Tag Archives: New Orleans

Music Diary: Big Freedia at the Sinclair

Big Freedia at the Sinclair Thursday night.

Big Freedia at the Sinclair Thursday night.

When we got to the Sinclair, it was packed — a Droogie from A Clockwork Orange, Max from Where the Wild Things Are, a Pikachu, a Penguin from Batman, men and women in Viking-blonde pigtails, lots of women in black-tight Cat Woman outfits. DJ Nate Bluhm was blasting dancehall reggae. But how the fuck would I know? Fast beats and Jamaican patois. I asked my wife to order me a Red Stripe.

And then Big Freedia — the six-foot-plus transvestite in her Duff Man costume from The Simpsons. Blue tights and orange cape, orange baseball cap with “Duff” on the crown, a utility belt holding cans of Duff beer. Her DJ fired up the bounce beats — super-fast machine-gun popping syncopation with big scattered bass bombs. “I got that gin in my system/somebody gonna be my victim!” Call and response. Most people knew it, and the dancefloor was bouncing. Freedia — “the Queen Diva” — had four dancers, two men and two women. They kept moving, twirls and arm slices, kicks and bounces, and plenty of “original New Orleans twerkin’.” Asses in the air. One female dancer in a bee outfit, with orange wings and black outfit, the other in black-and-white corset and ruffled mini-skirt with orange laces and head ribbon. One of the male dancers was a Ninja, bare-chested and buff in orange headband and sweat pants. The other guy was an alien — two-tone trimmed Afro, galactic insignia, boots.

There weren’t a lot of lyrics. I recognized an old favorite: “ASS everywhere, ASS everywhere, ASS everywhere, ASS everywhere!” Freedia invited volunteers up to the stage for “twerk therapy” and, later, a booty contest. “Y’all gotta go harder than that!” There were more songs. “Go hard or go home!” And the chant of “EAT that pussy! EAT that pussy!” Freedia changed into an orange Big Freedia t-shirt and blue sweat pants, her long hair flowing loose. “That must be jelly/cause jam don’t shake!” The two male dancers squared off and bowed their legs, hopping frenetically — right out of Congo Square 200 years ago. But how the fuck would I know? “Y’all full of muthafuckin’ energy in this muthafuckin’ house tonight!” said Big Freedia with approval.

The chants and music went on — “Rock Around the Clock.” Because, hey, why the fuck not? With more call and response and then: “Rocka rocka rocka rocka rocka rocka!”  And, “Excuse, I don’t mean to be rude/but give me that mike/let me do what I do/Excuse me/I don’t mean to be rude/but give me that mike/let Big Freedia come through…..wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly wobbly.”

Freedia complained that she was hoarse, but she sounded big and unimpaired. She sang about her search for a long dick — an a cappella R&B melody. She thanked everyone for supporting her reality show (on the Fuse network) and the bounce movement. This was the eighth night of the tour, Freedia said, and the first sold-out show. How could it not be — Halloween in Cambridge, Big Freedia and bounce. It was a no-brainer,.

Ah, Frenchman Street!

NEW ORLEANS — Frenchman Street. How did it take me so long to discover what our friend Brett Milano calls “a musical theme park.” At least half a dozen clubs within a couple of blocks, all with their own particular thing, but mostly leaning the jazz way. At the Three Muses, we had dandy cocktails and fine snacks (oh — duck! duck! duck! On pizza! With an egg! And rabbit boudin!) while the house act, Miss Sophie Lee, sang old-time blues and jazz standards from a small stage in the storefront window. Mirrors over the bar instead of widescreen TVs (no more fucking NFL draft, thank you, just Abita Seasonal!). Quiet, stylish, funky. We like.

Formerly I knew Frenchman Street only as the home of Snug Harbor, the New Orleans modern-jazz mecca where you went to see Terence Blanchard and Ellis Marsalis and McCoy Tyner. Who, fine as they all are, are NOT the reason I come to New Orleans. I can see all these fine gentlemen in Boston. No, I come to New Orleans to hear people and bands who rarely if ever travel north of I-10 – Mardi Gras Indians, Frankie Ford, Ed Volker, Meschiya Lake, Tim Laughlin, Tuba Skinny, Natalie Mae and Her Unturned Tricks. Those last two acts I had never seen before this year, but I’ll look for them again next year and forever more.

But yes, Frenchman Street now extends far beyond Snug Harbor. Friday night my wife and I ventured out there for the first time — around the bend of Decatur, past Checkpoint Charlie’s — to see singer John Boutte at d.b.a. You may know Boutte as the vocalist for the title song of the HBO hit Treme, but in New Orleans he’s a long well-respected artist. Brett told us that Boutte is usually far too big a deal these days for d.b.a., but this was Jazz Fest week, where the big names invade the smaller clubs. And besides, Boutte had a gig coming up at the Fest’s second weekend — his band needed to play. It was a superb, generous band, with trombone, trumpet, and alto sax, guitar, bass, and drums. Introducing the esteemed trumpeter Wendell Brunious, Bouttee said, “You’re getting your $20 worth.”

He wasn’t kidding. The band played inventive arrangements for nearly two hours without a break. And Boutte proved himself a remarkable vocalist. You could complain that any number of his tunes were too familiar by half, especially on the New Orleans tourist circuit — “Basin Street Blues,” “Do You Know What It Means (To Miss New Orleans).”  But it was the aggregate force of his song selection, and his honest, often stunning delivery, that made Boutte’s set special. Yes, there was “La Vie En Rose,” but it was as good as his delivery of “Lush Life,” which was to die for. Boutte has a light tenor with an appealing burr in its grain. His phrasing is masterful, pushing his breath control to the limit, and he sings so you hear every word. It’s not just in his diction, but in that phrasing. I can’t remember the last time I noticed that the answer to the central question of “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?” is “the ones I care for.”  In Boutte’s personal rendering, the singular becomes plural.

Boutte sang Allen Toussaint’s “Lipstick Traces (On a Cigarette),” “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” By time he finished a stunning version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” he would have been justified in saying, “Okay, I’m done.” But he went on — with a bolero he recored with the band Cubanismo, and, yes, “Treme,” and more. The finale was an a cappella rendering of Paul Simon’s “American Tune.” “I dreamed I was flying,” Boutte sang. It was no dream. He had been.

New Orleans Notes: Day Two

Creole Wild West with Big Chiefl Walter Cook

Creole Wild West with Howard Miller standing in for Big Chief Walter Cook

When we can, my wife and I like to start our days at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Mardi Gras Indians. The Indians seem the best way to reconnect with the festival, with the city, and with its people. The Indians are a neighborhood tradition, dated by some as far back as the Civil War and even earlier. In these tough, proud neighborhoods, there’s no more manly man than a Big Chief, dressed in a suit of brightly colored beads and feathers that he made himself.

One of our favorite chiefs is Howard Miller,  whose “gang” is Creole Wild West. This is a crew that claims to be the oldest Mardi Gras Indian tribe in New Orleans, dating themselves back to 1721. That’s not necessarily why we like them. A lot of the appeal for us has to do with Cook himself. Although he’s been increasingly standing in for the ailing Big Chief, Walter Cook, taking over front-man duties, Howard is uncommonly laid back. Like a lot of chiefs, he doesn’t mask for Jazz Fest. That’s something to be saved for Mardi Gras and St. Joseph’s Day (the latter is traditionally the most important for Mardi Gras Indians). Instead, he leaves dress-up for the high-ranking in his gang —the Spy Boy, the Flag Boy, the Wild Man. Howard himself saunters on stage in white polo shirt and distressed jeans (fashionably worn open at the knee), wearing tinted glasses and a straw fedora from under which peeks a blue-and-white bandana. “Nobody kneels and nobody bow, we’re Creole Wild West and we don’t know how!… INDIANS!” Thumping of drums, rattling tambourine, and the low cry from the gang: “Oooh-ooh!” Big Chief: “Madi cu defei! Indian Red! Indian Red!”photo

There follows a call-and-response chant of floating verses as old as Mardi Gras itself. “We won’t bow down. (We won’t bow down!) On that dirty ground. (That dirty ground!) Oh I love to hear him call, my Indian Red!”

There are chants like “Indian Red” that are part of just about every Mardi Gras Indian performance — “Shoo-fly,” “Hoo-nah-hey,” “Hey Poky Way — some of which have become actual songs and hit singles. (Every elder statesman at Jazz Fest has to sing “Iko Iko,” from Dr. John and Irma Thomas to the Dixie Cups and any of the Neville Brothers.) But for most of the Indian tribe performances at Jazz Fest, these are stripped down chants driven by unadorned percussion — congas, bass drums, cowbell, tambourines, and maybe — as a concession to the stage performance rather than a parade — trap drums with cymbals.

So Big Howard leads his crew with raps about the “gumbo city. . . . I got a big ol’ gang, and look at ’em, every one of ’em is pretty!… I told my mother, I told my little wife, I’m gonna bring me this gang if it costs me my life! ”

There’s a rap about clearing a path for the tribe on Mardi Gras day (“Hell out the way!”) And then one long rap:

“Swam the ocean and I didn’t get wet.

Slow walked through hell and I didn’t even sweat.”

A hundred soldiers had me against a mountain wall,

by the time the sun set, I had killed them all.

Killed 98 and then I escaped,

thought about what they meant to do do,

then I went back and killed the other two.”

Hanging with the Big Chief.

Hanging with the Chief.

Nicholas Payton: The Simple Truth

My profile of Nicholas Payton appears in the May 2013 Jazz Fest Bible issue of Offbeat, the New Orleans Music Magazine (my byline is in the magazine and will be posted on the site at some point):


photo by Golden Richard III

Nicholas Payton, now 39, has been a New Orleans trumpet star almost from the moment he first picked up the horn. The son of revered bassist, composer, and teacher Walter Payton, he was sitting in with local bands by the age of nine and touring at 12. At 20, he released From This Moment (Verve), the first of a string of major-label albums as a leader. There were plenty of side-gigs in between, including an early-’90s stint as a member of Elvin Jones’s band. Through it all, Payton has combined his reverence for the jazz tradition with a desire to forge ahead…[read more]