'Treme,' Ep. 8: Home For Mardi Gras : A Blog Supreme Episode 8 of the HBO program takes place on the first Fat Tuesday after Katrina and the two days preceding it. But there's both sadness and happiness buried beneath the carnival masks. Josh Jackson breaks down the soundtrack.
NPR logo 'Treme,' Ep. 8: Home For Mardi Gras

'Treme,' Ep. 8: Home For Mardi Gras

Members of the Creole Osceola Mardi Gras Indians. Paul Schiraldi/HBO hide caption

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Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Members of the Creole Osceola Mardi Gras Indians.

Paul Schiraldi/HBO

Episode 8 of Treme takes place on Fat Tuesday and the two days preceding it. Enough said.

To talk about the soundtrack and anything else, New Orleans native Josh Jackson of WBGO joins me again via e-mail. HBO's full playlist is here.

PJ: Ok, first of all, that was absolutely visually stunning. I've never been down to New Orleans for Mardi Gras -- pace Professor Longhair's recommendation -- but it looked incredible on screen. You too?

JJ: Yeah, that's a very lovely and honest portrait of Mardi Gras. Everyone is celebrating in their own way: parade route barbecues, cocktail parties, walking clubs, Indians. Plenty of marching bands, masks and merriment.

PJ: I don't even know where to begin, so I'll begin at the beginning. The opening montage is set to Aaron Neville's "Struttin' On Sunday" -- and not long afterward, Batiste gigs with Ivan Neville's band Dumpstaphunk at The Howlin' Wolf. The Nevilles are musical royalty in town, no?

JJ: The Nevilles are a talented bunch. The brothers -- keyboardist Art, singer Aaron, saxophonist Charles, and percussionist Cyril -- grew up Uptown on Valence Street. Art Neville still lives there. The guitarist in Dumpstaphunk, Ian, is Art's son. Ivan Neville, the leader, is singer Aaron Neville's son. They've been a big part of New Orleans music for the last six decades.

PJ: Between those two moments, Annie and Sonny do some nice harmony on "Second Line On Monday." (Man, Lucia Micarelli ain't a bad singer either! I really hope they don't actually move her character back to New York for season two.) This is a song I'm not particularly familiar with -- what do you know about it?

JJ: It's a tune by the late singer Chuck Carbo, who started (with his brother, Chick) a gospel-turned-R&B vocal group called The Spiders. "Second Line on Monday" is a variation of "Just Over in the Glory Land." Some great jazz players -- pianist Ed Frank and guitarist Alvin "Shine " Robinson, are on that session for 504 Records. The B-side, "Meet Me With Your Black Drawers On," made the bigger splash for Carbo. That's maybe not as suitable a tune for busking in front of a cathedral.

PJ: Ok, let's one of the depressing things out of the way. The New Orleans P.D. made sure to lock up Big Chief Albert Lambreaux through Fat Tuesday/Mardi Gras Day. (Literally to the tune of "Big Chief," a joke I recognized because I've been obsessed with that song since we were down in New Orleans.) And at the end of the day, the police end the festivities exactly at the stroke of midnight. One would think the police have some sort of inexplicable vendetta against their town's culture -- especially after Katrina.

JJ: To be fair, the streets are always cleared at midnight. Police and cleaning crews wash the first signs of sin away. The church takes care of the rest. This celebration is based on the Catholic calendar, and technically Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent is a more solemn occasion. Keeping a big chief under lock and key on Mardi Gras Day is not the way to make friends; then again, punching a police officer is not the best strategy for anyone. I cannot wait to see Lambreaux wearing his suit for St. Joseph's Day.

PJ: Well, music still happens. Including Bob French! That's him at the drums at Donna's -- a place I know you've been to recently -- with Antoine Batiste on trombone. I loved seeing his band at Jazz Fest. They play "Milneburg Joys" -- which we're told is named after the old, old red-light district in town -- and we also hear a background snippet of "When It's Sleepytime Down South."

JJ: Bob French has played a ton of dates for producer Dave Bartholomew and Imperial Records. He also played many Monday nights at Donna's. He and Kid Chocolate, the trumpeter, even played at my wedding (with Davell Crawford, brother George French, singer Juanita Brooks, and saxophonist Clarence Johnson on sax). Bob was taught early by Louis Barbarin, and he assumed leadership of Papa Celestin's Tuxedo Jazz Band when his father, Papa French, died. Bob is deep down a great guy, but he doesn't suffer fools lightly. Branford Marsalis made a record with Bob a few years ago, part of the Marsalis Music Honors series for drummers.

There's nothing left to Milneburg these days. When I was a kid, I rode the Zephyr at Pontchartrain Beach, an amusement park built on part of the old resort area.

Steve Zahn as Davis McAlary as Jean Lafitte. Paul Schiraldi/HBO hide caption

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Paul Schiraldi/HBO

PJ: So before we get to the Mardi Gras sequence, time for some inside references to be amplified: Lakeview, Paul Prudhomme, king cake, the Momus parades, Endymion, flambeaux, that scene with Creighton and his daughter and that whole thing about painting crosses.

JJ: Lakeview is a neighborhood that filled with water after Katrina. Creighton and Sofia visit the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, where Jaeger's, Fitzgerald's, Bruning's and Sid-Mar's –- all great places for seafood -– used to be. Then he makes fun of the awful accents in that Dennis Quaid movie, The Big Easy. John Goodman would know –- he was in it.

Janette jokes about Paul Prudhomme's "healthful" cooking style. Prudhomme was once at chef at Commander's Palace, a New Orleans institution, before he popularized certain aspects of the regional fare. King cake is the ubiquitous dessert item during carnival season. There's a plastic baby Jesus somewhere in the cake. If you find it, you have to buy the next one. Most bakeries now leave the baby on the side, so you don't actually choke on the savior.

The Mistick Krewe of Comus and the Knights of Momus are two of the old-line carnival krewes in the city. They continue their traditions as secret societies and exclusive bastions of white male gentry; Comus is the oldest. When the New Orleans City Council passed an ordinance that demanded that krewes opened their membership rolls, these two krewes stopped parading altogether. Night parades were traditionally lighted by African American men with torches (flambeaux). Originally, these men were plantation slaves or free people of color. As you can imagine, there are mixed feelings about the tradition.

Endymion is a gigantic "superkrewe" parade. As for the "B-level celebrities" who have been Grand Marshals of Endymion, John Goodman was one of them.

PJ: And then the first montage of Mardi Gras, set to Professor Longhair's classic "Go To The Mardi Gras." Plenty of topless women, costumes, parades, relationship infidelities and the plastic beads so reviled by John Goodman's character. There was also a lot of other background music mixed up in there too -- offhand, I heard The Meters, Al Johnson's "Carnival Time," and lots of brass bands. What else did you pick out in terms of recorded music?

JJ: Dr. John sings "All on a Mardi Gras Day," the name of this episode, while Sonny kisses the pony girls. We also heard Rebirth's "Do Whatcha Wanna" outside the Backstreet Cultural Museum. Sylvester Francis is the curator there, and you can often find some great information about New Orleans street culture there. Reverend Goat Carson was scrubbing Davis and Annie's auras outside the museum. Reverend Goat started an event called White Buffalo Day in New Orleans, when African-Americans and Native Americans celebrate their shared history.

I also dug Champion Jack Dupree's "Yella Pocahontas" on the car radio when Delmond yields for Indians. That's the Tan Canary, Johnny Adams, singing "Tell it Like it Is" on the jukebox at Gigi's. Aaron Neville had the bigger hit with it, but I'm partial to the Johnny Adams version. I know it's probably heresy, but I just think the song fit Johnny Adams' deeper voice for my taste. Eddie Bo also does a jump called "Tell It Like It Is," but that's not the same song.

PJ: I think one of the most amusing "Easter Egg" cameos happens when Sonny is at the bar during Mardi Gras, and bounce music is playing. There, the transgendered New Orleans rapper Katey Red comes in -- it's her music playing -- and plants a kiss on an unknowing Sonny.

JJ: "So Much Drama" is the song. Yeah, Sonny's got plenty of drama, for sure.

PJ: Tom McDermott also resurfaces in this episode -- but you wouldn't know it, from the horse's head he's wearing while he plays piano at the party.

JJ: If you walk into a party, and there's a horse playing "Camptown Races," then you're at the right party. If that horse happens to be Tom McDermott, then consider it an offer you can't refuse.

PJ: There's also the rather amusing scene with Davis and his parents, getting everyone to sing "The Battle Of New Orleans." Sometimes, you can't help but like this Davis dude.

JJ: For all his faults, I love him still. And finally his mom lands a good shot. His reference to Facilities Street? Nice one. (It's Felicity Street.) That line about nowhere to pee in Mardi Gras Day is a familiar refrain. It comes from a song by Benny Grunch and Da Bunch. Benny is like the local Weird Al Yankovic, sans accordion.

PJ: And then a drunken Janette sings "Iko Iko" on the street! Kim Dickens is really nailing this role, eh? The woman finally gets to let off some steam in a serious way.

JJ: Love the sign she put on her car. I often wish I had a way to turn crappy cars into cabs. Glad she made a few bucks with the mobile unit. I would be interested to know if she makes a good yaka mein to cure that hangover the next day.

PJ: The last musical number comes at Les Bon Temps Roule -- the venue, not just the saying -- when Delmond Lambreaux sits in with Big Sam's Funky Nation on "Come Down To New Orleans." I saw this band at Jazz Fest too, and they bring serious funk.

JJ: Very funky band. Truth in advertising.

PJ: Finally, Creighton's YouTube rant for this episode is inspired by a line from "Is This Love," by The Iguanas (not the Bob Marley song, either). "Sad and pretty like New Orleans / I hate to see it come apart at the seams." The sense I get from Creighton is that that first, somewhat diminished Mardi Gras after the storm didn't feel quite right to some -- as mind-blowing as it seemed to me.

JJ: There are too many recent ghosts, and things are not the same. Antoine alluded to the flooded cars that dominated the gathering spot near Claiborne Avenue; Creighton laments that clarinetist Pete Fountain isn't spending Mardi Gras leading the Half-Fast Marching Club; LaDonna is hiding big news about her brother. There's a lot of sadness and happiness buried beneath those masks. That's good drama.