The spirited quartet puts a modern-day spin on New Orleans rhythm and blues.
“People always move retroactively,” says Travers Geoffray of rhythm-and-blues quartet Mississippi Rail Company. “Nothing is new anymore when it comes to fashion or music.” But Geoffray has no problem with this. Mississippi Rail Company, a soulful, bluesy blend of upright bass, tenor saxophone, keyboard and drums, understands this trend and embraces it with a heavy New Orleans influence. The band plays Jazz Fest on Saturday.
Geoffray – the band’s keyboardist, vocalist, and songwriter – originally moved from Virginia to New Orleans for its music. “I love old things,” Geoffray says. “I really got into roots music, and I was also listening to a lot of Delta blues.” Mississippi Rail Company’s take on early New Orleans music has a fresh soulfulness to it; the sound seems familiar but the band’s repetitious, ear-catching melodies and blues-pop rhythms are new. The quartet understands showmanship, too. With an old-school sound comes an old-school dress code, and every member suits up for their live show. “It’s about having the vibe,” Geoffray says. “It’s a fantasy sort of thing, but it’s more for ourselves. I go back in time to a place where I envision that I’d be, and I think the audience picks up on that, too. Sometimes in the summer we’ll take off the jackets, but we always wear the suits.”
Mississippi Rail Company formed in 2010 when Geoffray was in college at Tulane University. Though he majored in Environmental Studies, he’d taken music lessons for 13 years from the prestigious Levine School of Music in Washington D.C. That training might explain his precision as a songwriter. “I’ll usually spend anywhere from a week to a month making sure I’ve got the rhyme scheme right, melody right, form right, and then I bring it to the band,” Geoffray says. “Even after that, I usually fine tune it a little bit.” Geoffray’s songwriting is what makes Mississippi Rail Company’s 2012 barebones blues album debut Coal Black Train a success; only keys, drums, and bass are needed to drive Geoffray’s soulful melodies home.
The band began as a college band, but Geoffray says the quartet now sits on the fringes of the college music scene. “As a younger group, people often lump us into the indie category on the basis that we’re young,” he says. “That’s fine, and I’ll let people lump us into any category that they want us to. But I would say that a lot of the musicians that I play with are definitely seasoned or becoming seasoned musicians in this city. They’re playing gigs nearly every night and playing in traditional jazz groups.”
When Mississippi Rail Company opened for Rebirth Brass Band in Lafayette Square last October, Geoffray did something a little more adventurous. “We added in a tenor and alto trumpet, and then two female singers,” he says. “That was my first time ever arranging something like that, and I went for a Ray Charles sound. It was fun, but I’m a minimalist and I think it ended up being too much.”
Geoffrey might be a minimalist, but he stills calls himself a Radiohead fan. "That obviously doesn't translate into this music at all," he says, laughing. “I’m ashamed to say that I really am out of touch with current music and what people are doing now. I've noticed recently that it seems like more artists are picking up on the suit and tie thing, though. I do like that.”
Mississippi Rail Company plays the Lagniappe Stage at Jazz Fest Saturday at 3:55 p.m.