Several years ago, I stumbled across Ned Sublette’s excellent book “The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans,” which starts roughly a year before Hurricane Katrina. Not only was the vividly written book a fantastic read, it invoked a burning curiosity for this world and the music it inspired. (I also set out to learn how to make really good jambalaya, but that’s a post for another day.) I’ve been a fanatic ever since.
Here’s a fraction of a sampling of some great New Orleans music, the result of a melting pot of cultures, stories, inspirations and influences from around the world.
“Basin Street Blues” by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
One of the legendary performing groups, Preservation Hall was established in the 1960s to help protect traditional New Orleans jazz. The band that calls the hall home also tours the country, visiting the San Francisco area this past week to play with young musicians in schools. Preservation Hall, the venue, offers live music nightly in the heart of the French Quarter — not that there’s a shortage of that in the city! — often featuring surprise guests musicians sitting in for a song or five.
A fundraising CD released in 2010 featured guests performances by, among others, Paolo Nutini, Ani DiFranco (who has made New Orleans her home), Pete Seeger and…
Dr. John, here singing what might be his best known song, “Right Place, Wrong Time.
Oh, that voice. A performer in New Orleans since the 1950s and still going strong, Dr. John has an air of voodoo mystery and danger about him, a name Malcolm “Mac” Rebennack gave himself after learning of a man who fashioned himself as competition to the notorious voodoo priestess Marie Laveau. He walks with a cane, though it’s entirely possible he doesn’t need it. Dr. John’s original career goal of being a guitarist was sidelined when he lost part of his left ring finger when it was shot off as he defended his friend and then-roommate and bandmate Ronnie Barron in 1963, turning instead to piano. He still plays guitar or bass during gigs and is still going strong, routinely performing during the two-weekend New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the end of April. And for those who have wondered, yes, that is Dr. John singing the theme song for the animated “Curious George” TV show, and yes, he was the inspiration for the Jim Henson Muppet known as Dr. Teeth.
Part of the new guard in New Orleans music, Troy Andrews has been performing since the age of four. In front of people. Who have been thrilled to see him. If he looks a little familiar from the above video, that’s because he played a slightly fictionalized version of himself in the HBO show Treme starting in 2010. While he was a teenager, before branching out to start his band, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, he was a member of …
The Stooges Brass Band. This band is new to me, as I just saw them perform the final concert at the Artisphere, a music and art venue in Arlington, Va., over the weekend. A high-energy, funk-soaked, creative and very talented collective, all I’ll say about this band is that their encore includes the group’s two drummers swapping seats behind two separate kits while not missing a beat. Literally.
Curious for more? Check out Big Sam’s Funky Nation, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Neville Brothers Band, the Rebirth Brass Band, Kermit Ruffins and countless others. And if the opportunity arises to see a jazz or funk band from New Orleans, take it.