It's Monday night at the Maple Leaf, and the Dallas Cowboys are about to lose to the Philadelphia Eagles, until Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb throws a brutal interception in the last minute and a half, giving away the game. A lot of guys in the bar are glued to the TV, but no one is standing still. Papa Grows Funk has resumed its Monday-night residency at the Maple Leaf, and the groove is relentless.
Perhaps it's the groove, or maybe it's the game, but Jason Mingledorff's sax solo seems to morph into June Yamagushi's guitar solo, which equally imperceptibly turns into a John Gros organ solo. That almost subtle shift from rhythmic support to the spotlight is one of the band's calling cards, and it comes from playing Monday nights.
"It keeps the band rehearsed, and loose and tight at the same time," says Gros. "It also gives us an opportunity to experiment with the music that we have and break in new music as well.
Some songs emerge from Monday night jams, while other musical ideas get worked out and find their final form there.
The weekly gig is one of the staples of the New Orleans music scene and gives it its character. Before Hurricane Katrina, there was a standing gig every night, and such shows aren't concerts as much as they are a night in the band's rehearsal room. According to Washboard Chaz Leary, who fronts the Washboard Chaz Blues Trio on Wednesday nights at Vaughan's Lounge and Thursday nights at the Apple Barrel, such shows are typically spontaneous.
"That makes music more real," he says.
Many weekly gigs have returned. At the Spotted Cat, the Jazz Vipers are back and performing Monday and Friday nights, and a version of the Hot Club of New Orleans plays the band's pre-Katrina Friday happy hour slot at d.b.a. under the name the M.R.E.s until the full Hot Club lineup is back in town. Joe Krown has resumed his solo piano Friday early evenings at Le Bon Temps Roule, and there are a few new regular gigs, including Amanda Shaw on Sunday afternoons at the Howlin' Wolf and the Monk Boudreaux-led Mardi Gras Indian practice on Sunday nights at Tipitina's. The Rebirth Brass Band plans to return to its longstanding Tuesday night gig at the Maple Leaf, but for now, that slot is filled by New Orleans Live Animals. The Trio, with Johnny Vidacovich, George Porter Jr. and guest returns to Thursday nights at the Maple Leaf on Dec. 15.
Bruce Daigrepont has been hosting Tipitina's Sunday fais do do for about 19 years, and he says the return of standing gigs like his is "a little bit of normalcy coming back." His first gig back was Nov. 6, and the audience was largely local, though many of the regulars from Acadiana were there as well. "It was people who have been coming to the dances for years," he says. "The dancers are like family."
When Alex McMurray had his Wednesday-night gig at the Circle Bar, the regular crowd often felt like a dysfunctional family, calling out whacky requests and fielding good-natured abuse from McMurray. Since he moved to New York City, the Circle Bar has changed its policy slightly, booking bands for a month of Wednesdays. Last month, the Happy Talk Band played, and even though this month features DJs, for general manager Lefty Parker, the residency gig gives a band a chance to hone its craft.
"I think it makes the band play better," he says, adding that some of the bands that play aren't ready for the bigger stages in town yet, and the weekly gig gives them a chance to develop their chops and find an audience at the same time.
Papa Grows Funk's Monday gigs sowed the seeds of an out-of-town audience as visitors to New Orleans heard them, then saw them when the band came to their towns. "We play year around Monday nights, and people come to town year around," Gros says. Those people not only see the band in their cities, but they plan trips to New Orleans around them and other bands that do weekly gigs.
Washboard Chaz agrees: "Tourists know where to find you, and they know who's playing at Preservation Hall and on Frenchmen Street, and they know Rebirth's at the Maple Leaf."
Lefty Parker sees weekly gigs as at least as important now as they were pre-Katrina, if not more so. "The issue is gigs," he says. "As many gigs as you can give people, do it."
Washboard Chaz sees the gigs as particularly important for the audience as well as for the band. They let audiences know the band is back and where to find them, but more importantly, "they give people a communal gathering space," he says.
Weekly gigs are a sign that New Orleans is open for music business, but right now, what they mean to the artists and locals is more important. "Playing is a big part of my heart and soul," Daigrepont says. "Hopefully we help people take their minds off tearing out sheetrock for a few hours."
- Papa Grows Funk works out new material and tweaks older ideas Monday nights at the Maple Leaf.