Named after a Mississippi legend in which a panther was set ablaze inside a burning plantation, Tav Falco's Panther Burns emerged as a self-described "art damage" fireball torching the South. Falco formed Panther Burns with Big Star's Alex Chilton in Memphis in the late 1970s, reveling in a deviant deconstruction of and devotion to early rock 'n' roll, exorcising the ghosts within it and dancing with them on albums spanning the last several decades.
Falco's Panther Burns returns to New Orleans for two shows this week, reuniting with a city that helped shape the band in its early incarnation.
In an email from his home in Vienna, where Falco has lived for the last decade, he tells Gambit that ultimately his "fondness for the Crescent City lies with the truly Southern hospitality and warmth of its people," beginning as a child from "the backwoods of Arkansas" visiting a New Orleans filled with oysters at Antoine's Restaurant, pastries on Royal Street and Sweet Emma Barrett inside Preservation Hall. He later returned to New Orleans for two years, where he fondly remembers studying Professor Longhair and sipping Old Fashioneds with legendary Memphis photographer William Eggleston at The Columns Hotel. He later was arrested Uptown for "rowdy behavior," he says. "Reckon I was cutting a fairly flamboyant figure to rate that kind of charge in [New Orleans], but my swarthy cellmates treated me just fine."
After forming Panther Burns in Memphis, the band was invited to perform with The Cramps at Ole Man Rivers and by artist Bunny Matthews to perform at the Contemporary Arts Center. "Alex fell in love with the city right from the start," Falco writes. "When his father, the Memphis tenor saxophone player Sydney Chilton, died, Alex moved to New Orleans the next day. In order to evade the reaching arms of certain Memphis hussies, I decamped later."
Falco followed in his black 1964 Ford Thunderbird and shared two rooms with Chilton behind a shotgun on Plum Street. Later, they moved into a garage apartment on Barracks Street behind the home of artist Robert Tannen; Falco left town for a rooftop tent in New York after one too many unpleasant encounters with Tannen's "unruly hound" Ghost. Chilton, of course, remained in New Orleans until his death in 2010.
"The morose sounds of church bells ringing randomly around the city still echo in my ears, not unlike those of merry/sinister old Vienna, where I now reside," Falco says. "Here the baroque imagination runs wild. Before I left New Orleans, a mad Arkansas poet and I placed a note of appreciation in the mailbox of the last known residence of Tennessee Williams. We weren't sure he was there, but his vibe certainly was."
Falco's prolific decade abroad has produced several albums, EPs and 7-inch singles, as well as two books — 2011's Ghosts Behind the Sun: Splendor, Enigma & Death and 2016's An Iconography of Chance: 99 Photographs of the Evanescent South. In 2015, he premiered his feature-length film debut Urania Descending, the first in a planned trilogy of a noir-inspired avant-garde films.
In 2014, he assembled Panther Burns in Rome to record Command Performance, and he recently wrapped recording for Cabaret of Daggers (ORG Music), reuniting his Roman lineup that also joins this tour: drummer Riccardo Colasante, guitarist Mario Monterosso, and bassist Giuseppe Sangirardi, along with keyboardist Francesco D'Agnolo, a veteran session player with film composer Ennio Morricone. Falco calls it a "provocative yet romantic record," charged with "introspection, heights of frenzy, some sensual R&B grooves, gender identity crises, strange tangos and a lynching blues."
As with his past work, Falco's visions brim with a postmodern wit, leveraging irony and humor to endure the apocalypse.
"The film director Alejandro Jodorowsky once told me that he prefers to film in Italy and that he always prefers to work with an Italian crew because for the Italians, anything is possible. I find this true," Falco says. "Some of my songs are structurally unusual — off genre. Aside from comments like, 'Hey, this song is kind of crazy,' my colleagues in Italy just pounce on it without reservation. No further questions asked."