One got a call from the Doctor, and the other got a call from the circus. Guitarist John Fohl and keyboardist Charlie Dennard, two of the hardest-working musicians in New Orleans, each just got hired for their dream jobs. Fohl is the new guitarist in Dr. John's band, while Dennard is leaving New Orleans for the next two years to be the touring keyboardist for Cirque du Soleil's Alegria show. Both instances are instructive examples of good things coming to artists who've tackled the challenging -- and often economically perilous -- New Orleans music scene with creative spirit and dogged determination.
Fohl started from scratch in New Orleans in 1996, after moving from Oregon and leaving the platinum-selling band Cherry Poppin' Daddies for broader creative challenges. He quickly became one of the most in-demand sidemen in town, while working in a dizzying array of settings: solo at venues like Margaritaville Cafe; festivals and convention gigs as lead guitarist for Amy and the Hank Sinatras; recording sessions and shows with the Joe Krown Organ Combo; as co-leader of blues trio Sansone, Krown, and Fohl; and most recently, hotel and nightclub gigs with chanteuse Ingrid Lucia.
"I've been working 300 gigs a year for the last 15 years," says Fohl. "I think people have different expectations about the music business. If you get locked into just playing with your band, it can be tough. But a lot of guys here are versatile, and play solo gigs and with three of four different bands. Part of the trick with doing something like this is doing your best at every opportunity."
Two such opportunities were Joe Krown's 2000 CD, Buckle Up, and Andy J. Forest's 2001 CD, Sunday Rhumba, where Fohl played with drummer Herman Ernest -- Dr. John's drummer and bandleader. When guitarist Renard Poche told Ernest he was leaving Dr. John's band, Ernest called Fohl to gauge his interest. "After I hung up the phone I jumped around for a little bit," Fohl says with a laugh. Fohl made his trial run with the band for a recent string of Northeast shows. "I thought I would be real nervous about it, but the band is so good that they made it so easy, and it felt calm and nice," says Fohl. He officially landed the job, and makes his local debut with Dr. John on Oct. 27 at the Popeye's Chicken & Biscuits 30th Anniversary Festival.
His new job won't change his work habits. "I'm going to keep playing with Ingrid and Joe, and keep working 300 gigs a year, except maybe 100 of them are with Dr. John," says Fohl.
Charlie Dennard's tireless gigging and career path rivals Fohl's. Dennard moved to New Orleans from Birmingham seven years ago, to study with Ellis Marsalis at UNO. Dennard made his biggest mark on the local scene with contemporary jazz outfit Quintology, and often seemed to be in two places at once. He played solo piano gigs at Windsor Court and Le Meridien; was a member of now-defunct world-fusion band New World Funk Ensemble; played with drummer Stanton Moore in Moore and More; had his own organ trio, 5 O'Clock Charlie; and most recently, spearheaded the electronic music free-for-all show Electravibe at 735 Club on Bourbon Street.
"Ever since the days of New World Funk Ensemble, I'm really influenced by world music and these fusions of genres coming together," says Dennard. "Cirque du Soleil is a dream gig because it's an international group of people, and the music is eclectic. There's singing in two or three languages, and it's like classical music meets gypsy music meets electronic music, with multi-media and theater."
Dennard is proof that every gig and musical experience -- no matter how small or experimental -- can count toward new horizons. "The Electravibe gig was a big help, because for the MIDI technology for Cirque du Soleil, I have to do a month of training just on the technical aspect alone, and learn to set up and maintain the keyboard rig. And all my schooling at UNO and solo piano gigs ... thank God I can read music now, because I just got the material to learn for Cirque du Soleil, and it's like a telephone book of music that I have to memorize for the show."
He earned the gig after auditioning in Biloxi two years ago, and while he didn't get the job then, he stayed in touch with the show's performers and producers. Dennard's persistence and professionalism, like Fohl's, have earned him a larger stage and new opportunities. "This is a whole other level, that's for sure," says Dennard. "There are Olympic athletes on this tour, with their own doctors and chefs, and it's a first class organization. I've wanted to record some of my own stuff and different projects, but didn't have the money. I've been living at the poverty level for so long, that if I can keep living the way I've been accustomed to, now maybe I can save some money to do some things I've always wanted to do."
- Guitarist John Fohl (pictured) and keyboardist Charlie Dennard recently earned dream gigs with Dr. John and Cirque du Soleil.