With “Piety,” Michael Cerveris finds his way home to New Orleans

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Michael Cerveris and friends perform “Piety”
Friday, April 29, 8 p.m.
The Theatre at St. Claude
Tickets: $20

When Michael Cerveris went into the studio to create the 2004 album, “Dog Eared,” he did so with what felt like a who’s who of ’90s rockers, including members of Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices and Teenage Fanclub along for the ride. Twelve years on, Cerveris — once again taking a break from what has become a stellar Broadway career — is back with another moving collaborative effort.

But this time, the all-stars are from New Orleans, which Cerveris increasingly has embraced as his home even while continuing his Tony Award-winning work in “Fun Home.” The result is “Piety,” which features contributions from several of the New Orleans musicians who helped collaborate on the Katrina musical-in-progress “Nine Lives.”

When he made “Dog Eared,” he recalled, songs were recorded as musicians were available, “making this sonic house where all these people came to hang out.

“This is the New Orleans version of the same thing,” Cerveris said of the album, which includes such “Nine Lives” collaborators as Shamarr Allen, Paul Sanchez and Alex McMurray. “It’s true of how I like to work in theater, too. I sit and write songs in my apartment or house, and then record something, and my ideas only get me so far. I like handing it over to people and say, ‘Here’s the core, and respond to it in terms of what you hear. Play me what you hear when I play this for you.’

“I’m always excited to hear that (result), and that might spark an idea with me.”

Cerveris recently announced that he will reunite with many of the musicians for a live performance April 29 at The Theatre at St. Claude, co-owned by another “Nine Lives” collaborator, playwright Jim Fitzmorris. Expected to re-join Cerveris: Anders Osborne, Mia Borders, Paul Sanchez, Shamarr Allen, Alex McMurray, Rod Hodges (the Iguanas), Linzay Young (Red Stick Ramblers) and old friend Kimberly Kaye, who also performs with Cerveris in their Americana band Loose Cattle. (She also worked on the latest script for “Nine Lives.”)

(Read more: Michael Cerveris at the Broadway @ NOCCA series)

“Piety” is an evocative, ruminative work that, not unlike “Dog Eared,” feels like a departure from the rock ’n’ roll creations that helped make Cerveris a rising musical-theater, whether in “Tommy” or “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”

Instead, we hear echoes of Louisiana folklore in “Evangeline,” an eight-minute, acoustic opus flush with fiddle, banjo and even accordion that seem to float on air as Cerveris recalls Longfellow’s famed poem:

Knew so little when she learned of heartache /
Looking for him by another name /
All the ones that never were her Gabriel /
Making sure she never was the same

There’s also the restless spirit in “Crescent” and the closing “Phoenix,” a song of rebirth that can’t help but make one think of Hurricane Katrina even when it’s never explicitly mentioned, with former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason underscoring the closing words, “Wise up / Rise up / Rise and shine.”

The subtle stars of “Piety” might be the backing female vocals. With Cerveris content to underplay his own vocals, practically breathing his lines at times, a chorus rises underneath him, led by Kimberly Kaye and Kendall Meade and including “The Gospel Queens”: Edna M. Johnson, Bobbie Grant and Judy Gibbs.

Cerveris says he struggled at first to put a label on the musical style he was going for here, starting with the term chamber folk, “but that didn’t work.” Instead, he said, imagine “If Nick Drake and Elliott Smith made a record down South, this is what it would be.”

(Read more: John Swenson’s review of “Piety” for OffBeat)

If anything, as the title might suggest, “Piety” feels like an elegy to Piety Street Recording and its owner, Mark Bingham — the album’s legendary producer.

It’s also where they recorded the music for “Nine Lives,” and where Bingham prodded him for original material that he might have for a solo record. From there, the collaboration, years in the making, progressed. At that point, Cerveris noted, there was no inkling that Piety might close, which it since has — leaving behind a legacy of great recordings.

“I’ve been in some other great studios, but there are very few studios that had the soul that Piety Street did,” Cerveris said. “It seemed like a magical place from the time I got there. Mark spent equal time making sure the food was proceeding well on the stove at the same time that stuff was going down on tape. I found that significant and meaningful.

“I just love the place so much and wanted the album to be a footnote in the history of the place.”

He expressed the same love for Bingham behind the sound board: “He’s pretty ego-less as a producer. He’s more interested in the music than putting his own stamp on it. He really listens. He’ll offer his opinion, but also will listen to yours.”

While it was years in the making, “Piety” in Cerveris’ mind seems to have arrived at the right time. When he started making the record, he noted, he wasn’t as invested in his new home like he is these days. Now he owns a home in Treme and practically commutes from New York City whenever he can find a break from “Fun Home.

“My commit to the place is more solid and evident to people,” he said. “It’s being received as the New Orleans record that it is even though it’s not a traditional New Orleans record, but it’s representative of a broad vision of the city and the music scene, and certainly includes so many people from the music scene.”

How Michael Cerveris, Tony winner, played for his rock ’n’ roll lifestyle

New Orleanians finally got a chance to see Michael Cerveris live and in person after the Treme resident had won the Tony Award (and continues to perform in) the musical “Fun Home,” with an appearance at the Broadway @ NOCCA series on Monday (Dec. 14) night. It was a laid-back, casual affair with Cerveris swapping stories with Seth Rudetsky in between performing songs from his vast two-decade career (with Rudetsky accompanying on piano).

Some of the stories he relayed also were referenced in an interview I conducted for my advance feature that ran in the New Orleans Advocate, which didn’t do justice for a facet of Cerveris’ career that deserves fuller explanation: his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. It’s a life that, professionally speaking, started awkwardly enough playing a British wannabe rocker in the last season (1987) of the TV show “Fame,” but six years later kicked into high gear when he scored the title role of “Tommy” (which earned him a Tony Award nomination in this, his Broadway debut.

This is the first of a few crazy, rocking moments in this Broadway star’s life, which include playing as a sideman on indie rocker Bob Mould’s U.S. tour (and the U.K. leg of the European tour) in 1998, his replacing friend John Cameron Mitchell in Mitchell’s “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” cranking out his own solo album, “Dog Eared,” in 2004, and his current side group Loose Cattle (based in New York). When I asked him how he saw these supposedly different lifestyles — the Broadway performer and the rock ‘n’ roller — Cerveris explained their common ground:

I think I’m just someone who is just trying to express himself. Someone might speak English to someone if they speak English because that’s how they understand it best. Or Spanish if the person listening is Spanish. In the same way, I guess I think of it as using the language of a particular style or genre to communicate in the way that will translate best to that particular audience, while the basic content remains unchanged. I think my job as actor and singer is to be a vessel for author and their intent. They create the genre they’re working in, and if it’s Pete Townshend, he’s telling it through rock and roll. John Cameron Mitchell and Stephen Trask, it’s though glam rock. Yet I kind of feel like I’m still saying the things I’m saying, it’s just translated through different things. I feel like my approach is kind of rock and roll even when I’m singing something more legit. I told Stephen Sondheim I think he is a rock-and-roll musical theater person. He looked at me like I had two heads when I said that. But I think that because of the fierceness in his music and the lack of … the disregard for the norm, maybe. Even in rock and roll, you’ve got Poison and Twisted Sister and Joy Division and the Sex Pistols and Pearl Jam and Creed, and they’re all considered rock and roll yet what they do is very different. The simple answer is, I feel like I’m doing the same thing with the same investment, whether singing Sondheim or Townshend. While I completely understand how it sounds and want it to sound authentic to the genre in which the writer is writing it, I don’t think of it as two different things. It’s telling a story and speaking truth on whatever pitches I’m given.

After spending several years working off-Broadway, Cerveris went out to Los Angeles for “Fame,” playing Brit rocker Ian Ware — a role he earned, he notes, partly due to nailing in the audition a version of David Bowie’s “Young Americans.” After its cancellation, he wound up staying for several years — at a fertile time in the L.A. rock scene, while appearing in regional theater all along the Pacific Coast:

Because in Los Angeles, you are what you pretend to be, I went out there playing this British indie-rock guitar player on this TV show, so I was perceived as that. I hung out at the Scream Club and saw a bunch of bands. Jane’s Addiction, Guns ‘N Roses, all these guys were playing in the clubs. I was friends with all these musicians, but I had never taken myself seriously as a musician. I thought a musician was someone like my father, who was trained in classical music, musical theory, the craft. I was just a largely self taught guitar player. I still don’t really read music. But here I was with all these people. And while I was not the best guitar player, I realized I could play as well as that guy over there, and he’s got a four-record deal! So I figured I should stop letting my insecurities get in the way of playing music. L.A. was really kind of where I started becoming a songwriter. I was so lonely and out of synch with my environment. Eventually, five years later, I was in the middle of “Richard II” at the (Mark Taper Forum), starring Kelsey Grammer as Richard II. It was the same time as the L.A. riots after the Rodney King verdict. I had an audition one afternoon for this production of “Tommy” that someone wanted to do at the La Jolla Playhouse. I played that same David Bowie song and I guess it was lucky for me again. That’s what brought me to “Tommy” and brought me back to New York. During my time out west I did kind of fall off the map in some people’s minds. But that detour was how I wound up where I did. I read this Frank Rich review, wondering where Michael Cerveris had been. Well, I had been in New York for several years and no one seemed all that interested! He had even reviewed me in some off-Broadway things. It seemed like I had appeared out of nowhere. But I had been working for years downtown and in regional theater.

After earning a Tony Award nomination for Tommy, Cerveris signed on play the architect in the musical version of “Titanic,” an experience in which he went into great detail on Monday night, and, in our interview noted, he eventually left to go play rhythm guitar with former Husker Du frontman Bob Mould, “which is also not the usual career move,” he added with a chuckle. And so begins another rock ‘n’ roll odyssey.

While performing in “Tommy,” Cerveris went to go see Bob Mould perform at a club. Pete Townsend, with whom he’d become friends after “Tommy,” was in town and Cerveris convinced him to join him for the show. Once word got to the stage that the legendary Who guitarist was in the audience, Mould invited both of them backstage after the show. (“Bob is a huge Who fan, which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone,” he said.) Slowly, Cerveris and Mould became friends, with Mould even sitting in with Cerveris’ band at the time at a show after Mould and his partner had moved to Brooklyn.

Upon completion of his “The Last Dog and Pony Show” album, Mould asked Cerveris if he’d be interested in play rhythm guitar for a European tour, which at first Cerveris took as an off-hand remark but Mould was serious. “‘My music’s not rocket science,’“ Cerveris recalls Mould telling him. “So that’s how that happened.”

Unfortunately, a dream gig soured fairly early on for Cerveris:

I woke up every day on that tour as the happiest guy to be on that stage. But it was a tough tour. He was disconnecting from his label. Had taken it on as an obligation to the label. He became increasingly frustrated. I became the place where a lot of that frustration got placed. He’d never played with a rhythm guitar player with him before. I think he really wanted to go out as a three-piece. I ended up not doing the last couple shows. I did the American and U.K. legs. Then there were two or three dates in Europe that I didn’t do. That was rough for me because all I want to do was make him happy with the way I played. He wasn’t super communicative about what he wanted, but I tried til my last show with him in London (captured on the live CD Bob Mould Band: LiveDog98) to figure it out. After the show, he and the other guys boarded the bus to Paris and I was left in England.

The upside was, he wound up becoming friends with the members of Teenage Fanclub (whose manager once worked with Mould), which led to the making of Cerveris’ solo album, “Dog Eared,’ and which featured appearances by Norman Blake (of Teenage Fanclub), Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss (Sleater-Kinney), Ken Stringfellow (Posies, R.E.M.), Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth), Kevin March (Guided by Voices), Anders Parker (Varnaline), and Laura Cantrell. This was also around the time Cerveris found himself in the unique position of taking over full time for John Cameron Mitchell in the title role of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.” In both the interview and onstage Monday, he recalled how the two of them had would run into each other in the 1990s:

We used to see each other at auditions and stuff because John was an actor. He would always be giving me flyers for this weird drag character he was doing, and I would hand him flyers for whatever band I was trying to get people to see that week. We were doing a workshop about a the band Queen that ultimately became “We Will Rock You.” But back then it was more a biographical musical about the band. John and I were playing the bass player and drummer. And we were basically the bad kids in the back of the class. We were like, “Seriously, you have to teach us to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody?” Like, if we don’t know how to sing “Bohemian Rhapsody” already, we really shouldn’t be here. John was getting ready to do “Hedwig” at the Jane Street Theater. And he kept telling me about it and would ask me, “Should I call it a post-glam punk rock musical or the post-punk glam rock musical?” And I was like, I don’t know whatever you’re talk about. But I knew John’s rock interest was sincere.

This was also at the same time “Rent” had become the hippest musical on Broadway, something Cerveris admits to resenting because critics were calling it the first musical to really “get” rock ‘n’ roll right when, just a few years earlier, he believed “Tommy” had already more honestly earned that title. After some avoidance, he says, he broke down and caught the production, partly because some friends were in the cast. It was OK, he recalls, but, “I couldn’t get away from the feeling that I’d enjoy the songs more if I was in a club and some bar band was playing this. They were working really hard to be rock-and-roll-y kind of singers.”

The next night, he saw “Hedwig.”

“I was just blown away,” he said. “ I thought, if I had the wit and skill to write something, this is what I would do.”

Over time, Mitchell admitted to getting tired doing what in many ways was a one-man show, and he turned to Cerveris to fill in for him:

I was simultaneously thrilled and nauseous. I had never done a one person show before. Really, though, you’re not alone. The band and Yitsak make it feel like an ensemble show, even though you have all the lines. But I said yes, because taking on what terrifies me has usually been my way of figuring out what to do. What we all learned to John’s great relief was that other people can do it. I just learned an enormous amount and felt really so at home in the part and in the production and in that weird space downtown. It was like going down to the Salvation Army and putting on some old used suit, and it was like it was tailor made for you. Maybe with a dress and heels, but the same idea.

To help prepare for the production, Cerveris and the band played a New Year’s Eve show (1998) at Radio City Music Hall opening for, of all people, Boy George and Culture Club — in drag and everything.

“We’re playing songs from the show and people seemed a little mystified,” he said. “I always thought that was the way to introduce the show to someone. Wanted to play gigs in London (West End) like we’re some new, undiscovered tranny band.”

For the past four years, Cerveris has played with Loose Cattle, an Americana band in which he shares lead vocals with old friend Kimberly Kaye — who has become the playwright on the musical adaptation of the Katrina book “Nine Lives” (which Cerveris has been helping Paul Sanchez and Kim develop). They just released two new songs, “Pony Girl” — a sort-of outtake from the “Fun Home” soundtrack — and a haunting, sultry version of “St. James Infirmary” with Kaye on lead vocals.

Cerveris isn’t sure when he’ll next be able to herd some iteration of Loose Cattle to New Orleans for a performance — some of the musicians are pretty firmly rooted in New York. But it would be great for local audiences to hear, at some point, live and in person, how Michael Cerveris lives his rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle. Because that is one language we’re only now fully appreciating that he can speak, quite fluently.