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Rock and a Hard Place 

In spite of its place as a safe haven for many other forms of traditional American music, New Orleans has become saddled with the unfortunate reputation as an above-ground cemetery for rock 'n' roll.

Surely, James Marler knows this axiom as well as anyone. But when conversation turns to Rotary Downs, his now eight-year-old rock band, being considered among the Crescent City's scarce elite, Marler bristles at the notion. "I don't think that's true," he says. "If you look at the more widely popular bands in New Orleans -- Cowboy Mouth and Better Than Ezra -- we're nowhere near that. To me, we're still a very obscure band. I don't really care either way, but I think that's the reality of it."

Spoken with a slight shrug of his shoulders, Marler's objection is more self-effacing than obstinate. And while it's true the group doesn't draw crowds like Cowboy Mouth or chart hits like Better Than Ezra, the Downs' 2006 LP, Chained To The Chariot (Rookery), is all the evidence needed for an effective rebuttal. Emerging fully formed and ready for radio, Chariot's mix of ear-pleasing pop structures with a now to-be-expected experimental bent marks it as New Orleans' best rock record in recent memory. Sure enough, the fetching single "Sing Like The Sun" has found its way into regular rotation at XMU, the indie-rock station of the satellite provider XM Radio.

Coming under such fierce cross-examination, Marler finally starts to cave. "We definitely have a higher profile than we did three years ago," he concedes. "A lot of that is because of (drummer) Zack Smith and (bassist) Jason Rhein; they really stayed on top of [the publicity] side of things. But I could walk over to the store right now and they wouldn't have any idea who I am. People who are inclined to like our sort of music might. In New Orleans, there's not tons of that."

His last point is what makes 2007's Jazz Fest invitation so much more impressive. It's no secret that when it comes to categorizing Fest performers of years past, area rock acts are an overwhelming minority. Sandwiched between successive trips to New York City, where the band toured local clubs and played three songs on Kurt Anderson's public radio show Studio 360, the Fest will be the Downs' biggest gig to date. The magnitude of making this year's roster is not lost on Marler, who has invited Lafayette multi-instrumentalist (and Chariot engineer) Ivan Klisanin and New Orleans singer/songwriter Blair Gimma to augment the band's ranks on the Gentilly Stage.

"Eleven-fifteen in the morning," jokes Marler, "that's where all the biggest rock bands are, right?"

Touche Rotary Downs: 11:15 a.m. Saturday, May 5, Gentilly Stage

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