April 29, 2005

Da Reunion

Funkifying our lives once again.

“We’re a little older. A little fatter. Still black. And still funky.”
Art Neville, onstage, April 23, 2005

Like I said, it was an intimate affair, 20 – 30 thousand of us squeezed into and overflowing the site of the Sprint stage, the second largest venue at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Meanwhile, at the largest, the Acura Stage (our heritage has become a victim of corporate branding), James Taylor was doing something completely different for another near-capacity crowd. Seems it takes all kinds to make the Fest financially viable. At least he kept the mere curiosity seekers away from our congested congregation of the faithful, blessed with righteous sounds of the hometown heroes, the Meters, and some of the most incredibly cool, dry, breezy air I’ve experience in my 25 years of attendance.

Doing right around a dozen songs in their 90+ minute set, the Meter men dished their groove out in heavy, dance-inducing doses with visible enthusiasm, good humor, love, and inspired musical synergy. It sounded as if they’d never stopped playing together; as they threw down with power and authority. To be sure, this was no nostalgia act. The song selection covered some of the highlights of their catalog plus a couple of obscurities (“He Bite Me” and “Doodle Loop: The World Is A Little Bit Under The Weather” with a bit of Zig’s new song, ”Welcome To New Orleans”, grafted onto it). Just hearing the band on recordings doesn’t prepare you for the visceral strength of their live sound: propulsive, wailing, and hugely Fonky. The offshoot band, the Funky Meters comes close; but it takes Zig and Leo to make it to truly higher ground. Another treat in the set was the change-up: a smooth, hip rendition of “Be My Lady” with George Porter, Jr. doing one of the best vocals of his career. And I was so glad to be there for it with my lady.

I really couldn’t imagine a more perfectly agreeable way to hear the original unit of four regrouped for this all too brief live set. As the final encore notes of the “Hey Pocky A-Way” second line strut ended, the sun sank behind a giant live oak tree.

The festival released a double CD set of the performance by the next afternoon; and I was lucky enough to get one. I am almost certain a DVD will follow at some point, but will merely be a virtual shadow of those moments. As exceptional as some of the other performers (Jon Cleary, Charles Teomy from Recife, Brazil, and Irma Thomas spring immediately to mind) were last weekend and will be, I’m sure, this weekend, when I go back for more, the climax of Jazzfest happened last Saturday evening. It’s untouchable. As they left the stage one of the Meters said, “See you next time.” We can only hope.

PS - Yeah, we got pretty close to the front, thanks to our friend Randy, who held on to that spot all day for us. I should have taken a shot of the sea of grooving bodies behind us; but I barely remembered to take the one you see.

April 28, 2005

What It Is

"What Is Success" (Allen Toussaint)
Allen Toussaint, from Toussaint, Scepter, 1971

Sometimes it's knowing when to quit

Last night, I saw the documentary film, Make It Funky!, as I mentioned earlier, and will give you more details in a later post. But, briefly, it is a very good attempt to get at the essence of the New Orleans musical experience using those insiders (and some notable outsiders) who are still around to tell the tales and play the tunes. There is a lot of live performance footage from a six hour concert in New Orleans featuring many of the artists who are interviewed and/or are subjects of the film.

One of the performances has Allen Toussaint on piano and Bonnie Raitt on vocal, doing a moving version of “What Is Success”, which originally appeared on the Toussaint album (as well as a single) in 1971, and which Bonnie covered convincingly in 1974 on her fine Streetlights LP. As I watched and listened, I was reminded how much I’ve always liked this song and what it says. And, maybe because I’ve just started working again (after taking nearly nine blissful months off), due to those old monetary necessities, I found myself relating to the lyrics anew, after all these years.

The insightful, questioning lyrics of “What Is Success” display the philosophical side of Toussaint’s songwriting, while the music reveals his deft skills of composition and arrangement. The simple drums (of either HOTG certified John Boudreaux or Fred Staehle, or Ed Greene) are played pretty straight, allowing the bass, horns and composer’s piano to provide spare, syncopated interplay, push-pulling, slip-sliding under the almost solemn vocal. Others joining him on the album tracks are Mac Rebennack (organ and guitar), hometown horn men Clyde Kerr (trumpet), Earl Turbinton (alto sax) and Fred Kemp (tenor sax), Terry Kellman (guitar), Eddie Hohner (bass), and Merry Clayton and Venetta Fields on background vocals.

Recorded in Los Angeles, Toussaint was his first solo album since the legendary Wild Sound of New Orleans LP of the late 1950’s; and, while it is not his best, it is a good record with some great cuts, as our feature proves, and shows how far he had come as an artist in a little over a decade. It’s well worth owning. Kent in the UK released it on CD over ten years ago with an extra track; but I think that is now deleted. So, if you seek the album out in either form, I wish you success.

April 27, 2005

One moment please

I'm still decompressing from the Meters' reunion, where I and about 30,000 close friends (we were real close for about 100 minutes) witnessed some HOTG music history. It was hot shit on an unusually cool day. . .but, I'll tell you more about it later along with a piece about the Make It Funky film I saw previewed tonight. And I'll have a tune up soon. Stand by.

April 20, 2005

Another Funky Miracle

Leo, Zig, George, & Art

"Little Old Money Maker" (Nocentelli-Porter-Neville-Modeliste)
from Look-Ka Py Py, Josie, 1970


Well, the big news around HOTG for this week is the reunion of the original Meters at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on Saturday. And, that’s just one highlight during a little over a week of musical abundance on and off the festival grounds. For example, other goings on next week include WWOZ Piano Night, honoring Allen Toussaint this year; and the amazing Ponderosa Stomp, over at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl, one of the coolest time warp venues in town. The Stomp goes on for two nights ‘til all hours, courtesy of the Mystic Knights Of The Mau Mau,, and has an eclectic mix of classic performers, mostly from the Fifties and Sixties.

In honor of the brief, semi-miraculous re-grouping of the Meters (and we cross our fingers, toes and selves that it will actually come off without a band member bolting, as has happened before), I submit one of their early album cuts for your consideration. A group collaboration, “Little Old Money Maker” gets up and grooves. It’s an aural snapshot of the band around 1970, rolling with rhythmic unity and melodic diversity, their lean, quirky funk hinging on the idiosyncratic gifts of drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste. Breaking out of their formative hometown funk scene, surpassing worthy peers like The Gladiators, Sam & The Soul Machine, Eddie Bo’s outfits, and the Gaturs, they became surely the most influential non-jazz group to ever arise from the Crescent City. But, as I all to often have to say, that did not lead them to widespread recognition or commercial success in their day.

Maybe you’re heading this way to catch the show. If so, I’ll be among the masses there with you, staking out my little piece of holy ground. If you go, let me know what you think. I’ll probably give a report upon my return. I never did tell y’all anything about the French Quarter Festival, either. I’ve got a new job that’s been eating time; then my computer got possessed. But I’ll get back up to speed one of these days. In the meantime, if you don’t make it to Jazzfest, don’t despair; just turn this one up real loud and loose the booty.

****PS: Forgot to mention that virtually all of the Meters' recorded output is available remastered on Sundazed. You need it.

April 17, 2005

Left Coast Swamp Side

Guess which one is Big John

"I Just Find Myself Falling" (W. Devillier - J. Vinidigini)
Sweet Salvation, from Sweet Salvation, Elektra, 1972

You liked it....you really liked it

As with most of my Swamp Side designated tracks, this one and the album it comes from have ties to Louisiana, and, in this case, New Orleans, too.

I found the Sweet Salvation album in a pile of dollar records at one of the shops in Memphis back in the 1990’s. I’d never seen one before, didn’t know it existed; so I took a look and was floored to see on it “Big John” Thomassie, a New Orleans drummer I had heard live with Luther Kent’s Trick Bag band and admired. Also listed as band members were several cats with French sounding names that indicated possible Louisiana origins. I thought it was a buck well-spent, even before I put it on the turntable. Listening to it didn’t disappoint either, as it turned out to have a funk flavor to its mostly r&b feel, with a little blues and gospel in the mix.

“I Just Find Myself Falling” lands on the funky side of the fence for sure, with an arrangement that immediately brings to mind Little Feat (a band that heavily channeled New Orleans in its heyday). Yet, this record came out about a year before Lowell George and crew brought their funk to the forefront on Dixie Chicken. Leon Russell as well as Delaney and Bonnie were artists who were expressing somewhat similar leanings around the same time. So, although they came and went virtually unnoticed, Sweet Salvation were running in good company when they recorded in Los Angeles in 1972.

DeEtta Little does the vocal on this one and gives it up soulfully. She’s also featured on an eight minute, full-tilt “Rock Steady” that closes the record, where she and the band do some real roof raisin’. Her claim to fame seems to be a duet she did on one of the Rocky soundtracks in the later 1970’s. Fritz Baskett is the other female vocalist of the group. On the sanctified piano is Wayne DeVillier (a/k/a Wayne Deville), who has got the chops, and, if I am not mistaken, came from the Morgan City, LA area, where he fronted Wayne and the Velvetones in the early 1960’s. Another possible Louisiana suspect is guitarist Don Normand. The group’s bassist is Alexander Smith, Jr.; and, of course, Big John’s the HOTG skins man, who most notably played on Tom Waits’s 1980 album, Heartattack and Vine. Thomassie, who passed away in the 1990’s, had the unmistakable feel of his hometown in his stick work; and I feel lucky to have seem him play live numerous times. Assisting him with the groove is top shelf percussionist Bobbye Hall. Together, they cook up a hot little track on an album that definitely has its moments; but it hardly saw the light of day before being remaindered to the cut-out bins and dollar boxes. Dat’s showbidniz.

<------- Los Angeles, 1,900 miles

April 15, 2005

In the Bag

"Trick Bag"(Earl King)
Earl King, Imperial, 1962

It would be hard to find a better example of the New Orleans funk of the early 1960’s than is found on “Trick Bag”. – John Broven, Rhythm & Blues In New Orleans

Can’t argue with the esteemed Mr. Broven there. Earl King was on a hot streak of great songwriting in the early 1960’s, when he was signed to Imperial Records and cut 17 sides produced by Dave Bartholomew. Among the more notable were “Come On (Parts 1 & 2)”, “Mama & Papa”, “You Better Know“, “Always A First Time”, and “Trick Bag”. The later two were on the only single to be even moderately successful, charting in 1962.

The relaxed street-beat syncopated shuffle of Bob French’s snare sets “Trick Bag” off upon its push-pull rhythmic motion, enhanced by a shaker, the guitar’s repeated half-step chord slide-ups, and the horns’ funky reinforcement of the beats and stops. Earl’s on guitar, with James Booker laying down a basic piano bed; and George French places the bass notes in all the right places. Its sounds like Benny Spellman doing the bass vocal lines, as he did earlier on “Mother-In-Law” by Ernie K-Doe. And, as on his other sides of the period, King renders his own hip, clever lyrics with style.

In an interview with Offbeat, Smokey Johnson claims that he played drums on “Trick Bag”, because Bob French had been drafted; but I haven’t found any backup on that claim. So let’s leave the credit for now with French, whose name appears on the session list. I consider this track to be a shining example of Earl King’s innovative compositional skills and feel for his city's emerging culture of funk, shared, of course, by the talented HOTG players who brought the song to life.

April 10, 2005

Where Rock Meets The Caribbean

Nat King Cole & Paul Gayten

"For You My Love" (P. Gayten)
Paul Gayten, March, 1957

I’m sticking to the 1950’s for a “lost” HOTG session that gives good groove. It's an exceptional track and, to me, the hippest version of this tune.

Around 1949, Paul Gayten wrote “For You My Love” in New Orleans and, with his band, backed Larry Darnell’s hit version on Regal that year. Nat King Cole and Nellie Lutcher (originally from Lake Charles, LA) also covered the tune to good effect in 1950. By 1957, Gayten was working as a recording artist and New Orleans A&R man for Chess Records, producing, among others, some of Eddie Bo’s early sides and classic sessions for Frogman Henry and Bobby Charles. For his version of “For You My Love”, which was never released at the time, Gayten used some of the same great local session players he cut with regularly. His arrangement of the tune is a departure from the earlier r&b versions, as it rocks and rolls, but with a distinctly Cuban/New Orleans feel.

Master of the drums, Earl Palmer, makes this happen with his Latin accented stick work on the bell of his cymbal over the Crescent City bounce of his snare. Edgar Blanchard uses muted notes on his guitar to deftly double the cymbal rhythm through most of the song, then tears into a distorted solo that, besides being sonically ahead of its time, is some of the best riffing of the decade by a New Orleans guitarist. Roland Cook pumps what seems to be an acoustic bass; and Gayten runs up and down the piano keyboard with his usual abandon. His rhythmic delivery of the clever lyrics is fine, but almost too smooth for something this rockin'. Still, why was this hot track not issued? You can find it and a number of other tunes with Palmer's drumming and Blanchard's playing on the now out of print Gayten LP/CD compilation, Chess King of New Orleans.

Following Earl Palmer’s move to Los Angeles in the mid-1950’s, Hungry Williams took his place in New Orleans as a drummer who could not only drive the beat, but apply complex poly-rhythms of the street and the city's cultural heritage, preparing the way for funk. Part 2 of this feature shows him at work.

Note: If you’re into the technical aspects of HOTG drumming, check out
this site (and related book).

April 08, 2005

Technical difficulties and the French Quarter Festival keep me from posting right now. Hang with it and check back in a few days for fresh vintage music.

April 04, 2005

A Side Man Steps Up Front

"(Every Time I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone" (Montrell-Marascalco-Blackwell)
Roy Montrell, Specialty, 1956

Hear it on HOTG Internet Radio

Here’s a classic New Orleans record that was not a hit but should be familiar to many of you. If you’ve heard it before, listen again; if not, feast your ears. The featured artists on this record are the side men, even though only one, guitarist and vocalist Roy Montrell, gets the credit. An active HOTG studio player in the Fifties and through much of the Sixties, Montrell was working on Little Richard sessions for Specialty Records around the time this single was cut in mid-1956. The Los Angeles based label had been recording Richard’s history-making rock ‘n roll mostly in New Orleans since the previous year, using the prodigious local talent for backing and tracking at engineer Cosimo Matassa’s legendary J&M Music Shop backroom studio. Specialty was a major presence in town during the 1950’s, cutting hits and misses with such artists as Lloyd Price, Guitar Slim, Art Neville, and, to a lesser extent, Larry Williams (who did many of his sides in California, but with seasoned HOTG players).

“(Every Time I Hear) That Mellow Saxophone” is an object lesson in making records New Orleans style. The joyous, oddball lyrics by Mississippian John Marascalco, who had written several hits for Little Richard, are sung by Montrell with a hoarse hipster voice and a little scatting a la Satchmo. Meanwhile, the band cooks, rockin’ atop Earl Palmer’s locomotive syncopation, with the pumping saxes of Red Tyler on bari and Lee Allen, who turns out a signature solo, on tenor. The rest of the rhythm section is Clem Turvalon on bass, and Ed Frank on piano. Despite the song’s lyrics, there is nothing mellow about either the saxes or this tune! With players like these, I guarantee that all Specialty’s A&R man, Bumps Blackwell, had to do was stay out of the way. The flip side, “Ooh Wow” is also a scorcher.

After this, Montrell went back to the side, with only one other single, “Mudd”, an instrumental, released under his name in 1960, while doing sessions for Minit. In the Fifties, he befriended and taught guitar to a teenager named Mac Rebennack and helped him break into the local music scene. Roy was one of the founding musician/members of AFO (All For One) Records in the early Sixties; and later, when session work slowed down in New Orleans, he joined Fats Domino’s road band and played with him until dying on tour in Europe in the late Seventies.

Roy Montrell, c. 1960