Tuesday, July 31, 2012

OffBeat's special Satchmo Summerfest issue

OffBeat's August issue is dedicated to Louis Armstrong, whose birthday will be celebrated in New Orleans this weekend at the free-to-all Satchmo Summerfest, my favorite local music featival. I'm serving as the interim editor at OffBeat while we search for a permanent editorial steward for the magazine, and this issue is one of the proudest achievements of my career. In addition to my cover story about Armstrong there are several other stories about the trumpet genius, an essay about one of his greatest albums, the legendary Chicago Concert, written be Stereophile music editor Robert Baird, and a top ten list of Armstrong's greatest post-World War II recordings.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

From Gemini Ink to Lincoln Center

Great week. Just returned from Texas where I gave a writing class at Gemini Ink that included a wonderful group interview with jazz singer and storyteller Bett Butler. Tomorrow I'm reading from New Atlantis on a program that includes my hero William Kennedy as part of Joe Hurley's OurLand Festival at Lincoln Center. And the special Satchmo Summerfest issue of OffBeat dedicated to Louis Armstrong, which I edited and wrote the cover story for, is just out. Check it out at www.offbeat.com.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Jazz and Heritage Foundation holds Community Partnership Grants Workshop

Jazz and Heritage Foundation holds Community Partnership Grants Workshop The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation will hold a workshop on Monday, June 25, at 4 p.m. about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation's Community Partnership Grants application process. Grants are available in four categories: two for education programs (in-school and after-school); one for documenting Louisiana's indigenous culture or creating new works; and one for cultural events presented by nonprofit organizations. For details, see www.CommunityPartnershipGrants.org. The deadline to apply is July 16, 2012. Activities funded by these grants must occur between Sept. 1, 2012, and Aug. 31, 2013. The workshop will take place at the Jazz & Heritage Foundation Gallery (1205 N. Rampart Street, New Orleans, LA 70116). The four categories now open are: Jazz & Heritage After-School and Summer Education Programs in Music, Arts and Cultural Traditions: This category supports after-school and summer arts education programs offered by nonprofits and educational institutions. Organizations may apply for funding to pay the fees of the artists or educators who do the instruction. Jazz & Heritage In-School Education Programs in Music, Arts and Cultural Traditions: This category supports in-school music and arts education at Louisiana public K-12 schools. Schools may apply for funding to purchase or repair instruments and other supplies, or to cover part of an arts teacher’s salary. Jazz Journey Presenting: Festivals and Concerts in Music and Performing Arts. This category supports new employment for Louisiana performing artists by providing funding to nonprofit organizations that hire them for cultural events. Jazz & Heritage Archive: Documentation and Preservation. This category supports the creation or exhibition of art works that document or interpret the indigenous culture of Louisiana. Applicants may submit only one application, and in only one category, per grant cycle. Those who have received Community Partnership Grants in the 2011-12 grant cycle but have not yet submitted a final report are eligible to apply. But funds for new grants will not be distributed until final reports for outstanding grants have been submitted and approved.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Nonna Mia yum yum

Came across this item in Gambit and wanted to pass it on. Brendan, Eddie and myself eat here all the time. Features the Dolly Parton of Chicken Parmagiana. Tuesdays are the best time to go for the half price wine special! http://www.bestofneworleans.com/gambit/nonna-mia/Content?oid=2016836

Monday, June 4, 2012

OffBeat blog: Lost What They Had

I will be serving as interim editor at OffBeat magazine while we search for someone to fill the position vacated last week by Alex Rawls, who left to pursue his writing career. Watch for updates at http://www.offbeat.com/author/john-swenson-blog/ including today's entry on what the Radiators have been up to since their farewell gigd last June at Tipitinas.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jazz Fest Redux

Haven't posted since Jazz Fest because I was waiting to see what OffBeat would use. About half of what I sent in found its way into the magazine, so here's the rest. By the way, I saw the Suspects opening for Galactic at Brooklyn Bowl last night and they blew the place apart. Bassist Reggie Scanlan is out there in the middle of it driving the groove alongside the incredible Willie Green on drums. Music truly is a healing force. Suspects, Malone Brothers, Dr. John etc. all play Saturday at the Crawfish Fest. There was obviously a lot more going on at Jazz Fest but here's a synopsis: State of the Reunion The Beach Boys are my guilty pleasure. I enjoyed listening to them as a kid without taking them too seriously until I started reading Paul Williams write about them in the early issues of Crawdaddy. Williams and his fellow writers demonstrated that pop music could be more important than a poster on somebody's wall, that it was the poetry of the time, the spirit of the era. I began trying to apply those ideas to my own listening habits, which ran more to the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Young Rascals and the jazz, folk and blues musicians I heard in Greenwich Village. My first published work was a review of the Beach Boys Smiley Smile, which I still consider their greatest artistic achievement. I've seen the group dozens of times over the years and was able to become friends with two of the band members, the late brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson. It's good to hear that music played to an appreciative crowd on a beautiful sunny afternoon in New Orleans. But calling this a 50th annual reunion is outright fraud. Watching the surviving members made me think of those Futurama episodes where people are kept "alive" by putting their heads in tanks of liquid. The production is sustained by a very capable army of singers and musicians who create beautiful facsimiles of the songs, although you might as well be listening to well crafted tape recordings of Beach Boys songs. Unfortunately none of the surviving members of the group are capable of making any significant contributions to this music. Oh well, what can you expect from a group that got its start by outright theft of Chuck Berry arrangements? Long Time Comin' "This is my Jazz Fest debut," said a wide-eyed Dayna Kurtz. "I've been coming to this festival for 20 years and I've wanted to play it for so long." The sassy, big-voiced belter took command of the Lagniappe stage like a JF veteran with a larger-than-life delivery that was a grab bag of nods to local heros, shrewd selections from the American songbook and her own contemporary blues, ballads and R&B songs. The versatile singer augmented her New York band with locals -- guitarist Robert Mache, John Gros on B3, Matt Perrine on bass and tuba and a three piece horn section featuring Craig Klein on trombone and Jason Mingledorff on saxophones. Though her style is so impossible to pin down that she is heartily embraced by both country and blues fans and has a considerable jazz following in New York, Kurtz played the New Orleans R&B diva for the most part at JF, culling material from the two albums she recently released simultaneously. From Secret Canon Vol.1, a crate digger's delight of obscure 20th century pop songs, she chose "Do I Love You," "Don't Fuck Around With Love" (changed to "Mess Around" for the family crowd) and "Not the Only Fool In Town." American Standard, her album of originals recorded in part with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, yielded "Lou Lou Knows," "Hanging Around My Boy," "Are You Dancing With Her Tonight," her rocking tribute to the Ponderosa Stomp "Good in '62" and her celebration of Obama's 2008 victory, "Election Day." The wildest moment came near the end of the set when Kurtz, fairly bursting out of her tight black dress, pushed the band into high gear for an electric rendition of Eddie Bo's "So Glad." Nice to know that Jazz Fest can still summon up such pleasant surprises. The parts can be greater than the whole The Radiators didn't play their usual Fest-closing set at the Gentilly stage but the final Sunday did feature Rads keyboardist Ed Volker leading a trio with Joe Cabral on baritone sax and Michael Skinkus on percussion. In what could be seen as an ironic comment on his own retirement, Volker began his set with a line from one of his new songs, "Monkey Ain't Going Back in the Box." Volker was a revelation in this new context during his hour-long set, playing slow, dark melodies on the grand piano and cutting a sultry Caribbean groove with his responsive bandmates. The space and dynamics this approach created enabled Volker to use a wide range of vocal techniques, often growling and smearing his lines, as opposed to having to shout over the band at Radiators gigs. Volker also revealed some of the structural ideas he brings to arrangements by performing songs in groups, not just medleys but actual mashups where lines and verses from different songs are fitted into a larger whole. So the dirge-like version of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" became part of Volker's Longhair tribute "Long Hard Journey Home." Volker then sang "Money" as if it were a Ray Charles ballad, brilliantly capped with a baritone solo that played off the melody of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" before Volker raised the temperature with "Every Dog Has Its Day." A mournful "Party Till the Money Runs Out" was braced by the tonic of an uptempo "Blackjack." "Turtle Beach" morphed into "Alabama Song," then a triumphant "Run Red Run." Volker visited Kurt Weill again with an amazing construct of "Mack the Knife" interspersed with "Dirty People," "(Screw) Em if They Can't Take A Joke" and "Can't Take It With You." "I Did My Part" became a larger construct with "When This Battle Is Over," "Africa" and "All Meat." By the time this remarkable set ended with Jelly Roll Morton's "Whinin Boy" combined with "Let the Red Wine Flow" and "Fingerpoppin Time" the crowd at the Langiappe stage was out of the seats and dancing. Most of the other Rads spinoffs performed at the Fest or in clubs during the two weekends of music -- Camile Baudoin's soulful acoustic Cajun band; Dave Malone with his brother Tommy and with Bonerama, who also paid tribute to the Rads during their JF set with a joyful version of "Soul On Fire"; and Reggie Scanlan's excellent band The New Orleans Suspects, who just released a very good album of mostly new material. The Radiators even reunited for a brief one set teaser during a benefit for Scanlan, who is recovering from pancreatic cancer. It was a miracle to see Scanlan back in action only weeks after enduring 16 hours of surgery. The Suspects closed the benefit show with an outstanding set that featured Malone and Baudoin, along with surprise guest Bill Kreutzmann on drums, playing a killer version of "Turn On Your Love Light." The two Radiators guitarists have never sounded better together. They have a magic rapport, a mind meld of a connection so rhythmically fierce and harmonically adventurous they seem more like the great tenor duo of Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons than any other rock guitar tandem. Kreutzmann also played a memorable set with 7 Walkers at Republic with George Porter Jr. on bass. The crowd of Deadheads delighted to opening act Royal Southern Brotherhood's version of "Fire On the Mountain," sung to perfection by Cyril Neville. Kreutzmann was at his levitational best with his talented band as Porter matched guitarist Papa Mali for creative jamming, scorching the jazz changes of "Eyes of the World" with a solo that began referencing Sonny Rollins with a "St. Thomas" quote and ended with a Hendrix flourish touching on "Third Stone From the Sun." Porter even sang on "Sugaree." A great night turned even more amazing when Warren Haynes took the stage to duel with Mali on a lengthy "Snow and Rain" and a showstopping performance of "New Minglewood Blues." Gotta say 7 Walkers is a better band than the Dead itself at this juncture. Bo Knows Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux were scheduled to perform in another Wild Magnolias reunion just before Jazz Fest, but on the day of the show Bo had to be rushed to the hosital to be treated for pneumonia. Monk and Gerard (Bo Jr.) did a great job that night, but Bo's followers were once again wondering if they'd seen him for the last time. When the Wild Magnolias hit the Fest trail for an unannounced parade the last Saturday of JF Bo was still in the hospital but Gerard did an outstanding job of calling the chants and songs as his Indians sashayed to the syncopated drummers, all following Big Queen Rita, resplendant in a gorgeous green and white feathered suit. On the final Sunday of JF the Magnolias played the Heritage stage and Bo was there, fresh out of the hospital, looking wan in his motorized chair but smiling broadly as well-wishers (including Monk) thronged around him backstage. After Gerard and Rita led the band through a couple of pieces Bo was gently brought to the stage and propped on a high stool. Miraculously he began to sing in a strong, hearty voice: "One More... one more time!" over and over and the crowd chanted along with him as Gerard urged them on, Rita danced ecstatically next to Bo, and Billy Iuso came up alongside of him as he played a guitar solo, one more offering to the Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias. Earlier in the festival, the 101 Runners also celebrated Dollis by performing Chris Jones' tribute to Bo, "We Love Big Chief," based on the John Coltrane classic "A Love Supreme." Occupy Jazz Fest One of the more interesting complaints about JF is the pushback against the "Big Chief" syndrome that allows some festgoers to "buy" prime frontstage real estate. It seems an odd place to begin a socio-political critique of what's going on in the musician/audience world, especially in light of the fact that two of the biggest draws -- Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty -- have made audience rights such a big issue over the course of their careers. The Eagles were always one percenters, of course, the first band to charge more than $100 for every seat in the house. But Springsteen and Petty could easily have made an issue of this. I think they probably thought it wasn't the spot to pick a fight. For my part I have adjusted to the fact that the national big money pop acts draw the ridiculous crowds. Just stay away from the Acura stage and every other spot on the grounds is a more comfortable hang. You wouldn't have been able to get into the Blues Tent to hear the great tribute to Wardell Quezergue if it weren't for Petty drawing everyone to Acura. I much prefer hearing a crack R&B band play "Mr. Big Stuff" than "Free Falling" anyway. Petty might even agree with me on that. I'm sure Springsteen would. Right before Petty took the stage the Voice of the Wetlands All Stars warmed up the crowd with a terrific set. But when Tab Benoit stepped up to urge the crowd to become political activists suddenly his mic went dead. His voice was literally silenced, another aspect of JF "presented by Shell." Tab kept talking anyway. He won't shut up and that's one of the aspects of his personality that adds an edge to his music. Amazingly, his mic came back on about two lines before the end of his pitch, just as he had to sing the first lines of "We Make a Good Gumbo." So maybe the issue isn't the lack of space between the swells and the not-so-swells in front of the stage but about the culture wide silencing of political dissent and negative shout downs from the Super PACS that want you to believe corporations are people too. Papa Grows Funk always deals aces at Jazz Fest. The band is adept at big gestures, like when guitarist June Yamagishi, wearing a shirt sporting the cover of Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love album, played "Hear My Train A'Comin'" as the intro to the Beatles' "Come Together." The Needle in the Groove tracks have added another dimension to the band's presence, moving the group away from the jam band direction into traditional New Orleans songsmithing. The jam band stuff works better in clubs anyway when they can stretch for hours -- sets at the Maple Leaf and d.b.a. (with Monk Boudreaux) during JF gave ample evidence of the band's jamming prowess -- but at JF the band played songs that resonated with meaning. "Get Back Home" is one of my favorites, a great "everyman" song that sums up the celebration of the common person that lies at the heart of the New Orleans spirit. The one per-centers and what Tab Benoit calls "spillionaires" that run everything can't buy better enjoyment than what's available to (and created by) the poor and working class people of New Orleans. This is the kind of dissent that can't be silenced or shouted down. In this context the peace sign John Gros always asks the crowd to flash toward the end of the set seems neither cliched nor inappropriate. Tornado Watch Flaco Jimenez walked out onto the Fais Do Do stage and heard people shouting his name. The great accordion player for the Texas Tornados grinned and sipped his beer, then proceeded to animate the infectious Tex Mex rhythms of his band. Jimenez looked right at home standing next to the portrait of another squeezebox master, Clifton Chenier. Jimenez and Farfisa master Augie Meyers keep the Tornados authentic, along with original bassist Speedy Sparks, even after the passing of group founder Doug Sahm and chicano superstar Freddy Fender. The band makes up for those losses by employing Doug's son Shawn as a frontman singer/guitarist and good natured MC. Shawn looks and sounds the part, projecting the boundless enthusiasm and good cheer that his father always radiated. When he sings Sir Douglas Quintet staples like "Mendocino" and "She's About a Mover" Shawn seems to be channeling his dad and the band , driven by Meyers' rollicking organ sound, does the rest. The Tornados cover Fender's contributions with a section of his best known songs ("Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," "Until the Next Teardrop Falls"). Shawn repeatedly paid tribute to the band's departed members, invoking their spirit with the music itself. Meyers is the band's secret weapon, with his laconic demeanor, wicked sense of humor and full throated baritone singing carrying the day just as much as his playing. His delightful song "Dinero" was a high point of the set.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Dr. John finishes run at BAM

Dr. John's nine-show run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music ended last night with a rousing send off. High points of the show included spectacular turns from singers Irma Thomas and Tami Lynn, a version of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans" by Nicholas Payton that was better than anything in week one's Louis Armstrong tribute and a mind boggling version of "Hey Pocky Way" in which Donald Harrison was transported into Mardi Gras Indian spiritland. This seemed almost like a response to the gauntlet Dan Auerbach threw at Mac's feet a week ago in his audacious bid to reconfigure the Dr. John persona via the Locked Down sessions. Good as Locked Down was, and it was damn good, when Mac summons the power of New Orleans music nothing can come close.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Report on New Atlantis panel at SXSW

Had a great SXSW experience checking out lots of new music, the great Joe King Carrasco reunited with his original group, Dr. John, a terrific panel on New Atlantis and a finale of Davis Rogan burning it up at Uncle Billy's. Here's a well reported account of the panel by John T. Davis:

SXSW panel: New Atlantis—New Orleans Music Rebuilds

By John T. Davis | Saturday, March 17, 2012, 01:57 PM

New Atlantis—New Orleans Music Rebuilds


12:30 p.m. Saturday

Community and music are inextricably bound in New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina not only destroyed neighborhoods, it sundered a historical tradition of organically-created music that arose from the streets and kindred spirits. Now, New Orleans musicans are rebuilding that community, one street and one band at a time.

Moderator—John Swenson/Journalist and Author

Davis Rogan/Songwriter and Actor

Don B/Musician & Actor

Chris Magee/Artist and Producer

Alison Fensterstock/Journalist

Supa Dezzy/Producer

Two threads bound together the panelists on “New Atlantis—New Orleans Rebuilds.” The first is the HBO series, Treme, which recounts the struggle of a community to rebuild and reconnect in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Several of the panelists also serve as advisors, crew or music coordinators on the program. The second link is Dave Bartholomew, the legendary songwriter and producer of New Orleans artists like Fats Domino, Shirley & Lee and Lloyd Price.

Bartholomew’s son, Don B, as well as his grandsons, Chris Magee and Supa Dezzy were all on the panel. Moderator John Swenson wrote the book New Atlantis: Musicians Battle For the Survival of New Orleans.

“When I returned there in 2005, the city was inundated. I became obsessed with finding everybody’s story. It wasn’t clear that any of the music was going to happen again; Everybody was gone. Every time a club would reopen and people would play music, it was like magic.”

Hip-hop and its New Orleans derivative, bounce, as several artists pointed out, is filling same unifying function as earlier organic musical forms like Second Line, brass bands and the Mardi Gras Indians.

“New Orleans is not just the birthplace of jazz,” said Davis Rogan, who is the inspiration for “Davis McAlary,” the character Steve Zahn plays on Treme. “It’s also got vibrant hip-hop, brass band and rock scenes…There’s a perception among some that the Neville Brothers and Rebirth Brass Band are ‘real’ New Orleans music, but a rapper like Juvenile isn’t.”

That perception is changing, as hip-hop artists and producers are embracing older influences and tapping into the same neighborhood interconnections as musicians before them.

“I always called (the older artists) the ‘Jazzfest Canon’,” said journalist Alison Fensterstock. “But since the storm, there’s been a lot more amalgamating.”

“Bounce seems to be the version of New Orleans hip-hop that’s most connected to vernacular street music—the Second Line, the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass bands…what you’d hear at a party or walking down the street. It demands mutual participation.”

“The Second Line comes to us” said hip-hop producer Don B. “It rolls right through our neighborhood, we just stand outside the door and watch thousands of people march by.”

“It’s the bearers of the culture, the brass bands, the Indians, and hip-hop musicians that made it possible for music in New Orleans to come back,” said Davis. “We made so sure that 110% of the music came back, but we still only have 70% of the audience—everybody is still so busy trying to rebuild their lives.”

“New Orleans musicians said they were taken good care of in Austin, Houston, Atlanta, but even though well cared for, they couldn’t do what they did in NOLA because the music is specific to the community there,” said Swenson. “That’s what these musicians are trying to reestablish there, and it’s creating some new alliances among people who hadn’t worked together before the flood.”

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

New Atlantis Wins Jazz Times Critics Poll


The 2011 Expanded Critics' Poll

JT's critics choose their favorite musicians, books, DVDs and more



After the encouraging response we received to last year’s inaugural full-length Critics’ Poll, we decided to make it an annual tradition. Our regular contributors were asked to vote in the same categories that make up our yearly Readers' Poll, ranking their top five choices in each. The poll focuses on artists’ achievements during 2011, as opposed to their careers in whole.

Winners below are bolded; runners-up are listed in order of number of points. THE EDITORS


∙ New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans by John Swenson (Oxford University Press) ∙ Norman Granz: The Man Who Used Jazz for Justice by Tad Hershorn (University of California Press)
∙ What a Wonderful World: The Magic of Louis Armstrong’s Later Years by Ricky Riccardi (Pantheon Books)
∙ All the Things You Are: The Life of Tony Bennettby David Evanier (Wiley)
∙ Blue Notes in Black and White: Photography and Jazz by Benjamin Cawthra (University of Chicago Press)

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Ed Volker's "Snag"

Some of you have read the article on Ed Volker just published in OffBeat. It was cut and shaped (and slightly rewritten) to reflect the editor’s desire to make it a news story, but it was written as a review/essay. I think some important nuances were lost in the process, enough that I think concerned readers who have no other access to information about Volker’s activities since the breakup of the Radiators deserve to see the original. Here is the piece as written:

Headline: Where's My Monkey?

Members of the Radiators wasted no time forming new bands since the group announced it was calling it quits last year after a 33-year run that defined an era of New Orleans rock. We now have Camile Baudoin's Living Rumors (acoustic and electric versions); Reggie Scanlan's New Orleans Suspects; Dave Malone's group with his brother Tommy, the Malone Brothers; and all of them along with Frank Bua in the ever evolving Raw Oyster Cult. The only Radiators member who has stayed underground since the band performed its "Last Watusi" back in June is Ed Volker, who organized the group at an infamous jam session in his garage on Waldo Avenue back in 1978 and wrote most of their songs.

The reclusive Volker has not been inactive, though. He's just released his latest solo project, Snag, the seventh album's worth of songs recorded in his home studio under his nom de plume Zeke Fishhead and distributed as downloads on livedownloads.com (hard copies are available on order and from the Louisiana Music Factory) since 2007. These recordings cover a lot of ground but it's easy to read the material as the ruminations of a man who was sensing that his life's project was nearing its end. It's also a personal biography of Volker's own journey through the trials of Katrina (I reviewed Prodigal, which covers this timeline, in a previous OffBeat piece.)

When you're dealing with poetry as dense and imagistic as Volker's it's always dangerous to apply strict interpretations to the lyrics. Most of the songs travel along multiple paths. But it's impossible not to see the outlines of a story emerge from these albums.

Radiators fans tend to view these songs in terms of how they would sound if the band played them. It's an understandable point of view given that Radiators songs were always worked up from Volker's demos. Volker would record his ideas on a home system with bare bones arrangements. He'd give tapes to Malone, who would add guitar parts to the songs he liked.

But the songs on these seven Volker releases are not demos, even the few that made an appearance in Radiators shows. These are all fully realized pieces that stand on their own. Without the big arrangements, rock production values and dueling guitars of the Rads versions, these concentrated, low-fi recordings are meant to tell stories. Zeke Fishhead's vocals articulating the lyrics provide the magic in these sonic imaginings; the accompanying music is often incantatory. The resultant outside-of-time feeling these recordings evoke sounds oddly contemporary.

Volker does bring a wealth of musical influences into the mix, evoking ancient folk themes, blues, rock and the dancing clave rhythm at the heart of all New Orleans music from Jelly Roll Morton to Dr. John (and Volker himself). He writes of love both carnal and platonic in an almost religious reverie that makes those themes evocative of the Felliniesque circus/church of the rock 'n' roll concert.

Snag begins with "Let's Get Shiney (Zeke’s spelling) Tonight," a glorious celebration of that communion, a kind of description of what it feels like on a perfect night in New Orleans back at the 501 Club when Professor Longhair was holding court:

"... oh professor, strike up your band

oh roberta, dance me to the promised land

let's get shiney tonight

like the stars over Tipitina's

let's get shiney tonight

like a cricus full of dreamers

set your wild heart free

let's let tomorrow be

m m mm let's get shiney tonight"

The sense of pagan abandon Volker conjures here recurs in various ways throughout the album, from the sultry slow burn of "Don't You Come Down Here" to the apocalyptic desperation of "The Six White Horses." Elsewhere we hear his ruminations on the mythic runes of his own history, "1978 I can't think straight," he sings in "Last Lick," one of the songs written over the years for Mom's Ball themes. "Sometimes it seems it was all a mirage/ did I ever leave that garage/ but I lived to tell the tale that we know." At the song's coda Volker offers an anthemic lament that seems to echo the joy and sorrow of a lifetime: "where is my monkey? Where is my monkey girl?"

You can get glimpses of Volker's reasons for getting off the rock and rolllercoaster in several songs on Snag. "Just a Little Snag," a catalog of contemporary white noise events, references the indignities of travel in post 9-11 America. "Dead Man's Hand" is a travelogue of places where Volker and his bandmates brought the noise over the years, "shakin in chicago in shakopee in skinny Minny in Memphis Tennessee..." But Volker calls for mercy: "I can't shake it I ain't gonna make it... let me loose come on dead man you gotta let me loose." This sense of futility spills over to the commentary on current events "Nothing Works": "Nothing works well, maybe for a while/ sooner or later it all ends up on the pile/ the dungheap of history the scrapyard of time just ask Captain Kirk nothing works."

There's a lot more going on in these songs than I'm alluding to and Volker also ventures into narrative territory that the Radiators seldom visited. A perfect example is the version of the traditional folk tale "Delia's Gone," much more fully realized here as a story in "The Ballad of Delia Green." Volker's version of this story, based on Blind Blake's sheet music chord sequence with an original melody of Volker's own design, is the most detailed account of the murder of Delia Green ever put to song. From the moment the dancer captures the gambler's fancy through the impulsive possession of murder, the remonstrances of the judge and the curse of being haunted by his lover forevermore, Volker delivers this tale of human obsession and folly with cool, mournful precision. Elsewhere Volker ventures into completely new territory on "The Fatal Dose," a film noir script set to song about a mysterious beauty who arrives in New Orleans, wends her way into the nexus of power and corruption of the city's elite and ends up getting the fatal dose.

Anyone who thinks Volker is kidding about leaving the Radiators behind should check out "Kryptonite," an almost giddy renunciation of his superhero powers: "I used to be a man of steel... now I'm just like and Clark Kent without a phone booth in sight... this speeding bullet ain't coming back."

The exultant chorus indicates how happy Volker is with his decision:

ka-boom lordy lordy lordy lordy

ka-boom lordy lordy lordy lordy

looking for a little taste of kryptonite

Volker goes on to acknowledge that others haven't given up the chase:

"saw Bruce Wayne speeding up Rampart St.

faithful Alfred at the wheel

he's a hundred if he's a day

and he's still looking fit to kill"

Volker is obviously very pleased with the opportunity to sit at home with his musical amusements. That satisfaction allows him to look back without bitterness as the elegiac "Save the Last Watusi for Me" indicates. But the final song, "Honeysuckle Still Hanging On the Vine," depicts Volker in his own private Avalon:

"I try not to keep up

So I can fall way behind

and stay right back here

where the honeysuckle's still hanging sweet on the vine

I was a raver and a rover

in a whole 'nother time sone

when New Orleans was New Orleans

and everything wasn't just a secret code"

--John Swenson

Monday, January 30, 2012

Trombone Shorty wins big at Best of the Beat

Offbeat Magazine's annual "Best of the Beat" Awards honored Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue with six top awards: Artist of the Year and Album of the Year for 'For True,' Best R&B/Funk Artist and Album, Best Trombonist for Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, and Best Music Video for For True single "Do To Me." This is Trombone Shorty's first win for Best Music Video, but the second year in a row winning in each of the other categories, and he's now won Artist of the Year and Best R&B/Funk Artist 4 times each.

Andrews will continue to relentlessly tour in 2012 with his new album For True (Verve Forecast) having just tallied an 11th week atop Billboard's Contemporary Jazz chart. This past weekend Andrews left for two shows in Japan, which will be immediately followed by his debut in Ecuador, and later in February, his first shows in Moscow along with additional tour dates in France, the U.K. and Spain. Andrews recently added upcoming U.S. tour dates with Lenny Kravitz in Minneapolis on Feb. 7 as well as shows with the Zac Brown Band March 10, 11 and 23.

Andrews appeared with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu this past Friday to donate specially designed Trombone Shorty trumpets and trombones to students at Andrews' alma mater, New Orleans' Warren Easton High School, as part of Andrews' ongoing "Horns for Schools" project. Andrews performed for the students, joined by the Mayor on trumpet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Full Jazz Fest 2012 lineup announced

Here's the day-to-day lineup for Jazz Fest. Watch the Texas Tornados steal the opening day show.


The Beach Boys reunion feat. Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks, Bon Iver, Steel Pulse, Buckwheat Zydeco, Givers, Zebra, Seun Kuti & Egypt 80, Gomez, The Texas Tornados feat. Flaco Jimenez, Augie Myers, and Shawn Sahm, The Dixie Cups, Cubano Be, Cubano Bop: Poncho Sanchez & His Latin Band feat. Terence Blanchard, Chuck Leavell & Friends with special guest Bonnie Bramblett, Irma Thomas' Tribute to Mahalia Jackson, Eric Lindell, New Orleans Classic R&B Revue feat. Frankie Ford, Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, Robert "Barefootin" Parker, and Blue Eyed Soul, James Andrews & the Crescent City Allstars, BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, Butch Thompson, Kirk Joseph's Backyard Groove, Chubby Carrier & the Bayou Swamp Band, Leyla McCalla, Sasha Masakowski, Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes, Slavic Soul Party!, Jamil Sharif, Stephanie Jordan Big Band, Leah Chase, The Revivalists, Lil' Buck Sinegal Blues Band, Shades of Praise: New Orleans Interracial Gospel Choir, Tim Laughlin, Dukes of Dixieland, Geno Delafose & French Rockin' Boogie, Betty Winn & One A-Chord, Young Pinstripe Brass Band, Dee-1, Fredy Omar con su Banda, Kim Carson & the Enablers, Sammy Rimington International Band, The Electrifying Crown Seekers, Guitar Lightnin' Lee & the Thunder Band, Ivoire Spectacle feat. Seguenon Kone, Wimberly Family Gospel Singers, Henry Gray & the Cats, Real Untouchables Brass Band, James Rivers Movement, Goldman Thibodeaux & the Lawtell Playboys, Louis Ford & His Dixie Flairs, Comanche Hunters and Semolian Warriors Mardi Gras Indians, Cindy Scott, Golden Voices Community Choir, Zulu and Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, The Boyz Singers and Dancers, Traditional Dance by Asociacion de Peruanos en Louisana, Northwestern University Jazz Ensemble, Black Foot Hunters and Black Mohawk Mardi Gras Indians, Beth Patterson & Potent Bathers, Miss Claudia & her Biergartners, Alana Villavaso, Reverend Jermaine Landrum & the Abundant Praise Revival Choir, Brass Band Throwdown with Martin Behrman, W.J. Fischer, and Kate Middleton Elementary Schools, The Bester Singers, Dynamic Smooth Family Gospel Singers, GrayHawk presents Native American Lore and Tales, New Orleans School of Circus Arts & I.S.L., Geronimo Hunters and Creole Osceolas Mardi Gras Indians, Keep N It Real and We Are One Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs...


Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, Jill Scott, Feist, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Bobby Rush, Dave Koz, Irvin Mayfield & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Soul Rebels, Israel Houghton and New Breed, Amanda Shaw & the Cute Guys, Walter "Wolfman" Washington & the Roadmasters, Cheikh Lô of Senegal, Voice of the Wetlands Allstars feat. Tab Benoit, Dr. John, Cyril Neville, Anders Osborne, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Vidocovich, Waylon Thibodeaux, and Johnny Sansone, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas, The New Orleans Bingo! Show, Tribute to Wardell Quezergue feat. Jean Knight, The Dixie Cups, Robert "Barefootin" Parker, and Tony Owens, Pine Leaf Boys, Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Horns, Khris Royal & Dark Matter, Dr. Michael White & the Original Liberty Jazz Band feat. Thais Clark, Luther Kent, Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs, Roddie Romero & the Hub City All Stars, Evan Christopher, Gal Holiday & the Honky Tonk Revue, Midnite Disturbers, Savoy Center of Eunice Saturday Cajun Jam, Heritage Hall Jazz Band feat. Jewel Brown, Storyville Stompers Brass Band, Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries, The Gospel According to Jazz feat. BJ Crosby, Judy Davis, Danon Smith, and Yolanda Windsay, Jeremy Lyons with members of Morphine, Peter Martin, Empress Hotel, Lars Edegran & the New Orleans Ragtime Orchestra, Paulin Brothers Brass Band, Kristin Diable & the City, D.L. Menard & the Louisiana Aces, The Courtyard Kings, Creole Wild West Mardi Gras Indians, City of Love Music & Worship Arts, Brother Tyrone & the Mindbenders, High Ground Drifters Bluegrass Band, Tom McDermott, Kevin Bryan, DJ Soul Sister, Bamboula 2000, Pastor Jai Reed, Marc Stone, Golden Comanche and Seminoles Mardi Gras Indians, Tonia Powell & the Left Field Band, SUBR Jazzy Jags, Cameron Dupuy & the Cajun Troubadours, 101 Runners, Tonia Scott & the Anointed Voices, Loyola University Jazz Band, Javier Tobar & Elegant Gypsy, The Jones Sisters, Young Band Nation Blues Project, RRAAMS Drum and Dance, Archdiocese of New Orleans Gospel Choir, Josh Kagler & Harmonistic Praise Crusade, New Wave Brass Band, Nine Times Men, Single Ladies, and Single Men Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Ashe Cultural Arts Center Kuumba Institute, Delgado Community College Jazz Band, The Heavenly Melodies Gospel Singers, Wild Mohicans and Red, White & Blue Mardi Gras Indians, The Boyz Singers and Dancers, Muggivan School of Irish Dance, Dumaine Gang, Divine Ladies, Family Ties, and Men of Class Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Puppet Arts Theater...


Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Al Green, John Mayer, Dr. John & the Lower 911, Janelle Monae, Pete Fountain, Yolanda Adams, Iron & Wine, Cowboy Mouth, Dianne Reeves, Tab Benoit, Sonny Landreth, Gary Clark, Jr., Papa Grows Funk, C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band, Nicholas Payton SeXXXtet, Ellis Marsalis, Lindigo of Reunion Island feat. Fixi of France, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & the Golden Eagles, Ironin' Board Sam, Evelyn Turrentine Agee, Debo Band: Ethiopian Groove Collective, Corey Harris & Phil Wiggins, Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots' International Accordian Summit, New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, Treme Brass Band, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, Tribute to Alex Chilton feat. Dave Pirner, Alex McMurray, Susan Cowsill, and Rene Coman, Los Po-Boy-Citos, Batiste Brothers, Victor Goines, Washboard Rodeo, Leo Jackson & the Melody Clouds, Bill Summers & Jazalsa, Brice Miller & Mahogany Brass Band, Jumpin' Johnny Sansone, Ernie Vincent & the Top Notes, Golden Star Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, Don Vappie & the Creole Jazz Serenaders, Lionel Ferbos & the Palm Court Jazz Band, Kirk Joseph's Tuba Tuba, Gospel Soul Children, Panorama Jazz Band, Hadley J. Castille Family & the Sharecroppers Family Band, Pat Casey & the New Sound, Erika Flowers, Clive Wilson's New Orleans Serenaders with guest Butch Thompson, Morning Star Baptist Church Mass Choir, Spencer Bohren, Chris Clifton, Gospel Diva Lois Dejean, Carrollton Hunters, Big Chief Goodman & the Flaming Arrows, and Ninth Ward Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, Johnette Downing, Tornado Brass Band, Big Steppers, Untouchables, and Furious Five Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, E'Dana & Company, N'Fungola Sibo West African Dance Company, Ayla Miller Band, Adella Adella the Storyteller, Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Mass Choir, Heritage School of Music Band, Kai Knight's Silhouette Dance Ensemble, Olympia Aid, New Look, First Division, and Secondline Jammers Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, NOCCA Jazz Ensemble, Sunpie Barnes presents Louisiana Creole Music, Ninth Ward Navajo, Black Eagles and Shawee Mardi Gras Indians, The Boyz Singers and Dancers, Bishop Sean Elder & the Mount Hermon Baptist Church Mass Choir...


Eddie Vedder, Florence + the Machine, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk, Ani DiFranco, Esperanza Spalding: Radio Music Society, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, James Cotton "Superharp" Band, Regina Carter's "Reverse Thread", George Porter, Jr. & Runnin' Pardners, Henry Butler, Honey Island Swamp Band, Glen Hansard, Little Freddie King, Astral Project, Mia Borders, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Banu Gibson, Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, Chico Trujillo of Chile, Bill Miller, Marlon Jordan Quartet, Iguanas, Free Agents Brass Band, Cheick Hamala Diabate of Mali, Raymond A. Myles Singers 30th Anniversary Reunion, Joint's Jumpin', Alto Saxophone Woodshed feat. Aaron Fletcher, Kid Chocolate, The Roots of Music Marching Crusaders, Native Nations Intertribal, Yvette Landry, Palmetto Bug Stompers, Magnolia Jazz Band of Norway feat. Topsy Chapman, The Stooges Brass Band, Silky Sol, Michael Ward, Flow Tribe, Otra, J. Monque'D Blues Band, Kipori "Baby Wolf" Woods, Amina Figarova, Hot Club of New Orleans, Dayna Kurtz, Kristi Guillory & the Midtown Project, Robert Jardell & Pure Cajun, Original Pinettes Brass Band, Forever Jones, Lyle Henderson & Emanu-El, Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors, Black Seminoles Mardi Gras Indians, Kourtney Heart, The Mighty Supremes, Seva Venet & the Storyville String Band, Kelcy Mae, Julio y Cesar, Culu Children's Traditional African Dance Company & Stilt Walkers, Judy Stock, Young Fellaz Brass Band, VIP Ladies, Revolution, and Ladies of Unity Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, 7th Ward Creole Hunters and Cheyenne Mardi Gras Indians, McDonogh #35 High School Gospel Choir, Gospel Inspirations of Boutte, Eleanor McMain Singing Mustangs, O. Perry Walker Charter High School Gospel Choir, Tulane University Jazz Ensemble, Jazztories Puppets, Opera a la Carte, Recovery School District Talented in Theater Performers, Young Audiences Performing Arts Showcase feat Ballet, Tap and West African Dance...


Zac Brown Band, Grace Potter & the Nocturnals, Rodrigo y Gabriela and C.U.B.A., Bunny Wailer, Mystikal, Mavis Staples, Marcia Ball, Bonerama, Little Anthony & The Imperials, Bruce Hornsby, Donald Harrison, The Pedrito Martinez Group, Theresa Andersson, Sarah Jarosz, Deacon John, Terri Lyne Carrington's Mosaic, Wayne Toups & ZyDeCajun, Wycliffe Gordon Quintet: Hello Pops Tribute to Louis Armstrong, Germaine Bazzle, Wanda Rouzan, Delfeayo Marsalis' Uptown Orchestra, Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band, Lil' Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers, Mark Braud's New Orleans Jazz Giants, Topsy Chapman & Solid Harmony, Hot 8 Brass Band, Ingrid Lucia, Jim McCormick Band, The Revealers, Yvette Landry Band, Baritone Bliss, The Bucktown Allstars, Phillip Manuel, Reggie Hall & the Twilighters feat. Lady Bee, Vivaz!, Nayo Jones, Big Al Carson & the Blues Masters, Courtney Bryan, Feufollet, Joe Hall & the Cane Cutters, Doreen Ketchen's Jazz New Orleans, Connie Jones & the Crescent City Jazz Band, Bryan Lee & the Blues Power Band, Kumbuka African Dance & Drum Collective, Ted Winn, St. Joseph the Worker Choir, Forgotten Souls, Brass Bed, Zazou City, Kid Simmons' Local International Allstars, Smitty Dee's Brass Band, John Lawrence & Ven Pa' Ca Flamenco Dancers, Lesa Cormier & the Sundown Playboys, Zulu Male Ensemble, Connie & Dwight with the St. Raymond / St. Leo the Great Gospel Choir, Erica Falls, Gal Holiday presented by Young Audiences, Native Nations Intertribal, Young Magnolias, Golden Sioux and Young Cherokee Mardi Gras Indians, New Orleans Hispano America Dance Group, Kenneth Terry Brass Band, Scene Boosters and Old N Nu Fellaz Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Red Hawk and Golden Blade Mardi Gras Indians, Pastor Tyrone Jefferson, Donnie Bolden & the Spirit of Elijah, Original Big Seven and Original Four Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Lake Forest Charter Jazz Ensemble, New Orleans Indian Rhythm Section, Eulenspiegel Puppets, Pastor Terry Gullage & the Greater Mount Calvary Voices of Redemption Choir, Fannie C. Williams Charter Choir, KIDsmART Showcase feat. Arise Academy, Martin Behrman Charter School, Langston Hughes Academy, and McDonogh City Park Academy...


Eagles, My Morning Jacket, Ne-Yo, Irma Thomas, Herbie Hancock, Paulina Rubio, Allen Toussaint, The Levon Helm Band with special guest Mavis Staples, Better Than Ezra, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Steve Earle and the Dukes (and Duchesses), Aaron Neville's Gospel Experience, Big Sam's Funky Nation, Jon Cleary, Bombino of Niger, Anders Osborne, John Boutté, The Pedrito Martinez Group, Jeremy Davenport, John Mooney & Bluesiana, MyNameIsJohnMichael, Lost Bayou Ramblers, The Malone Brothers, Dwayne Dopsie & the Zydeco Hellraisers, New Birth Brass Band, Mariachi Jalisco, Leroy Jones & New Orleans' Finest, Red Stick Ramblers, Paul Sanchez & the Rolling Road Show, Mac Arnold & Plate Full o' Blues, Young Tuxedo Jazz Band, The Johnson Extension, Guitar Masters feat. Jimmy Robinson, John Rankin, Phil DeGruy, and Cranston Clements, Val & the Love Alive Fellowship Choir, Rumba Buena, Mas Mamones, Roland Guerin, New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra, Tyronne Foster & the Arc Singers, Pinstripe Brass Band, Black Feathers Mardi Gras Indians, Sam Doores & the Tumbleweeds, Patrice Fisher & Arpa & the Garifuna Connection, Jeffery Broussard & Creole Cowboys, Guitar Slim, Jr., Cha Wa, Tarriona "Tank" Ball & the BlackStar Bangas, Louisiana Repertory Jazz Ensemble, Belton Richard & the Musical Aces, New Orleans Spiritualettes, Tommy Sancton's New Orleans Legacy Band, Stephen Foster's Foster Family Program, Big Chief Trouble & Trouble Nation and Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, Grupo Sensacion, Baby Boyz Brass Band, Riccardo Crespo & Sol Brasil, Kora Konnection feat. Morikeba Kouyate of Senegal & Thierno Dioubate of Guinea, Westbank Steppers, Valley of Silent Men, and Pigeon Town Steppers Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Curtis Pierre with Samba Kids, Xavier University Jazz Ensemble, Voices of Peter Claver, Cynthia Girtley, Wild Red Flame and Cherokee Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, Native Nations Intertribal, Matthew Davidson Band, Versailles Lion Dance Team, Kinfolk Brass Band, Young Guardians of the Flame, Double Dutch Jumpers, New Generation, Undefeated Divas, and Lady Jetsetters Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, First Emanuel Baptist Church Mass Choir...


Foo Fighters, The Neville Brothers, Bonnie Raitt, Maze feat. Frankie Beverly, Galactic, Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings, Preservation Hall 50th Anniversary Jam, David Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco, funky Meters, Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, Asleep at the Wheel, Rebirth Brass Band, The Bounce Shake Down feat. Big Freedia, Katey Red, Keedy Black, and DJ Poppa, Rockin' Dopsie, Jr. & the Zydeco Twisters, Big Chief Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias, Los Hombres Calientes feat. Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield, Charmaine Neville Band, Glen David Andrews, Supagroup, Boutté Family Sunday Praise feat. John, Lillian, Tricia, Lorna, Tanya, and Arséne, Ruby Wilson's Tribute to Bessie Smith & Ma Rainey, DJ Captain Charles, The Joe Krown Trio with Walter "Wolfman" Washington and Russell Batiste, Jr., Zion Harmonizers, Terrance Simien & the Zydeco Experience, Mem Shannon & the Membership, Creole String Beans, Bobby Lounge, Living Tribute to Harold Batiste feat. Jesse McBride, Ellis Marsalis, and Germaine Bazzle, ELS, TBC Brass Band, Higher Heights, Rocks of Harmony, Jo "Cool" Davis with special guest Sugarboy Crawford, George French & the New Orleans Storyville Jazz Band, Blodie's Jazz Jam, Gregg Stafford's Jazz Hounds, Keith Frank & the Soileau Zydeco Band, Rotary Downs, Jambalaya Cajun Band, The Stars of Heaven, Andrew Duhon, New Orleans Nightcrawlers, Wendell Brunious & the Music Masters, Pfister Sisters, Lynn Drury, Tanya & Dorise, AsheSon, Kim Che'ré, Caesar Elloie, Brother Dege, Gregory Agid, Curley Taylor & Zydeco Trouble, Orange Kellin & the New Orleans Deluxe Orchestra, Jockimo's Groove feat. War Chief Juan, Craig Adams & Higher Dimensions of Praise, High Steppers Brass Band, Lady Rollers, Original C.T.C. Steppers, and Nine Times Ladies Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Native Nations Intertribal, David & Roselyn, UNO Jazz Allstars, N'Kafu Traditional African Dance Company, New Orleans Young Traditional Brass Band with the Heel to Toe Steppers, Wild Tchoupitoulas and Wild Apaches Mardi Gras Indians, Ninevah Baptist Church Mass Choir, 14 and Under Cajun Band, NORD/Crescent City Lights Youth Theater, Buffalo Hunters and Apache Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, Hobgoblin Hill Puppets, Original Prince of Wales and Original Lady Buckjumpers Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs...

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Six Degrees of Coco Robicheaux

Here's the text of my story about Coco Robicheaux in the current OffBeat

Check out Andy J. Forest's video of the song he wrote for Kenny Holladay and Coco

Debbie Davis stood just inside the doorway of Three Muses, singing “When I’m 64.” It was Friday night on Frenchmen Street, the day after Thanksgiving, and she held the festive crowd’s attention. “I saw the ambulance go by but I didn’t think anything of it,” she says. “Someone came into the club and told me Coco Robicheaux had just been taken in an ambulance from the Apple Barrel. His heart had stopped, and they couldn’t revive him.”

Davis told her audience what had happened. A pall came over the room, a sense of sudden, irreversible loss that overwhelmed the normally carefree Frenchmen Street revelers.

Davis said she was surprised at how much the news upset her. “I wasn’t really close, but I got to know him after the flood,” she says. “Those of us who got back first got the gigs, and he was there right away.”

The final chapter in the legend of Coco Robicheaux is the impact his loss has had on the closely-knit downtown community. His garrulous spirit led him to converse with anyone he came into contact with. As a result he leaves a much deeper mark on New Orleans than the music he left behind might suggest.

“He was a social conduit,” says Davis. “Everyone you met knew Coco as well so you always had a starting point for a conversation. He was the Kevin Bacon of Frenchmen Street—Six Degrees of Coco Robicheaux.”

It seemed like almost every time I walked down Frenchmen Street, I saw Coco Robicheaux. He liked to sit on the bench in front of the Apple Barrel, smoking a cigar and talking to passersby, or inside the bar drinking tequila. He would converse with great detail on any subject that might come up, or start in on one of his own shaggy-dog-story life experiences. He presided over a number of eccentric and unique marriage ceremonies, and even performed some hands-on faith healing exercises that his patients swore by.

Photo by Do Verdier.
I guess I must have seen him play at 15 different bars around the Marigny-Bywater area. Like so many New Orleans musicians of legend, he spent a lot more of his creative energy on live performance than studio work. He wanted to see the looks on the faces of the audiences. The last time I spoke to him at length, he talked about how much he enjoyed playing for prison inmates and how he wrote a song called “Sittin’ On Death Row”. Though he worked the clubs, he was the apotheosis of the New Orleans street musician—a man with a guitar and a tale to tell. Like all good storytellers, he was not afraid of adding embellishments, exaggerations or alternative interpretations of the events he described, a habit that led some to question his veracity. But even those who were skeptical of Coco’s rambles through history liked him. His friendliness and loving, giving spirit was irresistible.

Such skepticism has led some to question details of his biography, but like any American legend, the spirit he leaves behind is more important than the details. American legends are frontier characters, explorers on an uncertain journey of discovery, and Coco had that restless mystery about him.

Born Curtis Arceneaux into a Cajun/Choctaw Indian family, he gave out a number of different accounts of his biography over the years, introducing a lot of different elements without truly contradicting himself. He moved around so much, in fact, he might well have been excused for offering some confusing scenarios. Though his family was from Ascension Parish, he says he was born outside of Merced, California while his parents were vacationing. He told of a childhood working in the cane fields with migrant workers from Haiti who taught him to make reed flutes. He spent time in France traveling with his father, who was in the Air Force. He assisted his great grandmother, a hoodoo woman, in her ceremonies, an influence that runs through his music. Cousins Van and Grace Broussard were in the music business, and Curtis followed suit, playing trombone and singing in soul bands. He was playing guitar on Bourbon Street in the early ‘60s and tells of recording an album’s worth of material at Cosimo Matassa’s studio that mysteriously disappeared. After wandering out west as a migrant worker, he landed in San Francisco in time for the Summer of Love, but by ’69 he left the West Coast under something of a cloud, claiming someone had committed “terrible crimes” using his name.

From that point on he identified himself as Coco Robicheaux, a childhood nickname taken from a Louisiana folk tale about naughty children. If you did something bad, a kid’s parents likened you to the wicked Coco Robicheaux, who fell victim to the wolf monster Loup Garou. His name is a legend of its own, then, the identity of everybody’s bad self. It’s unlikely that Dr. John was referencing Curtis Arceneaux when he called out “Coco Robicheaux” during “Walk On Gilded Splinters”, but it’s possible they could have crossed paths before Mac went into involuntary exile from New Orleans himself in the mid-1960s. Calling yourself “Coco Robicheaux” is hoisting a heavy load of karmic baggage any way you look at it, but by the time he returned to New Orleans once and for all in 1992 after another legendary stay in Key West, Coco had completed his transformation into a hoodoo spiritualist. The 1994 classic Spiritland featured dense swamp rundowns like the title track, “Walking With the Spirit” and “St. John’s Eve,” which incorporated field recordings from Do Verdier Bogue Falaye. Frenchmen Street denizens populated the album credits, which included Irene Sage, Lenny McDaniel, Allison Miner, Nancy Buchan, Smokey Greenwell, Hart McNee, Kenny Holladay, Tommy Malone, Sonny Schneidau and Coco’s perennial sidekick Michael Sklar.

A follow-up album, Louisiana Medicine Man, plowed much of the same musical turf with some of the same musicians. The title track got considerable airplay and appeared on the benefit album for the Musicians Clinic, Get You A Healin’. Louisiana Medicine Man got the award for Best Blues Album at the 1998 Best of the Beat Awards. Hoodoo Party (2002) further codified Coco’s swamp mystic identity with tracks such as “Burn My Bones,” “Li’l Black Hen,” “Thrift Store Suit” and the title track. In the last few years, Coco put out several albums with overlapping material. Yeah, U Rite! attempts to expand his style, most successfully with the witty “Ten Commandments of the Blues.” For some reason he decided to remix most of the tracks for another version of the same record, Like I Said, Yeah, U Rite, which dropped a couple of tracks and included what would become the title tune of his final album, the covers-heavy Revelator.

For those who didn’t know him, Coco will probably be best remembered for sacrificing a chicken while on air at WWOZ on the HBO series Treme, and for his astonishingly well-attended second line on December 12. What began as a small crowd assembled in front of the Apple Barrel swelled to a throng of thousands parading down Royal Street through the French Quarter, following a brass band led by James Andrews and Uncle Lionel Batiste. The crowd sang and chanted as they marched, shouting, “Coco. Coco. Coco.”

If you didn’t know Robicheaux, well, there’s no amount of storytelling that can make up the difference. Like New Orleans itself, if you haven’t been there, you’ll never really know what people are talking about.

Coco’s second line was sandwiched in between two musical tributes to Frenchmen Street heroes which featured many of the same musicians. On Sunday night there was a benefit for Kenny Holladay’s family at Check Point Charlie. Monday after the second line revelers gathered at House of Blues for a free concert. Before he played, John Mooney said, “He got both feet in Spiritland now!” Lynn Drury went to the House of Blues just to be there, “out of love for him,” she says. “He was beautiful. He touched a lot of people. When I was coming up he was always a fixture, hanging out in the street, talking in front of the Apple Barrel. He connected everybody. He had time for everybody. I wasn’t invited to play, but when I showed up backstage, they said ‘You’re on next!’ It was a beautiful surprise. I hope we don’t have to wait until someone else dies to feel that spirit again. I learned something from that. I’m going to try to live up to that from now on. I felt I was in touch with something bigger than all of us.”

Anders Osborne was at both tributes, playing with Billy Iuso and with Andy J. Forest, who’d written a new song for Kenny Holladay and Coco:

Sometimes I imagine them both walking down the street
Nowhere left to go, no one left to meet
Blues in other rooms filter down from other dreams
Their spirits are on every corner down here in New Orleans