Our notes from last weekend in the clubs.

Parks and McDermott photo
Van Dyke Parks and Tom McDermott

Last weekend, we were at Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears at Tipitina’s, and Van Dyke Parks and Tom McDermott at Snug Harbor. Here’s the takeaway:

Van Dyke Parks and Tom McDermott

The legendary Van Dyke Parks is a Louis Moreau Gottschalk fan, and it is on that ground that he became a fan of Tom McDermott’s work, so much so that he curated a collection of McDermott’s recordings and helped get Bamboula released. (For more on that, see my interview with McDermott in The New Orleans Advocate). On Saturday, Parks and McDermott shared a bill at Snug Harbor, and the results exactly what you would - or should - hope for: distinctly personal performances. Parks played with a stripped-down band that let Helen Gillet’s cello and Rachel Van Voorhees' harp stand in for all the strings, but that didn’t stop Parks from starting with the overture-like “Jump!” that opened the 1984 album by the same name inspired by the writings of Joel Chandler Harris. It wasn’t the optimal way to hear the song or its follow-up live and on the album, “Opportunity for Two,” but the success of both songs illustrated the durability of the compositions. He then played “Come Along,” also from Jump!, then revealed that the show was his first time playing piano in two months after he severed a tendon in his hand.

Parks’ music is idiosyncratic in his ability to pull together music from a number of musical traditions, and his phrasing as a singer was so behind the beat that the mic was his. Nobody could sing along, no matter how well they knew the songs. But the beauty of his time on the stage was that he made it all his, defending Harris’ reputation and speaking of “the power of empathy.” Throughout, he spoke with precise directness about broad political concerns, even when it wasn’t clear how the song and its introduction connected. “This is how I combatted all that I found unsettling about 1964,” he said to introduce “The All-Golden” from Song Cycle

The wealth of influences Parks pulls together results in music that seems to come from an undatable moment in history, and he spoke to that on Saturday night. “I come from a land that no longer exists,” he said with notes of sadness and anger, reflecting on today and “a land where a black man can't get employed at the House of Blues - not enough star power.” The unrelenting message that the world is off the rails clearly made some around me uncomfortable, but it wasn’t a joyless downer. He remembered fondly the restaurant Justine’s “where I had my first Baked Alaska,” but he wasn’t letting anybody off the hook with sentimentality. Parks used his time to remind people that the country’s social and democratic promise is being shamefully, sadly welched on - and that he loved Tom McDermott’s music and hoped we would buy it. 

McDermott used his two sets as personally, if not as politically. He played compositions by Gottschalk, Jelly Roll Morton (including one started by hammering strings inside the open piano), Professor Longhair, Fats Domino (adding some musical richness) and James Booker (sort of - actually, a medley of Beatles songs played Booker style). He was joined much of the time by Michael Skinkus on percussion, but he also called up James Singleton, Aurora Nealand, Evan Christopher and Meschiya Lake at different points throughout his set, pulling together the broad collection of collaborators he plays with in town and broadening his own musical reach in the process. He accompanied Lake on Bessie Smith’s “Backwater Blues,” which Lake sang without a microphone. 

The set showed more of McDermott’s talents and interests than Bamboula does, but his own personality was just as evident as Parks’ was. In his case, he unified the range of artists whose work he touched, and he made it all sound of a piece.

Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears

On Saturday night, photographer Patrick Ainsworth was at Tipitina’s for Austin-based blues/R&B band Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears. Here’s what he saw. Me - I love the Chic T-shirt.

The view from onstage at Tipitina's, by Patrick Ainsworth
Black Joe Lewis at Tipitina's, by Patrick Ainsworth
Black Joe Lewis, by Patrick Ainsworth