The three seasons of Treme have all found their way to Mardi Gras; appropriately, the day is always depicted with all the spectacle, vice and musical mayhem you might expect. Josh Jackson of WBGO returns to break down the many musical scenes in this year's go-round.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: So many flashes of live music this episode. Let's start at the beginning. Did you recognize the band where Lieut. Colson and his fellow officer are talking, and there are (clothed) women on poles in the French Quarter?
Josh Jackson: Lars Edegran, a prominent leader of Dixieland-style music, played a tune called "The Stripper" while a local burlesque group conducted the annual greasing of the poles at the Royal Sonesta Hotel. Every year, French Quarter balcony owners take precaution to keep inebriated revelers from climbing their way above the crowd.
PJ: A U.S. Marines band also makes an appearance on a pre-Mardi Gras day, playing a very martial anthem at first. Of course, then they break it down. (Nice moment to involve the middle-school marching-band kids too, and they're clearly sounding better in "On Broadway" and "Isn't She Lovely.") There's something to be said here, too, about how New Orleans' military history led to the existence of brass bands in the first place...
JJ: You wouldn't necessarily expect the highly regimented Marine Forces Reserve Band to segue from "The Marines Hymn" to the Rebirth Brass Band classic "Do Whatcha Wanna," but good musicians always defy expectation. It made for a teachable moment for both Antoine Batiste and his students in the Elie Marching Bobcats band.
PJ: Davis' opera is lacking a little something. But it appears his songwriting collaboration with Paul Sanchez is bearing fruit, even if his performance isn't. Also, they convinced a few more legends to get some face time this week, huh?
JJ: Producer Don B. calls in the heavyweights, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers Cosimo Matassa and (Don's actual father) Dave Bartholomew, to drop by the studio. These two gentlemen are largely responsible for producing a ton of hit records in New Orleans, so their opinions carry credence. They still know a thing or two about their trade.
PJ: We see another street musicians' performance in "Broken Hearted Blues." Funny title, considering what we learn later about the guitarist in the band.
JJ: Toni thinks her daughter Sofia is maybe a little young for the guitar player, but she's apparently mature enough to call off the romance. That's Erika Lewis singing with Tuba Skinny, a brass-powered band that plays old rags and blues. "Broken Hearted Blues" is the first track on a recent recording, Garbage Man. They just released their fourth recording, Rag Band.
PJ: Annie's Bayou Cadillac band has a gig in Washington, D.C., for an official-looking event in a ballroom where nobody pays attention. (Not incredibly imaginative, but not terribly untrue, in my experience here.) Notably, we hear Harley's song "This City" — Steve Earle's actual composition, of course — as heard in season one.
JJ: Looks like a total schmooze-fest with all those dark suits! A roomful of politicians, lobbyists and businessmen is not a recipe for a rapturous audience for Annie Tee and the boys, but there are a few people listening. They also played Chuck Berry's "Promised Land," which lends its name to the title of this episode.
PJ: Annie gets a nice compliment from the act following her — who happen to be The Neville Brothers. There's one immediately recognizable song in The Meters' "Hey Pocky Way," and one with a good story in "Louisiana 1927" (which Annie sits in on).
JJ: Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927" was a staple down south well before the storm, but those potent lyrics about the Great Mississippi River Flood and the subsequent (lacking) federal response made a whole lot of sense to people after Katrina. You can find the original song on Newman's Good Old Boys — one of his best recordings, in my humble opinion.
PJ: Everett and Sofia find some common ground in their musical tastes when they see a crazy jazz-rock-sorta band, complete with costumes. I gather they're called the Morning 40 Federation.
JJ: Rock 'n' roll weirdness plus trombone! This band is now mostly defunct, but they came together to play one of their anthems, "White Powder," on the show. I could see how someone who likes sludge-metal could migrate toward a band named after malt liquor that sings a song about cocaine.
PJ: Mardi Gras day comes, and there's even a krewe waking people up on the street.
JJ: That's the Skull and Bones Gang marching through the Treme neighborhood, as they have every Mardi Gras morning since the early 19th century. They remind folks that it's time to celebrate, not that they particularly need reminding.
PJ: The Lambreaux/Guardians of the Flame are mighty impressive. While Delmond's debut as Gang Flag is a touch anticlimactic, their "My Indian Red" introductions and drumming are mighty impressive, and really make sense after hearing those sounds so often in other contexts. And another great choreographed encounter between tribes.
JJ: Big Chief Lambreaux crosses Canal Street, the traditional barrier between Uptown and Downtown tribes. His Guardians of the Flame meet up with chief Wallace Pardo of the Golden Comanche. The lines of demarcation are not as dangerous as they once were, but much is made about Chief Lambreaux taking a wrong turn. He says it won't happen again. (Hint: He's addressing his own mortality.)
PJ: We march down to the Mississippi River to dump Sonny's ashes, and like in previous seasons, the Storyville Stompers provide the soundtrack.
JJ: The Society of St. Ann continues its yearly service for those who have lost loved ones. Annie Tee and "Slim Jim" memorialize Harley "Down by the Riverside" (that's the tune, of course) as Harley's sister releases his ashes into the Mississippi. Sofia Bernette can't help but think of her father on a day like this.
PJ: We end the episode with Everett seeing a band featuring Washboard Chaz and the tin-whistle guy from The Pogues. "What Shall We Do With the Drunken Sailor," indeed.
JJ: It's the Valparaiso Men's Chorus with Spider Stacy on the tin whistle. A buddy of mine turned me on to this group a few years ago: They sing sea shanties. While you don't need to know much more than that, you could consider them to be the bawdy opposite to the Mormon Tabernacle Choir. I haven't yet heard their new recording, The Straits of Saint Claude, but I can vouch for their debut, Guano and Nitrates. So fun.
PJ: Finally, any background music catch your ear? This show is developing some regular audio clues, for sure, with the re-emergence of "Go to the Mardi Gras."
JJ: It's not Mardi Gras without Professor Longhair. There was so much music this episode. I heard The Meters' "They All Asked for You," a song every child from New Orleans learns. We hear another Sonny Rollins tune related to an Albert Lambreaux scene — this time it's "Silk n Satin." The Free Agents Brass Band's "We Made It Through the Water" plays as the Lambreaux family watches the documentary, Trouble the Water. Overall, there were lots of drums and tambourines and percussion this time around.