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
"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.