Honey Island Swamp Band took January off from touring, but it's still playing regularly with its Wednesday night residency at The Maple Leaf.
"Instead of killing ourselves this winter, let's do something at home," Aaron Wilkinson of Honey Island Swamp Band says. He's walking through the thought process that led to its month-long residency at The Maple Leaf Bar, which continues Wednesday night. The band has maintained a heavy touring schedule for the last few years, but the winter months have been leaner on the road, so they've decided to stay home and do a residency, something they haven't been able to do because they rarely stay in one place for a month.
The Wednesday night series gives the band a chance to do songs they don't usually do. According to Wilkinson, they have 20 or so songs that they tend to cycle through in their usual set, so The Maple Leaf shows give them a chance to explore their own back catalogue. "We're making a point of doing some obscure things, some stuff we've never done before," he says. To help make the shows special, the band has also invited special guests to perform with them. This week, saxophone player Khris Royal will join them; next week, guitarist Colin Lake, and they're contributing songs to the setlist as well. As much as New Orleans musicians play together, Honey Island Swamp Band has performed with these friends less often than you might think. "The only time we get to play together is when we're in another city on festival," Wilkinson says.
For Wilkinson, a residency at the Leaf is an honor. He's very conscious of being in the place where Papa Grows Funk has been playing one for years, as had Johnny Vidacovich and George Porter Jr.'s Trio. He appreciates the club's history, its regulars, and he's worked out his relationship with its stage.
"It's a different stage," he says. "The dimensions are a little bit weird. It's deeper than it is wide, which is uncommon. You end up in this weird army regiment configuration, so your sightlines and the way you interact with each other are affected. You have to turn around and show the audience your ass to communicate with the keyboard player when he's playing a solo. It plays tricks on your ears as well, but it's cool. The depth of the stage contains the sound, so it sounds like a rehearsal space. The sound doesn't escape, and for our band, that creates an intimate experience. I think that affects the way bands play there. You're intimate with the crowd, and you're intimate with each other."
The long, narrow nature of the room means that the band can see the audience nearby, but at some point people fade into darkness near the soundboard. "You can't tell what sort of mischief is going on back there," Wilkinson says. "Inevitably, you make eye contact with the bartender and you can tell if he's having a good night or not."
Much of the set these days is new material from Honey Island's upcoming album, which they recorded at Piety Street with producer John Porter. They hope to solidify a record deal and get the album out in time for Jazz Fest, but playing regularly has got them inspired and writing. The informal nature of the shows means they'll try anything, even a song written during soundcheck.
"Last week, our buddy Eddie gave Chris Mulé some lyrics and Chris came up with a riff," Wilkinson says. "We threw it out during soundcheck - 'You got it? You got it? You got it?' 'Okay, let's do it.' - so we threw out a song for Eddie. And who knows? The song was pretty cool. We might end up keeping it around."