'Treme,' Episode 2: Music Amid The Madness
by Patrick Jarenwattananon, with Josh Jackson of WBGO
In the New Orleans of Treme, joy is irrepressible. But in episode two, frustration looms large.
LaDonna's bar is in disrepair, and the repairman has priorities other than fixing it. Tracking her brother through the Louisiana prison network -- with all attendant fees and bribes -- leads to a dead end. And meanwhile, her family is in Baton Rouge, and their lives increasingly focused there, too. Albert Lambreaux, carpenter/Mardi Gras Indian, is dedicated to New Orleans, but finds his tools stolen from a house he's working on. He also passes through a housing project the government wants to shutter after the hurricane, even though it sustained little to no damage. Insurance companies are holding out on Janette, and her ability to get her restaurant back in business. Davis is fired twice, Antoine has serious childcare issues and Delmond gets busted for marijuana use, as if the police had no serious crime to fight.
In other words, Treme paints a New Orleans stifled by bureaucracy, shifty insurers and contractors, aggressive law enforcement that misapplies its resources and agencies who are milking the storm for all it's worth in relief funds. At the same time, there's music everywhere -- and you can't be unhappy about that. Here's the full playlist, from HBO. (While we're at it, Five New Orleans Brass-Band Jams for accompaniment.)
To talk about that music, I'm joined again by New Orleans native, and WBGO's finest, Josh Jackson.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: First off, let's map out the live music scenes in this episode. Coco Robichaux starts the episode by performing a voodoo ritual in the WWOZ studios, complete with chicken sacrifice live on air. What is that all about?
Josh Jackson: He's singing "Walking With the Spirit." Coco is from Ascension Parish, where Cajun culture predominates. Haitians were in the canefields there too. He's part French, part Choctaw. French traiteur (healer) meets voodoo meets Native American spirituality. That creates some interesting mojo, non? He definitely embodies the medicine man psychedelia of Night-Tripper-era Mac Rebennack (aka Dr. John), who himself mentions Coco Robicheaux in "Walk on Guilded Splinters." For the record, the real DJ Davis was booted from WWOZ's airwaves frequently -- never for allowing ritualistic live animal sacrifice on the air. That doesn't necessarily make it implausible, though.
PJ: Then you see the buskers, Annie and Sonny, playing "Careless Love" (its most grim verse, by the way) and "When The Saints Go Marching In" to a bunch of tourists on ... is that Bourbon Street? I don't know -- like those tourists, I'm actually from Wisconsin. And what do you make of that whole "When The Saints Go Marching In" boondoggle -- is that an "authentic" New Orleans song, as was debated in the show?
JJ: That's not Bourbon Street. It looks like Royal or Chartres. [Ed.: it's Royal.] And no song says "I love you madly" like telling your lady friend that you're gonna shoot her four or five times, then stand over her while she dies. Murder is nothing new to the ballad tradition in America. As for "When the Saints Go Marching In," it's an old spiritual that you could hear in an authentic funeral, played as a dirge or as an uptempo march. Naturally, the song has been commodified to the hilt; local musicians rarely want to be in that number anymore. I think Preservation Hall actually charges people extra when they request it. Most folks who visit aren't requesting "Whoopin' Blues."
PJ: The buskers then take in music themselves: A trad-jazz band (The New Orleans Jazz Vipers) plays "I Hope You're Coming Back To New Orleans" at The Spotted Cat. What do I need to know about that?
JJ: You need to know that a lot of people really felt like that. Joe Braun, the singer and saxophonist, wrote that song. He got it right.
PJ: Antoine keeps busy this episode: he plays a gig (which we don't see) in Algiers, at the Old Point Bar. Tell me about Algiers. And who's that guy Antoine meets there -- his old instructor who lost all his instruments in the storm?
JJ: Algiers is the part of New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi. It was also home to the same traditions of Creole jazz musicians as the east bank, notably bandleader Papa Celestin and trumpeter Red Allen. The guy Antoine meets is supposed to be his trombone teacher, guessing from the sad reference to a lost instrument that Edward "Kid" Ory, also a trombonist, gave him. In the real world, that guy is a marvelous bluesman named Deacon John.
PJ: Antoine walks by a closed Preservation Hall, yet to reopen. For those who don't know, what is Preservation Hall?
JJ: Preservation Hall is an establishment on St. Peter Street in the French Quarter. Originally, it was The Society for the Preservation of Traditional New Orleans Jazz, created in 1961 by Ken Mills and Barbara Reid, two outsiders who saw the need to save the traditional music of New Orleans from being swept into the dustbin of music. Allan and Sandra Jaffe took the helm shortly thereafter. They kept many musicians from the mid-1950s New Orleans Jazz Revival (Billie and De De Pierce, Punch Miller, Sweet Emma the Bell Gal, George Lewis) afloat during the ascendance of rock and popular music.
PJ: And he plays funk in a strip club on Bourbon Street. That would be "Up For The Down Stroke," with the JT Ka-Nection Band, if you're keeping score. We keep hearing this line: "there's pride on Bourbon Street," when Antoine expresses embarrassment at taking a gig there. Can you explain?
JJ: Before it was inhabited by places to get your drink on, there were still a few real places to get your jazz on. In fact, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield currently operates a club in the Royal Sonesta Hotel. But by and large, the pride that's on Bourbon is from musicians swallowing their own to take gigs at strip clubs or tourist dives to pay the bills. Being a musician anywhere is a challenge.
PJ: Later in the show, Antoine gets called on stage, mid-barbeque-dinner, at Bullets.
The young funk phenom Trombone Shorty Kermit Ruffins is there, and he's joined by a female rapper by the name of Baby J. Which brings up the point: New Orleans has all sorts of indigenous dialects of hip-hop too.
JJ: Indeed. I'm not as conversant in the many underground artists in the city, but an early variant from New Orleans was called bounce music. It was less about having a great lyrical flow and more of a call-and-response party music. And then Master P's No Limit Records was basically printing money for a while; Cash Money Records still is. Some of the bounce style has been translated into an overarching "Southern" style, a la Atlanta.
PJ: Is that story that Antoine tells about Bullets true?
JJ: I sure hope so. It was funny as hell, right? Antoine is a bit of a raconteur. I do know that Kermit Ruffins plays Tuesday night gigs there -- cover free!
PJ: So even my thick Wisconsin brain recognized Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint, working with a horn section. The two made a real album together (The River In Reverse), we ought to mention. They were playing at a place called Piety Street Studios, and I know I've heard that name before ...
JJ: Piety Street is a recording studio run by John Fishbach (Stevie Wonder's Songs in the Key of Life, among others) and producer Mark Bingham, who taught me a lot about recording when I worked for WWOZ (Mark also recorded the first national broadcast I ever worked on for NPR, from the Showcase Lounge ... but I digress). It's relatively new, maybe a decade old (Allen Toussaint cut his most famous recordings and collaborations with Marshall Sehorn and the Meters at Sea-Saint). Piety is a great room. It's on higher ground near the river, so it did not flood. Most studios did. So Piety Street Studios became the place to make records in New Orleans.
PJ: Afterward, the musicians go hear Galactic at d.b.a., another real band and real venue. They play "Blackbird Special" and "Go Go," the first tune with horns. We see Stanton Moore, the drummer, get some lines in too. The script goes out of its way to point out that Galactic is a white funk/jam band -- and that there's nothing wrong with that. I presume you could write an essay on race in New Orleans music, but ... at least say something.
JJ: It's like race everywhere in this country. It matters to many. Not so much for others. I heard David Simon say something on Studio 360 this weekend about how he could care less about cultural primacy. I'm on his side for this: I like Galactic. They're for real.
PJ: Finally, Clarke Peters! I don't know my Mardi Gras Indian lore almost at all, but it strikes me that he's doing a remarkable job with an almost impossible role to learn. (He's Albert Lambreaux, Mardi Gras Indian Chief.) That duet he does at the end, just two tambourines and voices -- that's powerful stuff, rebuilding his tribe from the bottom-up.
JJ: I'm going to be sorely disappointed if he doesn't sweep every award show. His performance in these two episodes demands it. He totally owns this character. That version of "Shallow Water" gave me chills. More proof that David Simon knows how to open and close an episode. That's craft on all levels. Just an aside -- he's playing with this character named George Cottrell. Look up that last name and you will be immediately connected to a very important lineage in the New Orleans jazz tradition.
PJ: As you mentioned offline, it seems like the show is going out of its way to make sure every single New Orleans musician is getting performance royalties or cameos in this show. So much of the show was packed with background music too. Which stood out to you?
JJ: I heard Lee Dorsey singing "Ya Ya," an old New Orleans R&B staple produced by Allen Toussaint. Organist Joe Krown, who used to play with Gatemouth Brown, has a song playing in the background at Janette's restaurant. Dr. John sings "When The Saints Go Marching In" shortly after the buskers, Annie and Sonny. Creighton is listening to the Boswell Sisters, a harmony vocal group that originated in New Orleans and sang during the swing era. Finally, some props are in order for Big Sam Williams, the trombonist in the Crescent City Horns segment with Toussaint. He's been in the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and he leads his own group, Big Sam's Funky Nation.
PJ: For jazz boffos, this relationship between the Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux and his son Delmond is becoming very telling very quickly. Here's a choice bit of dialogue:
Delmond: "You don't think I can play straight-up New Orleans R&B in my sleep?"
Albert: "But can you swing? Not all you modern jazz cats can, you know."
Delmond: "You sound like Wynton [Marsalis]."
Albert: "I hope so."
JJ: Nothing more than a chuckle there. I do know that Wynton and some of the older musicians in New Orleans wish the younger cats spent more time becoming complete musicians. Many of the early players who contributed to jazz history were very well-trained. Then again, some weren't. This is a can of worms I'd rather use to catch fish.
PJ: After that exchange, Delmond starts talking about a gig, presumably at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis is the artistic director.
Delmond: "Lincoln Center. Lotta love for New Orleans right now."
Albert: "I know. Everybody love New Orleans music. New Orleans people?" [gets up]
Like the lines above, I feel like Treme is juxtaposing practical, material rebuilding and spiritual, cultural rebirth in a number of ways. Albert himself is in the profession of carpentry, but he's also a Mardi Gras Indian. Then there's that scene where Creighton Bernette complains about Tulane cutting engineering programs and keeping liberal arts nonsense, even though he's an English professor writing a novel about the 1927 flood. Janette's restaurant elevates New Orleans food to an art, but she needs a loan to stay in business. Antoine (the trombonist) and Davis (the ex-DJ) are both told to get real jobs rather than, uh, contract labor in the music industry, let's call it.
What do you think the message is behind all that? It seems like the show is making a very complicated argument for the role of culture.
JJ: Culture is a messy thing. Life is a messy thing. Life and culture in New Orleans post-Katrina was super completely and totally the messiest. Yet, these characters find a way to move forward. Could be we're simply talking about the power of the individual spirit that Coco Robicheaux was singing about in the opening:
Sometimes I walk, all by myself
Don't wanna talk to no one else
Close my eyes and I feel my spirit rise
Sometimes I'm down and it comes to me
Lifts me up, gets me feelin' free
It takes me by my hand
Till I finally understand
3:47 PM ET | 04-19-2010 | permalink