In the chaos, weirdness and uncertainty that permeated New Orleans music last year, there was fresh energy that came from the new and partially blank slate. James Marler, whose band Rotary Downs plays spacey, psychedelic indie-pop, was happy to see barriers between music scenes and cliques break down inside the reduced population of bands and fans.
"I find myself checking out a much wider variety of things," he says. "I've checked out a lot of bands lately that I didn't before and don't know why I didn't. There's this lingering solidarity from the fact that you have to respect anyone who chose to come back and stick it out, especially anyone taking the trouble to maintain a band, which is a lot of work."
Besides the renewed feeling of community that stress brought on for some musicians, the storm and its aftermath also galvanized some artists into a more determined focus than ever before. New bands formed from the remnants of acts that were scattered when members didn't return. Bands that already had been playing together threw themselves into higher levels of commitment. Some even quit their day jobs to focus purely on music, inspired by the effects of Katrina to go for broke after the sudden and unpleasant reminder that life is unpredictable. Free Agents Brass Band Alumni and still-active members of well-known New Orleans brass acts from the Stooges to the New Birth, the Free Agents are seasoned players who came together after the storm to fill the need for traditional brass in the streets and neighborhood clubs of New Orleans. They're veterans of the scene, and many of them have played together before. This is the first time they've come together in this formation, though, and they like it.
Bandleader and bass drummer Ellis Joseph -- who comes out of the New Birth Brass Band -- remembers playing with other Free Agents as far back as the mid-1990s. He's familiar with putting together bands for gigs out of the city's host of talented brass players, mixing and matching from the ranks of other acts. After Katrina, though, he found himself evacuated to Atlanta, along with trombone players Alfred Growe and Ersel Bogan, both from the Stooges Brass Band. Joseph, Bogan and Growe wanted to come home -- the other Stooges stayed in Georgia. So it was time to get another band together, for real.
"Ultimately, we're all still free agents," he says from behind the board at his day job, DJing for 102.9 FM. "That's why we live up to the name. But in August, we really formatted this band and said, we're going to do this thing." Even though Katrina-related losses ripped through the band, their commitment to keeping traditional brass music in the streets of the city is unwavering. Growe's entire apartment complex was destroyed, along with his instruments and second-line parading clothes. He's juggling his gigs with pouring hours of sweat equity for his new home at the Habitat for Humanity's Musicians Village. Joseph and trumpet player Chad Brown lived only a block from each other in New Orleans East, and both of their homes took on 10 feet of water.
"All of us -- most if not all of us, have been playing our instruments in brass bands for 10 or more years," says Growe. "We're all pretty much known throughout the city. And we can implement all the different songs -- songs from the Stooges, the New Birth, the Hi-Steppers. It's a good mix." The Free Agents play a minimum of three shows a week now, not counting parade gigs, and they plan to record an album by the end of this month.
After Katrina, there are a lot more roadblocks to being a brass band than there used to be. For one, increased parading fees from the city have cut into second-line gigs. The city's rationale behind the increase is that more police protection is required because of shootings that occurred at parades early this year. Still, the Free Agents have played for second lines, and even wrote the first post-Katrina parading anthem: the traditional brass number "We Made It Through That Water," and they're keeping their eyes on the main goal -- keeping New Orleans traditions going.
"Slowly but surely, they're working instruments back into kids' hands," says Joseph. "But it's up to us to keep this alive."
What they want, Growe adds, is to watch the next generation learn to love the music the way they did. "We wanted to feel the music the way they felt it," he says, referring to watching brass bands as a kid growing up in the city. "For somebody to actually feel you so they're rolling on the ground, to make somebody dance like that -- they gave that to us, so we feel like we have to pass that down to the next generation."
"All of us want to play the music and be prosperous and take it to the next level," says Joseph. "The music -- that's the only thing keeping me here."
"And the Saints," adds Growe. The Other Planets "I'm very proud of this band," says The Other Planets' vocalist/percussionist Anthony Cuccia. "I don't know any band around here like us." The group's experimental space-jazz takes cues from genre-defying visionaries like Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart and Sun Ra, combining funk, punk and cosmic jazz sounds, plus an increasingly spectacular stage show complete with live video art and costumed dancers. The Other Planets push the envelope to the limits of the galaxy and beyond.
The sextet has been playing together since 2003, with Cuccia and guitarist Jimbo Walsh, formerly Sun Ra sideman Michael Ray's Cosmic Krewe, at its core. Cuccia says the period following the storm has been the most intensely creative and in the band's history. "The past year and the six months before the storm have been our biggest developmental periods, which explains why it sounds like we surfaced just recently," he says. During that time, the band went through several drummers before gelling with Quin Kirchner, though after the storm he and vibraphonist Matt McClimon moved to Chicago, where the band recently traveled to play a week's worth of gigs. The two traveled back and forth, though, to a woodshed at Walsh's new house in Henderson, La., where they recorded Eightballs In Angola, which will be released this week.
"We started off as more of a jazz ensemble, doing Frank Zappa covers," Cuccia says. "Now it's like a punk-jazz thing with a Butthole Surfers influence. It's kind of a noise band, but with a lot of highly organized composition-based pieces as well as improvisation, with rock instrumentation. Everyone in the band is a trained improviser. Several are classical musicians. And we've all played party music, funk, blues and rock 'n' roll, so that element is there. Everyone in the band can do a lot of things musically, so it makes sense to explore different genres."
If the band was starting to kick into gear in the months before Katrina, in many ways the shock of the storm helped the current concept come together, with new and surprising elements emerging as a result of the cataclysm.
"The band evacuated to Lafayette, and we played a month's worth of shows there that were extremely punk. There was a lot of aggression in those shows, especially vocally. Dan [Oestricher, vocalist and bass/baritone sax player] has a new persona that developed as a direct result of the hurricane."
"The emergence of myself as a vocalist at all was the result of the storm," adds Oestreicher. "We had gigs while there was still water in New Orleans. There were 15 of us living in a two-bedroom house with four dogs, sleeping in shifts. So an easy way to deal with it was to get up onstage and yell at everyone. And when we got around to making decisions from a musical place instead of an emotional sense, it evolved." Rotary Downs On the surface, Rotary Downs seems like almost the opposite of a new band, having played in New Orleans consistently since 1999. In those seven years, though, vocalist/guitarist James Marler and pedal steel guitarist Chris Colombo have seen a host of supporting members come and go. For the most part, says Marler, they were supporting rather than active members while he and Colombo wrote songs and herded the band. But with their new rhythm section -- bassist Jason Rhein and drummer Zack Smith -- the band is coming together as a genuine unit like never before.
"I had a pretty soft landing," says Marler, who teaches English composition at University of New Orleans. "If there was ever a time not to own property, this was it." After the storm, the band reconvened to mix its 2006 release Chained To a Chariot in Lafayette.
Chained To a Chariot shows that the new Rotary Downs is tighter, more organized and ready to rumble. The layered, psychedelic pop on the record is tighter, catchier and more fully realized musically than the band's previous releases -- one EP and one live recording. And Marler is excited about how the newest supporting cast members in the band have been working their way into leading roles. "Zack is very extroverted, and he has a lot of good connections," Marler says, noting that this is the most active period the band's had in its seven-year history. "We're going to New York in January to play Thursday-Friday-Saturday. There's been some interest from a management company, and a few small labels are checking out the record." Chained To a Chariot was also voted record of the week by the popular music Web site Jambase.com, and made it onto the CMJ college radio charts. The band plans to start recording an album of new material in the spring, material that for the first time has been written as a collaborative effort. "The new rhythm section is more involved in writing," Marler says. "It starts from the groove up now -- in the past, it always started from the guitars down.
"This almost is, really, a new band. And this next record we make will truly be a group effort. I'm grateful to have this assortment of people."
Marler feels optimistic about the way the music scene in the city has diversified since Katrina. "It seems like people are not as locked into their respective scenes as they were, because there's less music and also less people," he says. "Anyone who had their lives rocked by Katrina in one way or another -- you realize you should just appreciate things as they're happening. I've been listening to a much greater variety of music than ever." Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? The creatively named Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? is the newest in a group of bands that were sprouting up in New Orleans before the storm. Arguably from the recessive-gened musical lineage of acts like the Zydepunks and Baby Rosebud, it offers startlingly original music made with nontraditional instrumentation. The members have their own mix of accordion, banjo, upright bass, occasional cello and French horn, with roots in Eastern European sounds, rural American roots music, sea shanties, carnival noises, old-timey string bands and a flurry of similar whimsical and romantic noises.
Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? formed partially from the ashes of accordionist and main songwriter Walt McClements' former band Crooks and Nannies, which split up last spring. Why Are We Buiding Such A Big Ship? began playing shows in the early summer, gathering a group of friends who wanted to continue some musical Mardi Gras fun.
Baritone horn player Erin Bell remembers picking up the horn in reaction to a feeling that she wanted to make art when she returned to New Orleans after six months in New York, and she wanted it to be more social and active. She'd picked up the horn to be part of a neighborhood parading group for Mardi Gras, but after Carnival didn't want to put it down.
"We all paraded in the Krewe of Eris," she says. "We have some amazing players in there, and some people who practice for a couple of weeks just to have this crazy weirdo band. We were all in that, and we wanted to keep playing horn."
"Lots of people had picked up horns for Mardi Gras," McClements remembers. "They wanted to keep playing, but Mardi Gras was a year away, and I thought, well, I could tell you some things to play." McClements bases a lot of his songwriting on the work of contemporary composers like Yann Tiersen, who was behind the soundtrack for the French film Amelie. "It's the musette style that has some nice sloppy brass in it," he says. The effect of Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship? is similar to the film -- dreamy, nostalgic and joyful.
The first question that comes to mind is why are they building such a big ship? McClements remembers finding the unusual (and interrogative) name from an exercise in bibliomancy with a copy of the tale Gilgamesh.
"You ask a book a question, and open it and point," explains McClements. "It was right after Crooks and Nannies had split up, and I had started like seven different projects, wanting to do electroclash, or a play, or a brass band. And I was super stressed, and I asked Gilgamesh why, and it said, why are we building such a big ship? And that's what it meant to me -- right, why am I building such a big ship?" Good thing McClements shrank his metaphorical ship -- his narrowed focus is one of the more interesting new sounds in the city. Good Guys In the Web site template that the social-networking site Myspace provides for bands, there's a section where artists can choose up to three potential musical genres to align themselves with. Many acts use the space as a spot to make an easy joke, calling themselves "black metal/folk" or "country/grime." Good Guys' site proclaims the group to be "lounge/powerpop/metal," which at first glance seems likelier to be one of those boilerplate witticisms; except after a listen to the group's self-titled EP from this year, you realize that is, exactly, the perfect description for the band. Lush, sleepy soundscapes are laid over a granite-heavy, crunchy core of a rhythm section: whispery, ambient vocals are buttressed by a base as serious as plutonium. The whole feels as enveloping as the score to a good art movie, so it's no surprise that vocalist Jeremy Johnson, when asked to name some influences, cites films and film directors instead. "Fellini's 8 1/2," he says. "David Lynch. And The Wild Bunch."
Vocalist and effects master Johnson met his musical partner-in-crime Tom McLaughlin, who plays almost everything else -- at least in the studio -- at a Dismemberment Plan/Mastodon show in New Orleans nearly two years ago. The two Midwest natives worked together for a time booking shows at a raw space off of Frenchmen Street, and the band came together quickly, fed by the twosome's complementary vision and love of multimedia experimentation.
The year since the storm has been a good one for focusing on the band, and Good Guys has blossomed fast creatively. They added a bassist and drummer for live shows, and recently shot a video for the song "Work Release," which has, at least at its start, similarities with the oddly compelling hypnotic creepiness of '70s film music, particularly the score to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, before moving full force into grinding, almost nightmarish, metal. It's complex music that sounds like it was made by artists who love to tinker, and McLaughlin and Johnson do. They're already planning a sort of opposite-day version of Good Guys, to be called Bad Girls, which will be all traditional jazz arrangements of Good Guys songs. The 2006 EP, mixed and mastered in New Orleans by Stewart Cararas, who's worked with artists from Brian Wilson to Juvenile, is already their second, and they completed a three-week Midwestern tour last summer. The 28-year-old Johnson, who until shortly after the storm taught developmentally disabled kids in New Orleans public schools, feels like the storm had at least some positive result.
"My house was flooded, so I basically paid myself the flood insurance money to work on my house," he says. "So I'm in a nice place right now. I'm doing something I enjoy. I did the whole high school, college, grad school, job, and now I'm taking my years back." Black Rose Band Harahan native King Louie Bankston is well-known in New Orleans on a lot of levels: his own one-man band, his membership in the legendary local garage band the Royal Pendletons, and his status as an all-out slice of local color. Underneath the larger-than-life persona -- which can border on mania -- though, is an astoundingly talented rock 'n' roll songwriter and frontman who hasn't been given his due as one of New Orleans' best and most unique homegrown artists.
Bankston's newest project, the Black Rose Band, has him pumped. On a recent weekend evening, the band assembled Uptown at bassist Adam Waller's house, working on recording its first full-length album, which will come out on the respected Memphis punk rock label Contaminated Records at the end of next month. "This is a fully realized band," Bankston says repeatedly.
Though Black Rose, named for a new tattoo that spans the entire inside of Bankston's right arm, only formed the winter after Katrina, the members were all very familiar with each other, hanging out and seeing each other's bands at One Eyed Jacks and the Circle Bar, or playing together in the Ninth Ward Marching Band.
"I don't want to give Hurricane Katrina any more credit than it deserves, because we've all been working hard for years, but if it wasn't for Katrina, we wouldn't be playing in this situation right now," Bankston says. "But we've all shared bands or recording situations. Julien was playing with a band 10 years ago that I was helping to put out their records. Or bands I was in have been here in this room recording with Adam. So it's like -- we'd all be creating together, in some situation, no matter what."
Guitarist Julien Fried played in the art-punk band the Detonations before the storm. Waller was in the Scripts and played drums on tour with the Detonations. And drummer Dustin Reynolds had played with Bankston in the band Kondor, probably the most roots-influenced of any of Black Rose's previous projects. In fact, the most interesting thing is that when the four friends came together to play, by circumstance and luck, their sound was miles from what most of them had been playing before. Black Rose plays some of the most viscerally feel-good music possible, without being cheesy or derivative: honest, soulful, s***kicker, honky-tonk, boogie-woogie Southern rock in the vein of the Georgia Satellites or Black Oak Arkansas, with a garage-rock sandpaper edge. If there ever was a band to make you want to rebuild a city, Black Rose is it. "When you come see us play, when you listen to the stuff we record, you can tell that we're having fun," says Bankston.
PUT THIS IN A BOX SOMEWHERE: Upcoming Shows The Free Agents Brass Band
8 p.m. Wed., Dec. 20
Dominic's, 219 Carondelet St., 587-9155
The Other Planets' CD-Release Party
10 p.m. Wed., Dec. 20
Republic, 828 S. Peters St., 528-8282
Why Are We Building Such a Big Ship?
10 p.m. Sat., Dec. 23
One Eyed Jacks, 615 Toulouse St., 569-8361