WHAT: Brother Nutria
WHEN: Tues. (Sept. 20), 6:30 p.m.
WHERE: Hi-Ho Lounge
With his work as a producer and host for the Snake Oil Festival and Slow Burn Burlesque along with emceeing Bella Blue’s Dirty Dime Peepshow, Ben Wisdom has carved out his niche as the fallen preacher man who has succumbed to, revels in and even peddles the sins of the flesh. It’s as if Jimmy Swaggart had decided to stay on Airline Drive. It’s something into which he’s evolved over the years, and when he’s at the top of his game he’s one of the funniest comedians in New Orleans. He’s even become a radio host with his show “The Ministry of Misbehavin’” on 102.3 FM WHIV and WHIVfm.org, Tuesdays from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m. But there is a context to his conversion, and he was gracious enough to share his journey with us as his band, Brother Nutria, prepares for its gig on Sept. 20 at the Hi-Ho Lounge.
I have a pretty interesting and fun life. I’m a burlesque emcee and show producer in New Orleans, Louisiana. I love “the city that care forgot” as well as a healthy dose of downright debauchery, so burlesque in the town I love is a good fit for me. However, I haven’t always been down with the “ways of the devil,” or the promiscuity of the Crescent City. In a different life I was a devout follower of Pentecostal Christianity. I was baptized three times. I spoke in tongues. I even, for a brief time, considered becoming a preacher.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen, I guess? My going from devout holy roller to filthy burlesque emcee was a long journey, and as you can probably guess, my relationship with religion is now and really always has been complicated. And, that’s why I can’t seem to get it out of my act. I’m known for some of my, I guess you would call them catch phrases — “amen and amen again,” and “hallelujah and hallelujah to ya.”
I often incorporate religious themes into my performance, and I even have a character, The Rev. Pastor Father Brother Ben Wisdom, that is a full-on, bent, Pentecostal preacher who extolls the virtue of having no virtue. This character was first born at a Slow Burn Burlesque show called, “Jesus’ Big Birthday Bash” — it was our twisted version of a Christmas show). I further developed the character in a show I co-produce with my partner and co-creator, Little Luna, called the “Unholy Roller Revival,” which is a mock tent revival that we have put on every year at the variety arts festival that we also produce, called Snake Oil Festival. I use the Preacher character as a lens to hold up to what I consider to be the inconsistencies and hypocrisies of the people who use Christianity to rule us.
And, now, the preacher character is going through another evolution. A year ago, I joined a group of great guys (MarkAlain Dery, Nate Pendergast and Kit Keen) here in New Orleans, and we formed the band, Brother Nutria. We all share in the songwriting duties, but I probably write two-thirds of the lyrics, and as you might have guessed those lyrics are full of thoughts questioning the world view as seen through the eye of so-called modern Christian America. We have song titles like “Gospel Billy Preacher,” “Ready to Sin” and “Holy Ghost Drone Strike.” In the latter, we sing, “We’re all good people. We’re all sanctified. And, when it comes to Christian white folks, his love is double wide.”
I was introduced to religion at a young age. My father was raised in a conservative Catholic household in New Orleans. My mother was raised in non-denominational, full gospel churches is Forth Worth, Texas. As young adults and parents, mine weren’t super religious, despite their upbringings. Before I was about 9 or 10, I don’t remember going to church that much except for with my grandparents. However, my most vivid early memory is from when I was somewhere around 4 or 5 years old. It is a memory of my parents allowing me to attend the Pentecostal tent revival being put on by two of my Dad’s friends, who were former drug addicts turned holy-rolling missionaries. Their son was the same age, as me and we were fast friends. I can recall the sites and sounds of that night. We were in some field in or around Vidalia, La., which is right next to Ferriday, the hometown of Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, which is where we also lived. In the field they had set up trailers for the ministers and singers. There was a humble stage at the center of it all. That stage was equipped with some ancient PA system that amplified each of the speakers and singers to the point of over-modulation. It was all lit in the dark night by blinding construction lights of some kind.
There was a smell of boiled peanuts in the air.