And the Band Plays On . . .
The music of New Orleans is still alive, but will the city ever recover?
Mar 26, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 27 • By MATT LABASH
On saxophones are Byron "Flea" Bernard, a social worker who also plays with his church band and who dearly wishes Rebirth would cut a gospel album, and Vincent Broussard, who looks like he should play with the Wailers with his back-length dreadlocks. On trombone is Lil' Herb Stevens, who is not lil' at all, and who sports Bible-themed tattoos all over his arms, patting Jesus on His head and apologizing if anyone says anything sacrilegious. Joining him is Stafford "Freaky Pete" Agee, so named for calling the ladies onstage and "freaking" them, though he is still a man of high principle: He refuses to play anything that's not grease-bucket funky.
Leading the charge are the band's slash-and-burn trumpet players. There's sparkplug dynamo Derrick "Khabuki" Shezbie, whose cheeks turn into Dizzy Gillespie balloons when he blows (he often brackets one with his free fingers to get a tighter sound). A member of another brass band enviously tells me, "Khabuki could carry that band, and two others at the same time." Rounding the lineup out is Glen "The General" Andrews, who likes to head for the high registers like a runaway sherpa who's caught sight of the summit.
He is called "The General" because he, along with his cousin Big Sexy, likes to make sure everyone hits his parts (Khabuki, too, is a distant cousin). You'd never know that Andrews is self-taught and doesn't even read music. "Wynton Marsalis might say, 'What the hell are you doin'!'" he jokes. But as The General tells me with a gold-toothed grin, "I can go where he plays, but he can't come on our stage where we play. I play something I made up from my heart, y'know." It puts me in mind of something Louis Armstrong said of snooty Creole musicians when he and Kid Ory blew them off the street during a jazz funeral: "Any learned musician can read music, but they all can't swing."
And swing the Rebirth does, especially live. Not to take anything away from their 13 fine recordings, but the difference between hearing them live and on disc is the difference between making love to a beautiful woman and having the experience described to you. Still, I haven't come to New Orleans to sign on as their roadie. I'm here on official business, to take a snapshot of their city a year and a half after Katrina nearly totaled it.
To that end, I bring to the Maple Leaf show one of my old guides to New Orleans, the pseudonymous Kingfish, of whom I've written in these pages twice before. When I first met him, as the waters were still rolling in after Katrina, New Orleans felt like a live adaptation of the Book of Revelation. People were dying in the streets, the desperate became more so, and the lawless were taking over. A good native son whose family goes back to the city's beginnings, Kingfish was one of the last men standing in his swank Uptown neighborhood. He let our visiting crew of journalists clean out his refrigerator and bathe in his pool, since the hotels had long since evacuated.
Before the gig, I stop by his house to collect him. His kids are snug in their beds, instead of in exile in Florida. And there is nobody sleeping on the couch with a shotgun, as was his looter-protection practice back during the flood. There is one remnant of those days, however. In his living room is a trophy case featuring a pair of beat-up Adidas sneakers. In between running humanitarian rescue missions during the storm, Kingfish lost patience with the looters. When he saw one coming out of a linen store with a swag bag--hardly a necessity unless the thief had to have cool fabrics for summer--Kingfish bore down on him with his shotgun. "Scared him clean out of his shoes," he says. "I just couldn't take it anymore."
As he fixes us some pregame Old Fashioneds, Mrs. Kingfish eyes his pressed khakis and Casual-Friday chambray shirt disapprovingly. "You're going to the Maple Leaf," she says, "Don't you have a black T-shirt or something?" He shrugs his shoulders, in a what-do-you-want-from-me fashion. "I probably have a buttoned-down T-shirt somewhere," he says. While Kingfish plays at being the Uptown swell, like many whites in New Orleans who've benefited from three centuries of cultural cross-fertilization, he has more soul than he likes to let on.