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.