Beat Awards took place three years ago:

 

OffBeat contributor, Cate Czarnecki was also referenced in NOLA.com’s recap of last night’s episode of Treme for her piece on Aurora Nealand / Rory Danger, here.

 

Don’t miss out on this year’s Best of the Beat Awards, happening Saturday, January 18, 2014 at Generations Hall! You never know who might show up… of film something. Tickets, line-up and more info here. History always goes down at the Best of the Beat.

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Treme at Buffa’s: If You Can’t Make It Here, You’d Better Not Leave (S4 E1)

A New Orleans tradition was renewed Sunday night when people gathered in the back room at Buffa’s 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.

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The fourth and final season of HBO's Treme airs December 1 - 29, 2013.

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 moves 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.

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Alex McMurray at Jazz Fest.

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 Steve Zahn’s character 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!”

– John Swenson

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Treme Episode 9: Musicians Seal the Deals

Most of the musicians on Treme play themselves. Others are given small acting roles, and a very few are actually both musicians and actors playing out storylines that overlap with real history. We saw how slippery that ground can be right at the beginning of Season 3 when Glen David Andrews reenacted his arrest for second-lining in honor of Kerwin James while in real life he was being hauled up on bogus attempted murder charges which were later dropped, but only after his name was smeared all over the front page of the Times-Picayune.

Irvin Mayfield has the most difficult and controversial role of any musician in the show. He was initially portrayed as the musician developers could go to when they wanted a favor from the administration of Ray Nagin immediately after the flood. At that time in real life, Mayfield was indeed promoting a plan for a National Jazz Center that never materialized. This season there’s a new mayor, Mitch Landrieu, and the storyline has developers needing to curry favor with musicians Delmond Lambreaux and his father Big Chief Albert Lambreaux in order to work with Landrieu. But Mayfield is still in the picture, advising the younger Lambreaux on his role. The part is so complex, Mayfield and David Simon sat down to hammer it out between them, and Mayfield’s take on the exchange is fascinating.

Swenson: I’m fascinated by the role you play as a bridge between the developers and the musicians’ community.
Mayfield: As an artist I always thought it’s an interesting lifestyle, working with actors. And I have a lot of actors who are friends because I went to high school with actors, with writers, with visual artists and of course musicians, jazz musicians and classical musicians. We did all of that at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. When I’m spending time with folks on a movie set, I just relate to it as just hanging around with a bunch of actors because I’m used to that. I’ve been around that culture, I’ve done a lot of acting, so I understand that and I consider myself an actor. I appreciate it, but you know, it’s like photo sessions and I’ve done more photo sessions than probably anything. To boil this long-winded explanation down to one sentence, I always feel like I’m wasting my damn time when I’m doing it. It’s not my chosen profession. If I spend all day on a movie set, I just feel like I’ve wasted a whole day. It’s just not how I want to spend my time. It’s like if I’m writing a lecture, it never feels like it’s as productive a day as if I’m writing music.

Swenson: One of the things that Treme does so well is articulate the ongoing problems that New Orleans faces. You interface with the business people and show that musicians can do that, that it’s not necessarily an oppositional situation in every case.
Mayfield: I have to challenge you there, John, because realistically the higher up you go, it’s less of an issue. Frank Sinatra didn’t have that issue. Louis Prima didn’t have that issue. Louis Armstrong himself. Here’s a man who owned a Negro league [team], he was a film star, a music person and an ambassador of goodwill. He defended his own ideas as a public persona in a tremendous amount of battles with Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie when they first came out in defense of the old vs. the new. I don’t think the city has had an issue with this. I think what we haven’t done is built the tools that are necessary. Remember we still live in a town that does not have a school named for Louis Armstrong. That’s the problem with New Orleans. You have to stand in defense and fight for that kind of shit.

Swenson: Did you have an exchange with the writers about all of this?
Mayfield:
I love David Simon. I like his attitude and his persona and his vibe.  And I know a lot of the writers. I know those guys but honestly the difference is, and I’m saying this as gingerly as I can and I think David Simon can appreciate it because he’s kind of a no- bullshit guy: they don’t look at this shit from the perspective I look at it.  We may be in a global fight together, but I am in defense of the fight in a different position. I think I have a unique perspective on it, because of where I’m sitting I have to look at it like I play the trumpet and I have to sit back and say, “Damn, there’s another man who played the trumpet who actually was a genius, one of the greatest geniuses of all of American history, and he had to leave his own hometown.”

He was signing his letters “red beans and ricely yours” all these years, yet he didn’t want to be buried here. He didn’t want to come back because of the type of prejudice he faced when he came home. No school named after him. There’s still a fence up now through how many years? There’s still a fence up around Armstrong Park. You like Mitch, great, you like Ray, great, Sidney Barthelemy, fine, but there’s a fence up, man. So when it comes to that kind of shit I just have to sit back and scratch my head. That’s what the time of day it is for me, that’s where the fight is right now. When I sat with David Simon I was more like trying to explain to him what this is about. He said, “What is the deal?” I said, “Let me tell you the irony of this. It’s when people will tell you that they’ve got a problem with you because you volunteered your time on the library board and they’ve got a problem with you because you volunteered your time working for one mayor and then another guy who’s your friend becomes mayor and his team doesn’t like you because you volunteered your time for the library, and then the guy who came before both of those guys, you sit down with his friends and they say, ‘I heard that you aligned yourself with somebody else.’”

The reality is that I joined the library because I live in this town. I think that what we were dealing with was so complex Simon was trying to figure out, “What kind of character do we create?” He asked me what I thought and I said, “At the end of the day it’s all made up. You’re trying to tell a story. So really it doesn’t matter as long as the story is really good.” People won’t remember what board I was on or what I did to create the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. At the end of the day, no one is going to remember any of that. It doesn’t help me sell any records. I did it because I thought it was important. The things that I put into the music are my spirit, my emotion. My life as a public figure is different.  The reason you do these things is not for the roses. You do it because you love the place. I love New Orleans. I live here, I pay my taxes here, this is where I want to be.

Folks think power is in City Hall in those elected offices. I believe the people in the most powerful positions are the artists, because our shit lasts. We’re the sculptors, we’re the painters, we’re the second line, the pot of gumbo. We supersede any political office. Even religious leaders need the arts to communicate the message of god.

In closing, Davis and the R&B Opera

The Davis haters are gloating because the R&B Opera was left off the list of releases on the label he owns with Aunt Mimi. This is supposedly a death blow to Davis, they note with the usual glee at his perceived demise. I love this stuff because these musical carrion crows always end up dining on their own words, and clearly Davis is inspired by the end of the last episode to write the song that inspired the whole Davis part in the first place, “I Quit.” I know this for a fact because I wrote the review that attracted Simon to the Davis character in the first place, and “I Quit,” a great piece of self-affirmation, is what really hooked Simon. This will not be a minor plot angle. My money is still on Davis.

–John Swenson

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Treme Recap: Get No Kick Out Of That Modern Jazz

Treme does such a wonderful job representing New Orleans music I find it odd when the music story line hits a clam, but there were bum notes all through last night’s episode (titled “Don’t Leave Me Here”). Going back to season one, I thought the storyline pitting New Orleans jazz against New York jazz was corny and unconvincing. This is 2008 we’re talking about, and serious musicians have long since stopped making jazz critic-type distinctions between genres. Jazz musicians go back and forth between New Orleans and New York like cardinals flying from yard to yard and they all know what makes New Orleans jazz matter. For teleplay writer Tom Piazza of all people to be penning an episode about Antoine Batiste desperately trying to play like J.J. Johnson is a cruel joke. First of all, the distinction later made in the episode by Delmond Lambreaux between New Orleans jazz as something you twirl your umbrella to and something called “modern jazz” that is more serious is a red herring to begin with. “Modern jazz,” as represented in this episode by Thelonious Monk and Eric Dolphy, is about as “modern” as a ’57 Chevy. In fact by virtue of both timeline considerations and the acoustic nature of the music, “modern” jazz and traditional New Orleans jazz are far more closely related than anything young jazz players are doing today.

There are plenty of traditional jazz musicians in New Orleans who play just that because it’s the music they want to play. There are just as many who can do a trad jazz gig one night, a bop gig the next and a session of new improvisational music the night after. I’ve been watching Treme at Buffa’s, a really great experience which I highly recommend. Before each show local musicians featured in Treme perform. Last night it was pianist Tom McDermott and clarinetist Aurora Nealand. Nealand is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. She is a superb traditional New Orleans jazz player who’s recorded a tribute to one of the masters of that genre, Sidney Bechet, but I’ve seen her in duets with new music cellist Helen Gillet where she plays inspired post-Ornette Coleman abstractions, unfettered by any critical niche. So this storyline is bogus, I’m sorry to say.

As usual the music itself is on magnificent display. Annie Tee, whom I have issues with as a singer and bandleader, is superb playing violin on a session with Sonny Landreth. And it’s becoming clear what’s going to go wrong with her too-good-to-be-true manager, played by Michael Cerveris. He wants her to take credit for songs she didn’t write. And then he’ll go after her publishing.

The storyline I do find riveting in season three is the relationship between Chief Lambreaux and LaDonna, two apparently doomed characters who in their own lives represent the fragile soul of a city under siege. Albert, who literally plays the guardian of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition in the Treme storyline, is puking his guts out from his cancer chemotherapy; LaDonna, the free spirit whose tough independence and flirtatious beauty represent the part of New Orleans that always whistled past the graveyard, is being psychologically tortured by her rapists. We know the outcome of these stories without spoilers. Chief’s life, if he survives, will never be the same. LaDonna will be forced to live with the terror being inflicted on her no matter the outcome of her court case. Somehow their star-crossed circumstances pull these unlikely lovers together and they light up the night with their smoldering passion, all the more brilliant for its slow, unrequited burn. And even though they’ve never even kissed they are clearly involved in the kind of platonic romance that makes great fiction. He’s too old for her, of course, but that doesn’t stop her from being drawn to him. And he is no crowing Professor from der blaue Engel; he gets Bogart-level lines of stoic acceptance and wisdom. Earlier this year my favorite was when he told her, “You’re all woman…” pausing to add, “but you’re no Indian.” This time he says something right out of Casablanca. They’re sitting at the table when she gets the menacing call from the rapist. She tries to shake it off but he knows her soul by looking at her. And he gives her the advice about bullies that has been handed out since civilization began:

“You’ve got to show ‘em you’re not afraid.”

LaDonna, of course, has a quick retort:

“That’s easy for you to say.”

And that’s when Chief gets the Bogart line, the three words that carry a lifetime of meaning:

“No, it isn’t.”

– John Swenson

 

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Voodoo and Treme: We Do What We Need To

Black night is falling. The stars are incredibly close. Jack White is mining the past to an adoring crowd in City Park. The Saints are being crushed in Denver. I’m heading to Buffa’s to watch Treme.

I’m really torn by what I witnessed at the Voodoo Experience. I want to thank Neil Young and Crazy Horse for playing the best or maybe second best show of the twenty-something I’ve seen by them over the years. Only the Madison Square Garden Rust Never Sleeps show was on the level of what happened Friday night. Others of course have their own moments. But those who were obsessed with Young’s age completely missed the point. Neil Young and Crazy Horse put it all on the line Friday night. They gave us everything they had and they have plenty. During “Walk Like A Giant,” Young kept turning to the band and shouting for more, punching both arms emphatically in the air like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments parting the Red Sea. He wanted more and he got it. Nothing was left behind when they finished. The grandeur of the coda, where Young got Crazy Horse to mimic the sound of a giant walking in immense, crushing strides for what seemed like 10 minutes, was truly astonishing.

Young was not fooling around. He threw the gauntlet immediately with “Love and Only Love” from the critically undervalued Crazy Horse masterpiece Ragged Glory.

“Love and only love will endure… Hate is everything you think it is.”

The raw, open-hearted emotion that Young can bring to a song is best served in this anthem to unabashed passion, to following your heart at all costs. Call him a hippie and he’ll cop to that with a chip on his shoulder. You got a better solution, Mitt?

And “Fucking Up,” another Ragged Glory track, what a moment. You think this is about drugs? It’s about you fucking up getting the meaning of the song, bro. It’s about me making every mistake in the book. It’s about all the times Neil’s father took him down a notch. And it’s about getting off the floor and trying your best the next time. Let’s all sing along to our folly and move on.

“Ramada Inn” may be the best song Neil’s ever written. It’s simplicity and complexity, redemption and the horror of the abyss, all at once. And of course the saving grace is love. What else do we have, ever? “She loved him so… she did what she had to.”

A close friend told me this set changed her life. Truth.

At other points Voodoo left me wanting to run away screaming. The sound was often so bad, bleeding so intensely from stage to stage. I want to offer a personal apology to anyone who went to see AWOLNATION on my recommendation. I based that pick on recordings, but the band sucked the tailpipe so hard in person I was left aghast. And the abomination of the Red Bull stage was truly appalling. Has Dev gotten here yet? I mean, the Preservation Hall stage ran like the German rail road but it seemed nobody played at Le Plur when they were supposed to. Of course everybody was so jacked on ecstasy they didn’t care as featureless automorons spun aural wallpaper for the stunned denizens. Frank Zappa had an apt description for this. It’s not music, it’s “lifestyle accessory.” And of course it’s the future of pop, of course. Pop is supposed to reflect mass culture, and American culture is becoming so completely homogenized that it’s inevitable it will sound like this for the forseeable future.

As for the future of Voodoo, the sparse crowds indicated that the once vast chasm in booking philosophy between the Jazz and Heritage Festival and Voodoo has dwindled to a razor’s edge. Jack White has played Jazz Fest, as has Young. That leaves Metallica, which isn’t much of an edge. Voodoo still skews younger than Jazz Fest but there’s really not as much variety and when the mainstream rock support acts are as bad as this year’s bunch the edge disappears completely.

Over at Buffa’s, sitting in the back room watching Treme with an audience of people who populate the screen in front of you is an experience that offers a stark contrast to the mall of Voodoo. Treme is showing us what is happening to our culture. New Orleans, a city full of creative people — not just musicians and artists but artisans of every stripe, metal workers with soul and street sweepers who are honored in their community — is being remade in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. As Desiree points out incredulously in episode six, “Careless Love,” as she looks at the empty lot where her house once stood, “It’s like they don’t want us to come back.” For Desiree “us” is the African American community, but anyone who lives as an artist is part of what’s endangered here. In Treme the vision of city planners is to institutionalize culture and literally corral it — in Armstrong Park for the proposed jazz center, but also in City Park for Voodoo, at the Fair Grounds (or perhaps City Park in the future) for Jazz Fest, or elsewhere as long as it can be tagged with a dog collar. But definitely not on the streets, at the second lines, in the neighborhoods, or the corner bars where music grew and is still nurtured. All that is under siege. Our future is endangered, and nobody is going to help us except ourselves. If we don’t listen to Neil Young and do what we have to, do what we need to, we’re going to lose everything that matters to us.

–John Swenson

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Treme Season 3, Episode 4: Music Is the Message

In last night’s episode of Treme, “The Greatest Love,” Davis McAlary is in Piety Street Studios with producer Mark Bingham, trying to convince him to donate studio time to record his R&B Opera. Davis enlists saxophonist Kidd Jordan, who is also in the room, in support of the project. Davis, Jordan and Bingham go back and forth exchanging superlatives about the album. Davis is dead serious while the other two are mocking him in a clean variation on “doing the dozens.” Instead of trading insults they’re trading adjectives.

“It went on and on. It was hilarious,” said Bingham. “I don’t know how much of it made it into the show but we had a lot of fun with it.”

The moment was particularly auspicious because Davell Crawford was actually in the studio while they talked, singing a gospel song with his grandfather, James “Sugar Boy” Crawford, who passed away only months after the scene was filmed. Like so many other New Orleans music institutions that are no longer with us, Treme documented Crawford for posterity.

Bingham noted that the original script called for Frankie Ford to be in the scene, but something came up and Kidd Jordan was brought it at the last minute. That adds two pertinent footnotes to the episode, one a piece of real history and another relating to the fictive story that runs alongside it. Jordan actually played in Sugar Boy Crawford’s band at one point, creating the kind of historical irony that delights hardcore fans of New Orleans music. And it’s interesting to know that Frankie Ford was supposed to be included among the R&B greats populating the opera. We only find out incidentally who is in and who is not based on Davis’ actions in the show. We know he’s enlisted a few R&B legends, including Al “Carnival Time” Johnson and Clarence “Frogman” Henry, and we know that John Boutte and Sugar Boy Crawford turned him down. Who else might be included in the project? We’re just going to have to keep watching the rest of the season to find out. And here’s another clue. Stay tuned for an announcement about the lineup for OffBeat’s Best of the Beat award show, which takes place January 18, 2013.

McAlary is the most puzzling character in Treme. While every other major character goes through dramatic changes and shows a marked story arc through the first three seasons, Davis is exactly the same guy he was when he jumped out of bed to join a second line in episode one. The show’s writers continually cast him as a buffoon, comic relief against the dreadful landscape of a ruined city. Yet Davis is the one who plays the great music as a DJ, who organizes the outrageous party with a terrific impromptu band, who brings producer Don B into the picture, and who writes so many of the great original songs in the series thanks to his real life avatar Davis Rogan. If Rogan thinks of his songs as his children, he probably views the Treme writing team as child molesters.

Yet who could resist the opportunity to draw as broadly comic a figure as McAlary? This is no Sancho Panza providing the foil for the hero, he’s a freestanding entity who gets to tell the uncomfortable truths, even if they are cloaked in ridiculous garments. What’s with the sombrero he wears as a New Orleans tour guide? McAlary is shaping up like a Shakeapearean fool, the self-effacing apparent nitwit who actually knows more about what’s going down than the rulers of the city do.

And that’s all because Davis McAlary is always focused on the music, which in the end is the only thing that really counts in this drama. It’s his life’s blood, his reason for existence. At the moments when Davis loses his band to the young rapper he nurtured or watches his girl friend achieve the stardom that eludes him, Davis is at his best, approving of and encouraging their success even as he has a hard time hiding his own personal disappointment. Davis knows every failure is something ephemeral because there will always be more music to celebrate behind it, more adventures to pursue. The Treme writers may come up with mocking lines about Davis and his opera, but his intentions remain good and his determination to keep pursuing his idea against all odds has a nobility of its own. I have never rooted harder for Davis than I’m rooting for him now.

—John Swenson

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