Tuesday, May 10, 2016

New Orleans

An amazing week in New Orleans (my first visit there), as seen from a musician's-eye-view, thanks to Leonie...
4-11 April 2016

On the plane from London, listening to Astral Weeks, an unfamiliar Björk LP, Richard Thompson's Still, the Cecilia String Quartet playing Mendelssohn and CCR's Green River. At Atlanta airport baggage claim, a guitarist called Mark who happened to be in Angie Stone's band stopped to ask about my saz — they'd just been out at a jazz festival in Capetown.

I was met by L and her friend at Louis Armstrong International Airport. When Sabine started her car, the first five notes of Miles' "In A Silent Way" came on the radio (and then it switched off)...instantly recognisable and a perfect jazz welcome via local station WOZZ (which I didn't ever find time to listen to). L and I ended up sitting up late on her friend Brian's back steps chatting — hearing about life in New Orleans (which already felt like a categorically different kind of place to the rest of the USA) and the latest about her new multi-collaborative album, etc.

I met Ali in the morning (about to head to NYC for a folk festival), and she helped shift our stuff over to Jonathon's house a few blocks away where we'd be staying. He'd been working on arrangement of his old-time songs for an album project. We then cycled over to "New Canada" (a small colony of lovable musicians from Ontario) so L could confer with Craig about a possible Italian tour this summer. He was caught up rehearsing with half a dozen others in the garden, so we sat and listened to the incredibly gorgeous song "Maureena" by Duff, one of the Canadians (part of The Ever Lovin' Jug Band)...kind of a Roy Orbison thing going on. I couldn't quite believe what I was hearing — on one level, just some people outside a house playing music, but on another, something of world-class quality and incredible beauty. We cycled over to Lee Circle where L and Sabine had a gig singing with Dave Hammer from Akron (who turns out he knows Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh's son Jacob)...lovely gospel/country/folk vibes after sets from a singer/songwriter called Connor, and Kia doing solo banjo/guitar and singing Cat Power style. After Dave and co., it was Camille and a friend harmonising beautifully, but I was nodding off by then. I remember the incongruity of hearing Hawkwind's original version of "Motorhead" (with Simon House on violin) on the stereo between sets.

A whole crew of us then cycled together (fun! i was on a borrowed Huffy cruiser) over to Maggie's, a gay bar on Elysian Fields that hosts a Tuesday Country night. It wasn't particularly country that week, but still good. Things started with "Andrew Mill and the 5a.m. Rumble Strip" from Scotland playing a mix of "celtic country" and some jigs, reels and marches with whistle, fiddle and alto sax involved. Next it was the 99 Playboys from Elton, LS, a cajun trio. I couldn't figure out where the bassline was coming from at the time — it seems to have been a bass uke that was being played along with the fiddle and box. I was listening from the threshold of sleep while numerous couples two-step danced. Finally it was the Slick Skillet Serenaders. L was getting sweaty from dancing and drinking, having a great time while I nodded out happily on a barstool. We cycled back late and listened to some tracks from her new album (including one with Liam from Syd Arthur and one in which she sings in Japanese and plays koto!)

We hurriedly cycled over to Royal Street so L could join a busking crew — the Hot Minute Jazz Band, her regulars. I filled my rucksack with groceries from Rouse's, then sat on the pavement breakfasting and listening to a killer brass band (trumpet, two trombones, sousaphone, two drummers). Lots of tourists filming and dancing — nice vibes. Black/white musical segregation seemed a thing here, though: whites playing old-time, ragtime, country-blues and old jazz, blacks playing the brass band music they learn at school for the parades, etc. L was playing washboard and singing, consistently getting major applause for her "frumpet" (simulated trumpet) solos. She'd got a puncture on her back tyre, so after busking we walked the bikes over to a bikeshop on Frenchmen Street (closed, but the owner was hanging around outside and went to get a tube for her). We then lazed around in a park for a while waiting for Craig to come and talk about the Italian tour. A couple of locals with an amp started blasting bad hip-hop via local station WQUE. L was annoyed, wishing instead for WOZZ, but I was quite interested to know what the local black population generally listened to (clearly not jazz these days!) Craig turned up, then a couple of other friends. All the musicians get around on bicycles, I was happy to see. It turned out that Merle Haggard had died that day — the new arrivals play country and had been churning out the Merle songs on the street earlier. We walked over to Craig's where there were tools and I was able to sort out L's bike, then we cycled over to Dorian's for a weekly jam. Dorian's a young French guitarist and these jams tend to be super-fast gypsy jazz, apparently, but L got them off on a different footing with a couple of slow jazzy numbers, and it just rolled from there. Musicians kept turning up, I just sat in the corner, a bit sleepy, but overwhelmed by the quality of the playing and listening. Double bass, clarinet, violin and numerous guitars. Not your typical jam.

French Quarter Festival started, so the streets were noticeably busier. After philosophising with Jonathan in his kitchen. we cycled back over to Royal so L could busk some more with Hot Minute (a different trombonist this time, plus Swee on violin and a a tap dancer). L sang "Sweet Lotus Blossom" and "A Thousand Goodnights" before there was a changeover and she was suddenly busking with "Eight Dice Cloth" (a lot of the same people). Drinking Heineken in the shade and listening, my jetlag was almost gone, but I had a minor background headache. When they were done we cycled over to Felipe's Tacqueriea, chatting to Alejo (nineteen-year-old trombonist from Long Island) and Maxwell (Bay area runaway acidhead-turned-banjo player). We carried on over to the river so they could sit and smoke, then I headed back to J's alone for a shower and some healthy food, before cycling with L over to the Saturn Bar to see Twain (a hairy, beardy bloke in the "new weird America" vein, touches of Beefheart, his weird sprawling confessional songs and tortured vocals somehow bringing to mind Thom Yorke — very original), then Canadian Duff's band (a short set, ending with the gorgeous "Maureena"), then his bass player Max with "His Martians" (I'd seen him playing resonator guitar with Tubaskinny earlier, seems very active on the scene). Just a soup of funky, jazzy, freeform American music going on. A traditional R'n'B band were about to play, but I was too sleepy, so cycled home.

I cycled in to catch L busking with Hot Minute again, then stopped to listen to a rad young fusion trio (The Yisrael Trio from Birmingham, Alabama, two brothers and a sister). They were playing funky, jazzy, free arrangements of Stevie Wonder, etc. The tourists loved it. I loved it. I got the feeling some of the old-timey musicians disapproved, but this felt like music that wasn't stuck looking backwards, or in a museum. The keyboard player superb, excellent drumming and bass playing. They even ended up on my Canterbury Sans Frontières podcast. Busking went on longer than planned, so I went back to check Yisrael and Tubaskinny again. Then down to the river (heaving with humans, with the FQ Festival on) to sit on rocks with L, Swee, James, et al. Bad country music was heard from the "Hand Grenade" stage nearby. We then headed over to the St. Roche tavern for pool and greasy chips, punk and metal on the stereo. L rinsed all the boys at pool (me twice). Damn! Then over to John's house to pick up something, in the same Holy Cross neighbourhood as J. Coleman came over with his guitar and we listened on YouTube to DeZurik Sisters ("Cackle Sisters"), Merle Haggard, Jim and Bob and "Only a Faded Rose", a song, which L wants to learn.

L urged me to walk over to J's and get my saz, and we had a little jam, played a few country songs — the only time I got the saz out in New Orleans. But I'm glad that happened. Before leaving Coleman mentioned Dolly Parton's "I'll Oil Wells Love You", which we watched (a Grand Ole Opry clip)...I had no idea she was so clever...great guitar licks too:

We headed back to Frenchmen to hear Loose Marbles playing. Friday night! Busy! But apparently most nights feel like this in NOLA. Lots of dancers again. L got up to sing "Harvest Moon" with them (the old standard, not the Neil Young song). They were fab — an eight piece: two banjos (incl. Maxwell), guitar (Coleman), drums, bass, clarinet and trumpet. A great ragtime/dixieland feel. We then proceeded to The Spotted Cat for me to hear through the door and watch through the window ($5 to get in, and stuffed with tourists) L sing "Knock Myself Out" with The Cottonmouth Kings. "You BADASS, girl!" enthused the woman next to me when she came back outside after her spot. After that, she and some of the Hot Minute crew headed uptown to play for a blues dance gig. I headed home for spaced out conversation and an epic game of chess with Jonathan.

Hanging out at the house talking about recent Smugglers Records developments with L. We tried Skyping Will G, but couldn't get the audio to work and gave up. Listening to Lee Perry and Michael Hurley. Procrastinating. Finally we cycled down Jourdan to a backyard all-day party at some friends' place. A couple of weak singer-songwriters were playing when we arrived, but then L played a magical set of mostly her solo stuff with Sabine harmonising beautifully. Then Duff drumming for a couple of women (I was getting quite blurry at this point), then playing his own stuff on guitar (pretty zonked now). Back to J's for deep sleep...

L introduced us to Sibylle Baier via YouTube, then Jonathon introduced me to almost-forgotten folkie Karen Dalton. L played me some of her friend Yoshino's wonderful new project (like a Japanese Count Bobo, involving some of the Bristol Bobo crew I think). We cycled to a "cajun brunch" (a monthly thing, I forget the venue, on the corner of Royal and Clouet) and sat outside (windows open) enjoying the music and breeze. Then on down Royal, where L busked with English Joe and his Canadian friend for a couple of songs, then the Hot Minute crew for three sets. I wandered the Quarter, saw a few OK things on the stages (The Shotgun Jazz Band probably the best of them), then headed over to Maison on Frenchmen to hear L sing with Loose Marbles again. Then a lovely falafel wrap from an Arab place while a loud brass band with a flamboyant dancer tore it up on the corner opposite. Then L singing "I'll See You In My Dreams" with the Palmetto Bug Stompers (some of the same players as The Cottonmouth Kings) at d.b.a. VERY chilled, laid back Dixieland type vibes.

Outside with the band for a bit, chatting to Robert the bass player (the only native New Orleanean I met, I think). They all adore L and want her to move to NO! Back in for the last set, she sang "Bumblebee Blues" and blew everyone away with an amazing frumpet solo. We ended the night listening and dancing to the wonderful Rhythm Wizards playing on a pavement on Frenchmen: Two trombones, a kind of rhumba/bossa/calypso melting pot sound — like a NOLA Count Bobo...felt like the best thing ever at the time! AND the locally famous "Tambourine Lady" stopped by to raise the energy. Here she is some time earlier:

Chilling at Jonathan's and cleaning the kitchen. Coleman dropped off a CD of a ragtime porch session with some friends (great stuff), plus a couple of songs L wanted to learn. J's band came over to practice in the garden and Dave Hammer came over to rehearse with L and Sabine for an evening gig. Sabine drove us all over to the St. Roche Tavern, singing along to Irma Thomas, Etta James, etc. There was a great, but short, gospelly set from Dave (with singers, bass and drums — great guitar soloing — he's got so much energy!). Then the Jon Hatchett Band playing country, country rock and honkytonk...fun! We then drove (more singing in the car) to Sidneys to see King James and the Specialmen (Robert on electric bass), a bit of a local institution playing classic R'n'B. They ended with their silly "Iceman" song and then "Good Night Irene"...ahhh... Finally over to Big Daddy's to play pool. I managed to get "Cortez The Killer", the Dead's "Bird Song" and Zep's "Kashmir" on the jukebox before we had to leave ($1 very well spent).

Returning my borrowed bike, packing, goodbyes, a lift to Amtrak station with J. As I was listening to music on shuffle as "The City of New Orleans" (the train made famous by Joan Baez and Arlo Guthrie) headed north through Mississippi, Natalie Merchant's Leave Your Sleep came on — a forgotten gift from Melski, and somehow the perfect soundtrack to that train ride. I was asleep shortly after we pulled out of Memphis and woke up heading into Chicago the next morning.

* * *

An interesting feeling arose during my time in NOLA: the feeling that the peculiar atmosphere of the place (relative to the rest of the country) is partially due to an acknowledgement of the dead. I saw this flag hanging outside a rather run down looking house in poor Holy Cross neighbourhood...

...and a couple of days later, saw a mobile recording truck from WOZZ, the local jazz station, with a treble clef logo painted on it involving a vertical cartoon bone, and the slogan "Music To The Bone". This imagery, together with a vague awareness of the influence of ancestor worship via Africa and the Caribbean, the Creole tradition of little family altars, the prominent, celebrated status of the cemeteries in the city and the reverence towards the great jazz players of the past, led me to the feeling that in some of the wilder music-and-dance scenarios I'd witnessed in my week there, something else had entered the scene. I could even entertain the possibility that spirits of some of the long-deceased jazzers and blues players from the city were hanging around, waiting for opportunities (when their modern equivalents were in various receptive states due to whisky, reefer, hours and hours of playing music without proper food or sleep) to take a solo via someone living, or nudge the jam in a certain direction. Although this feeling and imagery will stay with me, this isn't something I'd be capable of debating with a rationalist skeptic. But the sense of tradition the place is so proud of, with its music, parades, etc. induces a feeling of "We're here doing this, but others long gone were here doing it before is, and others not yet born will probably be doing it here after we're gone and forgotten." Hence a genuine sense of culture, something greater than oneself.


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