I’ll have more on the tribute to Allen Toussaint on Friday (Nov. 20) at the Orpheum Theater. It was an overwhelming experience fill with memories, music and emotion. Until then, here’s a photo gallery (with a few duplicates/extras), which I’ll tidy up with the post.
Upon learning the news of Allen Toussaint’s passing on Nov. 10 at the age of 77, the first name that came to my mind was Jon Cleary, and not just because he is my favorite New Orleans piano player, or because I’d profiled him and the making of “Pin Your Spin” for Gambit Weekly back in 2004. It was, more appropriately, Cleary’s 2012 album, “Occapella,” a brilliant reimagining of some of Toussaint’s more popular (and some less popular) works.
Cleary is one of those special musicians who loves to deconstruct the creative and technical processes when he’s both making and discussing his work, and while he conceded early on that, basically, at the time he needed to put out some kind of record, and that friend John Scofield said tribute albums get easy media recognition, there was something special about digging into what made an Allen Toussaint song “work.””
Normally when I make a record I’m writing the songs as well, so there’s this other process where you’re agonizing over lyrics and arrangements, but the thing with Allan’s tunes is that the songs are good, the lyrics are good, and the arrangements have these key little signature things. My approach to it was identifying the most important elements, breaking the song down to its fundamentals and then building it back up again.
Hopefully I’ll have more of this interview, which also touched on Cleary’s general impressions on Toussaint’s musical legacy, but because he’s already said some of this, I thought it would be fun to hear his creative process on “Occapella” straight from his lips. Listen below.
While working in the previous gig, doing social media roundups was a regular thing, and sometimes felt a little bit like a reflexive thing. But as the tributes come pouring in on the news Tuesday (Nov. 10) of Allen Toussaint’s passing, I thought it appropriate to revive the practice here.
Why? Because it seemed like Allen Toussaint was everywhere, and, perhaps more important, gracious with everyone he met. In just this past year, around Mardi Gras and then around Jazz Fest (appropriately enough), I either saw and waved at Toussaint (in his vintage Rolls Royce, about to park and head inside Restaurant August) or convinced him to take a selfie with my son Eli as he was making his way from that Rolls to Morning Call in City Park.
I’m not alone. Everyone, it seems, has a photo of them taken with (or especially of) him, if Facebook is any indication this morning. Here are some of these and other memories I’ve pulled from social media. What’s also amazing is the range of video clips of his work that are pouring out, showing the breadth and depth of his talent.
Feel free to share you memories of him in the comments. One final memory, and it’s a deep one or anything, but I think the year was 2000, and my old boss Michael Tisserand at Gambit Weekly invited me as his plus one to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation’s gala. And Toussaint was the headliner. What a way to see him perform for the first time. I love to say how fun it is to see great music in gritty, homey nightclubs, but it seemed only fitting to watch Toussaint in a festive room, decked out in a tuxedo (as if he’d dress any differently for any other gig), and leisurely rolling through his vast catalogue. Brilliant stuff, and memorable.
The roots of the New Orleans burlesque run deeply, back to the late 1990s when troupes such as the Shim Shamettes brought striptease back to the French Quarter. Ronnie Magri, the bandleader for the seven-piece group that provided the soundtrack for the Shim Sham Revue. Sixteen years later, Magri, a former drummer in a glam-punk band in New York City, is being honored as the “Guest of Honor” at BurlyCon 2015 this weekend (Nov. 12-15) in Seattle.
Pin Curl magazine posted an interview with Magri back in August, but it started to resurface as this weekend approached, so I thought it would be fun to post here. Those days in the late 1990s were pretty amazing, indeed. David Cuthbert in the Times-Picayune and I in Gambit Weekly were thrilled to chronicle this renaissance, which tied together some key figures who are still around today, including Marcy Hesseling (who now owns Fifi Mahony’s) and husband Ryan (a key figure in One Eyed Jacks, formerly the Shim Sham Club). It also helped lead to the bringing of Tease-O-Rama to New Orleans (hat tip to Alison Fensterstock) as well as a bringing back of the Bourbon Street legends of the heyday.
This is what Ronnie Magri had to say on that to Pin Curl:
Amazing! We were fortunate enough to still have them living around the New Orleans area and willing to help us out with our show. In 1999, when we first started out, their knowledge of how a real burlesque show should be was a big help to our success in keeping the shows authentic. Kitty was there with us from the beginning keeping watch, teaching the dancers how to walk, how to move. Kitty and I had discussions about what music she had danced to. She put me in touch with some of her former musicians. I had the honor of recording, for the first time, her signature theme song “Oyster Girl” for my album and helped re-create Kitty’s “Evangeline the Oyster Girl” number. And with Wild Cherry, we re-created her “Treasure of the Orient” number that she performed on Bourbon Street in the 1960s. We did some pretty cool stuff together with them. I feel very lucky to have known and worked with those women.
The heritage of New Orleans burlesque lives on in Bustout Burlesque, produced b Rick Delaup, but also in all of the amazing burlesque troupes around New Orleans.
Interior shot of the recently reopened Orpheum Theatre. (Photo by James Shaw)
New Orleans has a rich history of lovely theaters, many of which were laid low by the floodwaters following Hurricane Katrina. That’s why it was such a fun and challenging assignment to chart the post-Katrina renaissance of five of these theaters: the Civic, Saenger, Joy, Carver and, most recently, the Orpheum. This was for Biz New Orleans‘ November issue, which is out on the streets and available online here.
In “Encore Performance,” I try to place both the collective and individual resurgence of the theaters in an economic perspective, checking in with leading authorities in the New Orleans business community to try to figure out just how all of these theaters will continue to sustain themselves. Maybe it’s a matter of remaining viable in an increasingly competitive entertainment market, though just about everyone interviewed didn’t think their respective theater was in direct competition with another. More accurately, it seems, it will be about each theater establishing its own identity (or “brand,” if you will) and making smart bookings (and at the right price point) that speak to their particular audience.
I would say that three of the theaters profiled have a firm grasp on that identity: the grand daddy of them all, the Saenger, obviously is the go-to spot for touring Broadway shows, big-name music acts and other top-flight entertainers (with the occasional touring family-entertainment show); the Orpheum is the beloved home to the LPO and prestige touring acts that have marquee value but not big enough for the Saenger; and the Civic, which has become an indie-rock haven while also welcoming such quirky acts as the legendary John Waters and the nerdie podcast show, “Welcome to Night Vale.”
If you can’t tell, I remain a bit skeptical of the Joy Theater, which has occasional great bookings for music and comedy and cabaret (hello, Alan Cumming!), but needs more consistency; and the Carver, which, at press time, appeared to be undergoing yet another management change. Stay tuned on that.
There are other factors, as well, most notably a New Orleans economy that appears to be entering the next chapter of its post-Katrina recovery — one that won’t necessarily benefit from the kind of recovery, stimulus, tax incentive or other funding mechanisms that brought these theaters back to life. There’s the job market, and wages, and a housing market whose boom period might at some point head to a seemingly inevitable burst. (Doesn’t it always?) As Greater New Orleans, Inc.’s Michael Hecht put it:
“These venues, which not only are expensive to operate but also to maintain, will be the canaries in the coal mine for the health of the New Orleans economy,” Hecht says. “As we continue to add companies and great talent from around the country, we need to keep building a middle class that has more disposable income. If, in the post-Katrina environment, as the recovery money goes away that the economy flattens, these theaters are going to be one of the indications of that happening, because this is where that disposable income goes.”
I’ll have more stuff in upcoming issues of Biz New Orleans. So please stay tuned on that and other future work coming soon. In the meantime, enjoy the piece.
That said, which theater’s future concerns you the most? Which one do you worry might not make the cut? Take the poll below.
We went on a lark to check out the New Orleans Volunteer Orchestra‘s (NOVO) “New Home, New Beginning” program Thursday (Oct. 8) at the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, and it would be easy to say we got our money’s worth from the free show. As the New Orleans Advocate’s Dean Shapiro noted in his preview, the performance represented NOVO’s debut as a stand-alone, non-profit orchestra after out-growing Loyola University — where it began as a smaller, chamber orchestra.
NOVO knows its audience, which, while modest even given the church’s modest capacity, appreciated an accessible program that included sections from “Carmina Burana” and “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” soundtrack by Howard Shore. But the orchestra, bolstered by the newly minted chorus, also soared while performing the gospel-infused “Nearer to Thee,” a new arrangement by co-director Joseph Ciesla, and featuring a solo by Dylan Tran.
Everyone came together for the show’s closer, a repeat of the popular version of Queen’s magnum opus “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was a fun if mixed-bag effort, emboldened by strong choral flourishes that at times were drowned out by the orchestra — but that didn’t stop the crowd from swaying to the music and capturing it on their smart phones. I was just as guilty, so here’s the version right here. Check out and consider supporting NOVO; they’re on Facebook here.