When a band that traces its origins to New Orleans releases a post-Katrina album, fans may be tempted to squeeze greater meaning from the lyrics, especially if the album is entitled Behind the Levee. Are any of the subdudes songs on this album about no vacancy, keeping your feet on the ground and loved ones living far away really about Katrina?
"None. That's a very important point. None," says Tommy Malone, vocalist and guitarist for the reunited roots-rock band. "It was all completely written and recorded long before that."
With the album released in January, there must have been some thought about the title, right?
"Certainly that's something we thought about with that title," Malone says. "It's referencing one of the songs, which is the Papa Dukie song, talking about our playground as kids, literally the area called the 'batture' behind the levee, which is where you get away from your parents and do all the fun stuff," Malone says. "We just thought with all the crap that everyone's going through this year, and the negativity attached to that word -- why not just do it and put a positive spin on that word 'levee.'"
And spin positively the 'dudes do. The first single, "Papa Dukie and the Mud People," recalls with nostalgia when two busloads of hippies set up camp in Wallace, one town over from Edgard where Malone and percussionist Steve Amede spent their formative years. Eddie "Dukie" Edwards, a professional drummer who returned home from Los Angeles with the hippies, and his band set up a stage, threw parties and emitted patchouli.
"It was huge," Malone says. "It was like, I don't know, how do you describe that, when you're a teenager? That's like taking your first drink, or getting your first ... you know. Girl. Or your first anything. It was real genuine stuff."
Most of the folks were curious, and a few thought the hippies were weirdos who may corrupt the children. Malone says he and Amade weren't corrupted any more than they wanted to be and points out that Papa Dukie did what they do now: "Ride around and set up and play music." It's safe to say Malone and the subdudes have found greater success than Dukie. "Papa Dukie and the Mud People," with its infectious chorus of "na-na-nas," charted in the top five for AAA airplay, and Behind the Levee reached No. 1 on the Roots Music Report. Tour dates are selling out as well.
While 2004's Miracle Mule may be a landmark return after an eight-year hiatus, Behind the Levee may signal the subdudes are back to stay. Both albums contain some of the best material the band has offered since its 1987 inception, without a drastic change in sound. Despite overzealous fans, the lyrics are still simple, almost hymn-like, with the harmonies adding the depth, and the music is still built on the backbeat provided by minimal percussion while other instruments augment the rhythm. Unlike trendier styles, the subdudes firm grounding in Americana blossoms with maturity, rather than rotting as an outdated parody. Or maybe it's something else.
"[Tim] Cook kept some really powerful cough medicine that I was taking," Malone says, perhaps jokingly, then adds, "I think in the past we were a little guilty of not wanting to go back and rewrite. You know, it blurts out and then you leave it alone. I think we've gotten older, and we spend more time trying to fine tune it a little bit."
For Behind the Levee, the subdudes enlisted Keb' Mo' to aid in the fine tuning, which flushes out a stronger R&B flavor. Along with collaborating on production, Mo' plays guitar and mandolin for a few tracks, and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band contribute as well, but Mo' also played taskmaster.
"It was pretty intense; a lot of hours, a lot of pretty hard work. He's a pretty focused, hard working guy," says Malone.
Keb' Mo' will open for the subdudes when they perform at House of Blues later that night on Saturday, and Malone and company are looking forward to getting behind the levee at this year's Jazz Fest.
"I think it's gonna be pretty well attended. I think it's gonna be very emotional for a lot of people," Malone says. "A healing thing. A coming together. There for bigger reasons than just getting up to perform their set."
Malone and bassist Jimmy Messa were both displaced by Katrina, and have since returned home, but the work is still ongoing. "Jimmy just got walls up about a week ago. My downstairs is being rebuilt as we speak; I just got walls down there, too," Malone says. "Now we get to get it all nice and pretty and paint it and decorate it and put some furniture in there -- and then June 1 is hurricane season."
Josh Johnson is the former A&E editor for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain Bullhorn and is currently taking up space at the Colorado Springs Independent. He lives in Fort Collins.
- "We just thought with all the crap that everyone's going through this year, and the negativity attached to that word -- why not just do it and put a positive spin on that word 'levee,'" subdudes guitarist and vocalist Tommy Malone (left) says about the group's latest release.