Written by Josh Jackson from WBGO-FM
If you’re one of the few viewers still confused about what Treme is saying about art, do note this episode’s “play-within-a-play” staging of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The existentialist play revolves around two characters, Vladimir (nicknamed Didi) and Estragon (called Gogo), who wait interminably for a mysterious “Godot” by a desolate country road. It’s clearly meant to parallel New Orleans residents’ wait for essential social services, complete with the barren backdrop of the city post-Katrina. And it’s only the latest example of how artists are faster to respond to tragedy than a corrupt bureaucracy could ever be.
True to Treme form, a company actually staged the play in flood-damaged parts of New Orleans in 2007. Wendell Pierce, who plays Antoine Batiste on Treme, played Vladimir; he was quoted in the New Orleans Times-Picayune as saying: “But I’m trying to find hope, the way Gogo and Didi do in the play. They say they’ll go, but they stay. I find that hope where [producer] Paul [Chan] has found it, in the courageous people of New Orleans.”
Speaking of art, WBGO’s Josh Jackson and I wrote about this episode’s musical performances.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: Other than the middle-school band that Antoine is working with, our first live music scene features someone I recognize: the singing drummer Shannon Powell. A recent NPR story called him “one of the greatest drummers this musical city has ever produced.”
Josh Jackson: That’s a tall order, since the city has produced a plethora of great drummers. But in a lot of ways, Shannon Powell is the embodiment of the tradition. He played in Danny Barker’s Fairview Baptist Church band, an ensemble that trained scores of young musicians in the art of swing. He carries the moniker “King of Treme” with aplomb. We hear him at the now-defunct Donna’s Bar and Grill on North Rampart singing “You Are My Sunshine,” a song that country music singer (and former Louisiana governor) Jimmie Davis popularized.
PJ: I don’t, however, recognize the Latin dance band to which the seedy developer Nelson takes his date. Nelson seems to know enough to call him “Freddie,” though.
JJ: That’s Fredy Omar, a Honduran-born singer who has carved his own space within the New Orleans music scene, largely by playing a variety of music from the Latin diaspora. He knows his way around Afro-Cuban music, salsa, merengue, cumbia, bolero ballads, cha-cha-chas, tango… basically, music for dancing. At Ray’s Boom Boom Room, Fredy Omar con Su Banda play “La Vampirita,” a merengue, and “Mas Sexy Cada Segundo.”
PJ: So that gospel-tinged band in the studio was almost gratuitous with the cameos. You had Davell Crawford at the keys, who — though you don’t really see it here — belongs to a long line of New Orleans piano showmen. You had his grandfather Sugar Boy Crawford, author of the song “Iko Iko,” a.k.a. “Jock-a-Mo.” And in the control room, the saxophonist Kidd Jordan, the best-known free-jazz musician in New Orleans, is there — and Kidd and Sugar Boy are old friends.
JJ: I’m happy this scene happened. James “Sugar Boy” Crawford rarely performed outside of the church after 1963, the year he was severely beaten by police while on his way to a performance. But his famous song “Jock-a-Mo” scores the closing credits. (It was recorded in 1953 at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studios, which is where we see Davis washing clothes with Annie.) Crawford the elder is at Piety Street Studios singing “In My Home Over There” with his grandson Davell Crawford and a supporting cast of gospel singers. The song they’re singing is all the more poignant in that the elder Crawford died a month ago. This was essentially his final public performance.
Engineer Mark Bingham is at the recording desk at Piety Street, and saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan is listening in the control room. Jordan’s history runs concurrent with Sugar Boy’s, and while some know him for avant-garde improvisation, he played a lot of rhythm-and-blues dates in his time.
PJ: Annie’s musical adventure takes her to Austin, Texas, where she sits in with the blues singer and pianist Marcia Ball. A quick Google search reveals she actually grew up in western Louisiana and went to LSU.
JJ: She grew up in a small town near the Texas border, hence the accent. She’s a sweetheart of a lady, and a qualified piano plunker, too. Marcia plays the boogie-woogie style, and she can really roll the keys. We hear her play “Where Do You Go?” with Annie, a song Marcia wrote with her longtime songwriting partner, Tracy Nelson. The second tune she does, “That’s Enough of That Stuff,” really shows off her allegiance to the piano style of Professor Longhair.
PJ: The Indian scenes continue to give us a peek at some things most of us could never see. We’ve already heard the chant “Two-Way-Pock-A-Way,” but we actually see an impromptu meeting between two big chiefs. I gather that’s the Creole Wild West tribe coming by. (And also, that scene between LaDonna and Chief Lambreaux was just unstoppable force and immovable object.)
JJ: Big Chief Howard Miller of the Creole Wild West comes to LaDonna’s bar, announced by his spy boy. There’s a friendly encounter — intensely choreographed — that ends in an embrace between the chiefs. LaDonna’s remark to Albert, “Oh, so you also mask businessman?” was one of the quality moments. She gets all the good lines.
PJ: I think there are some music-related things to clear up this episode. First, Antoine goes somewhere for help with his and his student’s Entergy (energy company) bill, and Chief Lambreaux gets medical assistance from a group which works with musicians. What are these places?
JJ: Antoine goes to Sweet Home New Orleans, an organization that helps the “culture bearers” of the city with basic needs, as well as legal assistance, business education and general advocacy. Big Chief Lambreaux gets help from the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, a medical group that provides comprehensive health care, mental health and social services to musicians. Regrettably, they are facing severe cutbacks due to the politicization of the Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. “Obamacare”) at the state level, as the current Louisiana governor, Bobby Jindal, refuses all federal monies related to Medicaid. I’m not trying to wade into the argument necessarily, but I feel bad that people have to suffer the consequences of being collateral damage. I’d hardly characterize New Orleans musicians as takers.
PJ: And what is this world-renowned jazz center that the developer wants Delmond to be a part of, and (other than the fact that we haven’t seen it yet in real life) why does he pooh-pooh it by referring to “Tivoli Gardens”?
JJ: Once there was discussion about turning Louis Armstrong Park (home of Congo Square) into an amusement park a la Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, Denmark. Didn’t happen. After Katrina, developers wanted to create a “Jazz District” that would include a performance space. The resident ensemble, the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra led by Irvin Mayfield, materialized, but the space never did. Still waiting.
PJ: Finally, let’s do a background music roundup. Anything you thought worked particularly well? I’ll start that this being ostensibly a jazz blog, I heard Miles Davis’ “Walkin'” — as Delmond says, featuring Percy Heath on bass.
JJ: Yeah, great record. We also hear a couple of songs during those scenes that were recorded in the aforementioned J&M Studios: Lloyd Price’s “I Wish Your Picture Was You” and Fats Domino’s “The Fat Man.” Lee Dorsey’s “The Greatest Love” lends its name to this episode, and we hear it playing while Janette and Jacques are building their menu for the new restaurant. Everett, the reporter, talks about Goatwhore and Eyehategod, some bands from the metal scene, though it looks like we’ll have to wait until the next episode to see them. Enough sludge for this hour, it seems.