Friday, November 25, 2011

Coco Robicheaux passes away

Coco Robicheaux the "mayor of Frenchmen Street" died Friday night after suffering a heart attack at the Apple Barrel bar. He epitomized the spirit of Frenchmen Street.

Here's Keith Spera's report in the Times-Picayune:

Hoodoo bluesman Coco Robicheaux apparently suffered a medical emergency while at the Apple Barrel bar on Frenchmen Street early Friday evening. He was taken away by ambulance.

Robicheaux was not performing at the time; he frequents the Apple Barrel on his off-nights.

Known for an especially gravelly voice, a swamp-blues guitar style and a fascination with subjects of a spiritual and/or mystical nature, the 64-year-old Robicheaux, an Ascension Parish native, has released several albums over the past two decades. He is a mainstay of the Frenchmen Street entertainment district, a familiar figure both on- and off-stage. He is also a regular on the schedule of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Robicheaux made a memorable appearance during the opening scene of the second episode of the first-season of the HBO series “Treme.” In a fictionalized incident, he sacrifices a rooster in the studio of community radio station WWOZ-FM.

He is also a visual artist, sculptor and painter. He created the bronze bust of Professor Longhair that stands near the entrance of Tipitina's.

According to a bartender at the Apple Barrel, Robicheaux was rushed to Tulane Medical Center after collapsing Friday evening. His condition is unknown.

New Atlantis reviewed in Jazz Times

The outstanding jazz writer Bill Milkowski wrote a wonderful review of my book New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans and Keith Spera's book in the new Jazz Times. Just for the record, though much of the book is based on material originally researched for OffBeat pieces it is a complete rewrite of that information with a lot of new material.

Here's a link, followed by the text of the review.

Keith Spera
Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal And The Music Of New Orleans
John Swenson
New Atlantis: Musicians Battle For The Survival Of New Orleans
Bill Milkowski reviews two new books about music in post-Katrina New Orleans
By Bill Milkowski

Those who have spent any significant amount of time in New Orleans can attest to the fact that the real musical treasures are found off the beaten path. Keith Spera and John Swenson are both savvy writers who have infiltrated the inner circle of the Crescent City’s musical culture. Each has assembled a collection of intriguing essays that reveal secrets that exist well beyond Bourbon Street.

New Orleans native Spera, a longstanding music writer for The Times-Picayune who was also part of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team, focuses on tales of musicians confronting the challenges of trying to continue to make music in a post-Katrina environment. He covers those displaced New Orleanians forced to seek refuge in Houston, Austin, Nashville and other points around the country in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (known around New Orleans as “the Federal flood”). His profile of the cantankerous, Slidell-based blues guitarist-singer-fiddler Gatemouth Brown, who succumbed to lung cancer shortly after Katrina hit, is particularly moving, as is his eloquent recounting of Aaron Neville’s escape from his beloved hometown in the face of Katrina, his subsequent mourning over the loss of his wife to lung cancer in 2006 and triumphant return to New Orleans in 2008.

A hilarious chapter titled “Fats Domino’s Excellent Adventure” reveals the eccentricities of a bona fide hometown hero on his first trip to New York in decades to perform at a post-Katrina benefit concert. A chapter on trumpeter Terence Blanchard recounts the realization of his magnum opus, A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). Other post-Katrina profiles on two New Orleans legends (clarinetist Pete Fountain and legendary songwriter-pianist Allen Toussaint), New Orleans Jazz & Heritage producer/director Quint Davis and the reclusive former Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton (who rode out Katrina in his Treme home) are all rendered with uncanny empathy and an eye for N’awlins detail that only a local could summon up.

While Swenson is a native New Yorker, he has for the past 20 years split his time between residences in Brooklyn and the Bywater. A former editor at Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and currently a contributing editor to New Orleans’ Offbeat magazine, he has chronicled the lives and music of Crescent City legends as well as up-and-coming young talents. New Atlantis compiles some of his best post-Katrina essays that appeared in Offbeat.

Like Spera, he has a deep reverence for the New Orleans music tradition as well as an insider’s understanding of the local music scene. His pieces cover an astonishingly eclectic range, from insightful treatises on the brass band tradition, the legacy of Louis Armstrong and the mysterious culture of the Mardi Gras Indians to illuminating profiles on Voice of the Wetlands activist and blues guitarist Tab Benoit, New Orleans legend Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack, 400-pound bluesman Big Al Carson (a mainstay at the Funky Pirate on Bourbon Street), trad jazz clarinetist Dr. Michael White, ragtime piano specialist and James Booker interpreter Tom McDermott, and renegade-genius record producer Mark Bingham.

Swenson also writes with passion and clarity about the passing of legendary guitarist Snooks Eaglin, about his own return to the Crescent City after evacuating prior to Katrina, and about the return of the spirit of laissez le bon ton roulet with the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras in 2006. He ends the collection with a thoughtful piece that neatly segues from how the Saints’ Super Bowl victory in 2010 uplifted New Orleanians to how the enormity of the BP oil spill in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy just six weeks later provided yet another challenge to the long-suffering but resilient residents of that troubled metropolis. He gives the final word on this troubling matter to his New Orleans mentor, Dr. John: “This is my home. This is my roots. This is sacred land, and when y’all start playing around with some sacred land, somethin’ bad gonna happen.”

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Notes from New Atlantis Book tour 2011

The 2011 book tour in support of New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans, is over for now. Something may come up over the next month but the major events wrapped up with our participation in the National Press Club's Book Fair in Washington D.C. last week. It was a really good way to finish up because the Book Fair really offers hope to those of us us who are still interested in communicating via real paragraphs made up of real sentences containing real words that strive to actually tell a story rather than provide simple social imperatives or instant narcissistic gratification. Of course Twitter, Facebook and Text world (TFT) are incredibly powerful political tools in the right hands, but they can be just as powerful in the wrong hands, especially if content is reduced to simple dog-like commands. I don't wish for their demise, just for a balancing of technological advance with content, and the concentration necessary to keep a reader's attention in place long enough to follow a narrative.

It was great to see some 90 authors signing books for hundreds of readers at the Book Fair. Even better was the chance to interact personally with so many of those readers and potential readers, telling them the story of all the heroic musicians from New Orleans who returned to their stricken city and, against all odds, not only restored their culture but helped with the rebuilding process and created a viable economic engine to drive the city's recovery. It's an ongoing story which I hope to be able to continue to tell. Strangely, some of the biggest resistance I've met along the way is from the editorial hierarchy in New Orleans itself, which seems to be less interested in drawing attention to the small victories of local musicians than basking in the star power of visiting celebrity dignitaries.

I learned a lot in the course of promoting the book. Though it came out in June, we had pre-release copies available at Jazz Fest and the response from that audience was almost astonishing. The New Orleans story resonates profoundly outside of the city. The kind of identification fans of this music have with the hardy souls who continue to play it taps an emotional well that is almost nonexistent elsewhere in millennial America. I was more than a little surprised when people bought the book the first weekend then returned to the signing during the second weekend with tears in their eyes.

The actual release was less stirring but Jesse Paige at the Blue Nile was extremely generous in allowing us to use the upstairs room for our release party and we had a terrific time. Wings from McHardy's, red beans from Captain Sal's and 100 pounds of crawfish prepared by chef Eddie with the assistance of Mr. Massachusetts Mac and Mr. Bronx Brendan provided ample eats for our own party and for a weekend of musicians and staff at the BN. I chose the weekend of the final Radiators shows for the event which was probably a miscalculation because of the disconnect between Frenchmen Street and Uptown. Rads fans, it turned out, had their own crawfish boil, although a few of them did show up at both events (many thanks). The New York book release party was more successful. Many, many friends and colleagues showed up for a Brooklyn barbecue that preceded a terrific free performance from Dr. John at Prospect Park. The great Ned Sublette was on hand to help us celebrate.

Even better was the help we got in Brooklyn from Gerry and Joanna from the Observatory at Proteus Gowanus. They allowed me to present a series of readings/lectures/performances showcasing themes from the book and featuring a great night with Blake Leyh, musical supervisor for the HBO series Treme. This program, New Atlantis 2020, allowed us to highlight some of the most important messages contained in the book and project the narrative forward. As I say this is an ongoing story and we will revive the New Atlantis 2020 series in our 2012 campaign.

By far the most gratifying episodes of the book tour were our collaborations with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars. Tab Benoit, Rueben Williams and Cyril Neville in particular really come through in the book with an important message about how the ongoing eco-catastophe occuring along the Gulf Coast is threatening not just southern Louisiana and New Orleans but the whole country. Readings before VOW performances in Fairfield, Connecticut and New York City provided a great platform for the book's message. But the greatest moments were at the Voice of the Wetlands Festival in Houma. You don't have to look far from the site of the festival to see the Gulf waters encroaching on the land. This kind of disaster politicizes everyone involved and it was incredibly heartening to see people of all political affiliations, and the many families at the festival all uniting against the despoilers who would ruin their homes for short term profit.

Against the backdrop of Occupy Wall Street and the growing paradigm shift away from blaming American workers for the country's economic problems and focusing attention on the wealth disparity between the greedy profiteers who would sacrifice Houma, New Orleans and whatever else stands in their way and the 99 per cent it feels like New Atlantis is part of a broad movement to take America back from the oligarchs. We plan to continue to focus on these ideas in 2012.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

New Atlantis signing Tuesday at National Press Club Book Fair

I will be wrapping up my 2011 book tour in support of New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans this Tuesday with an appearance at the National Press Club Book Fair & Authors’ Night in Washington D.C. This time promoting the book has been one of the most gratifying episodes in my career. I will post my impressions of the experience later this week and offer a preview of what's in store for 2012.

Lauded as a philanthropic event, the Book Fair is a fundraiser for the National Press Club’s Journalism Institute, a 501 (c)(3) charitable organization dedicated to providing research and training to journalists in a rapidly changing industry, and scholarships to minority journalism students.

On the literary front, the Book Fair is a unique forum for authors to gain national exposure and personal contact with book buyers, fans, pundits, and journalists. One of the capital’s premier literary events, the annual fair draws more than 90 of the nation’s top authors to the historic Press Club, and attracts substantial media coverage. Authors who have participated in the past include: Rep. Barbara Lee, Eugene Robinson, Annie Proulx, Justice Antonin Scalia, Larry King, Jim Lehrer, Gwen Ifill, David Pogue, Richard Wolffe, Kinky Friedman, Pamela Newkirk, C. David Heymann, Jeff Sharlet, Tom Ridge, Leslie Sanchez, James Reston, Jr., and Deborah Tannen.

We are excited to announce that our Book Fair committee will be working once again with The SEED Foundation, which helps prepare underserved students for college success at high-performing public boarding schools in the District and Maryland. The Book Fair is helping to develop the school library at the Foundation’s new Maryland Campus.

The event is scheduled to begin promptly at 5:30 p.m. and will end at 8:30 p.m. There will be a private reception for National Press Club board members and authors and their guests from 4:15 - 5:15 p.m.