The New Orleans Suspects have come a long way since Radiators bassist Reggie Scanlan, Neville Brothers drummer “Mean” Willie Green, Dirty Dozen Brass Band guitarist Jack Eckert, James Brown bandleader/saxophonist Jeff Watkins and keyboardist CR Gruver joined forces for a series of pick up shows at New Orleans’ beloved Maple Leaf Bar. Roughly eight years after those fateful gigs, the band has put out four albums and hit the road for a variety of national tours. Of course, they still spend plenty of time in their hometown, often playing shows at the venue that birthed them and always delivering the jammed out blend of New Orleans flavors their fans have come to know and love.
And yet a few things have changed since the Suspects’ early days, particularly in the bass guitar department. Scanlan’s health issues in recent years have forced him to slow down, so the band has featured a couple of replacements since he retired from the group in 2016 (though he still joins them for many of the big shows). Another important shift came in the songwriting department, which is to be expected for a group that long ago ditched the pickup band label. While those first shows may have relied on a deep well of cover songs, they now have a considerable repertoire of original music to sink their teeth into every night.
The Suspects have an extensive summer touring schedule ahead of them, but this week they’ll be rolling through the Wanee Festival at Live Oak, FL’s picturesque Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park on Wednesday, April 19. Founded in 2005, the Wanee Festival was hosted by the Allman Brothers Band (and their extended family) until the iconic rock band’s dissolution in 2014. This year the event will host a Wednesday night celebration of founding ABB drummer Butch Trucker, who died earlier this year at the age of 69. The Suspects are slated to perform at this Wednesday night gathering, kicking off a weekend of music that will include sets from Bob Weir & The Campfire Band, Widespread Panic, Trey Anastasio Band, Gov’t Mule, Dr. John & The Nite Trippers, and many more. We caught up with guitarist Jake Eckert ahead of their upcoming stop at Wanee.
You’ve got the Wanee Festival coming up this week. That fest was started by the Allman Brothers Band and continues to have an Allman Brothers ethos. Have they had any influence on you guys as musicians?
Oh my goodness, yes. I’m originally from Georgia, before I got to Louisiana. When I grew up, if you didn’t know the Allman Brothers tunes, you didn’t play [laughs]. As a kid I used to go see them a lot. I saw them at the Fox Theater when they would play there. They would often play Fourth of July at the Lakewood Amphitheatre. It was a big influence on me.
I was acquainted with a guy named Vaylor Trucks, who was Butch Trucks’ son. We actually played together when I was really young, and he was young too, in a band we had in middle school and high school. This was around the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. Yeah, the Allman Brothers were a huge influence on myself and our keyboard player CR, in particular. For me, Duane Allman was one of the first guitarists that I really listened to to figure out what the heck was really going on with everything.
You guys have been playing with Charlie Wooten, who took over for Reggie Scanlan on bass, for the past…
Well, that actually only lasted for a short amount of time. Charlie had too many other things going. We have so many shows coming up this year, so the reality of him trying to cover all of that and keep doing what he’s doing at the same time didn’t work. Everything was cool, and it wasn’t a big break up or anything, but we quickly realized that he either had to do Suspects the whole time or what he was doing the whole time. And it’s best for him to do what he does.
So right now we’re on our way up to St. Louis, Chicago and Minneapolis, and we have Eric Vogel playing the bass with us. Last weekend we had Reggie playing the bass with us [at French Quarter Fest]. His health has been a bit better, so he can do some of the the local stuff. And we did some gigs with the Little Feat guys last week in Atlanta and Nashville that he played on. But Eric is going to be covering the bass with us for the very near future. He’ll be at Wanee Festival. He also plays with Nigel Hall and sometimes Luther Dickinson. He’s been doing a great job.
Will Reggie be joining y’all at Jazz Fest?
He will be. He and Eric will both be on the show. He’ll be sitting in out of legacy and heritage, and Eric will also be on the show. We’re at the Acura Stage at 12:50pm on the first Friday. We’ll have a whole lot of guests with us for that show.
And if I could do another shameless plug, we will also be doing our fourth annual Leafopotomus show at the Maple Leaf during Jazz Fest on the same night, April 29. We have Eric McFadden, Roosevelt Collier, Khris Royal, Bobby Lee Rogers, Vince Herman from Leftover Salmon and the bass player from Leftover Salmon will probably jump up and join us too. It’s a big jam and we do it every year. We’re also going to open up for Anders Osborne at the Howlin’ Wolf, and we’ll be doing some other collaborations with the guys from Leftover Salmon, believe it or not, that we haven’t announced yet.
The Suspects started out as a Maple Leaf supergroup that eventually gelled as a band. Are you surprised by how much love you’ve gotten outside of New Orleans since this project became a real thing
Eric and I were talking about this while we were eating breakfast this morning. It was never something that was contrived or intended to be what it is. We just started at the Leaf as a jam, pickup band on one of those Wednesday nights they had. We were having a lot of fun though, but everyone was playing with their different bands—The Radiator, Nevilles, Dirty Dozen. At that time it was just four of us. That was in 2009, and I would have never imagined that it would turn into what it did in 2017, which is awesome. I feel blessed that we can take the neighborhood on the road and that people like it. But at the same time, now we’re 7 or 8 year into it and it’s a real band. We have four albums out and we deal with the things real bands deal with to keep it working. We have a whole lot of work ahead of us this year. We’re on the road now, and the reality of being an established band is different than trying to be a band that’s a pickup, supergroup thing. It’s far beyond that now. It’s an entity that carries its own weight at this point, and it’s all the things that come along with that [laughs].
Is there any particular audience that you guys have honed in on? Has the, for lack of a better word, jam band scene been good to you?
An interesting thing about this project, and the ones we were all doing before this, is that it fall between the cracks a bit. It’s like bands like the Neville Brothers or Little Feat—it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what they’re doing. It’s New Orleans-based, it’s funky but not necessarily funk, it’s Southern rock, it has a little bit of the jazz influence. It’s what I like to call “American music,” the place where all of those funky styles come together and develop their own sound as a whole. That’s where we sit.
We started out the year doing a co-bill with Bonerama up and down the East Coast, then from there we went to Colorado and did a co-bill with the New Mastersounds, and that really catered to younger, more jam band kind of crowd. Then last week we did a co-bill with the guys from Little Feat, which caters to an older roots rock crowd. And now this week, we’re out on our own, but we’ll be at Jazz Fest soon, which caters to the New Orleans things. So it’s a blessing to be able to play for all these different audiences. We’re booked on all of these blues and roots festivals this summer, but we’re also booked on things like Summer Camp Festival, which is a real jam band thing. There’s all these roots and funk genres, but they all fall into kind of the same thing and we’re lucky to be able to cater to all the sub-genres, whether it’s the stuff with the Little Feat guys or the stuff we do ourselves. It keeps us working. Did you know we do a lot of stuff with the Little Feat guys?
Have you been doing a lot of collaborating with them?
We started working with Paul [Barrere] and Fred [Tackett], I guess about five years ago now. It was something that had been thrown around, so we went to go try it out—I think the first show was in Florida in 2011, five or six years ago. It worked out real well. They would play a set of Little Feat tunes as a duo, then we would do a Suspects set, then we would all join together and do a mixed set of Little Feat tunes and New Orleans music. Willie and Reggie had become buddies with them over the years, and then we all have now after travelling playing with them for five or six years. We’ve become kind of like family. It’s been cool to be taken under that umbrella that as well. Even though Little Feat isn’t a New Orleans band, they’ve had a lot of ties to New Orleans, as a lot of people know. They were cool enough to write a song for us, and Paul Barrere came and played on our last album, Kaleidescoped, for a tune called “Dixie Highway” that he gave to the band. They both came to the studio with us to play on the album. We’ve done around 50 or 60 shows together over the past few years, so it’s kind of become a thing.
We’ve recorded all those albums in my studio behind my house. We’ve done a lot of albums there other than the Suspects too. All of the Suspects albums are done, but we also just did the latest John Mooney album, finished up the new Bobby Rush album that just got the Grammy, we did the new Dave Jordan album. There’s a lot that has come out of there. So we’re really lucky to be able to go into the backyard to create a little bit and have this sanctuary environment. Jeff Watkins and myself both record and produce music on our own time, as well as with the Suspects, so to be able to take everyone’s ideas and writing and bring it to fruition is great. That was our fourth album, but the question is what the next album will be comprised of. That last one was cool because we brought people like Big Chief Juan Pardo and Ike Kinchen in to do some Mardi Gras Indian music. We had the guys from Little Feat. Some buddies of mine who play in Joe Bonamassa’s band were playing at the Saenger Theatre, one is in Tower of Power and the other is just a great horn player, and they came in along with Ian Smith to join us for the horn section. I’ve probably forgotten some. Anyway, Reggie’s health had gotten real bad at the time we were making the album and we weren’t sure what the future held. So we got in there and really hit the ground running. And it came out pretty cool. There’s eight songs on that album because it’s the first one we made for vinyl, and there’s only like 22 minutes a side or something. Our friend Craig Young did the cover and that came out really cool too. We were pretty happy with it, and we’ll keep you posted on what happens with number five.
That was going to be next question. What comes next?
Well, now that the album’s been out about a year, long enough to where it doesn’t feel brand new anymore, it’s time for us to start thinking about what we do next. So that’s where we’re at right now. That’s what we’re all talking about. There will be another one, we just need to figure out when to start it. Typically, when we start something, we lay our teeth into it. I think you’ll be hearing about what’s happening next shortly. There will be some live albums coming out too. That’s one of our next goals. We’ve got a whole lot of material we’ve recorded, as far as live stuff goes, that’s circulating, so we’d like to be able to put out some of our favorites. We’d like to compile some of it ourselves to put out for everybody.