November 15, 2010
by Alex Rawls

New Orleans is such a rich subject for investigation that it can easily lead you astray. To some extent, the city and its music worked it misleading magic on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame‘s tribute to Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew Saturday night in Cleveland. Rather than focusing solely on Domino’s recordings and the songs produced by Dave Bartholomew, producers created a show that tried to tell the audience about the world that shaped them as well as the world that was influenced by them. The results weren’t wrong or woeful, but the broad palate created a sense that show was adrift at times.

The opening section set the tone. The show at the Palace Theater started with Rebirth Brass Band parading from the back of the room to the stage while playing “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” a song that Domino recorded, but not one primarily associated with him. James Andrews followed Rebirth to pay tribute to Louis Armstrong. Listening to Bartholomew, Cosimo Matassa and others from the classic era of New Orleans R&B talk, you get the impression that the shared musical knowledge that was unique to New Orleans shaped the music more than any studio magic, so an Armstrong tribute made sense, but “What a Wonderful World” – recorded in 1967, after the Domino/Bartholomew recording partnership had ended - didn’t. The “Influences” segment ended with Jon Cleary performing an early Domino signature tune, “Swanee River Boogie,” to reference the piano tradition Domino directly emerged from. The song’s not unique, though, and I suspect most of the room simply heard an excellently played boogie woogie number.

The Dixie Cups followed with “I’m Walkin’” – in Party City top hats and with canes, for some reason – and “Iko Iko,” and their set would have made more sense had the focus been more on Bartholomew and Domino. Framing their set with a reminder that Bartholomew led the Dixie Cups’ sessions and demonstrated the range of his attention to songs and sound, the set would have made sense. Instead, the casino theatrics – they threw cups and beads during “Iko Iko” – and the songs before made this feel like a generic celebration of New Orleans’ music more than the accomplishments of two individuals who did so much to shape it.

A much-needed high point came when Theresa Andersson took to the stage, first to perform “It Keeps Raining” as a solo, building the song through loops as she has been doing live for the last few years. It was a lesser-known Domino song, and her treatment was delightfully unexpected and put something at risk. When she followed it with a more conventional take on “I Want to Walk You Home” backed by the house band, Dr. John and the Lower 911, she was just as successful, exaggerating its lope into something carefree and winsome.

Andersson was part of a segment on J&M Studio days, though most of the Domino/Bartholomew songs performed were from that period. Robert Parker sang “I Hear You Knockin’” and his own Bartholomew-produced hit “Barefootin’”, then Lloyd Price sang “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Lawdy Miss Clawdy,” both of which were fine, though the most memorable thing about them was his conductor gesturing wildly at Dr. John’s band, as if they somehow needed his help. On the other hand, Irma Thomas was sublime as she sang “Blueberry Hill,” giving the song exactly what it needed. It’s a lightweight song to start with, and it always had an unseemly, bragging quality that the Happy Days television show picked up on. Thomas sang it as someone fondly remembering her youth, with her voice suggesting that she remembers more than she’s saying.

And so it went. Civil rights leader Julian Bond spoke movingly about the role rock ‘n’ roll and Domino in particular played in changing the place of the African American in the consciousness of America’s youth, and emcee Wendell Pierce told the story in a way that kept it from ever sounding cornball and cliche, but fine moments were balanced by awkward ones, such as Rebirth returning to play a Latinized Bartholomew’s “Shrimp and Gumbo” to illustrate the Latin influence on New Orleans – and by extension, Bartholomew’s – music, I suppose.

Toots and the Maytals got a hero’s welcome when they literalized the hint of ska in Domino’s “Be My Guest,” transformed “Let the Four Winds Blow” into a reggae number, then went on to play “54-46, That’s My Number” – a great song and if you get Toots, you get “54-46,” but it further blunted the focus of the night and took the edge off an otherwise on-point set.

Eventually, Dave Bartholomew took to the stage for a short set that included “The Monkey Speaks His Mind” and ended with the instrumental, “Tenderly.” It was great to see the pleasure he took in getting his due and returning to the stage at age 84, though the jazz standard was little more than a reminder that this was the music that he and the members of the J&M Studio band valued that music, music that informed their musical vocabulary. Domino was unable to travel to Cleveland and got a moment in the spotlight courtesy of Eric Paulsen’s efforts to reunite Domino and Bartholomew on WWL-TV, which were screened in the theater.

The most convincing and unified statement on the honorees’ music came from Dr. John, whose extended set started with Bartholomew’s “Who Drank My Beer (While I Was in the Rear)” and proceeded through “The Fat Man,” “Blue Monday,” “One Night, “I Can’t Go On (Rosalie)” and “Walking to New Orleans, ” the latter sung as a duet by Irma Thomas and Lloyd Price. Dr. John stayed in the spirit of the songs, but he subtly put his stamp on them at the same time. Like the best moments of the show, he treated the music not as memories or as part of a grand statement, but as something that’s still alive and ready to speak to anyone ready to engage it. Then an ensemble take on “When the Saints Go Marching In” took the proceedings back to the hazy place, though the crowd loved it.

The evening was unquestionably a heartfelt night, and the missteps came from a good place. The weaker moments weren’t poorly performed, but they felt forced into a presentation that didn’t need them. While the night was officially a tribute to two Louisiana musical geniuses, an ad for the show in Cleveland bus stops – “New Orleans Comes to Cleveland” – felt like a more accurate expression of the show that was staged.
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