Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's BĂȘte Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Friday, December 15, 2006

I haven't been able to follow all of the great suggestions for New Orleans entertainment from the unknown commenter to the last post. By the time I read his suggestion I had already caught ReBirth Brass Band at Maple Leaf Bar -- I had heard recordings of them and was psyched to learn they would be playing their regular Tuesday night gig -- which is listed in a late '90s edition of Lonely Planet guide to Louisiana, Mississippi, and Tennessee that my beloved spouse and I bought when we were here 7 years ago.

I caught a cab to catch the 11:00 pm start and got there maybe a little late, but they were late going on. Jam packed crowd, lots of tourists and conferees like me, though nobody from my conference -- I met a bunch of environmentalists. It occurred to me that most of the people in my industry -- nonprofit housing -- got into it by accident -- like I did -- whereas most people working on the environment probably planned to do that, which shows greater initiative. Take that off-the-cuff analysis for what it's worth -- not much.

I had heard ReBirth and liked them but don't know them well, so I couldn't tell you about personnnel stability, though I'm pretty sure the tuba player and the snare drummer are longtime members. They're a 7-piece parade band -- two trumpets, two trombones, two sax, tuba, snare drum, bass drum, and cowbell. And they rock it sock it take it to the stage.

High high high energy riff-blues-wailing jazz-and-roll; the crowd was rocking-in-place, jammed up tight together. I hadn't danced that much in a long time, and at times I got into that borderline-ecstatic state of feeling that not only can I dance all the polyrhythms, dynamic changes, harmonic surprises, and drama of the music, but I can also dance all the other dancers' dances too. It's an illusory afflatus that feels great -- I'm a good dancer but not that good; but it doesn't matter. And I wasn't the only one having a good time -- no way.

Most of the tunes are original, and the ones with vocals revolve around the theme of partying and dancing -- we come to party, our feet can't fail us now, we're going to do our thing. Interesting covers were set-closing calypso number by Sonny Rollins -- I think it was "St. Thomas," but I'm not sure -- a nice re-thinking of the sweet '80s soul hit "Casanova" by the late lamented Levert, with bawdy requests to "take off your shirt" interpolated into the sensitive-soul-man lyrics. I thought it was great, though I didn't comply (nor did I see anybody else comply); I don't think the band was addressing me in any case, unless maybe by way of imagining themselves as speaking for me by proxy. A mostly young crowd, mostly white, lots of college students (I'm guessing) -- it seemed most people didn't know the song. When they later played "Let's Get It On" by Marvin Gaye, though -- everybody knew that one. It's made it into the white-culture nostalgia circuit, so the young white hipsters know it.

The next night a work obligation prevented me from catching the free concert at St. Louis Cathedral that my unknown benefactor recommended, as well as a subsequent free concert the next night at the same place. I did, however, take the commenter's suggestion and caught Walter Washington at a club called d.b.a. And it was, again, wonderful. So, to the commenter -- Thanks!

A friend of mine went to University of New Orleans, and in addition to recommending ReBirth at the Maple Leaf, she touted Frenchman Street as a good place to catch music just east of the French Quarter, which, as it happens, is where d.b.a. is located. I checked out the Paul Motian tribute show two doors from d.b.a. that the unknown commenter suggested, and it sounded like a fine '60s-style jazz trio, but the cover was $15, so I passed on going in.

Walter Washington charged no cover. A Wednesday night regular gig, apparently, Washington sings and plays guitar in a style that could be described as midway between Gatemouth Brown and B. B. King, a blues-soul idiom, fronting a tenor saxist, a bassist, and a drummer. Washington and his un-announced sidemen looked to be about 50 -- maybe slightly younger -- and they were hot. Washington, the bassist, and saxist were not a whole lot different than bar-band musicians practically anywhere. Better in degree than almost any in any other town, but not in kind.

The drummer, though, was out of this world. I swear to Satchmo, they don't let non-brilliant drummers onstage in this town. Tuesday night, the snare drummer and cowbell player in ReBirth had sent me into polyrhythmic ecstasies, deploying rhythmic tension like a classical composer deploys dissonance, in tension-and-release patterns that drive people wild. Washington's drummer did it all by himself, SO much better a drummer than any I'd ever heard in a club in Seattle that it was . . . I struggle to name the emotion . . . awe-inspiring, amazing, depressing, embarrassing. The only drummer I've seen in Seattle who is remotely close probably makes 6 figures as REM's touring drummer -- Bill Rieflin, who sometimes plays in clubs in side projects with Peter Buck. Rieflin is great -- a witty, joyous drummer, highly musical and melodic, great sense of dynamics, great groove. This guy . . . blew away anything I've ever heard Rieflin do. All of Rieflin's qualities, with, in addition, crazy virtuosity and occasionally wild abandon. A powefully-built, fit-looking, 50-ish looking man who is missing his front teeth. If he's making middle class dollars, or better, he's bold in his rejection of the middle class dogma to Replace Missing Teeth. My guess is -- he's just getting by. Playing for tips.

One of the regulars -- a 50-ish looking bohemian-looking African American man who was getting smashed at the bar -- requested Marvin Gaye's other great "On" anthem -- "What's Going On," and, while Washington is a nice blues-soul singer, he ain't no Marvin, but who is? It still sounded great. Where gritty soul blues and smooth jazz meet.

Before Washington's set started, I wandered into a used bookstore and overheard a 60-ish white bohemian talking to the employee. He talked about having overheard tourists talking about what to do, and he said, "I told them to come to Frenchman Street. Pre-K, I wouldn't have said anything, because we had enough tourists, but now we need them."

Pre-K. Katrina. Last night during a break in the work-related activities I tagged along with four people I had just met. We hired a van-taxi for an hour for a tour of devastated areas. The first many blocks, it reminded me of Detroit in the mid-'80s, large areas of severe and total urban abandonment. But then it went on. And on. And on and on and on. For miles, destroyed buildings -- houses, apartment complexes, malls, million-dollar homes, on and on and on. Our cabbie took us to his destroyed home.

This being a housing conference, I had heard people talk casually of Katrina victims having come to their town, having found work and a place to live, and not wanting to go back. There's nothing to go back to -- no homes, no neighborhoods, no jobs; and, I've heard (though I haven't read up on it), uncleaned toxic aftermath from the flood. Some of the neighborhoods, maybe one house is inhabited in a 5-square-block area. I wouldn't want to live there.

I kept thinking of the days after the flood, when the government laid siege to the people of New Orleans, not allowing supplies in, and not letting people out. It galls and sickens me that our country has mostly forgotten it, and it has almost never been called by its proper name -- the War of the Government Against the People of New Orleans. I'm not talking about the flood itself, I'm talking about the aftermath. The government wouldn't let supplies in or people out. That's an act of war. That's laying siege.

Totally disoriented and whelmed with sorrow, I left the Katrina tour to meet my co-workers for dinner, and our boss took us out to a lovely, expensive restaurant in the French Quarter, about a block from Preservation Hall, where I had been planning to go afterward anyway, to catch the great Shannon Powell, whom I had seen there two years ago. (When I get home tomorrow I'll add the link to the post from December 2004.) Two years ago, pre-K, Preservation Hall was open 7 days a week. Now it's 4, Thursday through Sunday. Smaller crowds too. The music was still fantastic; Powell was the third brilliant drummer I'd seen in three nights. But I've been typing enough for now, and don't feel like getting into it, except to say it was a really weird evening, the Katrina tour, the fancy dinner, the fabulous music, then wandering back to the nice hotel watching 60-ish white tourists stagger drunkenly through the largely sleazy French Quarter. I was ready to go home, but I had another day of work here, and now that work's done unexpectedly early my flight isn't until tomorrow. I'll find something to do, no doubt, but I'd rather be home. (Not least because I'd be playing a show with my good friend Jake tonight if I were -- if you read this, and are in Seattle -- Jake and a dozen or two other singer-guitarists will be doing a song or 2 each at the Sunset Tavern tonight.)

Good luck to the people of New Orleans, the people who stayed or came back as well as the members of the diaspora.

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