Friday, April 27, 2012

FQF Trois: Sunpie & The Louisiana Sunspots

Reporter: It’s a story about the son of a sharecropper who grows up to play in a zydeco band.

Editor: Same old tale, what else you got?

Reporter: How about the guy gets a football scholarship, earns a degree in marine biology, has a stint playing pro football, becomes a U.S. Park Ranger, learns to play accordion and ends up as the poster boy for French Quarter Fest 2012.

Editor: Now you have my attention. What’s his name?
Reporter: Bruce Barnes, better known as Sunpie.

That was the conversation running through my mind as we sat in the performance studio on Saturday where we ended up during our tour of the U.S. Mint. We had seen the interview with a guy in a dark green National Park Service uniform being broadcast on screens in the hallway and followed the sound to the third floor.

On stage, a man was talking about his father (“Why you want to go play in a juke joint and get killed?”), his uncle who was a mule skinner along the Mississippi River and his Aunt Fannie who dipped snuff and like to give the kids a big sloppy kiss before expectorating.

Between stories, he played some of the seven instruments he has mastered, including piano and acccordion, and recreated the story of his hound dog hunting all kinds of game with his harmonica. Over the course of an hour, he regaled about fifty of us festival goers with stories and music that revealed a southern tale worthy of Faulkner.

One of ten kids (his father was 55 when he was born), he grew up on a truck farm in Arkansas and what free time they had they spent hunting and fishing. He ran track in school but switched to football in hopes of getting a college scholarship ( “Basically I was just trying to figure out how not to pick so many peas.”) Success on the gridiron at Henderson State led to a shot as linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs and he jumped to the USFL when Donald Trump dangled the big bucks. After the league folded, he returned to his first love: the oceans and their habitats. As an NPS Ranger, he ended up back in New Orleans, still playing music with friends and bandmates from college days.

In 1989, he went into serious debt ($1250) to buy his first accordion. The next day, a friend told him about open auditions for a TV Commercial and said, “Bring your accordion.” One problem: Bruce didn’t know how to play an accordion. “I stayed up all night with that thing, until at last I could play one little song.” As luck would have it, the casting director asked him to play, he did, and beat out hundreds of others to star in a Sprite commercial. The fee for that paid off the accordion.

Several months later, frustrated with his progress, he went to see a music teacher in hopes of lessons. The teacher’s response was, “You are playing that upside down and backwards!” Bruce, who is left handed, had been able to pull it off; but he turned things around (unlike Rockin Doopsie who always played it in reverse, according to Bruce).

Sunpie got his nickname from Aunt Fannie because he used to follow his Uncle (the original Sunpie, a Crow Indian name) around as a little tyke. He became Little Sunpie.

Nothing little about Sunpie now, who stands about six feet four inches tall. Nothing small about his musical sound either as the group revved up the dancers at the Cajun Zydeco stage on Sunday afternoon. He and The Louisiana Sunspots (guitar, bass, two rubboard players who double on trumpets, drums and saxophone) can cover the musical waterfront: Domini, Money Bread, Choo Choo The Boogie, Luanne, Going Back to Big Mamou and more. They kept the dance floor full and brought the rest of us to our feet with some hot jams that went from blues to jazz to rockabilly. Sunpie's show was every bit as good as his back story.

Monday, April 23, 2012

French Quarter Fest Part Deux

Saturday morning we decided to do some museum exhibits which led us to the old U.S. Mint on the east end of the Quarter. It houses an exhibit on the early days of ore smelting/coin making and a jazz museum. We did a quick spin through a photo exhibit commemorating 50 years of Preservation Hall (Traditional Requests $1, Others, $2, The Saints $5) and then wandered into a third floor performance studio for a musical bit of lagniappe (something extra) that deserves its own post.

In the afternoon, we rendezvoused with friends on Bourbon Street for traditional New Orleans music with Jimmy LaRocca’s Original Dixieland Jazz Band. It merits the “original” title because it was founded in 1917 by Jimmy’s father Nick LaRocca, the tumpeter and composer of “Tiger Rag.” The original ODJB is reputed to have made the first jazz recording in 1917 and its version of “Darktown Strutters Ball” earned a slot in the Grammy Hall of Fame.

On this afternoon, they were as hot as sun on a sidewalk with “Momma’s In The Kitchen” and “War Cloud” then slowed down for a take on “It’s A Wonderful World.”

Around the corner in the courtyard of the Historic New Orleans Collection we came across another find: Andrew Duhon and The Lonesome Crows. He writes like a young Jackson Browne and has a voice reminiscent of Jim Croce. His ballads are about endless decisions on leaving or staying (I think it’s time to fit my life in my backseat/Got a girl I know that I can’t take with me) and the cover of his new CD has an open suitcase with a rope made of clothes with two hands hanging on.
His canvas is New Orleans but his characters are universal. “Coming Down Over Here”
captures the weather and a lover’s dilemma. (Babe, it’s been storming, at least it has so far. I seen the clouds forming but I didn’t think it'd be this hard.)

We stayed around for a set by Kristin Diable, a dead ringer for a young Joni Mitchell, but our group gave her mixed reviews; interesting songwriter but not much variety in her singing and playing.

After refueling at the Gumbo Shop, we caught the tail end of the Battle of the Bands on the steps of the old Courthouse, three traditional jazz bands who combined for a rousing version of “The Saints Go Marching In.” Among those dancing in front were two of the stars of FX’s Justified, Joelle Carter and Walter Goggins…two of those Crowders.

Then it was back to the waterfront for a final round of Zydeco with Donna Agnelle & the Zydeco Posse (“Aint no party like a Donna Party”) and Roddie Romero & The Hub City All Stars with a hot cover of a Fats Domino tune.

French Quarter Fest bills itself as the “ World’s Biggest Jazz Brunch,” with164 menu options from the Quarter's finest restaurants. We tried crawfish pies, shrimp cakes, lamb sliders, fish tacos seafood crepes and sweet potato fries, washed down with Abita Amber and Abita Jocamo (didn't try Purple Haze). We avoided Hurricanes and those college-kid drinks from Tropical Isle: The Hand Grenade, Skinny Hand Grenade, Tropical Itch and Happy Gator. Our restaurant tips include Acme Oyster House (barbecued oysters), Upperline (fried green oysters with shrimp remoulade), Mena’s Palace (best grits) Broussards (grilled red fish) and the Stage Door Canteen at the WWII museum (gumbo).

Next: The Sunpie Story

Thursday, April 19, 2012

So Much Music So Little Time

Walking down Canal Street to the Mississippi riverfront, the thought crossed my mind on the first day of the French Quarter Festival: How much music is too much? To diehard festivists, this might seem like aimless speculation. But for an aging fan, issues of stamina, decibel levels, sun exposure and sore leg muscles are lurking in the back of the mind.
Put another way, when faced with four days of shows…. 276 musical performances on 22 stages on a round trip circuit stretching almost two miles…how do you decide where to go? Unlike the larger Jazz and Heritage Festival, which has grown to Olympic proportions featuring national draws, FQF features local talent, most of whom were new to me. A lot of the venue/band selections would be rolling the dice. Did I mention that everything is free? Suffice it to say there are worse problems for music lovers than too many choices.

Day One. When in New Orleans start with Zydeco, which is what I did. After sampling the Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band (for a Les Bontemps Roulez waltz), I checked in next door with Grayson Capps and Lost Cause Minstrels (“Take Some Poison Before You Die” and “Love Song of Bobby Long”). With a tie-dyed shirt, straw sombrero and a full mane of blond hair, he delivered pulsating blues-rock.

By the time I reached the Jackson Square stage, Luther Kent, a New Orleans fixture who once toured with Blood, Sweat and Tears was cranking up his blues: “If I could find just one good woman, I could get rid of the other 99,” and asking, “Can I get a beer up here?”(It was delivered in a few seconds from the front row.)

Then I retraced my steps back to the waterfront. Along the way I paused for a street (urchin) band…guitar, washboard and gutbucket base…calling themselves the Royal Street Gum Scrapers. At the Zydeco stage Amanda Shaw and the Cute Guys (not very but they could play some) had everyone up and dancing. As a fiddle player (red gloves and black and white stripe pants), she may not make you forget Charlie Daniels but will sure make him seem old. She first preformed at FQF at age 8.

For a grand finale, I let the Rebirth Brass Band play me out, or perhaps blow me away. They typify the modern style of these traditional bands, doubling up on the horns and with a microphone in the tuba shell they will vibrate your breastbone. Their merger of hip-hop and gospel call and response drew a huge crowd. I listened to them for almost five blocks walking back to the Quarter on Iberville.

Drawing a smaller crowd but just as much fun was the pickup group, I dubbed the Foot Locker Brass Band because they played outside the shoe store at night on Bourbon Street. They got my two bucks.

Day Two. Armed with camp chairs and sunscreens we again began at the Zydeco stage with Jomo and Bayou Deville and got rocking with The Soul Project covering James Brown, “I Can’t Stand Still,” At Jackson Square it was another New Orleans institution, Banu Gibson, doing songs from Bessie Smith to George Gershwin. Her trombone player in The New Orleans Hot Jazz, who is 81, offered these words of advice he picked up while playing with Lawrence Welk: “Act like your having fun but don’t have any.”

It was traditional jazz at the Farmers’ Market Stage with The New Orleans Cotton Mouth Kings doing Driving Miss Daisy (She’s Driving Me Crazy) and getting everyone to sing along with My Blue Heaven.

Back along the river at the Louis Louis Absolut Stage we made our first real find. Not sure if it was the large crowd of locals or the sound of his lap slide guitar but we were hooked on a blues player named Colin Lake.

Whether it was doing traditional songs like “I’ll Fly Away” or his own compositions, “Where Did We Go Wrong,” and “In On Time,” the crowd loved it and so did we. His new CD is “The Ones I Love."

With some regrets we cut our stop with the Pine Leaf Boys short because in New Orleans, you do not want to miss dinner.