Sunday, May 30, 2010


Treme is on hiatus this week and so am I.

Here's whats on all our minds:

If you don't know the original, get you some Smokey Johnson.

Monday, May 24, 2010

episode 7: gigs

One of the most representative exchanges of dialogue in Treme was back in Episode 1 when chief Albert's daughter Davina reluctantly left her father to live in the flooded remains of Poke's bar. She calls her brother Delmond for help, but the musician tries to recuse himself:

DELMOND: I’ve got gigs.
DAVINA: We all got gigs, Delmond. Life is a goddamn gig.

Everyone in Treme is doing a balancing act on a highwire: getting gigs, keeping gigs, playing gigs, and trying to finish the gig and wind down. One thing I remember about New Orleans after Katrina is that everybody seemed to be working overtime - regular work but also rebuilding, finding contractors, dealing with insurance, staying in touch with displaced friends and family, etc. - and most everybody seemed to be partying overtime also - drinking, eating, just about everything but sleeping - to counteract the work and suffering. It was zaniness that became normalcy because it was so routine, and the ensemble cast and episodic scriptwriting of Treme is ideally designed to capture the everydayness of the lunacy.

Life is a goddamn gig and Treme is all about the layers of responsibility that the gig entails:

- LaDonna searches for her brother Daymo, and when she finally locates his body she has to withhold the information from her family so as not to obliterate the joy of the first Mardi Gras season since the flood.
- When he's not teaching, Creighton holes himself up in his home office to plug away on his blog, er, I mean literary masterpiece, while his lawyer wife Toni singlehandidly saves the world.
- Annie gets an audition with the Pine Leaf Boys and then purposefully blows it, seemingly out of a sense of responsibility to her loser boyfriend/busking partner/piano man Sonny. (OK, so life is not a goddamn gig for everyone. The only thing Sonny seems to work at is his cuckoo crazy pose.)
- Janette is forced to close her restaurant and downsize to a roving BBQ trailer, selling her kitchen items to uberchef John Besh for some pocket change. (Katrina temporarily took away buildings and brought food trucks in its wake, particularly "taco trucks" operated by new Latino arrivals.)
- Even rolling stone Davis McAlery shows some determination in this episode, slinging his CDs, brokering a deal with a judge, and helping Janette get the BBQ fired up @ Bacchanal wine bar.

Albert Lambreaux is on more of a quest than a gig. He's broken into the unflooded-but-shuttered BW Cooper housing projects (aka The Calliope), occupied an apartment, notified the media and police, and ignited a community protest against HUD/HANO. There were actual protests against the blatantly racist housing policies post-K, and they were somewhat effective in getting a tiny percentage of public housing back open, though most (including The Calliope) have been demolished to make way for mixed-income housing. It's an effective dramatization to have the protest sparked by a Mardi Gras Indian chief, who is traditionally a figure of both fierceness and fraternity within the community.

And finally there's Antoine Batiste, who moves through this episode with a degree of quiet determination that we haven't seen from him yet. Antoine gets steady work in a brass band that welcomes arrivals at the New Orleans airport (yes, this gig has long been a way of promoting cultural tourism), but as usual, his success is put in perspective by his trombone nemesis Troy Andrews, who arrives with his older trumpet-playing brother James from the Portland Jazz Festival, and takes a moment to sit in with the band, make Antoine eat his trombone dust, and then have his chauffeur escort him to the limo. (James and Troy play the 1960 New Orleans R+B hit Ooh Poo Pah Do, written and sung by their grandfather Jessie Hill, with the unforgettable line: "I'm gonna create a disturbance in your mind.")

After the gig, Antoine goes to visit his mentor Danny Nelson in the hospital but finds he has passed, which leads to the inevitable jazz funeral. "You gonna second line back?" asks Nelson's daughter. Antoine responds something like "Danny would give me hell if I didn't," and the Royal Players Brass Band strikes up the old spiritual "I'll Fly Away," which is the standard choice to mark the shift between the period of mourning to the post-burial celebration of death. Even death is a goddamn gig that creates responsibilities for the living.

Monday, May 17, 2010

episode 6: light/heat

Treme doesn't have a lead actor. Its based around an ensemble cast. And Treme doesn't have a unifying plot. Its not a cop show, or a show where everybody is stranded on an island and is trying to get off. Each episode cuts back-and-forth between people from vastly different social positions in vastly different situations and what connects them together is the shared experience of being in post-Katrina New Orleans. The place and the culture are the glue.

Its a bit of an experiment in script writing, if you ask me, and since you asked I'll admit that I'm not sure how effective it is. I love this place and these people and I still find myself looking for a storyline to make me care and keep coming back, because the scriptwriters' determination to "get New Orleans right" by deluging viewers with authentic local culture and dropping localisms at every turn ("Always for Pleasure!" "There's Pride on Bourbon Street!") doesn't necessarily make for good TV. If local culture is the protagonist of Treme, than culture needs to get out more and do stuff rather than always trying on different outfits and looking at itself in the mirror, pouting when it doesn't like what it sees and smiling when it does. I find this more crucial to the show's significance that the insider/outsider authentic/inauthentic New Orleanian/non-New Orleanian debates that have ensnared Simon.

In Episode 6, its Mardi Gras, or the lead up to it, that binds the scenes together. More than Christmas and New Years, its the Carnival season (Twelfth Night to Fat Tuesday) that's the apex of the yearly calendar for New Orleanians, and this week we're smack dab in the middle of the festivities. But this is not the Bourbon Street frat-party hurricane-and-titties Mardi Gras, its those parties that constitute Mardi Gras for locals from every strata of the city: the Indian "gangs" are busily preparing their suits... the elite Mardi Gras Kewes are having a ball... and those in-between are irreverently parading in the streets.

Albert Lambreaux's Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Guardians of the Flame, is gaining momentum on the march toward their first Mardi Gras post-Katrina. At least since Emancipation, black Indians have marched through the streets on Mardi Gras morning in elaborate handsewn costumes that honor Native Americans who “won’t bow, won’t kneel." Every year, the members of the tribe come out in a new suit that takes months to sew. Albert enlists his ladyfriend to cut fabric while he stitches beads and feathers, and the whole gang gets together to practice chants like "Shallow Water, Oh Mama" that Indians sing while they move through the city on the search for other tribes.

Its hard to imagine a group more emblematic of black working-class resistance than Mardi Gras Indians, and as you might imagine, tribe members are often at odds with law enforcement and city government. This history gets a Katrina-treatment in Treme as Albert battles to have the housing projects reopen. "My gang needs someplace to live," Albert tells his councilman's assistant after being offered a tiny FEMA trailer while the projects remain shuttered. "They're like refugees in they own country." And so it will stay, with Albert living at Poke's bar while his second chief sews patches for his costume in a van parked outside.

If Katrina, and especially the governmental response to it, have created obstacles for Albert's tribe, surprising opportunities have arisen for others. With the eyes of the world on New Orleans and its distinctive traditions, any New Orleanian who can claim to be a "culture-bearer" has the potential to step into the spotlight. Albert's son Delmond is touring the U.S. with Donald Harrison Jr.'s modern jazz band in a kind of "New Orleans Revue" with the banjo-toting trad jazzman Don Vappie. Onscreen and in real life, Harrison bridges the traditional and modern, comfortable playing contemporary bebop or singing Indian chants he learned from his father, Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the (actual) Guardians of the Flame. (Or mixing all of the above on his startling CD Indian Blues.)  But Delmond is younger and hasn't struck a balance yet. Tradition all smacks of pandering. He wants to stake out new territory, and for him that means cutting his New Orleans roots.

Before a show, Harrison suggests they "give the people of Arizona what they want to hear" by closing with Iko, Iko, Mardi Gras Mambo, or (gasp) Saints, all local standards that Harrison has reinterpreted throughout his career. Delmond protests and wins the battle but loses the war: the next night in Houston the band encores with Iko and by the time the tour hits Snug Harbor in New Orleans Delmond is thoroughly conflicted. His dad socializes at the bar while the band plays a lot of notes and only seems to take interest when talking with Harrison chief-to-chief. Later, Delmond stops by Indian practice and allows himself to tap his foot to the beat and sing along before jetting back to NYC.

The Katrina spotlight is also shining on Tulane English prof Creighton Bernette, whose incendiary YouTube rants about the governmental drowning of his beloved city have made him a cause-celebre and renewed his publisher's interest in his long-dormant novel. Creighton begrudgingly promises his agent that he'll get back to work, but he'd rather be marching through the French Quarter to the sounds of the Panorama and the Stooges brass bands at the Krewe du Vieux parade that kicks off the Mardi Gras parade season.

But Katrina was not an equal-opportunity employer, and trombonist Antoine Batiste has found himself left out in the rain. Or hung out to dry. Missing the boat? Anyway, he can't get a gig, even a spot on a Dr. John tour that was handed to him by Philip Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band but went to the younger, hipper Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews instead. (Shorty, needless to say, would never show up to a black-tie affair in a suit because his old stained tux got shrunk in the washing machine.) When Kermit Ruffins throws Antoine his scraps - subbing in a big-band at a Mardi Gras ball - Antoine is grateful but deflated. Playing charts of swing standards is not Antoine's idea of creative expression (i.e. its not authentically "New Orleans"), and though his spontaneous solo on the warhorse Take the A Train earns him a smattering of applause from the polite dancers, the glare shot by the bandleader will surely have more of an effect on Antoine's fumbling quest for a steady paycheck.

Like a lot of the music in this episode, this performance seems designed to leave us cold. The lighting, the cinematography, and the sound of the modern jazz and big-band scenes are muted in comparison to the vibrant practice session at the Indian bar. For those viewers in search of locating where authenticity begins and ends, the look and sound are a kind of thermometer for gauging the way Simon and his team assign value. But for those in search of an intimate, cohesive story, Treme may be giving off more light than heat.

Monday, May 10, 2010

episode 5: humanizing

Episode 5 is stitched together by a massive parade that brings virtually all of the characters out to march, dance, and play. Like much in Treme, the scene is based on an actual event: the All-Star Second Line Parade, which brought together multiple brass bands and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs and was likely the largest community parade in this city's history. It was also one of the first parades post-Katrina and was meant to be a catalyst to bring back New Orleanians, if only for an afternoon, for a joyous reunion and peaceful display of unity. (As has been discussed elsewhere, this was not actually the 1st post-K parade.) And that's exactly what it was until the march ended, shots were fired, and the parade became a catalyst for something else entirely: a moral panic over the return of violent crime to the city and an aggressive police response.

Journalist and Treme resident Lolis Elie wrote a masterful script that shows how parades create a very real sense of community among participants but that this unity is fragile because people - cops, thugs, musicians, second liners, blacks and whites - aren't going to necessarily get along just because they're all marching to the same drum. As always, the underlying subtext of the show is that black culture is a kind of meeting-ground where diverse New Orleanians can get together in the name of pleasure but without escaping the pain: urban violence, interracial conflict, and civic institutions that rely upon local culture to prop up the local economy with tourist dollars but consistently marginalize and punish the actual culture-bearers.

Outside City Hall, Big Chief Lambreaux runs into two Social Aid & Pleasure Club presidents who are fighting the NOPD over the permit fee for the parade. This is a reference to a major showdown over the price of parading, which in real-life began AFTER the shootings at the All-Star parade when police tripled the parade fee from $1250 to $3760. A coalition of clubs banded together as the Social Aid & Pleasure Club Task Force and partnered with the ACLU to file a lawsuit claiming that the violence had occurred away from the parade routes and after the parade had disbanded and that the fees for Mardi Gras parades (which require exponentially more police) remained at $750 despite occasional shootings along the parade route. Eventually, attorney Mary Howell (the basis for character Toni Bernette) forced the city to settle the suit and lower the parade fee to $1985.

Onscreen, actual Task Force president Tamara Jackson explains to Lambreuax that the NOPD wanted to "cancel our permit and try to shut our parade down," even through the purpose of the parade was to draw African American residents back to the city, if only temporarily, as housing was scarce in no small part because virtually all public housing in the city remained shuttered. This is surely the most telling example of racial exclusion post-Katrina; while Mayor Nagin campaigned on a platform to return evacuees and make New Orleans a "chocolate city" once again, he was taking directions from the Forty Thieves to mount obstacles for the return of the black poor. Again, the city cannot function without local culture but ideally - in an imaginary utopian New Orleans - those who create it would be somehow excluded.

Fortunately the momentum of the parade was too powerful to stop, and by Sunday afternoon the streets were filled with sights and sounds. In the aftermath of the flood, second line parades became sites for those displaced from their neighborhoods to reconnect with friends, family, and neighbors. ("Lemme guess - you came all the way from Houston for the big second line?" the Big Chief asks his daughter when she appears on his doorstep unannounced.) Second line parades are always about participation through music and dance, and the disruption of Katrina only intensified these shared emotions (the subject of a great article by Rachel Breunlin and Helen Regis.)

We hear the Free Agents Brass Band playing their post-K anthem Made It Through That Water and see all kinda second line regulars strutting their stuff: drummer and dancer Jerry Anderson, the ubiquitous BBQ maestro Biddles with the Vittles, and the real Davis (who made an earlier appearance playing piano for the fake Davis' campaign song.) The diversity is notable: the three white couples (Davis + chef Janette, buskers Annie + Sonny, and the Bernettes) represent the many sides of white New Orleans and the black characters (down-and-out Antoine Batiste and his ex Ladonna w/her respectable dentist hubby Larry) do the same for black New Orleans. The music and dancing work their magic to unite everyone together.

But unity always masks underlying differences, making TV and real-life more interesting. The shooting mars the positive images the parade was intended to project, allowing the media to stoke fears that displaced criminals are returning to the city. But it ain't just hype: everyone seems conflicted about the thugs' "right to return." A tipsy Davis laments "Niggas will fuck up a wet dream," prompting a black stranger to get up from his barstool and punch him in the face. When Davis comes to, he's been rescued by his gentrifying neighbors that he detests, and he glumly faces up to the reality that full acceptance by the black community is as much of a wet dream as a full disassociation from his white neighbors. Everyone is human, and in this episode of Treme, everyone is humanized. As a sequel to last week's post, the relationships in Treme don't conform to the protagonist-antagonist mold so much as they place everyone on an even playing field and track them as they stumble and scheme.

This is clearest in the scene where lawyer Toni Bernette chastises her contact at NOPD for cops aggressive policing and gets an earful in return about the plight of cops who try to maintain order while struggling to keep their lives together. Even the corrupt criminal justice system is humanized.

"It's all coming back isn't it?" asks Bernette. "For a moment the storm took it away: no dope, no guns, no bodies...."

The parade provides New Orleanians with a sense of community, but that community is populated by people with very different perspectives on what New Orleans is and should be.

Monday, May 3, 2010

episode 4: antagony

The pace of Treme moves in almost real-time, inter-cutting back-and-forth between simultaneous episodes in character's lives: dinners, appointments, drinks, sex. This kind of day-in-the-life scripting highlights the everyday nature of culture in New Orleans: music is not only central to those moments set aside for staged performance because it also insinuates itself into the mundane and the routine...

... Antoine Batiste casually improvises a lament to the tune of the New Orleans standard St. James Infirmary while waiting to fix his busted lip at the only emergency room in New Orleans. (fyi, check out this Preservation Hall remix.) Steve Earle leads an impromptu old-timey jam session at the Apple Barrell, a tiny bar in the Frenchmen Street entertainment district. Recordings by local rapper 5th Ward Weebie's are on in the background in two key scenes (including his post-K throwdown Fuck Katrina.)...

There's nothing exceptional about music here - its just always there. But then again, its not merely a soundtrack because music accomplishes things - it creates connections between characters, suturing their lives to one another.

There is a simmering tension in these scenes as we watch the characters piece their lives back together (or fail trying) and the music is nearly always a counterpoint to this tension. Its an outlet for expression, a consolation, a cathartic release. New Orleans music is so often upbeat ("Feel good music, I've been told. Good for your body, and it's good for your soul") and this allows the Treme writers to pepper their scripts with foot-tapping scenes. Glen David Andrews belts out Who Dat Called Da Police with the New Birth Brass Band. John Boutte also joins the band to sing At the Foot of Canal Street, which is re-arranged from his CD version to neatly recreate the progression of a traditional New Orleans jazz funeral: beginning with a slow dirge and then transitioning to an upbeat finale.

The message: music can restore the characters' faith in New Orleans. Or, as the John Goodman character Creighton Bernette puts it in his YouTube rant, "One of our neighborhoods has more culture than all of your pathetic cookie-cutter suburbs laid end to end." (poached from Ashley Morris' actual blog entry 11/27/05.)

But from my perspective, the abundance of feel-good music has so far created a problem for the scriptwriters: What is the source of conflict in Treme? If music is the show's protagonist, the antagonist has yet to fully take shape, and the leading contenders are slightly worrisome. The dysfunctional institutions that frustrate characters (hospital emergency rooms, insurance offices, FEMA)? Straw men. Sonny the off-kilter busker? The rumor around town is that the character may be based on Zackery Bowen, who killed and dismembered his girlfriend and then jumped to his death from the roof of a French Quarter hotel a year after Katrina. This would inevitably ruffle some feathers in New Orleans, since Bowen was a bartender (not a musician) and an Iraqi war vet, but more importantly the murder-suicide was just too bizarre to be representative of New Orleanians' experiences post-Katrina.

The leading contender for the antagonist may be the janus-face of the protagonist: music. The tension that recurs in every episode is trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux's internal struggle over where exactly he stands as a musician. His roots in the streets of his hometown bestow him with notoriety but his ambition is to break from tradition in the progressive jazz clubs of New York City and beyond. With the spotlight on New Orleans, Delmond's agent wants him to exploit his New Orleans roots by recasting himself as a homeboy-done-good and taking his act on the road with a final homecoming concert. But Delmond prefers so see himself as a metropolitan mover-and-shaker rather than a tradition-bearer. When his high-styling girlfriend escorts him to a party full of the NYC jazz elite (McCoy Tyner, Stanley Crouch, etc.), Delmond is awestruck but also worried of how he'll be received.

"You been in New York for a few years?"one musicians asks. "Nah," replies Delmond, only half joking, "I'm from the country."

Sure enough, back in the country, tradition rules. In the Spotted Cat on Frenchmen, violinist Annie sits in with the Jazz Vipers playing jazz noir from the 20s. And of course, Delmond's pop Big Chief Albert is holding it down at the Mardi Gras Indian rehearsal in the bar he's restoring. The Indians chanting the traditional Shoo Fly (Don't Bother Me) lures a curious young neighborhood kid into the bar, and we get a sense not only of the everyday nature of musical traditions in New Orleans but also how those traditions are perpetuated by every new generation.

But the jury's still out about whether this storyline is going to take precedence and, if it does, whether it can sustain the kind of edge-of-the-seat tension that fans of David Simon's The Wire, Homicide, etc. are expecting.

Hate to leave on an open quesion, but I've got a house full of guests who helped me celebrate my debut at Jazz Fest yesterday... and now I've got to chauffer them to Cafe du Monde for some beignets. Culture in New Orleans w/o a script.