Freaks for Industry, the self-released second album from New Orleans' Tin Men, seems improbable. The trio of Alex McMurray on guitar, Matt Perrine on sousaphone and "Washboard" Chaz Leary on washboard was an unusual band configuration from the outset, but McMurray's move to New York City last October after falling in love with a New Yorker sounded like the band's death knell.
The album, though, features the band at its irrepressible best. Recorded over four days last September and October, it explores New Orleans' musical forms in original songs or covers that touch on jazz, blues, R&B and rock. The Tin Men cover Danny Barker's "Palm Court Strut," the Dirty Dozen's "Blackbird Special," and McMurray's "The Ballad of Cap'n Sandy," which tells of the darkly funny drinking life of the character McMurray played while working in a Japanese theme park for six months. That sense of humor and the band's unique instrumentation unify Freaks for Industry.
Though the album was recorded fairly quickly, the past five months have been spent mixing it. The hardest part was selecting the best songs and best versions. The band recorded 24 songs, then cut it down to the 16 that stayed interesting over time.
"We had no deadlines holding us to make it come out at a certain time, so we took our time with it," Perrine says.
Besides recording, the Tin Men started touring -- not endless treks through the hinterlands, but short trips to parts of the country where the band has an audience. Perrine says McMurray's move forced the band to think seriously about what to do next.
"We realized if we didn't take the next step business-wise and make sure we were making money as a band, there would be no more Tin Men," he says. They are booking more shows on the road, primarily in Colorado and the Northeast, where they enjoy their biggest followings, and when McMurray's in New Orleans, they're booking shows in bigger rooms.
For musicians who play in a number of bands the way Tin Men members do, touring is difficult. It means leaving other gigs and their income while on the road, and -- out of sight, out of mind -- bandleaders tend to stop calling once you're back, assuming you're still on the road and unavailable. If the tour isn't profitable, the musicians lose money in more ways than one.
Smaller rooms like the Circle Bar and the Frenchmen Street clubs have been the musical homes of McMurray, Perrine and Leary, and they credit them with their musical development. Not only do those clubs give musicians chances to play and make a few bucks, but Leary points out that they give musicians a chance to work on their craft in front of audiences. It certainly trained Tin Men to handle almost anything.
"In New Orleans, there is a very thin shield between the musicians and the audience," Perrine says. "We're always very comfortable in front of audience, having audiences in our laps, basically." The ability to play to 10 or 200 people, to people lining the back wall or sitting on lip of the stage, explain how Tin Men could walk into a bar in New York, pick up a gig, and start a crowd dancing that, the bartenders said, never danced.
"That willingness to be intimate, no matter the size of room -- that comes across," Perrine says.
With its Rock & Roll show, the Big Top strikes a blow for loud guitars during Jazz Fest. This group show approaches its theme from a number of angles from the traditional -- live photos including a startling picture of Iggy Pop by Lynda Woolard and one of Neil Young looking like an angry old man by Erika Goldring -- to Jeannie Detweiler's inexplicable painting of green alien bunnies titled, Ceremony with Bells 2. Inexplicability is very rock 'n' roll.
The two most provocative pieces are Rachel Detrinis' black and white video to music that sounds like mid-'60s Nancy Sinatra. The screen is divided into three vertical bars, but what's happening in each bar isn't clear. One could be porn, one looks like an ultra close-up, and one features burlesque dancers. The juxtaposition of what feels like found footage seems very appropriate, but it's made disorienting when the soundtrack seems to start playing backwards.
Sean M. Neary's collages of Britney kissing Madonna and Michael Jackson explaining himself are the conceptual winners, each reproducing a famous image using images found in magazines. The collage process gives each piece energy, and thinking about the magazines used to find hair for Britney and Madonna adds resonance. The show's on the display through April.
- "We realized if we didn't take the next step business-wise, there would be no more Tin Men," Matt Perrine says after Alex McMurray's move to New York City.