Rotary Downs is an unclassifiable New Orleans band. Therein lies its greatness, nestled right alongside its obscurity. The word used most often to describe RD is “psychedelic” but in truth this band has nothing to do with the general impressions engendered by that word.
RD sounds nothing like the San Francisco bands of the later ’60s, even less like their Boston counterparts, and absolutely nothing like the run-for-the-money sound that Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band launched in Britain. The closest match would be the cerebral, deliberately esoteric inventions of the Canterbury experimentalists Robert Wyatt and Kevin Ayers. Or perhaps the early Pink Floyd, before its crass sell out to the British blue$-rock ethos on Dark Side of the Moon.
Traces is an outstanding listen, a collection of meticulously crafted songs played to perfection by a band in complete service to the material. There is not a single gratuitous solo on the record, just infectious and surreal grooves fashioned in careful brush strokes by the ensemble. The songs emerge out of a meticulously balanced rhythm section with Zack Smith’s drumming acting as the fulcrum for the shifting support of multi-instrumentalists Jason Rhein, Alex Smith and Anthony Cuccia, who switch off on bass and keyboards, with Rhein also playing guitar along with frontman James Marler and Chris Columbo. Marler sings lead but the band has three other voices as well, all essential to the great whole.
“Orion” is an automatic classic, a jaw-droppingly original rumination on numinous dread hooked, literally, on a star: “bright flight through darkness lingers on, starlight from stars long dead and gone” These are not your typical gumbo variations. The album goes from strength to strength—“Anthony’s Odyssey,” “The Sandwich Islands,” “aka Godzilla,” “Tent City,” “Country Killers,” “Incognito.” It’s no second line parade yet it’s cleverly designed dance music nevertheless.
Of course RD is unlikely to be championed by the usual suspects for the very reason that the band is so original and creative. If they were out of Portland, or god-forbid London itself, you would never hear the end of the praise for RD’s inventiveness and singularity. As it is they are a testament to the depth and possibilities that still exist in a New Orleans scene that remains outside of the creeping rot enveloping popular music at all levels, at least for now.
Rotary Downs plays Jazz Fest on Friday, April 25—Samsung Galaxy Stage, 11:25 a.m.