Don’t Mess with New Orleans

SXSW and a few phone conversations we’ve had prompted John Swenson to fire off this email/editorial/rant/state of the union address. Rather than keep it to myself, I’m sharing it with you:

The deity of your choice knows how much there really is to complain about in New Orleans since 2005, but one gripe I’m sick of hearing about is how superior we are to Austin, Texas as a music town despite its self-proclaimed status as the music capitol of the world. The truth is that even if our music is better than Austin’s, our track record of promoting and expanding its appeal is dismal. Provincialism and navel-gazing, the two cardinal sins of New Orleans culture, are the prime reasons for our inability to keep up with Austin’s progress, and there’s probably a little old fashioned greed in the mix as well.

Austin was just another regional music scene before the South By Southwest music festival kicked off in 1987, but since then that city really has shown the way when it comes to marketing itself as a place to hear music. We have the Jazz and Heritage Festival, of course, which really is the best event of its kind anywhere, but Jazz Fest has lagged behind SXSW in building out from its core appeal. Where Jazz Fest inexplicably ties itself to tired suburban headlining acts with little critical credibility such as Rod Stewart and Billy Joel, SXSW always features the latest buzz bands, like Arctic Monkeys two years ago and Vampire Weekend this year. It’s not that these groups are so great, but people who fancy themselves as music aficionados want to see them because they’re the latest thing and will fork over big bucks for the privilege.

Then, of course, there’s the much touted French Quarter Festival, which has been turned into a mini-Jazz Fest while robbing it of the street festival quality that gave it its name. It’s no longer a charming celebration featuring small, listener friendly musical gatherings on the streets of the Quarter. The festival should now more accurately be called the Riverfront Festival at by virtue of its shift to the stages on the river. And that’s not all. Though asked to play for massive crowds, the musicians are compensated like street corner crooners. Musician after musician who’d played FQF in the past told me they were boycotting it this year because the organizers require the performers to arrange for their own sponsors in order to get paid. I’d like to be able to give their names, but these poor characters are afraid of retaliation by the so-called music lovers who act as organizers of this event. Way to go to promote your city’s music!

Too much of the official approach to New Orleans music is frankly insulting to the intelligence of the music fans who come here to listen to it. The blowhards who pontificate on the theme that you have to play the same eight songs over and over because that’s all the people want to hear reflect the kind of defeatist attitude that would relegate New Orleans music to a soundtrack for breast-flashing and puking in the streets.

New Orleans music is a precious resource that deserves not only to be preserved but to be placed in the context of the most vibrant contemporary music being made today. And supported, even if at the expense of Rod Stewart and Billy Joel. Trombone Shorty’s set at this year’s SXSW drew rave reviews from local Austin critics and demonstrated that New Orleans musicians are second to none when it comes to raw talent. Susan Cowsill’s performances on her own and with the Cowsills were the shows I heard some of the hottest buzz about from SXSW attendees. Glen David Andrews and Paul Sanchez lit up the Continental Club with a performance of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans” that made the song sound like it could have been
written yesterday. If we want to keep pace with Austin, we need to put something more than lip service behind the artists who make up the lifeblood of this city, stop bleeding them and start to treat New Orleans music as the sound of legacy, not just heritage.