The Best of the Beat Sunday, Jan 20 2013 


Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews

For 25 years, Offbeat magazine has provided some of the best coverage of entertainment, food, and culture in New Orleans. In addition to its monthly rendering of what’s happening in the Crescent City, it provides a very active website that tracks daily information of life performances and up-to-date news. And annually, it sponsors the Best of the Beat Awards to recognize the best music in a city that is synonymous with music.

This year provided few surprises, but it recognized some stellar, unquestionable musical achievements, some of my very favorite artists, and validated a healthy percentage of my voting for the awards. All in all, I’m pretty satisfied.

Dr. Michael White

Dr. Michael White

The Artist of the Year Award went to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. On the heels of two very successful albums, I believe he is on the verge of national recognition. The New Orleans-borne eclecticism that marks his music is likely the main thing holding him back. Andrews was also recognized as best “R&B/Funk” artist and as the best trombonist  And Dr. John, the venerable yet adaptable scion of swamp rock was recognized for Album of the Year, for his remarkable collaboration with the Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach, “Locked Down.”  In addition to this well-received album, Dr. John was recognized as the best “Roots Rock” performer and keyboardist.

Clarence "Frogman" Henry

Clarence “Frogman” Henry

Some of my other favorite reward recipients: Best R&B/Funk Album: “Carnivale Electricos,” Galactic; Best Bounce Artist: Big Freedia; Best Traditional Jazz Artist: Kermit Ruffins; Best Brass Band: Rebirth Brass Band; Best Brass Band Album: “Unlock Your Mind,” The Soul Rebels; Best Drummer: Stanton Moore; Best Female Vocalist: Irma Thomas; Best Male Vocalist: John Boutté; and Best Clarinetist: Dr. Michael White. Some of my heroes receiving lifetime achievement awards were: Al “Carnival Time” Johnson; Clarence “Frogman” Henry; and the Dixie Cups.

To cap off the awards, at least as far as I am concerned, WWOZ was recognized as the best radio station; Basin Street Records as the best recording studio; and the Roots of Music, the wonderful marching band , after-school program, was recognized for non-profit achievement/community music award.

Now, on to the Grammys!

James “Sugar Boy” Crawford (1934-2012) Saturday, Sep 15 2012 

Rhythm and blues composer and singer James “Sugar Boy” Crawford died in New Orleans early today, following a brief illness. He a few weeks away from turning 78.

Crawford grew up in New Orleans around LaSalle Street and played trombone for the Booker T. Washington High School Band. He formed a singing group while still in high school and one of their demo discs caught the ear of Leonard Chess of Chess Records as he passed through. He made a demo recording and gave Crawford five dollars, which Crawford recalls he spent on “some wine and red beans.”

Crawford gained some notice for several r&b tunes during the fifties before he drifted off into obscurity in the early 1960s. He record such tunes as “I Bowed on My Knees,” “Morning Glory” and “She’s Gotta Wobble (When She Walks),” but it was one recording early on that cemented his importance in New Orleans music and culture.

In 1953, when Crawford was 19, he pieced together a couple of Mardi Gras Indian chants into a tune he sang as “Chock-a-mo.” He recorded the tune at Cosimo Matassa’s studio on Rampart Street, but the record was distributed by Checker Records, a subsidiary of Chess Records. Back in Chicago, Chess listened to the recording and christened it “Jock-a’mo,” the name under which it was released. It became a minor hit during the 1954 carnival season, but it would become more famous in the hands of others.

Fast forward to 1965. The Dixie Cups, a female vocal group which grew out of New Orleans’ Calliope housing projects, were recording for Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller at Red Bird Records in New York. During a break, they started singing a version of Crawford’s “Jock-a-mo,” which they remembered others singing during their childhood. For rhythm, they played ashtrays using drum sticks. Lieber and Stoller still had the tape running and caught the group’s “clowning around.” The producers listed to the tape, added bass and percussion and under the name “Iko-Iko,” the Dixie Cups had another national hit. The Dixie Cups successfully sued for exclusive rights to the song, although Crawford got a 25% for public performance in the United States.

Since 1965, “Iko-Iko” has been performed and/or recorded by the likes of Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, the Grateful Dead, the Radiators, Cyndi Lauper, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Crawford’s grandson, Davell Crawford. And not by accident, Louisiana’s Abita Brewing Company has named one of its beers Jockamo IPA.

Crawford resurfaced to record with his grandson in 1995 and most recently sang gospel in church and at JazzFest with Jo “Cool” Davis. Crawford will be missed, but clearly, his signature tune will be with us as long as Mardi Gras is celebrated in New Orleans.

The Doctor is ON! Saturday, Apr 28 2012 

Dr. John

At approximately 2:30p.m. tomorrow afternoon, New Orleans native son, Dr. John and the Lowe 911 will take the Acura Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. I say approximate, because time is not a fixed thing in New Orleans. Things happen when they are supposed to.

Some 71 years ago, Mac Rebbenack was born in New Orleans. He became a musician in some rough and tumble clubs during the 1950s. He played guitar before losing part of a finger in a bar fight. Between New Orleans and Los Angeles, he emerged a respected session musician. However, in the late 1960s and early 1970s he took on the persona of Dr. John, the 19th century voodoo priest. And as Dr. John, he will forever be tied to the music and culture of his native New Orleans.

I became acquainted with his music when I was in high school in the early 1970s. I loved his hits such as “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night” (probably in my top five songs) without truly understanding the genre bending nature of Dr. John’s music. And, when you are tied to top 40 radio, you completely miss out on such albums as “Gris Gris” and “Desitively Bonnaroo.” In essence, I liked him for many years without really appreciating his essence, his true meaning.

Dr. John at the Uptown Mardi Gras Indians Parade, March 2009.

Since I have hopelessly embraced New Orleans, its music and its culture, that has understandably changed. In the process, I have collected all of Dr. John’s  music and have an enhanced appreciation for his music and its impact. I’ve even had the chance to bump into him him on the streets of New Orleans over the past few years. And while I generally have kept my distance, it has helped me place him as part of the Crescent City’s cultural fabric.

And while you might thing that a musician  in his eighth decade might have passed his prime, I am here, along with his current work, to argue otherwise.  When he takes the stage at Jazz Fest, Dr. John has five decades of music to draw from, but I believe that his most recent work is among his most vital and here is why.

I think “Locked Down” is the most important recording that Dr. John has made since the early 1970s. Yes, he has won awards and Grammies for music since then, but this is special. I don’t know if it is the collaboration between him and the Black Keys’ guitarist Dan Auerbach, whom Dr. John met last year at the Bonnaroo Festival, but it works and it works well.  On their collaboration “Locked Down,” he hits the electric piano more so than before. It is more personal, more self-centered. And many of the cuts have a Stax vibe that enters your gut never to the leave. Particular tracks to look for: “Locked Down,” “Revolutions,” and “My Children, My Angels.” But it is all great.

I wish I could be there tomorrow, but I am confident that Dr. John will solidify his position as one of the City’s central musical figures. And in a local career that dates back to a sideman with Professor Longhair in the 1950s up through his recent innovative efforts, who could argue?

A Funeral, a Parade, and Beignets: We Have Landed in New Orleans Sunday, Mar 13 2011 

Dr. John, St. Louis III Cemetery, March 2011.

Four Ford vans and an impeccably on time Southwest Airlines delivered us safely to New Orleans on Saturday. Other than waking up at 4:00am, my flight was painless. Rain, road construction, and wrong turns made the students’ trips a little more interesting.
I arrived at Louis Armstrong International Airport just before noon, right at the time Tom and Chelsea’s group was entering New Orleans. Because I still had to deal with baggage claim and car rental, I sent them to Marrero to meet with the Operation helping Hands volunteer coordinator about housing. Then we decided to meet for the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Parade Uptown.

St. Louis #3 Cemetery, March 2011.

In between, I drove in to see if I could hook up with the jazz funeral for Herman Ernest, Dr. John’s long-time drummer. It had been advertised, but rather cryptically, and I was left to solve this cultural puzzle. I made it to St. Louis III, just as the funeral procession of hearse and limousines arrived. No horse-drawn coffin – another illusion gone. I know it happens, but not here. I followed the crowd to the interment – it was clear that if there was a jazz funeral, it would be later and not here. I did see Mr. Rebennack, i.e. Dr. John, paying his respects two days before being inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.  The crowd drifted away and I headed up to St. Charles Avenue.

Irish Channel St. Patrick's Parade, March 2011.

The parade was fun, but since I have been several years running, most of the fun comes from watching the students’ response. First time around, no amount of beads it too much. Watching your first cabbage thrown from two stories – it is true! And we were all amazed the populace could show such enthusiasm just four days removed from the end of Mardi Gras. It is New Orleans after all.
We went to Madonna Manor where we met up with the other two groups from my class, claimed rooms and beds for the week, exchanged war stories, and took long-overdue showers. We sent housing information to the remaining group, which was still an hour or more away, and went into the City.

Spotted Cat Music Club, March 2011.

I intentionally let the groups move about on their own, so they could absorb New Orleans at their own pace in their own way, one beignet at a time.  I moved about gingerly, due to a recent Achilles tendon injury. I was a bit creaky, but everything worked with minimum pain. I took in my requisite five or six blacks of Bourbon Street, but like the students was happy to absorb the sights and sounds. I went to the Spotted Cat where Ben Schenk and his cohorts entertained me and dozens of unmet friends with their infectious blend of traditional jazz, Caribbean, and Klezmer.
But I was exhausted and all I had done was sit in an airplane. The rest of group filtered back and crashed, resting up for our first, full-day in New Orleans. And the only one prior to beginning work on Monday.

The Meters Friday, Feb 25 2011 

The University is shut down and I’m at home watching the snow pick back up. But in New Orleans, they are beginning the penultimate weekend of Carnival, the real lead up to Mardi Gras. And while I’m far from the parades and the beads, I’m basking in the warm sounds of another New Orleans cultural force, the Meters.

The Meters briefly crossed my radar during my college days in the mid 1970s. They were shaking up the R&B charts with their tight grooves and New Orleans-inspired syncopations. With their sound, they helped raise producer Allen Toussaint’s stature and, more importantly, pave the way for funk. Alas, my musical interests were elsewhere.

Fast forward several decades and I’m exploring “all things New Orleans” while developing my first year seminar on the Crescent City. Not surprisingly, as a musical omnivore, a lot of my energies focused on the musical traditions. In particular, I became fascinated with the post-war popular music. I had some grasp of New Orleans traditional jazz or, at least recordings from its revival in the 1950s and 1960s. But I discovered that while I was familiar with Dr. John and Harry Connick, Jr., I knew little about Fats Domino and Toussaint, and nothing about geniuses like Professor Longhair or James Booker. And then there was this group called the Meters (and New Orleans brass bands, but that will have to wait).

I read books, articles, liner notes, listened to interviews on WWOZ. Dr. John would be describing a tune and without skipping a beat (pun intended) would say something like: “we just lifted that groove from the Meters.” Harry Connick, Jr., same thing. No hiding it, no shame. It was like quoting scripture. The Meters were the source.

So I went straight to the source and discovered that in less than a decade, Art Neville on vocals and keyboard, Leo Nocentelli on guitar, George Porter, Jr. on bass, and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste on percussion, laid down some spectacular tracks. As Toussaint’s house band, they backed up people like Lee Dorsey and Dr. John. They have played with the likes of Paul McCartney, Labelle, Robert Palmer, and the Rolling Stones. And as front men, they created such memorable tunes as “Cissy Strut,”  “Look-Ka Py Py,” and “Jungle Man.” Just last month, I was watching the Bruce Willis movie “Red,” and the unmistakable opening guitar line of “Cissy Strut” lit up the soundtrack. It actually proved a distraction for me as I lost myself in the music and not the scene.

The Meters broke up in 1977, shortly after appearing on “Saturday Night Live.” They got embroiled  in a lawsuit with Allen Toussaint over the terms of their original contract and all but Modeliste have settled. So, in the nearly 35 years since they went their separate ways, the Meters have existed primarily through their recordings and continued influence – until recently.

I heard Nocentelli interviewed on WWOZ yesterday and today’s Times-Picayune has an article on his return to New Orleans. He’s home from California to play a gig at Tipitina’s which will include Art Neville and, I suspect, a few Meters’ classics. And in June, all four of the original Meters plan to reunite at Tennessee’s Bonnaroo Festival to play behind Dr. John. They intend to recreate their recording of Dr. John’s “Desitively Bonnaroo,” which later gave the 10 year-old festival its name.

Here’s hoping that it will lead to extended collaborations and maybe even more recordings. And while some of them might live elsewhere, Nocentelli made it very clear on WWOZ where his heart is: “That’s [Burbank, CA] where I lay my head, but my heart is always in New Orleans, and always will be. I’m gonna be ‘local’ if I move to Jupiter.”

New Orleans at the Grammys Sunday, Feb 13 2011 

The 53rd Grammy Awards are tonight and a number of mysteries remain. What spectacle will Lady Gaga bring to the stage? How will they announce Cee Lo Green’s “F**k You” as a nomination for record of the year? We know that it will go long and that many of the most interesting awards will be shunted off to side. And a number of New Orleans musicians will be represented in both the marquee and lesser-known categories.

Among the New Orleans nominees is Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ “Backatown,” which is nominated for best contemporary jazz album. The album was produced by Ben Ellman, saxophonist for Galactic. New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis is up for best improvised jazz solo in a recording with his Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra. And the venerable Dr. John will begin a season of recognition. His album “Tribal” is up for best contemporary blues album. While in March, he will be inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame.

Although he spent a lot of time in jail on Riker’s Island, New Orleans’ own Lil Wayne is a formidable presence as a producer. His Young Money Entertainment has put forward rapper Drake, who is nominated for best new artist and best rap performance a duo or group. And the label’s Nicki Manaj and newcomer Tyga have been nominated for collaborations with other artists.

It should be no surprise to no one, but the relatively new Cajun and zydeco category is lousy with south Louisiana musicians. In fact with the Pine Leaf Boys, Chubby Carrier, Feufollet, Cedric Watson et Bijou and D.L. Menard it is a guarantee that local will carry home the Gramophone.  If you are not familiar with these acts, today’s has a collection of videos featuring their work.

Steve Earle

And finally, a couple New Orleans-related soundtracks are vying for recognition. Randy Newman’s song, “Down in New Orleans” from Disney’s “Princess and the Frog,” is up for best song from a motion picture. Dr. John recorded the tune for the film. And HBO’s “Treme,” in which New Orleans music plays a central role. A compilation album of music from the series is up for one award, while Steve Earle’s haunting song, “This City,” which closed the series’ first season, is up for another.

It’ll be nice if some of these musicians can receive some of the recognition that they so richly deserve.