Ah, New Orleans in the summertime. Tourists evaporate as the festival season ebbs away, business slows to a crawl, the sidewalks bake and shimmer. The city turns into one listless, panting beast, wallowing around in the doldrums until the saturated atmosphere sweats itself out into something you can actually breathe again.
If you’re a musician, you might find it’s a good time to take your show on the road. The laws of supply and demand can make it hard enough to eek out a living here during the busy season, and you can practically still see home in the rearview from places where workaday songsters are fewer, farther between, and better paid.
If you’re a half-baked writer, you might find it’s a good time to throw off the hot, sticky blanket of urban seasonal malaise in favor of some highway escapism. Perhaps under a vague journalistic pretense like “investigating local musicians’ experiences on the road versus playing in New Orleans via stalking Patrick Cooper and Bob Worth to an inconvenient new location.”
To be fair, “New Orleans versus elsewhere” is an interesting and fertile anthropological topic, even without the prospect of a road trip. Whether you’re talking culturally, historically, politically, or musically, the city is an island unto itself. For better and for worse, playing music here is not playing music there, even if “there” is just a short drive away.
And to be fair again, one doesn’t need an excuse (anthropological, escapist, or otherwise) to make seeing Patrick and Bob Worth a trek. They’re some of my favorite local songwriters and always put on a great show. When I heard that the second stop on their “Epic Two-City Mississippi Mini Tour” was a “college bar” in exotic Hattiesburg, the potential hilarity of watching acoustic New Orleans music with frat bros was too much to resist. I was in great company too, with dear friends/drinking buddies Ashley Rice (who’s married to Bob) and Natasha Sanchez (who plays in a different duo with Patrick).
We got to the gig after a prolonged happy/rush hour at Lucky’s and then two hours in a car without AC or windshield wipers. (Thank God for Rainex.) I’d never been to Hattiesburg before, and in the dark it looked like downtown Lafayette if you replaced all the bars with post offices. The venue―The Porter―turned out to be less of a college hangout and more one of those exposed-brick-and-craft-beer places with high ceilings and artsy stuff on the walls, which was just a different kind of funny. The good pub food and friendly staff more than made up for the lack of frat bros, and although I’m used to watching Patrick and Bob through a dim whiskey haze (maybe at Kerry’s Irish Pub, the Old Arabi Bar, WHIV 102.3 FM on my radio show…,) the trendier backdrop didn’t seem to have any adverse affect on the tunes.
Playing with Patrick, Bob relishes the opportunity to be a sideman, so they did mostly Patrick’s material. And as usual, it didn’t disappoint. He writes great slice-of-life tunes in the folk/Americana tradition. They’re are smart, witty, and earnest, and Patrick brings a down-to-earth freshness to a realm of music that is incredibly moving when done well (as in this case) but can feel either too tired or too shiny and contrived in the wrong hands. Other than with Bob, Patrick plays with Ruby Ross in a harmony-rich project called Crossing Canal and with aforementioned Epic-Mini-Tour-stalking-companion Natasha, whose own quirky, clever tunes run the gamut from poignant to hilarious. He’s also toured with John Craigie and is known among the young folk artist’s fans as the titular character of the tune “We Ain’t Leavin’ this Bar Patrick (Til We Find You Some Love)”.
“I love living in New Orleans,” Patrick said, “but as you probably know, acoustic music is not really high on the on the preference list in the way that jazz and funk are. And maybe straight ahead blues. In the acoustic music world there are a few emerging things happening, and we’ve had some great people go out to a lot of great success. Like Hurray For the Riff Raff; those guys are doing really great. But they have to leave.”
“Right now I’m playing a lot of Lafayette and Lake Charles,” he continued, “but also there’s also two really great listening rooms that I get to play in Baton Rouge. The Red Dragon Listening Room and the Dyson House Listening Room. Those are places where you can play your own material exclusively. They want it. If you play a cover they’re kind of like, ‘What are you doing here?’ Whereas with these restaurant/bar gigs, you have to mix it in.”
“Playing Patrick’s songs is the real treat on these gigs,” Bob said. “He does play too much Bruce Springsteen and too many Beatles songs, and then I tell him how awful those two are, and then he tells me to shut up and play the next song. So, we’re a really good fit.”
(For the record, I’m not with Bob on the Springsteen issue.)
“And Bob always tells me, ‘Man I just wanna be the side man tonight,’” Patrick laughed, “but I just bother him so much that he finally plays one of his own songs. He writes some great songs.”
Bob’s songs tend more towards country, blues, and rock (and the various grey areas in between) with catchy hooks and evocative lyrics that show his Mississippi country roots. That being said, he has all that New Orleans je ne sais quoi of somebody who attended the school of Following Slewfoot and Cary B. Around the Quarter Pre-Katrina with a Guitar and Trying to Learn to Play the Damn Thing. (Not to mention the still-active Church of Jamming with Michael Darby, Baby.) These days, he’s an accomplished player whose mastery of slide guitar is a asset to any project he plays with. When asked to describe the sound of his own band―Bob Worth and the Annunciators―he said that at its core, it was “Mississippi music”. Being in Mississippi, I asked him what, exactly, that was.
“Right,” he said. “What does that mean? Kind of like Cary Hudson stuff. Country rock, but not like the Eagles. More blues-inflected. The nearest I’ve ever heard to it is the Stones in the sense that you would never call them a country band but half the time they’re doing like a straight-up country song.”
Which, of course, begged the question, what is a country song?
“It’s really no different in my mind from church music,” he answered, after a pause. “A different sort of rhythmic feel. And of course more African-American influences than I ever heard in Baptist church as a kid. Which, not to be deterministic, is just that the sum of those ingredients make a difference. Call it ‘church music with a blues inflection and a rock-and-roll beat.’ You know, we’ve got the same call-and-response going on between the vocals and the proverbial steel guitar. And thematically, very conservative in the sense of looking to the past and tradition. as opposed to just rock and roll excess. Which is killer, don’t get me wrong.”
Drinking at Nick’s Ice House afterwards, we got to hear some Mississippi music on the jukebox while enjoying a completely different kind of local atmosphere: dark and divey, with cheap bottled beer, pool tables, and toilets for bar stools. There was a bathtub in the women’s room and it looked like an unused murder scene, in a nice way. The men’s bathroom, rumor had it, had no toilets at all. (Maybe they’d ended up around the bar.)
As with many a good road trip, the night concluded with passing out drunk on the floor of the Days Inn. We woke up bright and early (or at least early), ready to drink dishwater-colored coffee at Ihop and experience all that Mississippi’s beaches, forests, and gas stations had to offer.
Back in New Orleans a couple days later, we caught up about the Epic Mini Tour and Bob’s subsequent gigs in the Delta with bassist Cody Rose. One topic that comes up when discussing gigging in New Orleans versus elsewhere is the pay.
“It’s a two-sided thing, you know,” said Bob. A bunch us were lurking around the antechamber of WHIV 102.3’s studios, waiting to go on-air. “We’re oversupplied here, but because of that, it’s easy to meet killer people and put things together. You can throw together a gig-ready band an hour before if you have to. But then you make next to nothing and get yelled at all the time. So it’s tricky. It’s really cool to go to places where people still appreciate music. And not just in the financial sense; they dig it. New Orleanians do too, make no mistake. But it feels like more of a hustle down here.”
“A lot of times, out-of-town gigs pay more than New Orleans gigs,” Patrick Cooper had said earlier in the day over coffee. “And you’re a bit exotic. When I go to Lake Charles, it’s amazing how well-received I am. They’ll say, ‘And all the way from New Orleans!’ They’re really sweet, and the tips are usually excellent.”
Bob and I have spoken at length about his experiences growing up a liberal guy in a conservative environment, and about the beauty of New Orleans as a haven for all kinds of “otherness”. (As one of our bartenders in Hattiesburg had put it, “You can just be yourself in New Orleans. Nobody really cares, at least not the way they do other places.) I asked Bob if he’d had any of those “Oh wow, this isn’t New Orleans anymore!” feelings out on the road this time.
“Oh, totally. In the good way and the bad. New Orleans is its own little thing, and not in the least because of it being this little tiny blue dot in a sea of red. There aren’t any, like, juice bars or yoga studios up where we were in Mississippi,” he laughed.
“Here comes the obligatory broken record,” he went on. “but things [in New Orleans] are changing so fast. Going to the place people make fun of for never changing brings that into stark relief, for better and for worse. It was nice to get away from the city for a little bit. I’d forgotten how to slow down and be polite to people. And being back home in Mississippi last week, in a way, I didn’t want to leave the comfortable, the familiar. Being a quasi-tourist there now, it can be a relief being around people that aren’t trying to tell you how cool they are all the time.”
“What about musically?” I asked, still lost in pleasant thoughts about a world without juice bars. “Are your songs received any differently there?”
“Those people understand my music. Because, you know, you’re just of that place,” he explained. “But then I’m going up to sing ‘Up Against the Wall Redneck’, and my buddy’s like, ‘Hold on, is this tongue-in-cheek or are you about to piss off a bunch of rednecks? Because we’ll die.’”
“Sometimes, Mississippi isn’t too big on nuance,” he added thoughtfully.
We got back into talking about the supply/demand issue, and Bob was quick to point out that oversupply has its benefits too.
“You can’t meet people and make the special sort of art elsewhere the way you can down here,” Bob noted. “You can’t be inspired and collaborate the same way.”
In the same vein, Patrick had spoken about the camaraderie of New Orleans musicians, something I’ve heard about from lots of musicians and seen in action all the time. New Orleans isn’t cutthroat the way many other places are; most musicians really seem to want to build each other up and see each other succeed.
“Obviously everybody would love to be successful in a certain way, but New Orleans is a working musician’s town,” Patrick said. “The chances of you becoming famous anywhere but here are going to be minute. You’re playing gigs in various small venues. Sometimes there are tourists, sometimes there are locals. It’s a job. And I don’t mean that in a bad way; it’s a great job. It’s like that saying, ‘The worst day fishing is still better than the best day at the office.’” (He would know, having lived other lives as a lawyer and a manager in the hospitality industry.)
“In New Orleans,” he went on, “we’re thinking more along the lines of, ‘I’ve got a gig tomorrow, and I’m going to do my best, but then I’ve got another one tomorrow, and then another one Thursday… This is my work.’ But it’s important work. And you want it to be good work.”
And it certainly tends to be good work; New Orleans musicians are a breed of their own. Whether you’re a half-baked journalist or some other kind of music lover (and whether you’re at home or on the road) it’s a pleasure live in this strange, beautiful city, and to live in and around all this music.