Rant ‘N’ Roll: The Real New Orleans

A little bit of New Orleans came to the Musikfest Café in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and although the crowd sat in their seats prim and proper definitely enjoying the proceedings, one had to wonder: Weren’t they enjoying it as one would gaze fondly at a picture on the wall of a museum? New Orleans jazz isn’t meant to sit and admire like a musty old relic. It’s meant to get on up and shake your ass to. On HBO’s Treme, a brilliant series about the lives of Crescent City musicians, the people you see in those clubs are hootin’ and a-hollerin’, and not just for the cameras. I know what it means to miss New Orleans. I’ve been on Rampart Street in the French Quarter and on both of my trips there, I’ve boogied and shook my moneymaker to all kinds of genres with a drink in my hand going from club to club to club all right next door to each other dancing with strangers loving every minute of the joyous…whoah, wait, I sorta got carried away there. That’s what this city does to you. By the way, I make it a point to hear some New Orleans music every single day of my life.

In a live situation, though, I want to explode out of my skin and dance down the rows of tables like Jackie Gleason knocking over drinks, kissing women and shouting up to the heavens in pure unadulterated joy. That’s what this music does to you. But, of course, I don’t. So I wind up internalizing, imploding instead of exploding. I’ve mastered this art after years of watching late-night sports when everyone else in the house is asleep.

Ronell Johnson plays a big cumbersome horn that he literally wears around his big body. It wraps around his torso with him in the middle. You can call it a tuba or a sousaphone (because John Philip Sousa [1854-1932] invented it for marching bands). Ronell was born into the Louisiana tradition being the nephew of the legendary Joseph “Kid Twat” Butler, who plucked a string bass for Kid Thomas Valentine way back in the day. In this band, his short staccato bursts pop like a bass and he dances around fit to burst like a seasoned showman.

“Most of our audiences today sit there and enjoy it just like the crowd tonight,” he tells me after the show.

And what a show!

Preservation Hall Jazz Band was born in 1961, named after a famous venue, and has featured in its ranks dozens of great musicians all dedicated to preserving the tradition. On this night, the lineup was stellar: tuba, drums, piano, trumpet, trombone and saxophone. And when they get to goin’ wild all soloing simultaneously like Louie Armstrong on steroids, there is no more sublime sound on the planet.

Those who want to catch up would do themselves a favor by getting their 50th Anniversary 59-song 4-CD box set (Sony Legacy). Not content to revitalize the past, they’re looking towards the future too. That’s It (Sony Legacy) is an all-new album of originals co-produced by Jim James of My Morning Jacket to be released July 9.

Sometimes they do a second line right through the audience and the crowd attaches itself to them like a long snake of boogying people. They encored with “When The Saints Go Marching In,” a song that many younger NOLA musicians won’t play anymore because it’s become ubiquitous. But the tourists always want to hear it. And Preservation Hall Jazz Band (they don’t like the word “Dixieland” in describing their music) transcends any conception of what is hip. So they’ll do “Saints,” and they’ll do “Tiger Rag,” “The Bucket’s Got A Hole In It,” “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” and just about any other song associated with the greatest city in the world.