Saturday, April 17, 2010

episode 2: keepin it real

This was the first episode of Treme filmed after the pilot was given the thumbs-up by HBO, and top dogs David Simon and Eric Overmeyer charged themselves with laying a foundation for the season to build on. So while Episode 1 cruised through technicolor parades and moody New Orleans nights at a full-tilt boogie, Episode 2 slowed down enough to get a good look at the characters and the place they live in.

This one was all about staking out territory - drawing borders around the REAL New Orleans and the REAL New Orleanians - something that the writers have basically admitted to being obsessed with, and rightly so, since just about everyone whose ever tapped their foot in Preservation Hall or ordered their po-boy "dressed" seems to have an opinion on what's Naturally N'Awlins.

But trying to 'keep it real' in New Orleans is a slippery slope. What's authentic folklore to you might be pure fakelore to me, and for the most part Simon and Overmeyer are onto the notion that what the REAL New Orleans looks like depends on where you're standing.

Early on we're introduced to Sonny and Sonia, white buskers who scratch out a living playing for tips in the French Quarter. They're playing the lesser-known standard Careless Love with 100% moxy and 10% melody for an appreciative trio of tourists in town to gut flooded houses in the Ninth Ward. Sonny is bitter about volunteers showing up to rebuild New Orleans with no idea what the city was like before the flood, and his sarcasm spills over into anger when he offers to play the tiresome warhorse When the Saints Go Marching In if the do-gooders tip them 20 bucks.

This is musicians' insider/outsider talk: tourists want musicians to meet their expectations of what the REAL New Orleans is, and musicians oblige with the same ol' same ol'. If the money's right.

As the old sign in Preservation Hall reads:
Traditional Request $2.00
Others $5.00
"The Saints" $10.00

Later in the episode, the search for authentic music gets all jumbled up with the search for authentic people and places. Davis McAlry, fired from his DJ job, takes a gig as a desk clerk at a Bourbon Street hotel and promptly directs the trio out of the tourist zone and into the 'hood to see Kermit Ruffins play at Bullet's Bar deep in the Seventh Ward. In "real"-life, Kermit's Tuesday night gig at Bullet's for a predominantly black audience is the counterpoint to his Thursday night gig at Vaughan's for a predominantly white audience, and sure enough, in "Treme"-life the do-gooders take a walk on the wild side, dancing and drinking and who-knows-what-else with REAL (i.e. black) New Orleanians.

The next morning, when the trio doesn't show up at the volunteer site, Davis gets fired yet again, this time for endangering the lives of America's great-white-hope by showing them the back door out of the French Quarter. He runs into the still-drunk trio on his way home and they offer him a gushing thanks for "showing us the REAL New Orleans."

Trombonist Antoine Batiste is also working overtime to keep on the real side, hustling gigs anywhere he can; anywhere, that is, except Bourbon Street if he can afford to avoid it. "There's PRIDE on Bourbon Street!" every musician in town reassures him with a pat on the back and a smirk, but Antoine knows that New Orleans is a sliding-scale of authenticity, with Bullet's bar at the top, a gig on Frenchmen Street with the white funk band Galactic somewhere in the middle, and the sadsack bars on Bourbon Street at the bottom. As Antoine tries to make his way up the musical ladder, we get cameos from local luminaries Galactic, Big Sam, Matt Perrine, and Trombone Shorty.

One good payday that Antoine misses out on is the recording session for Elvis Costello & Allen Toussaint's The River in Reverse, the first major recording made in post-Katrina New Orleans. Toussaint is overseeing an overdub session with an all-star horn section - Big Sam, Joe Foxx (ex-Chocolate Milk), and Rob Brown, the trumpeter/actor who plays the part of Delmond Lambreaux, son of Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux - and making sure the musicians keep it funky w/o too many notes.

At session's end, Big Sam tries to convince Elvis to come out to see him play with Galactic, but the connoisseur is skeptical, saying something along the lines of "isn't that a funk band like The Meters except a bunch of white guys?" Elvis passes.

The scenes with Delmond show another side of the authenticity debates in New Orleans. Before the session, Delmond tells his dad he'd rather be playing the modern jazz circuit in Donald Harrison's band than be limited to local grooves. Pop wonders aloud if modern jazz has lost the connection to dance and entertainment that keep black music rooted in New Orleans:

DELMOND: You don’t think I can play straight-up New Orleans R&B in my sleep?
ALBERT: But can you swing? Not all you modern cats can.

Debates along these lines go back at least to the 1950s, when the AFO Executives and other renegade bebop musicians in New Orleans tried to make room for progressive jazz amidst the surplus of traditional dance music.

The episode ends with Mardi Gras Indian chief Albert Lambreaux holding his first Indian "practice" at the back-a-town bar he's been gutting. Indian music is all about call-and-response, and you can't have call-and-response with just a lone call, so the chief's most faithful tribe member shows up at the last minute to sing and bang a tambourine to the traditional chant Shallow Water.

A duo giving a concert to an audience of none in an empty flooded bar without electricity? The authenticity meter has spiked. With nothing left to prove and nowhere better to go, the camera leads us up and out and the credits roll.

With apologies to the Big Chief, I'm holding off for now on a more in-depth discussion of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. I'm still trying to figure out Treme's take on that Hoombah.


  1. It's interesting that Simon tackled the question – or questions – of authenticity so early in the season when so much of the unspoken subtet of "Treme's" very existence is just that. Not that other cities don't have their own definitions of authenticity, but NoLa is a special case and it bleeds into everything from culture to cuisine to habits to architecture …
    Anyhow, what really fascinated me is the what you call a sliding scale as it pertains to music – Simon's synecdoche for the entire culture for the purpose of this series. Davis redeemed himself a bit in my eyes by sending the tourists to Bullets; whether he meant them harm isn't clear, but still, anyone who hasn't attended a Tuesday night at Bullets has some living to do.
    As for Batiste playing a Bourbon Street strip club (ha!), his trepidation is understandable, but for a musician, shouldn't keeping it real mean playing what you love, where you can? (For the record, I'd take a brassy night of swinging at a booby bar over the utterly fake jam-band histrionics of Galactic at the high-end brewpub that is dba anytime.) OK, so there's no pride on Bourbon Street, really, but there's work.
    The street musicians were another matter, and, I think, a serious misstep in tone. A more interesting scene would have had these college students throwing the busker's scorn back in his face: Who cares whether they'd heard of the lower ninth before it became, you know, a wet, stinking wasteland in need of help? (I don't know what Port-au-Prince looked like before the earthquake, but the Red Cross got some checks from me anyway.) They weren't gawkers, unlike the people on the bus tour; they were pitching in. Also, HE offered to play "Saints" after they had made a good-faith effort to hear something "authentic." It seemed that 1) the buskers were also New Orleans parvenus and 2) that we were supposed to cheer for Sonny's contempt as we cheered for John Goodman's character's. The so-called "disaster tourists" were the wrong target for such ire – there are plenty of drunken, bead-flaunting frat boys to taunt passing in front of Rouse's. "Saints" is overplayed, but it ain't inauthentic.

  2. The whole "authenticity" thing with regard to the music in the show is also a bit of a pickle, as the show, in essence, is an artistic representation of other artistic representations. While the "utterly fake jam-band histrionics of Galactic,"* as Arion put it, might not be "authentic" New Orleans music, the cinematic (televisionic?) representation of said jam-band histrionics, and the crowd lapping that stuff up, are fairly authentic. So musically, Galactic isn't really "authentic," but I think any video snapshot of New Orleans at that (this?) point in time would itself be "inauthentic" if it failed to portray that whole scene.

    By this point, the "non-authentic" stuff - e.g., the cover bands on Bourbon, etc. - have become so identified with New Orleans that they sadly are, from many perspectives, the truly "authentic" New Orleans.

    *I think Galactic's terrible "jam band histrionics" are not "fake," they're just as real (and as terrible) as most other jam bands' histrionics.

  3. I don't agree with the prevailing notion that Simon wants us to agree with Creighton or Sonny. His job as the writer is to show us how he perceives the world. Like it or not, many New Orleanians come across exactly like both Creighton and Sonny. We are not a people that take kindly to strangers and we like to complain a lot and loudly-- just read the comments to any given article dealing with the city

  4. One thing I like about Treme is that they don't romanticize music as pure artistic expression. All the musicians are on the hustle, trying to get the gig, make a living, and - along the way - make music. Galactic, Rebirth, the buskers... they're all doing they're thing in New Orleans, finding their place, and ultimately its up to the listener to decide how 'authentic' they are.

  5. @ DA: I've had to stop myself from reading the readers' comments on It gets me all fired up... I guess I can't cope with the complainers who don't see eye-to-eye with me!

  6. @Mike. You're right, of course. That was an injudicious use of the word "fake" in a conversation about authenticity. Couldn't help myself -- I just hate jam bands.

  7. @Matt" good point about the NOLA hustle. I've done a certain amount of show promoting and a smaller amount of cultural documentation and the real-world issues of the former have butted up against the ivory (ebony?) tower of the latter a little bit. At the end of the day, New Orleans musicians want their cash, no matter who or where it comes from, and don't want to discuss authenticity.

    Also, randomly, I thought there were still some solid gigs on Bourbon. I never go to Fritzel's, but the last time I looked, the lineup looked pretty decent.

    PS - one of the things that seems to never go away in NO is the popular dance music vs. "real, serious" music debate. In the course of a 2-years-n'-counting research project on rap, the conscious hip-hop head vs. bounce debate keeps reminding me on all the stories I've heard of Earl Turbinton and Alvin Batiste trying to bring progressive jazz to NO and beating their heads against the wall of hot swing...

  8. The line from Episode 1 "Life is a damn gig" is a readymade cliche, but cliches are useful - that line kind of sums up the whole way Simon uses music as the protagonist of the show. He's been wanting to do a show about NO music for years, and he clearly loves the music, but his focus is less on the music itself than on the way musicians and others hustle to get by. And Katrina gives the writers a common theme to link up all the characters: EVERYONE is hustling to get their lives back together ("we've all got gigs")...

    The dance vs. serious music debate never seems to go away anywhere, huh? The history of jazz becoming "America's classical music" is basically a slow move from the dancehall to the concert hall.

  9. All music goes from the dancehall to the concert hall at some point.

  10. enjoying your blog.

    all the talk about this show would make rorschach proud.


  11. @mike, and yet, something about New Orleans brings out cries of parochialism in the rest of the country. The food, the music, the culture -- they're all seen as so sui generis that the move to the concert hall makes no discernible difference.
    Full disclosure: Bob is a friend of mine and I love him madly, but he has blind spots, and music that is counterrevolutionary is his biggest. The lack of context in this post is, I think, breathtaking (that's part of requiring music contribute to revolution), and less than generous.
    Elvis Costello's (real-life) choice of Allen Toussaint as a collaborator ratchets the concert-hall argument into perspective, I think, Can't wait for tonight's episode, or Matt's next post.

  12. None other than Kidd Jordan has said (repeatedly) that any music that is played in New Orleans is New Orleans music. Kidd is our best known exponent of free jazz, and he is responding in this statement to people who tell him his music is NOT New Orleans jazz. I think Kidd would say that his music is the logical extension of the freedom of New Orleans jazz. Whether Galactic trips your hammer or not, they are New Orleans musicians, and you just can't put the entire city's music inside one (nostalgic) groove. Yeah,there is a kind of jazz that is ours and pretty much ours alone, but that's not all there is in this town and it's not like the ability to play "Didn't He Ramble" is simply a genetic inheritance. Anyone who can play and wants to hang can learn how to play anything-- no one interrogates the "authenticity" of Japanese players of European classical music. No one questions Wynton Marsalis's right to play European classics, and no one (better ever) question his right to do it. No one questions June Yamagishi's ability to play like a (shut yo' mouth.) You may want to classify Bullets at the top of the authenticity scale and rank Frenchmen somewhere in the middle and Bourbon below-- but what detracts from Frenchmen's authenticity? The presence of white musicians? Fact: Frenchmen street is still the most easily and comfortably multiracial hang in the city, and musicians of all races play side by side nightly, there and all over town, in tuxes, in sweatshirts and on corners. That's what I call authentically New Orleans.