The third annual TapeOpCon, which took place during the last weekend of May at the Fairmont Hotel and Orpheum Theater, would have been a smashing success if only for five minutes in its three day schedule. During a panel discussion entitled “Producers On Production,” the entire cast of panelists—which included Tony Visconti of David Bowie, T-Rex and Thin Lizzy fame, Memphis’s Jim Dickinson, and our own Allen Toussaint and Mark Bingham to name but a few—unequivocally agreed that their favorite way to record a band is live, in one room, vocals and all. It was nice to hear the word come down from the mountain, especially after two decades of sound engineers who’d look at you like you were crazy for merely suggesting such a thing.
And for those who still have their doubts, may I suggest Midnight Streetcar’s four-song demo CD which includes a take on Smiley Lewis’ “Down The Road” that’s so explosively spontaneous that it could only have been cut live in the studio. (For the record, it was). The way this powerhouse quartet play off of each other would benefit from no other method, a fact made all the better when one considers that it’s comprised of four dyed-in-the-wool veterans of the original New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll scene. Roughly, that means the following: they all cut their teeth playing teenage dances at St. Anthony’s, Redemptorist and Germania Hall, they’re all intimately familiar with Cosimo’s recording studio, and if they didn’t meet each other at any of those places, they couldn’t have avoided one another at Ye Olde College Inn.
The bands that they started out in may be criminally unknown today, in fact, most of them never even cut records. But to bassist Cullen Landry, pianist Al Farrell, saxophonist Jerry Jumonville and drummer Freddy Staehle, the spirit of those groups—the Jokers, the Counts, the Matadors and the Emperors respectively—is a legacy that must be carried on. That legacy translates to a set list chock full of hardcore R&B by the likes of Bobby Mitchell, Dave Bartholomew, the Spiders, Big Joe Turner, Ray Charles, Johnny Ace and countless others delivered with electrifying force. As Landry swings his beautifully battered ’57 Fender bass over his head, rocking in tandem with Jumonville’s tenor blasts, Farrell shouts the lyrics to Eddie Bo’s “Tell It Like It Is” in a soul-tinged voice from behind his keyboard and Staehle churns out a relentless second line drum beat, you’ve just got to wonder: if these guys are like this now, what were they like 45 years ago when they were in high school?
Certainly some of the audience members at their gigs could tell you. “When we were playing at the Maxx the other night,” relates Landry, “it was just like Germania. A lot of guys from Mid-City were there yelling, ‘I was born and raised in Mid-City, I’m back at Germania Hall!!’ I felt like I was in the Jokers again. I wanted to go to the College Inn afterwards and celebrate!”
“Each band had its own table,” says Staehle of the Inn, “we’d all go and talk with each other, but you always sat with your own group.” Today, Staehle—who drummed with both the Emperors and the Matadors before cutting seminal albums with Dr. John and James Booker—is back at the old stomping grounds, sitting with his current band members at what will probably become Midnight Streetcar’s table. I, personally, am honored to be in the presence of such Crescent City musical royalty.
“Prior to me having a real drum job,” Freddy details, “I used to go with my older brother (Paul Staehle) to these jobs where the Spades would be playing with Mac Rebennack on guitar and Earl Stanley on bass. I’d sit on stage and just listen. My first experience playing was on a break at a St. Anthony’s dance, my brother and Mac wanted to go outside so they pushed me out onto the stage and encouraged me to play. I got my first experience playing in front of people with that drum solo.”
Joining the Emperors in 1958, Staehle remembers the first time he backed up Professor Longhair. “He tapped out the beat on the piano showing me what he wanted me to play on ‘Tipitina,’ and it was like a direct drum lesson from him. I was about 14 then!”
“The first time the Jokers played with Professor Longhair,” laughs Landry, “the Professor came up to me and said, ‘You’re my bass man? You’re not gonna lay any Pat Boone on me, are you?’ I said, ‘No!!! We play your stuff!’ When we played ‘Tipitina’ and we were solid behind him, he said, ‘Where did you guys learn how to play that?’ We said, ‘In the neighborhood next to the Fair Grounds; that’s where we grew up.’ As far as I’m concerned, that’s the hub of the universe!”
“One time back in 1959,” remembers Farrell, “the Counts couldn’t get down this Ernie K-Doe tune. So one guy calls up somebody with K-Doe, and then this white Cadillac shows up in front of the house where we were rehearsing. I’d gone to get a sandwich, and I come back and hear this great piano; the band’s just jamming. And it was Allen Toussaint! So he shows me the song!”
Bonding over their R&B heroes, the young musicians also had great admiration for each other’s bands. Landry: “Whenever the Jokers would be in a situation where we would go up against the Counts in a battle of the bands, we were always concerned because Al was really, really good. We would sit on the front porch and say, ‘Gee, I wonder what he is going to open up with.’ We were very worried about this band! Actually, Al beat Mac out the second time Mac played the talent show at Jesuit. Mac came up and said, ‘I think you are going to beat us.’ And they did, they beat (Rebennack’s band) the Dominoes.
“These guys have fantastic instincts,” concludes Landry about his oldest friends and newest band mates. “You know, I didn’t play all my life, I didn’t go out to LA and play in studios like these guys have done, but I’ve learned so much from them. One time Freddy said, ‘Move back and interact with the energy of the drum, feel the movement coming out of the drum. Be with the drum.’ I did, and it made a difference. To play with friends like Freddy and Al and Jerry, I’m so filled with gratitude that we’re together and doing obscure songs that no one else is really playing. Here I am playing again with guys I would meet after Jokers gigs at the College Inn. It just blows me away.”
Midnight Streetcar’s July schedule includes the 10th the Old Scorpio, the 17th at the Maxx and the 23rd and 31st at Critic’s Choice.
THE LATEST ON THE GREATEST
Recent developments on former subjects of this column, starting from last month and going backwards…Marilyn Mestier, organizer of the upcoming Allen Collay benefit, reports that the event is now scheduled for August 29. So you’ve got a little more time to brace yourself for an unprecedented Sunday afternoon of New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll. For more information call Marilyn at 466-0980…Fans of ’60s garage punk are going to have a hard time deciding what to do on the night of July 10th, as two of the genre’s greatest exponents descend on our fair state. At the Circle Bar, it’s Keokuk, Iowa’s Gonn, whose pummeling pile driver, “Doin’ Me In,” is one of the finest examples of two-chord raunch known to man. This is one show you really should not miss. Meanwhile over in Lake Charles, the Bad Roads will be the musical entertainment for the joint reunion of Lake Charles and La Grange High Schools. When guitarist Briant Smith said back in May that “You can’t really appreciate how totally ugly we are until you see the four hour gig,” this is what he was talking about.
And speaking of Lake Charles, when I asked Li’l Alfred whether he thought Goldband Records’ Eddie Shuler might have some unreleased tunes on him in his tape vaults he replied, “Probably. Eddie’s got stuff on everybody!” But who would have guessed that would include a cut by Alfred’s all-star Gulf Coast funk band, the National Soul Revue? Certainly not Shuler, who could remember “Nothing about the group” when musicologist Dean Rudland questioned him about the track. (Readers of this column will recall that this band also included vocalist Charles Mann and guitarist Danny James). The song, a down ‘n’ dirty take of Wilson Pickett’s “Get Me Back On Time Engine #9,” is now available on Ace/BGP’s Superfunk4 compilation. Could there be an entire unreleased National Soul Revue album somewhere? We can only hope so!