Anders Osborne didn't want to play on New Year's Eve 2001. But when Big Chief Monk Boudreaux's new Golden Eagles ensemble wasn't available to back him up for a gig at the Funky Butt, Osborne got a phone call and quickly changed his mind. Both men were so invigorated by the chemistry on stage that night that it sparked a desire to document their collaboration.
The spontaneous circumstances of their partnership shine through on Bury the Hatchet, the pair's new CD on Shanachie Records. It's one of the most high-profile meetings of Mardi Gras Indian culture and popular culture since the Wild Magnolias' 1974 debut album, when funk and R&B pillars like Snooks Eaglin and Willie Tee electrified the traditional chants of the Indians. Boudreaux was an integral part of that revolutionary outing, and almost three decades later -- and a year after his controversial ouster from the Wild Magnolias -- he sounds like he's primed to keep breaking new ground and further expose mainstream culture to the Mardi Gras Indian traditions.
Osborne's the perfect partner for such an outing. While his CDs are known for his melodic and arresting songwriting, Osborne's live shows are hypnotic showcases of his percussive guitar style and frequent stream-of-consciousness vocal vamps -- which translate beautifully to the rhythmic churning of Mardi Gras Indian rhythms. That's readily apparent on "I'm the Big, Big Chief," the opening track of Bury the Hatchet, where Osborne's joyous and swaying vocals effortlessly glide along drummer Doug Belote's second-line stutter, paving the way for Boudreaux's round and weathered voice to join along. The song's insistent refrain ("Well, it's Mardi Gras Day, and everybody follows me, 'cause I'm the big, big chief") sounds like an instant Mardi Gras classic.
That proud opening number and the second track, "Dive in the Gumbo," also show that Osborne's bringing his own spin to the proceedings, as he plucks out some unexpected banjo parts that lend the songs a new musical texture. The structure of "Dive in the Gumbo" and "Smoke it Right" wouldn't sound out of place on the Wild Magnolias' second album, They Call Us Wild, but Osborne gives the songs a new-millennium feel with some spiked and squalling wah-wah guitar.
With such pulsing support, Boudreaux rises to the occasion on multiple levels. His songwriting stays firmly in the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, but he's got an incisive eye for detail, with images of streets burning and watermelon men on the bayou in "Take Me Downtown" and "Dive in the Gumbo."
Perhaps more impressive, Boudreaux's staking his claim as a vocalist. His contributions to the Wild Magnolias were often overshadowed due to the vocal power of the Magnolias' Bo Dollis, but Boudreaux makes a new statement on songs like "Search Until You Find It" and the classic "Meet the Boys on the Battlefront," complementing his classic chant delivery with emphatic phrasing and an expanded range. The performance adds to Boudreaux's musical persona as an authoritative musical shaman, which is no small feat.
A pair of classic covers, "Junko Partner" and "Meet the Boys on the Battlefront," are highlights of the album. "Junko Partner" has been a staple of Osborne's recent live shows, and here it gets an emphatic and appropriately staggered treatment, with Osborne pouring his tumultuous past into a knowing vocal. "Meet the Boys on the Battlefront" is a showcase for Boudreaux's Caribbean-inflected vocal with a matching calypso rhythm, courtesy of some syncopated piano work from David Torkanowsky. Tork is just one of a stellar crew of backing musicians, including sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, saxophonist Tim Green, guitarist Brian Stoltz, and drummers Belote and Herman Ernest. Green in particular is a powerful presence, unfurling some haunting voodoo-ritual sax lines on "Holding On," and blowing a sweet melodic lead that lifts "Letters From Rome."
"Letters From Rome" is a terrific performance, but it's a holdover from Osborne's unreleased 1996 album, New Madrid, and its metaphor-heavy sea-shanty feel tips the album in a strange direction. Ditto for an inspired rearrangement of Neil Young's "Ohio," which feels dated since it's so irrevocably intertwined with the 1970 Kent State shootings. (The idea's certainly intriguing, though, and raises other possibilities: Imagine Osborne and Boudreaux's voices joined together on Young's wistful 1969 classic "Helpless.") Elsewhere, Osborne's "Summertime in New Orleans" is a breezy catalogue of local images and icons, from seafood shells in a garbage truck to Irma Thomas and WWOZ, with a delivery and stripped-down banjo-and-piano instrumentation that sounds like an homage to Danny Barker.
Still, it's hard to fault Osborne and Boudreaux for pushing in unexpected directions. In many ways, the signature song of Bury the Hatchet is "Search Until You Find It," a zen-like psychedelic excursion featuring Green's floating sax lines snaked around some scratch-and-echo guitar parts from Osborne. That's the sonic template for Boudreaux, who's the perfect voice for the song's symbolic journey into the soul. It sounds simultaneously timeless and brand new -- and bodes well for the continued embrace and exploration of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition.