THE ROCK HALL CELEBRATES NEW ORLEANS, DOMINO AND BARTHOLOMEW
THE ROCK HALL CELEBRATES NEW ORLEANS, DOMINO AND BARTHOLOMEW
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 Fameâ€˜s tribute to Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew Saturday night in Cleveland. Rather than focusing solely on Dominoâ€™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 werenâ€™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 â€œMardi Gras in New Orleans,â€ 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 â€œWhat a Wonderful Worldâ€ â€“ recorded in 1967, after the Domino/Bartholomew recording partnership had ended - didnâ€™t. The â€œInfluencesâ€ segment ended with Jon Cleary performing an early Domino signature tune, â€œSwanee River Boogie,â€ to reference the piano tradition Domino directly emerged from. The songâ€™s not unique, though, and I suspect most of the room simply heard an excellently played boogie woogie number.
The Dixie Cups followed with â€œIâ€™m Walkinâ€™â€ â€“ in Party City top hats and with canes, for some reason â€“ and â€œIko Iko,â€ 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 Cupsâ€™ sessions and demonstrated the range of his attention to songs and sound, the set would have made sense. Instead, the casino theatrics â€“ they threw cups and beads during â€œIko Ikoâ€ â€“ and the songs before made this feel like a generic celebration of New Orleansâ€™ 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 â€œIt Keeps Rainingâ€ 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 â€œI Want to Walk You Homeâ€ 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 â€œI Hear You Knockinâ€™â€ and his own Bartholomew-produced hit â€œBarefootinâ€™â€, then Lloyd Price sang â€œAinâ€™t That a Shameâ€ and â€œLawdy Miss Clawdy,â€ both of which were fine, though the most memorable thing about them was his conductor gesturing wildly at Dr. Johnâ€™s band, as if they somehow needed his help. On the other hand, Irma Thomas was sublime as she sang â€œBlueberry Hill,â€ giving the song exactly what it needed. Itâ€™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 sheâ€™s saying.
And so it went. Civil rights leader Julian Bond spoke movingly about the role rock â€˜nâ€™ roll and Domino in particular played in changing the place of the African American in the consciousness of Americaâ€™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 Bartholomewâ€™s â€œShrimp and Gumboâ€ to illustrate the Latin influence on New Orleans â€“ and by extension, Bartholomewâ€™s â€“ music, I suppose.
Toots and the Maytals got a heroâ€™s welcome when they literalized the hint of ska in Dominoâ€™s â€œBe My Guest,â€ transformed â€œLet the Four Winds Blowâ€ into a reggae number, then went on to play â€œ54-46, Thatâ€™s My Numberâ€ â€“ a great song and if you get Toots, you get â€œ54-46,â€ 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 â€œThe Monkey Speaks His Mindâ€ and ended with the instrumental, â€œTenderly.â€ 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 Paulsenâ€™s efforts to reunite Domino and Bartholomew on WWL-TV, which were screened in the theater.
The most convincing and unified statement on the honoreesâ€™ music came from Dr. John, whose extended set started with Bartholomewâ€™s â€œWho Drank My Beer (While I Was in the Rear)â€ and proceeded through â€œThe Fat Man,â€ â€œBlue Monday,â€ â€œOne Night, â€œI Canâ€™t Go On (Rosalie)â€ and â€œWalking to New Orleans, â€ 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 thatâ€™s still alive and ready to speak to anyone ready to engage it. Then an ensemble take on â€œWhen the Saints Go Marching Inâ€ 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 werenâ€™t poorly performed, but they felt forced into a presentation that didnâ€™t need them. While the night was officially a tribute to two Louisiana musical geniuses, an ad for the show in Cleveland bus stops â€“ â€œNew Orleans Comes to Clevelandâ€ â€“ felt like a more accurate expression of the show that was staged.