• 'Treme,' Episode 4: Tragedy, Comedy, Song

    May 3, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.

    John Boutte performs the Treme theme song and prominently in episode four as well. (Image Credit: Paul Schiraldi/HBO)

    We're only four episodes into Treme. But one idea that keeps recurring: everyone is ultimately doomed, and everyone manages to crack an occasional smile in spite of it all.

    Insurers' greed, correctional incompetence, municipal utilities failure, corruption, death of loved ones, physical injury, resentment, racism, relationship drama, parental guilt and the federal government's crocodile tears greet every character at every turn. But for nearly everyone, playing, hearing or being around music enables some sort of familiar grin. Davis' madcap songwriting, Antoine's gruff incantations (to LaDonna in particular), Albert's Indian rituals, Sonny and Annie gigging, Toni and Creighton's Christmas music, Jacques' kitchen radio, Delmond's sheepish encounter with jazz greats and so forth: whether transmuting their emotions or escaping from them, music is there for people. Even the visual sequence behind the theme song juxtaposes images of hurricane destruction with an upbeat, good-mood tune.

    Part of this is the character of musical theater, sure: everything gets filtered through song. But it's especially effective for Treme. There's powerful, unmitigated grief in the show, met by bureaucratic mess. And if you think about oil spills, erosion, global warming and inevitable future hurricanes, nothing seems to be working in Louisiana's favor. When faced with the mortality of your entire culture and community, the humor tends toward darker shades of black. New Orleans just so happens to have great music as a way to work through that.

    Again joining me to talk about the music is WBGO's Josh Jackson. HBO's full playlist is here.

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  • Preservation Hall Jazz Band: No Added Preservatives

    April 30, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.

    The Preservation Hall Jazz Band's Freddie Lonzo. (Image Credit: Josh Jackson)

    When Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined My Morning Jacket on the rock band's first Saturday performance at Jazz Fest, it was the beginning of a tit-for-tat. They recombined later that evening for a benefit in the French Quarter, at Preservation Hall itself. And Sunday at the Gentilly Stage, PHJB played a set of traditional New Orleans music laced with recent adaptations to the repertoire like The Kinks' "Complicated Life."

    That's part of the complicated charm of Preservation Hall's new identity -- there's a firm grasp of the tradition, but also an inherent pliability of the New Orleans style that can still resonate with a whole new audience. It's old sometimes, but it's also relevant.

    Trombonist Freddie Lonzo and trumpeter Mark Braud provided the low-down brass blues, clarinetist Charlie Gabriel added a soaring clarinet response and singer Clint Maedgen was hip without pretense. Their version of "I Believe Like Moses Did" never broke down, even when they were goofing.

    Preservation Hall has recently released a benefit CD, and they featured a few of the special guests from that recording. No, not Tom Waits doing "Tootie Ma is a Big Fine Thing"….

    But Amy LaVere was there to sing the enticing "Baby Won't You Please Come Home" into a vintage-style ribbon microphone, albeit one that was wreaking havoc for the sound technicians. Her auburn-accented hair sailed into the breeze, and she handled an equally flowing delivery.

    Jim James showed up in the band's suit-and-tie dress code, with a bullhorn resembling a stolen traffic cone. There was little caution to his sweetness on "Louisiana Fairytale," a song about smelling magnolias and being in love -- "The world is at our feet, the picture is complete, like a Lou'siana fairytale." Really, Yim Yames?

    Then homegrown trumpeter Terence Blanchard and trombonist Freddie Lonzo traded modern vs. traditional, and the lines from both kept blurring. James stayed in for the closer, "St. James Infirmary Blues," an old folksong about the usual – a man walks into a bar, having just returned from the hospital visit to see his dead girlfriend. Drink up.

  • Voices of The Wetlands: 'Poor Man's Paradise' in Peril

    April 30, 2010. Posted by Joshua Jackson.

    Anders Osborne, musician or extra on Southern Comfort? (Image Credit: Josh Jackson)

    Blues guitarist Tab Benoit, a native of Houma, La., grew up near the Barataria-Terrebonne estuary system, an area of immense natural resources and fishing communities. It's the cultural home to many French-speaking Acadian peoples, otherwise known as Cajuns.

    In 2004, Benoit created Voice of the Wetlands, a volunteer non-profit organization that raises awareness of coastal Louisiana's cultural significance, as well as its enormous value to the United States' energy sector. The wetland ecosystem is Louisiana's natural barrier for hurricane protection, and it is currently washing into the sea. Add to that the environmental disaster currently in the news, and you have a delicate region on the verge of total collapse.  

    The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars performed at the Acura Stage last Sunday during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, just two days following the Earth Day sinking of British Petroleum's Deepwater Horizon rig in the Gulf of Mexico. The problem had not yet reached its current magnitude, but even the threat of coastal erosion will deal a potentially devastating blow to South Louisiana.

    The VOW All-Stars included Dr. John, percussionist Cyril Neville, accordion player Johnny Sansone, guitarist Anders Osborne, bassist George Porter, and drummer Johnny Vidacovich, all joining Benoit for a set of swamp-based Louisiana music. Guests included Allen Toussaint, drummer Stanton Moore from Galactic and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles. There were audience members who came simply to trawl for the starpower on that stage, but there were also messages in the music. Johnny Sansone, bending his accordion and belting an original, "Poor Man's Paradise," made a statement of post-Katrina angst that rings a little louder today, when he described a place where "little people suffer and big shots don't compromise."

    Look on old Louisiana license plates and you'll see "Sportsman's Paradise." It's my paradise too, and it's worth saving.