Experiencing New Orleans' music scene free and inexpensively

Experiencing New Orleans' music scene free and inexpensively
June 22, 2009
Geraldine Wyckoff
The Louisiana Weekly

Free and inexpensive are definitely words that raise the excitement-the let's go-level when it comes to entertainment. That's what's being offered when the New Orleans rock-steady group, 007, makes three appearances in New Orleans this coming weekend, June 26 and June 27, 2009. The group lays down the rock-steady groove, a style of Jamaican music that was a successor to ska and precursor to reggae, at Tipitina's as a part of its Free Fridays series. On Saturday 007 heads to the Louisiana Music Factory for a 3:00 p.m. in-store show in support of its album You Only Drop Once. At 11 p.m. that night the band jumps on stage at d.b.a.; $5 cover charge.

The term rock-steady is perhaps not as familiar as its musical cousin's ska and reggae. Many folks, however, might be acquainted with rock-steady tunes and their purveyors. On the album, 007, skillfully resurrects material such as Frederick "Toots" Hibbert's "Johnny Coolman" and Earl Grant's "Rough Rider." Other well-know songs in the 007 songbook include "Tide Is High" and "You Can't Blame the Youth."

Similarly, though 007 enjoys a solid fan base, it isn't exactly a household name even for those into Jamaican music. That's understandable as this band, whose members are all active in other musical endeavors, exists strictly for the love of the music.

"I just kind of gravitated to it," says singer and drummer Jeffrey Clemens of his initial interest in rock-steady. "As a musician and lifelong student of music, I always liked Jamaican music but didn't know that much about it. I knew that I liked Toots and I liked Desmond Dekker and once I figured out that the period of music (mid-1960s) that was talking to me was called rock-steady I started buying every rock-steady compilation I could get my hands on. I liked the tempo of the music - it was slower than ska and not as slow as reggae."

Clemens, who has played drums with the nationally known band G. Love & Special Sauce since its inception in 1993, announced to his friend, guitarist Alex Mc_Murray, "Man, we are doing this band." Soon guitarist Jonathan Freilich (Naked on the Floor Orchestra) and bassist/vocalist Joe Cabral (Iguanas) got the call.

Chalk up the perhaps surprising results of real deal Jamaican rock-steady emanating from four New Orleans-based players to their passion for the style and the unaffected truthfulness of their delivery. From the opening cut of "You Only Drop Once," 007 captures rock-steady's wonderful simplicity kicking in with the Pioneer's catchy "No Dope Me Pony." The punch prevails throughout the disc just as it did on the band's debut release, 2004's Studied Rudeness.

"I think people like 007 because the musicianship is great and it's authentic because we found a way to play the stuff without it being a put-on," Clemens says. "We know that we're four white guys and we just try to respect the music."

Freilich, who boasts an eclectic stylistic range including avant-garde jazz, was already into rock-steady when in 2001 Clemens sought him out for the project. While those who know his freewheeling attack might have expected a different approach from the guitarist, he says that rock-steady is "very much a less-is-more style of music."

"Essentially, it hinges around the fact that what was popular with the rock-steady musicians during the time was doo-wop, vocal groups and soul bands from America," he explains, adding that they found a way to work in Jamaican rhythms. "It's extremely fun for us to play."

Freilich explains that as in New Orleans, musical styles of the era changed quickly with musicians eager to bring something new to the table. He cites the career of the legendary Toots Hibbert of Toots and the Maytals as an example. He says in listening to Toots throughout his career one can hear him move through calypso, ska, rock-steady, funk and soul.

"People were placing a high value on their personal style-on their contribution-so they wanted their records to sound different from the last thing that came out," Freilich says.

Clemens was also drawn to rock-steady because, he says, it was all about "short plays"-45 rpm records that got right to the point. "They were little ditties about girls and skinny-legged pants and rude boys," says the drummer who captures the music's essence with his honest vocal inflections and drum accents. "A lot of the Jamaican singers were crooners," he adds. "They could sing like larks. On the lilting "What More Can I Do," 007 demonstrates its understanding of rock-steady's doo-wop-influenced vocal harmonies and the innocence of the era.

"I'm just so happy because I really feel like we have- by accident-basically unearthed and dusted off an entire forgotten catalog of music," Clemens says. "I feel like, we're almost providing a service for the universe.

Henry Butler-Missing Another Genius

There was a sense of déjà vu while speaking to the extraordinarily talented, pianist/vocalist Henry Butler who returns to New Orleans to perform at Snug Harbor on Friday, June 26. Like fellow pianist Davell Crawford, Butler says he definitely prefers to play with New Orleans musicians or those, as Crawford suggested in last week's interview, "with the New Orleans experience," at every opportunity. He praises the enthusiasm that those from this city bring to a bandstand. "Few find the passion that New Orleans musicians exude," Butler says.

"If I'm doing R&B and funk, the first thing I try to do is get people from New Orleans," explains Butler, who has been living in Denver, Colorado since "Katrina blew me out." "If I'm doing straight-ahead stuff, it's not quite as important but I'll try to get a couple of guys from New Orleans if they're available. Some of these people I've been working with practically all of my life. It's always good to get people that know you."

Butler, who will be performing at the Frenchmen Street club with longtime associate, drummer Herman Jackson, saxophonist Derrick Douget and bassist Peter Harris, has also taken an apartment in New York City and hopes to find a little spot in New Orleans. New Orleans, he says, is a place where he enjoys hanging out and "recharging my batteries.

"In some ways, New York is like New Orleans because I always know I can go out and sit in or listen to somebody and get some stimulation," Butler explains. "We deliberately don't play a lot in Colorado. There isn't much of a scene there. I come home {to Denver) to rest and practice."

The pianist has been doing a lot of traveling performing solo jobs, jazz trio gigs, funk dates and festivals and just returned from Spain where he performed with legendary blues vocalist Koko Taylor's band. "She was definitely unique with that stuff," says Butler of Taylor who died June 3, 2009 at 80 years old.

Wherever he goes, though he still misses New Orleans. "I love to come to New Orleans for the music and food and there are a few places where I still buy clothing," he says. "Oh and you just can't beat the people," he adds. "As long as I can stay away from the politics, I'm alright."
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