GO TO A DIY SHOW THIS WEEKEND

By now, most of us are aware of City Hall’s latest attack in their sneaky and unpredictable War on Culture.  A few weeks ago venerable Bywater institution Siberia ran into some permitting issues that caused them to suspend their expansive live music schedule, and just yesterday it appears a similar fate officially befell the similarly venerable Circle Bar. (And in a week fraught with confusion and misinformation, the Gambit’s Alex Woodward – as he is consistently wont to do – once again came through with the most complete, accurate and thoughtful assessment of a local happening.)

The initial reaction has been to wholeheartedly support the venues involved in the fight.  To be sure, this is 100% the correct stance to take. Siberia and Circle Bar are still open for business, and while they find out exactly what the city is asking of them and try to respond accordingly given their modest resources, we should all make a concerted effort to see what they look like by day. Drop in for happy hour or while away a late weekend afternoon sampling their draft beer selections and feeding the jukebox – basically find any excuse you can to give them some business.

But that is only part of the equation.  If you want to help – if you truly want to do right by the independent music scene to which you are pledging your support via online petitions and Facebook groups and social media status updates – go to a DIY show this weekend.  Visit one of the myriad venues that is still hosting live entertainment; buy some merch from a struggling local artist, drink your ass off and generously tip your bartender, shake someone’s hand – the bar owner, the promoter, the sweaty bassist of college punk band – and say just how much you appreciate what he or she is doing to foster a diverse local music scene. Put your money but more importantly, your time, where your mouth is.

Like the bullshit proposed ordinance that sought to put an end to 18+ shows, we think this, too, shall pass. So the real question is not whether you take some cursory, symblic action when local independent music’s constant, inherent struggle is bestowed the honor of being the momentary cause célèbre of the city’s cultural frontrunners, but what you do every day to support the people and places that make the New Orleans music scene – and by proxy, the city as a whole – so amazing.

Get your ass out there and go see some live music.

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Thanks, Dog: A Strangely Fitting Kinship

It was only recently that I began to finally fathom, after four years or so, the narrow yet oddly pervasive influence of Dr. Dog in the consciousness of New Orleans. I’ve always felt their presence here; it’s inescapable when you live in the town that boarded the dudes who started a label specifically to put out records for this group of outsider Northeasterners. When Park the Van Records became a concrete entity in 2005, it marked one of the only times up to that point in which the Big Easy had earned itself any sort of braggable rock n’ roll cred since the Warehouse hosted the blazing Hades of embarrassment that was Jim Morrison’s final live performance. Since that night in December of 1970, our local collective ken has been hip enough to hang its hat on legendary prurience like Soilent Green, Acid Bath and Pantera’s Phil Anselmo – artists whose well-established creative profferings to the American musical landscape have been perpetually stilted by the apathy of a Louisiana mainstream more interested in hearing the new Neville offspring with an axe to grind or finding the successor to Louis Armstrong’s platonic ideal of a brassman – while we place what remaining rock n’ roll faith we have in the hardworking, ceaseless touring ethic of creatively impotent alternative rock acts like Cowboy Mouth and Better than Ezra.

But all of the sudden one day, in the primordial months preceding Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans found itself with a fragile, though strangely appropriate, link to the outside world of then-burgeoning “indie rock”: a band of Philadelphia psyche rockers with a bunch of weird nicknames, a penchant for the lo-fi stylings of Guided by Voices and a musical talent the likes of which NOLA’s metal, punk and ska scenes (the only real bastions of DIY or underground music that truly existed at the time) had never seen. With a string of low-key performances in front of college kids schooled in Tulane liberalism or Loyola music careerism, the odd Park The Van/Dr. Dog paradigm presented an unobtrusive new concept for New Orleans’ confidently home-grown artistic traditions: a scene self-curated, the indie imported.

If you’re the type who perpetually thinks about music in terms of “the zeitgeist”, then there is a good chance you’ve never closely listened to Dr. Dog, or that you’ve simply disregarded them. I know that’s been my case for nearly five years, and it’s more than fair: I doubt Dr. Dog has ever given much thought to their place in such a zeitgeist, and in that capacity this group of Philadelphia outsiders probably aren’t making music for us wannabe patricianists. À la The Band circa Cahoots, existing both within and decidedly outside of the artiste-driven national musical climate surrounding them, Dr. Dog placidly gained national traction with Easy Beat, and they were more than happy to snooze the indie intelligentsia with a similar sounding follow-up in We All Belong, as well as with each ever-so-joyously-repressed recording since.

But for those musicians and listeners whose tastes are fervently tethered to and filtered through the culture of New Orleans, an aestheticism built on endless hours spent living as opposed to making, and playing as opposed to posing, the idea that this city could act as Dr. Dog’s unofficial second home, a de facto pied-à-terre, was one of the most revelatory events in their lives: here is a band of classic oddballs, schooled in all the perceivable ways that the NOLA greats of all genres had been (loose perfection of a confined craft, collaboration, irreverence and the courage to do it all in the most passé fashion possible), playing on someone else’s turf yet curiously running talent-circles around not just the rockers but the funkers, jazzers, punks, hip hoppers and zydecos. And then the band would disappear, without a trace of fanfare, back up to cold, metropolitan Philadelphia, leaving us down here reeling for more and waiting patiently for the next time this revenant spirit of dead rock n’ roll would emphatically thunder into town again.

That feeling and experience, of which I never had the blessing of being a part, must have been profound in that it left a lasting impression so far in the fronts of local artists’ minds that New Orleans’ massive flood was a mere speed bump on the road of what was to come. It must have been only days after being allowed back in the city to assess all the damage that a string of bands began popping up around town with a sound decidedly new to the local consciousness but vaguely familiar to anyone with a taste for jangly indie rock or pensive chamber pop. Untrained, I took it as another of the strange, faddish yet outmoded shifts that local underground music here has an inclination toward. Just as the punk kids started playing ska in the mid-90s at its national peak and those ska kids turned to emo as it became a phenomenon, this indie thing was the next permutation of a rock scene that – aside from a deep history of sludge metal and grindcore – has glaringly never had a personality of its own.

And maybe that’s still true about our scene, but I’d be a fool to continue to argue it after realizing not just what influenced the current slew of local indie rock bands but how it influenced them. Sure, local ska had its MU330 and Mustard Plug – under the radar out-of-town bands that had a heavy influence on the style of ska we saw – and early Dashboard Confessional provided the simplest and quickest way to emulate late 90s emo (there was scant impact to be found from the rip-roaring chaos of acts like Cap’n Jazz and Braid because, with the exception of Community, no one in this city was talented enough to replicate that stuff); but whereas those acts appeared to lead the charge in their respective genres, Dr. Dog, has from day one, actively bucked the bellwethers of indie rock and its continually fluctuating trendiness. And their music couldn’t simply be emulated, it had to be assimilated. If you wanted to do what these guys were doing, you couldn’t just ape an upstroke and find a horn guy, or learn to tune in Open C, you had to perfect an entire fucking craft: You had to start thrifting for an old Rhodes, listen up on your lo-fi and fuse together a wealth of psychedelic effects pedals; You had to find a drummer that could play rock and dance and syncopate with ease and you had to master baroque vocals.

The simplest analogy available is that Dr. Dog was the mother sauce of New Orleans indie rock, a bechamel from which the Silent Cinemas, Generationals, Empress Hotels, Giant Clouds, Vox & the Hounds and Native Americas of the city could arguably find their spiritual lineage. For instance, calling the Generationals a “dancier Dr. Dog” (as I have routinely heard) may sound like a write-off that does creative injustice to that duo, but the comparison is unavoidable and, more importantly, a revelation: in a flash the band’s lineage – from the defunct Eames Era to the Generationals to the offshoot Au Ras Au Ras – goes from run-of-the-mill to positively rich and resonant when one accounts for Dr. Dog’s floodgate significance.

“Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” and Questions of Avant-Garde

Though it may be surprising to find ourselves realizing that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the 2002 offering from Chicago-based Americana heroes Wilco, has already turned ten years old, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that, after ten years, we are still reflecting on, raving about, arguing over and debating the album, its surrounding controversy and its place in the western music pantheon. The Story, as it is now known to practically everyone who fancies himself a conscientious member of the music obsessed in this day and age, isn’t worth retreading after a decade that has looked so deeply retroactive at the five or so Midwestern men that unassumingly holed themselves up in a loft in the Fall of 2000, save to say that the seminal album they reemerged with a year later marks a musical flashpoint in a tumultuous vacuum of American History, of which the destruction of the Twin Towers, the crumbling of the major music industry, the global financial crisis and the rise of the Internet are each an intertwined part.

The fascinating road over which Yankee Hotel Foxtrot‘s lore has traversed in the years since its release leads, almost inevitably, to a conclusion that it is one of the most important works of the aughts. You’ll routinely hear it mentioned by both critics and audiences alike as being such, and one cursory listen will indicate why that is the case. The question at this point, really, isn’t whether YHF is one of the all-time greats, but why. In short, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is arguably one of the best albums ever conceived because it is the singular representative piece of avant-garde art of its decade, a statement that undoubtedly poses more questions than answers since – Good God – what does that even mean?

Earlier this year I had a completely unrelated conversation with my younger brother Ryan, a guitarist, wherein he, when asked what his next project will sound like, told me, “It’ll be some experimental stuff with an indie rock feel.” When I later had opportunity to sample some of his new project, what I actually heard was something vastly different – at least in my mind – from what he’d described. In particular, there was no genuine experimentalism to be found. Unsurprisingly, what I witnessed was the Subjectivism we both apply to the definition of “experimental”: Where I was looking for something about the writing and recording process untried, untested or “out-of-the-box”, Ryan was (maybe unconsciously) referencing something more akin to the music of Explosions in the Sky, a band that, though at one time made music generally regarded as “experimental”, the emulation of whom in the year 2012 could hardly be considered an experiment.

Later this year I had a vastly more related conversation with my co-editor, Matt, in writing a live review of Cass McCombs, a chameleonic musician who I suppose could be likened to folk, or rock, or alt country, though none of those terms describes him with any real accuracy. Nevertheless, the crux of the article was that McCombs, using the traditional instrumentation of alt country – guitar, bass, piece-pared drums, pedal steel and a little assortment of keys – seems to push the boundaries to a certain extent of what it means to be alt country, without crossing out of or transgressing from the traditional paradigm of the genre. Naturally, the review was terrible because it was ill-executed on the faulty premise that Cass McCombs is even an alt country musician to begin with.

In the course of the article though, I passed an almost obligatory reference to Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, wherein I hinted at – though not outright declared – the fact that no one had successfully made an avant-garde alt country record. Matt, a Chicago native and Wilco fanatic himself, said, “I happen to think that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is avant-garde”, which I disagreed with.  He proffered the fact that YHF is generally regarded as an avant-garde record, which I said I understood but still disagreed with.

Though something of a philosophical (and probably very subjective) standstill it was, neither of us had a great reason for either opinion:

Matt: “Listen to the intro of ‘Poor Places’. Listen to all the subtle miscellaneous undertones in ‘War on War’. I think of that as deconstructionism, which I think makes the record avant-garde.”

Taylor: “It just doesn’t sit well with me. I think of that as a creative apex, which I guess could be avant-garde if the genre itself had no integrity beforehand.”

Of course, we were both wrong, though at the time neither of us would have understood why because we were also both right, just for the wrong reasons.

When placed in the company of every Wilco record (and Uncle Tupelo record, for that matter) up to 2002, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is no doubt the odd disc out. Compared to the standard fare sheen of A.M. and Being There, or the rather more produced gloss of Summerteeth, YHF‘s bare Tweedy vocals à la Loose Fur, subtly metered instrumental virtuosity and soft tinny textures presented a marked shifted from the Wilco trajectory, if not an unequivocal jump into a new genre altogether. In fact, it was literally just that: a band of alt country veterans had decided to end the 1990s by trying its hand in the arena of bona fide alternative rock.

The general belief in YHF‘s avant-gardism can most likely be traced back to Sam Jones’ documentary film I’m Trying To Break Your Heart, a chronicle in which Wilco can be seen to take the writing and recording process of the record very seriously while band members indelicately talk about its differences from their past work. We see Jay Bennett toying with a deluge of different instruments and little gadgets he either purchased or created, the sounds of which find themselves embedded in tracks like “Poor Places”, “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Ashes of American Flags” – subjectively, what some might call experimentation. We’re given a tortured glimpse into Jeff Tweedy’s incapacitating migraines. We also see Tweedy become the self-decided auteur of the record in spite of Bennett’s co-writer status on the great majority of the songs, and we’re shown the artistic and personal relationships between the two disintegrate as a result.

Do the somewhat superficial sonic details of Yankee Hotel Foxtrot arrive at something akin to avant-gardism, as it is generally regarded? It’s ridiculous to suggest that no one in the history of rock and roll had ever laid abstract noise over a standard rock song before Wilco, and simply doing so in the early 2000s can’t be considered avant-garde on its face. By my standards, it isn’t even experimental. Whereas I think the modern, pseudo-intellectual perception of avant-gardism involves an artist merely playing around with something apparently new to him or to his narrow audience, a traditional reading of the definition at least contemplates a decided experimentation that results in a legitimate pushing of customary boundaries. Even if the members of Wilco were decidedly experimental in their approach to Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, it’d be hard to make the argument that the record pushed any sonic boundaries. After all, any band – before or after that record – that writes in the vein of alt country sounds ostensibly like Wilco. Musicians might find themselves inspired by Wilco, but in no way would it cause this record to rise to a level above a standard rock album in the way that punk bands of the seventies were inspired by the Stooges’ Raw Power. Yankee Hotel Foxtrot may simply be a really good rock album, even one of the best rock albums of the decade, but simply adding abstractions to an otherwise well-established broth in an overly serious or mature fashion does not on its face avant-garde something make.

It’s by this measure that I Am Trying To Break Your Heart is either a deft or clueless piece of audience misdirection. While it invites us to witness the purported experimental leanings of the band in the studio crafting what would become their crowning achievement, true avant-garde exists in the subtext of Wilco’s relations with Reprise Records and the stupefying new way in which that relationship yielded the record’s universal acclaim and success. Of course, Reprise shelved the record and dropped the band upon hearing it, it would seem because of the tone-deafness of the existing major label establishment embodied in David Kahne (probably most famous nowadays for producing some really popular bands’ more mediocre work including Sublime’s Sublime, Sugar Ray’s 14:59 and the Strokes’ First Impressions of Earth). However, that detail operates more as a thrilling rock and roll anecdote, containing nearly as much second-hand embellishment as my spontaneous contention that the death of Brainiac lead singer Tim Taylor in 1997 is the only reason Jim O’Rourke and Jeff Tweedy ever crossed paths.

For Lack of a Better Phrase, NOLA Bands “Killed It” at SXSW

Hours before my fourth trip to South by Southwest Festival would take a decided turn for the Kerouackian, when I’d find myself sleeping among a sea of strangers thirty deep in what appeared to be a furniture-free detox safe house for strung-out teens with an elderly black man walking around smoking a cigarette preaching the Bible and talking from personal experience about the ills of intravenous heroin (but what was actually a Craigslist rental occupied by blog rappers and rock and roll bands on their last physical leg of energy), I was sitting in my car, in bumper-to-bumper traffic, in the heart of downtown Austin. I was exhausted and listening to a voice on the radio – that of a young KVRX DJ, with an intonation perfectly metered for spoken poetry and prose, who had turned 21 the night before.

“Last night being the first time in my life I’ve been able to legally partake in the chaos that is South by Southwest,” he began, “my evening was very memorable. Or, rather, unmemorable, I should say. But as I arrived home in the wee hours of the morning, I had the opportunity to witness the sunrise, mother Earth‘s waking yawn. As I stood there on the corner in front of my house, taking everything in – the public bus just getting started, its hydraulic sigh complemented by the echoes of factories in the distance – I had a thought.” After taking a deep breath for a somewhat lengthy pause (because, as I said, the kid could meter), he finished, “The morning cigarette of the American Empire. Just something to think about.”

Yeah, it was pretty pretentious, but maybe a little fitting nonetheless. Anyone who’s known me in the past twelve months also knows my unfavorable – even downright antagonistic – assessment of South by Southwest  in 2011. As viewed through the lens of that festival, Austin is, on one end, way too inviting of bottom-line, Middle America mass consumerist culture (the kind that draws people in with wasteful amounts of free shwag like Frisbees, T-shirts, coozies, tote bags and polyurethane wristbands all paid for by the bottomless marketing pockets of corporations lacking a relation to music or the arts in any passable fashion) while on the other end embodying all that is annoying and repugnant about feigned intellectualism and musical elitism.

A year ago, I would have bashed in the entire radio console with my forehead, ripped out the pieces and flung them at oncoming bicyclists. Surprisingly though, I wasn’t bothered by any of what amounted to armchair political hyperbole as expressed from the heart of what conservative’s like to call “entitlement culture”; in fact I enjoyed  it. The guy was a phenomenal speaker, and if he’s correct that America is indeed an “empire”, I can at least offer the perspective that empires aren’t built on gratuities and freeloading assholes, but hard work. And what I saw in Austin during SXSW this year was no less than the sum of people’s tireless, penniless, unapologetic physical labor.

Offering an oddly perfect dichotomy, the notion that artistic industry should yield some form of concrete payoff is lost on much of the New Orleans music community. It’s the reason our artists routinely give away their music for free, play for no cover, give all of a show’s profits to touring acts and have no problem working menial jobs to subsidize the entire lifestyle. So the idea of traveling all the way to Austin to play a string of no-pay shows is nothing new to the slew of local bands that made the trip this year. What was new, for me, was the opportunity to see the live prowess of NOLA artists knock the socks off of concertgoers on someone else’s turf and, in turn, find their own home court advantage in the backyards, communes and parking lot parties of Austin. For lack of a better phrase, New Orleans acts fucking killed it at South by Southwest.

No doubt Sun Hotel has become something of DIY royalty. The frequency with which they leave me awestruck is beyond punchline fodder at this point. But at SXSW, headlining a host of buddy-booked shows in the city’s outskirts, they presented yet another thrilling novelty by managing – right in front of my eyes – to continually foment new mini-followings of young music fans, the same way they did to me several years back. In the small string of performances I attended, I witnessed the band get broken up by the cops twice; I once observed them get invited to headline a house party immediately following a house party they had just headlined; I heard bassist John St.Cyr receive accolades specifically pertaining to his use of bass chords and reverb no less than two times; and I couldn’t even count the numbers of kids who absolutely lost their shit, attempted to glad hand all four members and stumbled to articulate their excitement over this band.

Louis Paul Bankston often finds himself, for the most part, under the radar of New Orleans’ underground youth culture nowadays, which is no surprise considering the unobtrusive demeanor of this short-statured, red-faced, badly self-groomed Bywater regular. To anyone not digging for the information, King Louie (as he’s better known) is just another lovable Crescent City kook. Take this man to Austin for South by Southwest though, and watch people fill a fucking room faster than he can pop his bowl-cut head in the building. At Spiderhouse on Saturday night, alongside the likes of heat-seeking young garage punk acts Barreracudas, Mean Jeans, White Mystery, Night Beats and Apache Dropout, King Louie’s Missing Monuments were the band of the evening. Packing the tiny, redlight-saturated off-ballroom bar to fire marshal levels, the double Gibson Flying V assault of Louie and Julien Fried emphatically gave a roaring third dimension to the band’s rock n’ roll punk roots, at which their debut record Painted White only hints. If there was ever an experience that offered insight to how the now-mostly-deceased Oregon-based tragic legends the Exploding Hearts (whom King Louie, like a garage rock Brian Eno, aided in the writing and recording of their sole album) sounded in person, this was it.

I have certainly not been quiet about Vox and the Hound‘s insane 20ROCKIN12 live prowess. In three short months, they’ve taken to New Orleans venues of every size and neighborhood, and humanity be damned if they haven’t destroyed every single one of them. In Austin, at Shiner Saloon on Saturday evening, the tale was the same and then some. A deep, airy, natural-lit barroom with a tiny stage that belies its overall size, Shiner was crowded to the gills with drunk-as-shit St. Patrick’s day revelers by 6pm. In one of those all-or-nothing situations where green beer revelry could quickly give way to unmanageable heckling, Vox seized the day and treated their audience to one of the most energetic performances they’d see all weekend. By the first chorus of “Mom’s Origami”, there was an overwhelming sense that the people who booked this “Future of Music Showcase” had stumbled upon what was either a group of serious up-and-comers or an established band of pros who accidentally arrived at a show many leagues beneath them. The performance itself was one of the best I’ve seen from Vox – and certainly the most fun. On stage right, D-Ray traded high fives with audience members after every keyboard solo and garnered raucous applause when he picked up his trombone; singer Leo DeJesus politely made room on stage for a number of drunk girls intent on dancing by his side and whispering sweet nothings in his ear; and too boot, bassist Andrew Jarman literally and unironically found himself signing autographs after the set had concluded.

The undisputed (though not technically New Orleanian) winners of the weekend, however, were Zac Traeger and Shmu, better known as Austin-based psyche electronic act Zorch. This duo is obviously known for its manic, odd-ball work ethic (an ethic that has somehow enabled them to reach the radar of nearly every major national media outlet with only six formally recorded songs since 2009), so to say that Zorch outdid themselves wouldn’t necessarily be an understatement but it nonetheless wouldn’t do their SXSW presence the justice it deserves.

I was party to the tail end of “Zorch by Zorch Mess“, an operation consisting of multiple performances each day for ten straight days, all over the city of Austin from the heart of downtown to the depths of its outskirts. Everywhere you walked, biked or drove – every place you visited or simply passed by – bore the footprint of Zorch; I myself visited no less than four venues they had already played by Thursday evening. Simply put, no one that weekend was a prolific or present than Zorch. So how, in the middle of all their calculated madness, they found the time and energy to singlehandedly (really “doublehandedly”, but still) organize and curate a massive, late night party on Friday is beyond me.

The 21st Street Co-Op, for live music purposes, might be the most absolutely sensational venue in the entire world, without exaggeration. Engineered with a construction resembling a dystopian frat house – complete with a mess hall, courtyard and individual apartment balconies overlooking all of it – the 21st Street Co-Op was host to the likes of Andrew W.K., Maps & Atlases, Japanther, Grimes, Dan Deacon, Caddywhompus, The Eastern Sea, Ava Luna, Netherfriends and, of course, Zorch. Beginning with Caddywhompus‘ phenomenal late-evening set onward, the place was sardine packed to its huge capacity with concertgoers (a good number of which were other musicians who simply wanted to take a night off and witness the bedlam for themselves) flooding the outdoor stage area courtyard for a de facto BYOB celebration and nearly splintering the floor of the sweaty, second story dance hall above with the massive weight of several hundred pairs of feet. Most amazing: this level of kinetic excitement was the rule, not the exception, of the evening until at least around 5:30am when Mr. W.K. finally brought the party to a close with an absonant finale.

I’ve attended South by Southwest three times before as a downtown touristy consumerist-type, but my first experience as a low-profile, backwoods house party concert jumper was a revelation. Though the symbiotic Texas-Louisiana connect is well known and deep-rooted, unofficial SXSW may be the one week each year that illuminates it above all others. Finding themselves in Texas playing with New Orleans bands were musicians from all over the country who could just as easily have been from New Orleans themselves, and vice versa. It’s a synergy built on mutual respect and a reciprocal work ethic, in which it’s understood that without backbreaking effort there will be no fun for anyone involved, if there is to be any at all. Certainly it doesn’t always work out for everyone. Most of the successes I bore witness to were the result of bands’ several years of experience at SXSW. Newcomers have no choice but to fly by the seat of their pants and hope they make it out alive because, for every Vox and the Hound whose first experience at the festival is a humble success, there is at least one Glish, all of whose bookings fall through practically while en route to Austin and who have to make do with nothing.

I myself was in the very same boat – attempting to see, hear and photograph everything I possibly could on virtually no sleep and even less nourishment – at times when I’d arrive at a show to find out it was cancelled, when a grouchy lead singer would wantonly chuck his microphone at me in an attempt to break my camera, or when I’d come to my place of rest to find a raging party and nowhere to sleep. Like just about every band I had occasion to see, my successes were modest and hard fought. But good lord, when you dig deep down to find the energy to keep going, South by Southwest is a fun fucking experience.

An Open Letter To The New Orleans City Council

Dear members of the New Orleans City Council,

When I moved to New Orleans in the beginning of 2008, after leaving a job in Minneapolis and a life largely spent in and the around the Chicagoland area, it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with almost every aspect of this majestic city.  The cuisine is more delicious, the celebrations are more fascinating, and the people are more vibrant than any travel guide, magazine article or second-hand account prepared me for. But amidst the infinite aspects of life in New Orleans that agree with my constitution in a way few things ever have, it was the music scene that initially and repeatedly stole my heart and continues to do so on a daily basis.

While New Orleans is a renowned destination for live jazz and has gained recent national acclaim for her modern brass band tradition, the artists who caught my ear were not the living legends who haunt Frenchman Street or Preservation Hall. I was struck by the depth and diversity of the independent rock scene, a supportive community of young and talented musicians who transparently and self-sufficiently operate just below the greater entertainment and hospitality radar. Its ranks of natives are buoyed by the presence of two major universities (one with a extensive music business curriculum) that entice gifted performers and passionate consumers from all over the country to make New Orleans their home – a temporary choice that becomes more and more viable as a permanent decision as the independent rock scene continues down its exciting path towards a long-sought after and elusive critical mass.

The bars and venues that host these musicians are some of the most well-run and well-organized establishments in the city, from Tipitina’s or One Eyed Jacks to Siberia and Circle Bar.  For the benefit of the performers and audience alike, their proprietors are constantly investing in their spaces to ensure they are as comfortable, functional and secure as possible.  And even though I’m pushing 30 (and certainly look it), I’m subjected to more scrutiny when entering music events – especially those advertised as “18+” – than I am when I walk into any other bar or restaurant for any other reason.

I feel this music scene is as important as any other artistic or cultural movement in the city.  But it is one that thrives in measurable part on the contributions and patronage of those under the age of 21. Any ordinance that disallows bars and music venues from hosting 18+ shows – such as those recently proposed by Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson – will devastate this growing community.  The new rules would create a climate disproportionately hostile towards bars that regularly feature live music events and put scores of New Orleans residents at an economic and creative handicap, disenfranchising both those below the legal drinking age and those above it.

When the 18-, 19- and 20-year olds in question are the performers, permitting them upon or around premises that serve alcohol provides a nearly endless list of accessible venues in which they, as young artists, can hone their craft and earn an honest wage.  As patrons, the tickets they buy and cover charges they pay support musicians of all ages; and the time they spend in bars is undoubtedly more highly-structured and well-supervised than time spent engaged in some of the popular alternatives available to people of their age.

I have no doubt the proposed ordinances were introduced with the best intentions, but I believe such broad and indiscriminate laws have the potential to do more harm than good.  They could dismantle a music scene that offers a safe and enriching outlet for people of all ages and adds to the economic, artistic, and cultural fabric of this wonderful city.

Sincerely,

Matthew Rosenthal

Barryfest.com

The Strange Confluence of Internet Media, Semi-legitimate Live Music Establishments and Hardcore Punk

It should have been artlessly apparent to anyone who attended Siberia’s Saturday, October 15 showcase of California supergroup Off! and Brooklyn newcomers Cerebral Ballzy – bands who overwhelmingly appear to represent the heart of a new wave of tradition-burning and norm-ducking hard edged music – that it was a categorical smash success for every party involved.

For Siberia, a venue barely out of its infancy, the show represented not just the revelrous one year anniversary that it indeed was, but also the coming out of one of New Orleans’ greatest overnight successes. Twelve months of day-in-day-out work on the part of the apparently very linked-in 86’d Productions and an endless steam of seven-concert weeks throughout the year begat a massive booze and adrenaline-fueled audience in attendance for the anniversary celebration.  At somewhere between 300 and 400 people, the crowd could have easily qualified as sell-out worthy; though anyone who knows the short, convention-eschewing history of this empty-room-turned-speak-easy-turned-bona-fide-hall-of-musical-subversiveness would not have been surprised when the Siberia doormen kept allowing punks young and old to rabidly sardine-seal themselves into the bar until you could practically taste the lack of oxygen.

What concertgoers were treated to that night was one of the elite New Orleans concerts of recent memory.  The sweaty, shoulder room, tinnitus-inducing party of hardcore punk saw Ballzy frontman Honor Titus command the crowd’s attention with drunken-master swagger as he hung from the bar area’s deer-antler chandeliers and downed as much beer as he sprayed on the crowd, while Off! lead singer Keith Morris controlled the room with his time-honored inter-song pontificating on subjects ranging from rules of punk show candor to Gun Club legend Jeffrey Lee Pierce. Between the giant circle pit, the dozens of thrown elbows and the gallons of spilled beer, the frantic excitement of audience members after the show’s conclusion was both undeniable and utterly contagious.

But the biggest winner had to be hardcore punk. It must be at least a little inspiring for Off!, a band of well accomplished – though aging – musicians, to have the pleasure of playing to an over-packed house at a fledgling DIY punk bar in New Orleans, Louisiana. Even with a pedigree encompassing the Circle Jerks, Black Flag, Rocket From The Crypt, Hot Snakes, Burning Brides and Redd Kross, it wouldn’t be remotely surprising if Off! had ended up playing to an underwhelming crowd that night. After all, only four years ago Black Flag guitarist and championed legend of West Coast hardcore punk Gregg Ginn played to a crowd of no more than ten people at Dragon’s Den. Embarking on a nationwide tour, it was entirely possible that Off! could have settled into the all-too-common trap of being a supergroup for no other purpose than novelty by trip’s end. However, that appears not to have happened, possibly because old school hardcore’s two-decade absence from mainstream pop culture makes a band like this more refreshing than archaic for younger fans.

I doubt the men in Off! particularly care about the relevancy of their particular lot in the modern musical landscape, as they’ve basically spent their entire collective careers ignoring the tumultuous brouhahas of both the major label recording industry and its periphery feedback loop of professional criticism. Nevertheless, it can’t be overemphasized how strange and delicate a compartment Off! occupies; and even dicier is the growing success this supergroup seems to be enjoying as of late.

So it’s encouraging, if not flat out lucky, that Off! has managed to operate both as a throwback to the days when hardcore shows were always packed because they weren’t competing with fifty narrow subgenres of indie rock on any given night and as a total reawakening of that seemingly lost combination of testosterone, political disaffection and unadulterated fun. And while it’s impossible to draw attention away from the fact that the pure talent bubbling under each band member’s gritty surface is the primary reason for Off!’s staggering sustainability thus far, it’s hard to imagine that they’d have been capable of packing a venue in New Orleans without the good fortune of (a) having been signed by Vice Records, a label known as much for its gravitation towards bands with shock and sideshow live antics as it is for uncovering talent, and (b) having received a great deal of mainstream critical acclaim, namely from Pitchfork Media, a web magazine often reviled for it’s tastemaker tendencies but nonetheless begrudgingly respected for its far-reaching influence.

For all the drastic shifts in the music industry that the internet has caused over the last decade, music heads and showgoers have never been more reliant on an anonymous voice comprising marketers, PR people, booking agents, critics and bloggers – the end result being that phenomenon we modern listeners know all too well: Buzz. Yet somehow hardcore seems both immune and responsive to it. Consequently Off! and – to a certain extent – Cerebral Ballzy are very adept at toeing the line between antiquated novelty and short-lived buzzworthiness while at once being completely unconcerned with any of it. If there is a genuine connection between 2011 hardcore punk and totally unrelated acts like hip hop conglomeration Odd Future (from the outset, comparisons between the two have been abundant and unsubtle), it’s that both play the obligatory mainstream hype game knowing that they write some of the most unnerving and least aurally pleasing music imaginable. But Off! knows, and listeners are rediscovering, that in a live setting with a crowded and rowdy room, there is literally nothing in the universe like hardcore – all buzz aside.

photo credit: Ben Clark

Thoughts on Voodoo And The Current And Future State Of Music

That the 2011 Voodoo Music Experience dispatched the second Le Ritual Stage to expand the electro-focused Le Plur area and add an additional DJ venue should come as no surprise to anyone who made it out to City Park last Halloween or attended literally any other weekend music festival in the last 12-18 months.  Last year’s return of the electronic tent was greeted by the most remarkably determined and enthusiastic fans I’d ever observed at a multi-day event, as the thousands-deep crowd of dub-step, techno and house fans consistently on hand each afternoon as the gates opened swelled ten-fold by sundown. At this summer’s Hangout Music Festival in Gulf Shores, Alabama, the mass of humanity that repeatedly piled into the Boom Boom Tent was so suffocating that fire marshals were brought in when patrons made one final push for position as Girl Talk began his set.  In recent years, Bonnaroo has liberated DJs from their once exclusive role as late night/early morning entertainers, and every event from Lollapalooza to Wakarusa is making more and more room for electronic music. It is not “the music of the future” as I had naively posited on a number of occasions since Voodoo 2010; it is overwhelmingly and unequivocally the music of today.

Swapping out a featured main stage for more DJ real estate was a justifiable, if not inevitable, decision on the part of Voodoo organizers.  But the absence of  a second huge home for nationally renown instrument-playing acts has had both a trickle-down and a trickle-up effect on the festival as a whole: not only is this year’s assortment of rising indie-rockers less robust than in years past, but the change has also forced more of those who did make the cut onto the smaller stages that normally host homegrown standouts for the majority of each day.  The WWOZ stage supplements Rebirth Brass Band and Bonerama with Ozomatli, the reunited original Meters, and GIVERS; Preservation Hall has not only Lynn Drury, MyNameIsJohnMichael and Glen David Andrews, but Members of Morphine and Jeremy Lyons; and the Bingo! Parlor gets Portugal. The Man, X, Fitz and the Tantrums, Fishbone and Cheap Trick in addition to Le Carnival institutions Happy Talk and greatest band in the universe Rotary Downs.

At first blush this may seem like a purely negative development  (and the loss of any number of exciting rock acts iced out due to the remixed format is certainly worthy of lament)  but of the many memories from last year’s event I’ve been able to hang onto, two particular performances stand out in my mind – and both suggest the prospect of larger bands on smaller stages is not necessarily a bad thing.  On Saturday, I took in The Whigs‘ wild-fire but confoundingly unsatisfying set from the enormous (and now-departed) Le Ritual Sony Stage a few hours before seeing The Eagles Of Death Metal nearly burn the Bingo! Tent to the ground.  Where the Whigs’ rollicking three-man garage punk seemed to get lost among towering scaffolds and an expansive lawn, The Eagles of Death Metal – at nearly eye level with the nicely packed audience – exploded through what was most certainly a festival highlight for those who witnessed it.

When a band doesn’t require the amenities a main stage provides – room for elaborate light rigs and stage setups, anchor points for zip-lines or wire systems – I’d prefer to see them in as intimate a setting as possible, one in which their sound and presence is more likely to overwhelm the surroundings than the other way around.  So many big names on such small stages may be a cause from concern for some potential concert-goes, but I’m primed and hopeful for some intense and magical moments.

MP3: Portugal. The Man: “Head Is A Flame (Cool With It)”