New Orleans Jazz Festival 2013: The Threadheads

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New Orleans Jazz Festival 2013: The Threadheads

Most crowd-funding efforts are reactive. Artists propose a project—either through their own webpage or through a company such as Kickstarter or PledgeMusic—and audiences either respond or don’t. But the Threadheads have taken an unusual, proactive approach: The fans are the ones who take the initiative and the artists either respond or don’t.

These fans of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival have created their own record company to enable their favorite Louisiana artists to make new albums. The Threadheads have also created their own live-music party between the festival’s two weekends and have booked all the bands themselves every year since 2005. In the process, without really meaning to, they’ve become a major force in the New Orleans music scene.

This year the group is putting on four major events in New Orleans during the festival period: the annual Threadheads party, a free concert in City Park, a day of free music at the Louisiana Music Factory and a special presentation of the rock opera, Nine Lives, which was funded, recorded, released and staged with primary help from the Threadheads.

The City Park concert took place last Thursday on an oval lawn bordered by flowers and trees in the New Orleans Botanical Garden. Playing on the quaint wooden stage were the New Birth Brass Band, Alex McMurray, the Creole String Beans and Paul Sanchez, all performing songs from their recent albums on Threadhead Records. The String Beans featured bassist Rob Savoy (formerly of the Bluerunners and Cowboy Mouth), baritone saxophonist Derek Huston (the Iguanas) and guitarist Rick Olivier (one of New Orleans’ top music photographers). They delivered a spirited brand of swamp-pop that bridged the city and Cajun country and had the Threadheads dancing on the lawn.

Sanchez was the star, composer and narrator of Nine Lives, when the musical was presented at the New Orleans Contemporary Arts Center the following Monday night. With no sets or props and only minimal costuming, this was more of a concert presentation than the full-fledged theatrical production Sanchez and his librettist Colman DeKay are hoping for, but it gave a good sense of the show’s tremendous ambition.

The show is an adaptation of Dan Baum’s successful non-fiction book of the same title, an oral history of nine different New Orleans citizens and their lives before and after Katrina. With minimal narration Sanchez and DeKay have turned these interviews into 38 songs delivered by 12 singers supported by nine musicians. Some of the actors were well known—Harry Shearer (Spinal Tap, The Simpsons), Bryan Batt (Mad Men) and Sanchez—and so are some of the musicians—most notably Shamarr Allen and Bonerama’s Craig Klein and Matt Perrine.

If you haven’t read the book, it takes a while to sort out who’s who and what’s going on, for there’s minimal narration. The show would probably work better if it were called “Four Lives” and narrowed its focus to fewer characters with more detail. If I had to choose, I’d pick Belinda Carr, Wilbert Rawlins, John Guidos and Billy Grace.

Some, though not all, of the songs are quite good, especially the pair of aching ballads sung by Maggie Perez as Belinda—“I Wish It Was Tomorrow” and “Why Can’t I See Tomorrow?”—and the pair of New Orleans dance numbers, “Fine in the Lower Nine” and “Could Have Been Worse.” The best moments, though, were when Shamarr Allen and Craig Klein got the chance to cut loose and improvise over the terrific band.

The Threadheads’ annual party was held in the Old Ironworks in the Bywater neighborhood. The old factory with the side yard was appealing visually but not sonically. The sound bounced off the corrugated steel ceilings and walls and made the vocals indecipherable.

Nonetheless the seafood was tasty; the camaraderie was obvious and the music’s funky throb was infectious, particularly during the final set by Tryptophunk, the all-star sextet of Klein, the Meters’ bassist George Porter, the Neville Brothers’ ex-guitarist Brian Stoltz, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s ex-drummer Terrence Higgins, Bonerama’s trombonist Mark Mullins and Papa Grows Funk’s organist John Gros. The set’s highlight was a mash-up of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower” and Curtis Mayfield’s “Move on Up,” all deep fried in a New Orleans cooker.

The Threadheads began as an internet chat site (hence the name) about the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Unlike most chat sites, which like to complain without ever doing anything, when these people bemoaned the lack of daytime music between the two festival weekends and the lack of recordings by their favorite artists, they actually did something about it. They’re a model for us all.