Singers from New Orleans play at Nubian Queen Lo-La's.
Austin Welcomes The Sound of the Big Easy
By Sean Claes
When Hurricane Katrina made landfall along the Central Gulf Coast in Louisiana on August 29, 2005, nobody could have been prepared for the destruction it would leave in its wake. The storm surge compromised the levee system that protected New Orleans from Lake Pontchartrain, flooding most of the city. The physical destruction of homes and other property (estimated at over $200 billion) is a horrible thing, but things are replaceable, cities will rebuild. The destruction of lives is what lingers today. Over 1,000 people were killed. People of areas ravaged by the Hurricane who escaped death were dubbed "refugees" and there were moments of "mob rule" and then the finger pointing started... and continues today. Then, on September 24, 2005, Hurricane Rita came through and flooding occurred again this time in southwestern Louisiana and southeastern Texas.
In the midst of all of this, people had to uproot their lives, many without more than the clothes on their back, and search for somewhere to live, something to nourish themselves and their family, a place for their kids to go to school and somewhere to earn money to help sustain themselves. Many people saw Austin, Texas as the place to go to start over. The outpouring of support the Austin community has shown in the last month has been amazing.
Of course, since Austin is the "Live Music Capital of the World" a good amount of displaced musicians have come to town and are infusing the local music scene with a good dose of New Orleans. A few of the musicians and groups from the New Orleans area who now call Austin home include: Cyril Neville, Ivan and Ian Neville, The Iguanas, Dumpstaphunk, Dominick Grillo, half of the Hot 8 Brass Band, Willie Green, The Young Originals, The Flaming Arrows lead by Big Chief Kevin Goodman, Tim Green, Norman and Richard Caesar, Teresa Anderson, and Big Sam from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band.
Many members of our music scene are welcoming the musicians with open arms. One Austin musician who has deep roots in New Orleans music is Malcolm "Papa Mali" Welbourne. "I've spent about half of my professional life playing in New Orleans. All of my family is from New Orleans. Almost all of my collaborators are New Orleans musicians," Welbourne said. Since Katrina, he has been spending time playing in town with a multitude of New Orleans musicians, introducing them to local musicians, club owners, and recording studio folks.
A number of musicians have found a place to live, a friendly face, and the chance to start over again in the Austin Music Co-Op (5413 Guadalupe Street). The original idea of the Co-Op was to serve as a communal-type living environment for Austin's musicians, but when manager Matt Meshbane heard about the great number of New Orleans musicians who were homeless and at temporary shelters, he decided to open the Co-Op to those people and worry about how to pay for their rooms later. As of September 21, more than 10 residents of the Austin Music Co-Op were from New Orleans. "These musicians are coming to stay with us," Meshbane said. "We're trying to raise money and awareness to pay these people's rent... just one room at a time. To sponsor a room is $500." A few local people and businesses have been able to sponsor a room and donate useful items such as clothes, toiletries, and musical instruments (broken, new, or used).
One of the residents of the Austin Music Co-Op is saxapohone player Dominick Grillo. When I spoke with him, he'd just arrived in Austin after bouncing around for about three weeks. He's ready to get out and find some people to play with in town. "I've played with West Bank Mike and the Fisher Project, Big Chief Alfred Doucette a couple of times, pretty much anyone who would let me play," Grillo said. "I'd play every single night. Now that I'm here in Austin, I'm not playing with anyone yet. It looks hopeful, though. Between here and Houston, I should be able to work."
Another resident of the Co-Op, Hilton Joseph, wasn't a citizen of New Orleans - he's actually from Houston - but was working in town when Katrina hit and he lost most of his belongings, including his instruments. He found the Austin Music Co-Op due to some nice strangers who were determined to help him find a home when he was holding a sign that read "Sax Player Needs A Home."
Joseph's musical resume includes playing with B.B. King for ten years, Bobby Blue Bland, Z.Z. Hill, and some solo work. The band he was playing with moved to Mississippi, but he decided to make the trek to Austin. He's been playing on the streets outside of the Driskill Hotel (604 Brezos Street) and on the sidewalk by Antone's (213 W. 5th Street where New Orleans musicians have been playing many a night including Blue Monday's). "It's the live music capital of the world. It seemed like a nice little spot to land," he said. "I didn't want to go home. There's nothing there, no wife, no kids, all my family is gone. So, I'm kind of like a wandering minstrel."
There are a number of local restaurants who have stepped-up to help. One that has been instrumental in helping many New Orleans musicians is Nubian Queen Lo-La's Cajun, Soul Food, and BBQ Kitchen (1815 Rosewood). Lola Stephens is from Louisiana, and has opened her restaurant, and the lot behind it, to host benefit concerts by New Orleans musicians. In fact, Hilton Joseph was one of the sax players at the September 18, 2005 music and food benefit. "We are all cut from the same cloth and we need to stick together," Stephens said when she spoke to the crowd at the concert. She plans to have gatherings of New Orleans musicians every few weeks.
Also, local restaurant, Threadgills (301 W Riverside Dr) is hosting Cookin' and Jookin' every Tuesday night, featuring the cooking of Gaynielle Neville and the music of Cyril Neville and Tribe 13 featuring an assortment of New Orleans and Austin musicians.
Another new resident comes in the form of a prominent New Orleans record label, Basin Street Records (http://www.basinstreetrecords.com/). Mark Samuels, president of the label, moved to town and set up shop after his home was completely flooded and his studio had a foot of water inside. I had a chance to talk with Samuels and one of the label's artists, clarinetist and trombonist Dr. Michael White (who's home was also destroyed), who was in town to play a benefit, but is living in Houston at this time.
They both are very optimistic about the rebuilding of New Orleans but are concerned with trying to preserve the same feel as it had before Katrina and Rita. "I definitely plan on moving back and I'm hoping it comes back. A lot of it is uncertain at this point of how it will come back. You had such a rich unique culture and way of life there," White said.
Samuels agreed. "We don't want it to come back as every other city, and look like every other city. The beginning of that needs to be the music and food and culture, and those of us who lead that culture.. it's that group of people, and the musicians who need to be the leaders to formulate how New Orleans can keep all of that and still become a better city in the end," he said. "I'm planning on going back as well, but at this point I need to have access to schools to send my kids to and banks and grocery stores open. My children have to have a reasonable ability to enjoy life. If I was a single person, I'd go back today and start helping rebuild."
The above is only a few of the hundreds of stories about displaced musicians in Austin. Life resumes and working musicians will be out there in force in town, creating a dash of Cajun and funk seasoning to our already eclectic musical menu. So, if you would like to support these new Austinites, do so by attending the shows. Support them by supporting their craft. It's only a matter of time before New Orleans is going to be open for business again and Austin will lose this rich infusion of music. It's my hope that the flavor seeps into the sound of this city, and we will always have our own Crescent City Connection.
A Sample of New Orleans Musicians Playing in October
October 7 - Big Blue Marble @ Beerland
October 9 - Katrina Benefit show at Redrum
October 10 - The Iguanas @ Continental Club
October 10 - Cyril Neville's Birthday @ Threadgills
October 13 - New Orleans Musicians on Fox 7 News morning show
October 13, 14, 27 - The New Orleans Jazz Vipers @ The Elephant Room
October 15 - Benefit Featuring New Orleans Musicians @ Trophy's Bar and Grill
October 15 - The Big Wu w/ Papa Mali, James Speer Band
October 16 - Katrina Relief Fundraiser @ Ruta Maya
October 22 - Cowboy Mouth @ La Zona Rosa
October 22 - The Austin Live Show Hurricane Benefit Show @ The Ritz Lounge
October 23 - Boogie Benefit for New Orleans (Marcia Ball, Tribe 13, the Iguanas, the Warrior Gospel Band, more) @ La Zona Rosa
October 29 - Papa Mali & Friends @ Threadgill's
October 31 - Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk @ The Parish Room
Tuesdays @ Threadgills - Tribe 13
Wednesday's @ Austin Music Co-op - Open Mic
Thursday's @ The Velvet Spade - Topaz