Listening Journal, Southern Journey, March 29

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We spent much of the day on the road, heading to Oxford and the premier of the documentary SUB-SIPPI and saying a sorrowful goodbye to the best trip to New Orleans we’d ever taken. Of course, no trip in an Overeem vehicle will be unaccompanied by music, and I must make a fervent pitch to my readers about one rekkid we listened to en route: Beausoleil’s FROM BAMAKO TO CARENCRO. I would argue, and few, I believe, would dispute me, that Beausoleil is and has been the finest Cajun band on the planet for decades. Leader Micheal Doucet is a genius fiddler and a highly underrated and very passionate vocalist…and crafty. Guitarist David Doucet, as I noted a couple of days ago, is such a skilled, ringing, and fluid guitar player he begs comparison to the great Doc Watson. The rest of the band are no slouches. However, with bands this great comes consistency, and haunting consistency is ennui (really, that’s the listener’s fault), and that syndrome may be the reason you don’t hear them talked about much anymore. In the case of FROM BAMAKO TO CARENCRO that is unfortunate. Along with the usual spirited originals and traditional songs one expects from a Beausoleil album, the Doucets engineer several daring and successful experiments: a moving, desert-tinged tribute to their fellow humans in Mali; an audacious and slyly joyful ride through Trane’s “Bessie’s Blues” (jazzers never cover that!); a visit north to Mississippi to convert Fred McDowell’s “You Got to Move” to Cajun funeral music; and, perhaps MOST audacious, an assault on that great LIVE AT THE APOLLO opener, “I’ll Go Crazy.” Even P.J. Proby couldn’t pull THAT off–and I can just imagine how the band’s faithful cut a rug to it in concert. I would link tracks, but they aren’t up on everyone’s free platform, YouTube. Just trust me: this is the best Beausoleil album, and thus the best Cajun album, in years (their last, ALLIGATOR PURSE, was also stellar) and you MUST buy it. That’s an order. Here is the Spotify link for the album, at least.

In Oxford, we heard some great soul music while we were dining at Ajax’s on the square (specifically, Ann Peebles’ “99 Pounds”), and, as I had at Coleman’s BBQ in Senatobia last week, I looked around at the older white diners and wondered what they were thinking and feeling in ’63 and ’64. You never know. But James Meredith’s statue at Ole Miss got vandalized about a month ago, and time takes its time making things go away.

Go see SUB-SIPPI. I was under the influence of medicine and not at my best, but it is a thoughtful and hopeful commentary on the many good things about the state. My favorite segment focused on a black elementary student who had turned to gardening to help him manage his behavior. The screening was at The Lyric Theater, and was preceded by a band performance (The Blues Doctors, and that’s how they sounded–it’s a horrible band name, but the duo were likely both actual physicians) and–the bane of concertgoing, in my not-so-humble opinion–a DJ set. I am not sure what place bad ambient rhythm had at such an event, but, as Nicole often says, it always sounds like porno music, say, from some glossy Japanese urban erotic film. I know this would be a stretch, but how about some music from…MISSISSIPPI? It wouldn’t have to be blues, just local. And don’t tell me the DJ’s constructions were original, and therefore regional; the closest he got was a snatch of Gil Scot Heron–and he was from Kentucky.

Listening Journal, Southern Journey, March 28

Today would have been a wonderful day to report on music. The plan, among other things, like eating at legendary soul food haven Dooky Chase’s and exploring the Irish Channel, was to have included seeing one of our favorite musicians, Alvin Youngblood Hart. Hart was playing in power trio mode at dba’s on Frenchmen; besides being a stellar guitarist and singer, he has a  phenomenal musical comfort range: from Charley Patton to Black Oak Arkansas, from Western swing to Beefheart. We could not wait–the perfect capper to a transcendent trip. Not to mention that troubled trombonist/activist/traditional-gospel man about NOLA Glen David Andrews, another favorite of ours we were introduced to through the great documentary SHAKE THE DEVIL OFF! and The True/False Film Festival, was playing at The Three Muses, also on Frenchmen. Woah!

Then, already a little bugged by what I thought were allergies, I came down with a full-blown case of respiratory hacking and general fatigue–not helped by BUCKETS of rain dumped on me in 60-degree weather in the late morning. I ended up back at the hotel, down for a three-hour count while Nicole explored the Oak Street area via trolley.

By 7:45 pm, I just didn’t think I could hack it. But Nicole had nabbed me some ultra-Sudafed, and in a half-hour I felt game at least for a ride-walk out to Frenchmen to eat and stroll. Hart didn’t go on til 11, and Andrews would have already been through his set by the time we got there. Still, it would be a nice “so long” to The City That Care Forgot.

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We ate at The Praline Connection, from within which we could hear a great high school brass band blowin’ for tips; “That’s how they ALL get started,” our waitress explained. From our window seat we saw the mix of tourists, bohemians, and musicians (including a solitary, somber Mr. Andrews) that is characteristic of a Marigny Friday file by. The site seemed to me like a MUCH looser, less swinging but more varied version of 1930s KC, with a seeming 15 music venues in a two-block area. After dinner, we walked past several, hearing Washboard Chaz and what looked like his eclectic unit Tin Men rabble-rousing at The Spotted Cat. Really, there’s somethin’ for everyone on Frenchmen Street.

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I didn’t have the stamina or health to hang for AYH’s show. We rode two trolleys back to St. Charles, this time the music solely in my head.

Well, I take that back: at The Praline Connection one of the waiters kept singing the chorus of “Gin and Juice”–I think the brass band had just knocked it out. An hour later, waiting for the St. Charles trolley at the corner of Canal and Carondelet, two enterprising young hustlers pulled their ride to the curb and serenaded a gaggle of young blondes with–you guessed it–“Gin and Juice.” Come to think of it, the song does have NOLA written all over it….

Listening Journal, Southern Journey, March 27

Today our daytime adventure was taking the trolley to Canal and walking all the way to the Bywater neighborhood. Not much music was involved, but we were jump-started out of the hotel room by YouTube videos of James Brown’s Japanese miso commercials. I am not making this up.

On the way back from Bywater (by the way, I HIGHLY recommend Elizabeth’s on Chartres), we stopped in The Marigny and, of course, one more trip to Louisiana Music Factory. The owner must think I am insane–why not get everything in one trip?–but I have to let ideas marinate, plus it takes considerable mental discipline to liberate myself from penny-pinching web purchases and do the right thing: support brick and mortar record stores, especially in NOLA. Also, should the reader assume I am independently wealthy, I have no other spending habits. I’d be wearing a burlap sack if I could get away with it, and if it would add money to my music budget. Yes, I know about streaming and don’t care. Here’s the sum of my booty:

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In the evening, finally able to listen to Bo Dollis, Jr.’s new Mardi Gras Indian rekkid A NEW KIND OF FUNK (it jes grew outta the OLDEST), we drove out to the greatest music venue in America: The Rock ‘N’ Bowl on Carrollton. OK, that ain’t an exaggeration:

The music is always great–this night, new breed zydeco star Geno Delafose and French Rockin’ Boogie, so open and fun and rocking and sweet he had what I assume was a young mentally disabled relative playing washboard and singing along on stage all night.

The crowd? PACKED…with everyone from kids to octogenarians, every shade of pigmentation, across class lines–and almost EVERYONE dances (including us, and I am from the Tom T. Hall school). And most know HOW to dance; we even saw the hoofin’ star of Louisiana Swamp Stomp once again dancing with every free woman on the floor! And…lots of laughter. LOTS.

You can bowl AND listen to live music, and neither activity disrupts the other.

The bar food beats the typical!

The staff is great–a barmaid even tracked me down through the crowd to return a $20 that was “stuck to” the fiver I handed her.

Did I mention the music? It’s a steady diet of SUBSTANTIAL roots rock. Especially zydeco. Just have to mention that Geno zydeco-ized a Lionel Ritchie song–and made it work!

If you do meet friends down here, it is a guaranteed winner. We met two of my former students who happened to be on vacation, too (they are grown, and dating, so it was a pleasure to buy ’em beers and watch ’em dance). Let me let some pics do the rest:

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Mid-City Rock ‘N’ Bowl. 3000 South Carrollton, New Orleans. Before you die.

Listening Journal, Southern Journey, March 26

For us, it was a slow music day. To wit:

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We sat in Johnny White’s on St. Peters for the second consecutive day, a bar made famous in ONE DEAD IN ATTIC and THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HELL: SURVIVING KATRINA for staying open throughout Katrina and providing multiple sustenances. The place knows the music it likes: Allmans, Stones, Aerosmith. Tough, blues-based white boy rock, and no NOLA stuff…but, when the local news came on, the music went off, and all six of us–the barmaid, possibly the owner, two obvious regulars, and Nicole and I–watched it and DISCUSSED IT. When’s the last time you did that in a bar? We also praised Pope Francis’ stinging of the Bishop of Bling, as well as cupcake ATMs. That’s right.

Later, peering out of The Cabildo and watching a street band trombonist play AT a street denizen’s dog and taking in his group’s ragged sound, I realized that two years of listening hard to Rebirth, Hot 8, Lil’ Rascals, Soul Rebels, TBC, and The Stooges have enabled me to discern the difference between street and pro. I love ’em both, but, not being a musician, I feel a homely pride in recognizing such distinctions. Also, the other side of the Louisiana History Museum, separated from The Cabildo by St. Louis Cathedral, holds the Katrina and Mardi Gras exhibits. The Mardi Gras exhibit was interesting, but missing Mardi Gras Indian regalia–you have to go to the Backstreet History Museum and Ronald Lewis’ for that. The Katrina exhibit opened with this moving, music-related image: Fats Domino’s flood-ravaged Steinway.

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 Finally, at the sillily named Smoothie King Center, we saw the Pelicans beat the Clippers 98-96 behind Tyreke Evans’ bull-in-a-china-closet drives, Darius Miller’s clutch jumpers, The Brow’s six blocks and double-figure boards, and Blake Griffin’s bonked free throws. What’s that have to do with music? Prize-bearing half-time trivia question: Name the performer of this song. (The original version of “Layla” is played.) Dude gives up. Answer flashed on Jumbotron: ERIC CLAPTON!

Wah-WAH.

Oh wait: I did go back to Louisiana Music Factory and buy Bo Dollis‘ kid’s new CD, a DVD of rare performances by Bunk Johnson and other old-time NOLA jazz masters (ahhh…American Music: the label), and Ann Savoy’s rare book on Cajun music.

Listening Journal, Southern Journey, March 25

A little woozy from the high life at the David Doucet show last night, we grabbed a very early coffee at The Avenue Cafe (we are staying at The Avenue Plaza on St. Charles) and embarked for the swamps southwest of NOLA. The Jason Marsalis CD Nicole had snagged yesterday, while not remotely swampy, was the perfect antidote to the fog, Marsalis’ dancing vibe playing slowly bringing us into the clear. I am not a big fan of the family’s music: Wynton’s too “perfect,” Branford not distinctive enough to my ear, Delfeayo–well, I haven’t heard him yet…so, as usual, I am talking out my ass. I DO love the patriarch’s playing (Ellis just doesn’t have enough records), and I find Jason’s playing graceful, inventive, and wry. The record is IN A WORLD OF MALLETS, and it’s on NOLA’s own Basin Street Records, one of my favorite labels. Here’s one of the best songs from the record, live from its CD release party.

During our swamp tour with ZAM’s, I didn’t want to be a doofus of a tourist and chat up our very Cajun guide about “his culture’s music,” but I did float out a Beausoleil reference to not a flicker of recognition. Listened to more of Rhino’s ALLIGATOR STOMP on the way back to the city–Volume 2 is a little corny.

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The evening brought an event we had greatly anticipated: a trip to Preservation Hall. Perhaps you think it is merely for the tourists and mouldy figs–not so. It is a must for the true American. You’re packed into an ancient space with 4-5 masters of New Orleans jazz–NOT Dixieland!!!!–both young and old, and will get treated to warm, spirited, knowing, and soulful performances from the fathoms-deep city songbook. It will cost you $20 to request “Saints”; don’t do it! And no photography and recording is allowed, so (sorry) you’ll have to rely on your deteriorating memory. We were very fortunate to get a group led by master drummer Shannon Powell, who is like Baby Dodds made immortal, and gloried in renditions of “Rosetta,” “Darktown Strutter’s Ball” (woah!), and “Creole Love Song” (double woah–haunting and beautiful). It was our second time and we will always go. Tip for the traveler: if you get there early, there will be a loooong line no matter, so get your tics in advance and have drinks across the street on St.  Peters at Johnny White’s, the legendary bar that stayed open throughout Katrina. We had mint juleps.

We closed the night revisiting the Palace Cafe on Canal, where we’d eaten thrice on our honeymoon 22 years ago. I hate it when restaurant personnel interrupt your meal with birthday singing and seal-clapping, but a sharply-dressed trio of a capella singers (one a dead ringer for Philippe Wynne of the Spinners) walked in off the street and began serenading diners very beautifully with vocal group classics. We were hoping they would come to our table and do The Jive Five’s “What Time is It?” but no such luck. It was a chilly, windy evening, so we resisted the urge to walk up to dba’s on Frenchmen or take a taxi to The Maple Leaf to brave the packed house that always awaits The Rebirth Brass Band (we had done that before), but if you’re ever here and it’s normally warm, you must go.

Listening Journal, Southern Journey, March 24

We usually wake up to ‘OZ when in NOLA, but got the morning off in the precisely correct spirit with a series of Anita O’Day tunes leading off with “Let Me Off Uptown,” a duet with Roy Eldridge. We were already “uptown,” but we were taking the trolley (one of the simple pleasures of being here), and Anita’s daring duet with a black performer ran parallel with the choices of Hettie Cohen, who chronicles her love affair and life and times with the late LeRoi Jones (Amiri Baraka) in the book I am currently reading, BECOMING HETTIE JONES.

We soon found ourselves on Frenchmen Street in The Marigny, the new location of Louisiana Music Factory, a treasure trove we never miss. I snagged a recent book on NOLA R&B by I HEAR YOU KNOCKIN’ author Jeff Hannusch and a documentary about Mardi Gras Indians, Nicole a new Basin Street Records rekkid by Jason Marsalis, the family’s vibes man. Also, we had to listen to shit music at Pat O’Brien’s (we asked for that), and took the ferry to Algiers, home of great jazzmen like Henry “Red” Allen. The locals at the Dry Dock treated us great.

The real entertainment for the day was a free performance by David Doucet (to my ear, the Cajun Doc Watson), Beausoleil’s guitarist, at the famous Columns Hotel. He and his fiddling partner played a set of traditional Cajun classics including one by the legendary Dennis McGee, as well as some pieces outside the genre, like “Rosalee McFall” and–brilliantly, surprisingly–Dock Boggs’ “Country Blues.” Doucet also hefted an accordian and sounded a LOT like Iry LeJeune.  Here’s some footage from a 2013 show in the same locale that conveys some of the show’s brilliance.

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The only downside is that I did not have the intelligence to get up and dance like the music and spirit required, even though Nicole beckoned me to and was forced to cut a great rug alone. Perhaps my head was too full of Sazeracs  and Old Fashioneds (and my ankles too full of beer), but she deserved my partnership after making my brief bout with rapid heartbeat go away back at the ‘otel with an application of Lee Dorsey. That man is always good for what ails you.

Listening Journal, Southern Journey, March 23, 2014

Struck out from Como and drove south on 55 to deep accompaniment of Alan Lomax’s late-Fifties/early-Sixties field recordings from the same area (McDowell, the Hemphills, Parchman Farm worksongs, a couple of Tyro church chants). SOUTHERN JOURNEY: 61 HIGHWAY, it’s called. You need to listen to it some day, though it should be called 51 HIGHWAY. As we drove down the pine-lined four-lane, the music threw us back into a crueler time–a wild goat perched under a bridge over the highway reinforced that feeling.

Then we visited that place where, as Sam Phillips once said, “the soul of man never dies”: the world of Chester Arthur Burnett, The Howlin’ Wolf, aided and abetted by Hubert Sumlin on wild guitar, Otis Spann on rolling 88s, and Willie Dixon, on bass and pen & paper. I sang along silently and mimed playing the solos the whole way. Top 10 record: the rockin’ chair cover/MOANIN’ AT MIDNIGHT twofer. You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Wolf overload a mic or Sumlin cut the air with a note.

After we crossed over into Louisiana, it was time for ZYDECO STOMP DOWN (various live tracks, including Nathan and the Zydeco Cha-Chas’ truth-telling “Everything on the Hog”) and ALLIGATOR STOMP, highlighted by Rockin’ Sidney’s paean to his daughter (not his lover) “My Toot-Toot,” Cleveland Crochet’s “Sugar Bee,” and a Cajun cover of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.” This was designed to get us primed for the wind-up of Thibodaux, Louisiana’s Swamp Stomp, which we thoroughly enjoyed over beer, jambalaya, fried pickles, and a shrimp po-boy. Saw Cameron DuPuy’s band, which was OK, but the Pine Leaf Boys, mixing some Jerry Lee and George Jones into their Cajun stylings, took the prize. A tall black man in a cowboy hat and shirt with cut-off sleeves danced his Cajun/r&b fusion style with at least 10 different women, including an energetic 70+-year-old white woman. I thought to myself, “Would she have been out there with him in ’64?” Maybe so, but it IS a new world.

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Zoomed on to New Orleans, listening to ‘OZ along the way (we pledged $10 a month), inched up Rampart Street, which was flooded with deliriously happy people leaving the high school brass band competition at Armstrong Park, parked on Treme (just around the corner from St. Augustine church, from SHAKE THE DEVIL OFF!), and walked against a chilly breeze up to Congo Square to watch The Hot Eight Brass Band, who were smokin’, and augmented by a Mardi Gras Indian.

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Both of us are a little ailing: Nicole’s got a sore throat, my back’s whacked. We are applying a dose of Sidney Bechet as we fade out in the hotel room….