Missing New Orleans
The Radiators and the Rebirth Brass Band contemplate their hometown from new, temporary homes
At breakfast, New Orleanians talk about lunch, and at lunch they talk about dinner. What does Ed Volker of the Radiators want to know about his native New Orleans? Talking from Austin, Texas, he wants to know which restaurants are open. Is Crescent City Steakhouse open? Is Bayona open? He wants to know about Tipitina's, the French Quarter, and which musicians are back in town. "I guess there are no brass bands in the Quarter," he says.
In fact, one of New Orleans' most celebrated brass bands, Rebirth Brass Band, is in Houston, though when it finally got back to New Orleans to play the Saturday before Halloween, it did so in a big way. That morning, Rebirth played the Voodoo Music Experience Festival headlined by Nine Inch Nails. Then in the afternoon, the band played at the opening of the Cabildo, a state museum in the French Quarter. That night, it headlined the first show at Tipitina's, the famed Uptown music club.
"It felt like we'd been on tour for five years and all the sudden we came back home," says Rebirth leader and tuba player Philip Frazier. "It was phenomenal." The reception was so warm that the band played for two-and-a-half hours, which is extremely taxing since Frazier's tuba serves as the band's funky bass.
"We were feeling the spirit," he says.
The Radiators played Smith's Olde Bar on Wednesday, and Rebirth plays it Thurs., Nov. 17. Both bands are dealing with separation anxiety from their city since they were forced to evacuate by Hurricane Katrina. While Rebirth members are in Houston and Dallas, the Radiators are strewn around the country. Dave Malone and Frank Bua are in Louisiana. Bassist Reggie Scanlan is in New Orleans and playing a weekly jam. Guitarist Camille Baudoin currently resides in Minneapolis. Despite being in different cities, the Radiators have played three weekends a month since Hurricane Katrina, which has been fairly easy to do since they got their touring gear out before the hurricane hit.
"I don't know what we would have done if one of us hadn't have made it through, or if the equipment was lost," Volker says.
"It could have been a thousand times worse."
Rebirth has also been touring for much of the time since the hurricane. Because of that, Philip Frazier says he hasn't had a chance to stop and think about what comes next. Some of the members can return to their homes — Frazier had roof damage, but nothing major — but others have no house to go home to. "Most of the guys have children," he says. "We can't pull the children out of school, but you don't want people to get comfortable living out of town."
To that end, he has resisted taking weekly gigs in Houston, though Rebirth has had a standing Tuesday night show at the Maple Leaf in New Orleans for more than 14 years.
"I want my Maple Leaf back," Frazier says. "I want my Rock 'n' Bowl, I want my Tipitina's, I want my Howlin' Wolf. I want my New Orleans gigs back. That's my home base." Speaking for his own band, he says, "Everybody's going to come back, but it's going to be a process."
While media coverage of Hurricane Katrina focused on the destruction of New Orleans neighborhoods, the impact of that devastation on New Orleans music wasn't discussed (for more on Katrina's impact on restaurants, see p. 35). The now-infamous Lower Ninth Ward was one of the poorer parts of town, but it was also the home to many jazz and R&B musicians. The historic Treme neighborhood on the edge of the French Quarter had 4 to 5 feet of water in the streets, so many of its residents are dispersed.
The Treme spawned Rebirth, but it isn't at all clear the area will be repopulated with the people who left it, or that it will remain the nurturing ground that it has been for talent. The street-music tradition that the Treme typifies influenced the members of Rebirth, and it can be heard in the Radiators' love of funk and freewheeling improvisation, as well as in Volker's piano playing.
As the leader of a brass band, Frazier feels a lot of responsibility to keep New Orleans' musical traditions alive. "More and more I feel a lot is on my shoulders," he says. "We just came back from New York. We saw the Hot 8 [Brass Band, also from New Orleans] and told them, 'Whatever y'all do, y'all have got to stick together. You've got to keep doing it; you can't let it die.' We cannot let this culture die. This has been going on since before we were involved."
Volker is guardedly optimistic. "I don't think [New Orleans] will go back to close to what it was before, but whether the city is reseeded in a way that grows a whole 'nother thing that breathes in a similar way remains to be seen," he says.
Volker admits that in the face of what he calls "the low hum of fear" that he feels permeating our culture — not just the Gulf South — he is trying to change his own attitude. Recalling when life was taken "in a more easeful fashion," he says, "I'm trying to live like that and inject that note into the music I write. Rather than actually sing about or write about it, I'm trying to live like it. I've got my own little pervasive tone going here trying to act as an antidote."
That tension between fear and hope for the country and New Orleans is represented for Volker by two mental images he has of Hurricane Katrina.
"One is a big, fat, red devil sitting his big, red ass on our city and taking a big, fat shit and everybody fleeing from it," he says, laughing. "The other image is of a loving mother looking at the rest of the country and saying, 'Boy, this country's in horrible shape. I'm going to splat my hand down in the city and make all its people go and pollinate other parts of the United States so they can save their souls.'"
Alex Rawls is music editor at New Orleans' Gambit Weekly.