For most of the 20th century New Orleans music spent its energy preserving and building on the spectacular advances it created in the first two decades of the 1900s.
We are all aware of how much things have changed since 2005, but 21st century New Orleans music was already on its way when the city was flooded and depopulated. The new music was a kind of boomerang effect dating back to the Jazz Age.
Early 20th century New Orleanians invented jazz, and then took it upriver, then to Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Europe and beyond. Those who stayed behind taught their descendants to evolve the roots of swing into New Orleans R&B. Starting in the late 1990s, successive generations of newcomers started moving into the city and bringing outside influences to bear on the tradition.
Few bands epitomize this transition into the 21st century better than the Tin Men, and On the Shady Side offers a textbook case in how the tradition has coalesced into this particular form of postmodernism.
The band is an unlikely staple of the city’s live music scene, an anomalous collection of guitar, washboard and sousaphone that manages to walk in the shadow of the past while offering an audacious vision of the future. This is only possible because the principals are such talented musicians.
There’s Washboard Chaz, whose customized percussion instrument creates its own context wherever he plays it–and he can play it with anyone as he proves each year at Chaz Fest. Then there’s Matt Perrine, a sousaphone/tuba player with an arranger’s mindset who can shape the harmonic direction and melodic content of a tune at the drop of a hat, all the while laying down a swinging groove (check his beautiful phrasing on Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz.”)
Finally, the Tin Men have New Orleans music superhero Alex McMurray, a recalcitrant frontman by day whose jazz guitar playing is the band’s secret weapon by night. McMurray songs are unique, and the way he sings them makes for a beautiful singularity.
Chaz sets a merry tone with his laconic delivery of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” (followed by Alex for “On the Shady Side of the Street” with otherworldly saw playing from Dr. Sick) and the core R&B stalwarts “I’m In Love Again,” “Holy Cow” and the Indian chant “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.”
But McMurray brings the surrealism with his own “Your Mama Can’t Dance Like This” and “Gone So Long,” and his outrageous covers of Allen Toussaint’s “Got Me A New Love Thing” (with John Gros adding piano and vocals), the extraordinary vocal gymnastics of Dolores Johnson’s “Dinky Doo” and James Booker’s unforgettable moral fable “Papa Was A Rascal,” which McMurray positively inhabits.
This is one of the projects Mark Bingham produced at his post-Piety Street headquarters in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, with sessions recorded at the Living Room by Chris George.