'Treme,' Ep. 27: The Fat Man
Born in 1928, Fats Domino enjoyed the first of his many hits — almost all of which were created in New Orleans — when "The Fat Man" rose up the R&B charts all the way to No. 2. That was in 1950. Which explains all the records on the wall at his house, and the regal status he is afforded.
That, and other musical explainers, are in our latest Treme music recap, with WBGO's Josh Jackson.
Patrick Jarenwattananon: Davis, proclaimed "the luckiest white man in America," is finally getting some buy-in for his crazy R&B opera idea. First, he collaborates — or tries to — with singer-songwriter Paul Sanchez.
Josh Jackson: Davis finds a sympathetic ear from songwriter Paul Sanchez, who knows a thing or two about creating a New Orleans-themed theatrical production. Sanchez collaborated with Colman DeKay on Nine Lives: The Musical, a paean to the city based on writer Dan Baum's nonfiction account of New Orleans residents' oral histories.
Of course, Davis has stratospheric aspirations. To recap so far, he's gathered some local legends: Irma Thomas, Clarence "Frogman" Henry, Al "Carnival Time" Johnson, Robert Parker and Frankie Ford.
PJ: Then, through Davell Crawford, he gains entry into Fats Domino's house. (I didn't know Fats Domino was still around!) Of course, Fats isn't exactly into it.
JJ: "I can't sing opera," he says with a sly laugh. Fats Domino doesn't perform much at 84, and why does he need to anyway? Dude's got a Cadillac-themed sofa! He no longer lives in his Caffin Avenue home, the Ninth Ward residence where he lived most of his adult life, and where Davis and Davell seemingly visit him. Domino now lives in a gated community on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish, across the Mississippi River from New Orleans. He still likes his Heinekens. (Hence the impromptu line in this version of his hit, "Blueberry Hill"). All those gold and platinum records — replacements after they were lost during Katrina — say what needs to be said.
PJ: While all this is going on, Davis quits WWOZ — after he's confronted about nepotistic support of Annie's band on air. We do get a miniature lesson on Cajun music, though.
JJ: We hear the very end of BeauSoleil's "Flammes D'enfer," which first appeared on the band's excellent recording, Bayou Cadillac. Davis played some other notable Cajun music, as we discover in his back announce: "La Valse du Port Arthur" from the Balfa Brothers and "Valse du Opelousas" from accordionist Amedee Ardoin with fiddler Dennis McGhee. Those Ardoin recordings are some of the earliest documented Cajun music — with a racially integrated band, no less. Musicians and scholars universally revere their important historical influence. By the way, Steve Zahn's pronunciation of these names could use some polish. I hope that was done in character.
PJ: And finally, a happy note, when he convinces a skeptical Irma Thomas to sing his "satirical"/"sardonic" piece, "The New Ninth Ward."
JJ: She does it, but she "hopes they have a good ballad for the B-side." Those are some funny-sad lyrics. Hit material it isn't.
PJ: In other music this episode, we see Antoine take his student to hear another special lesson. That's the clarinetist Dr. Michael White working with the Hot 8 Brass Band on New Orleans traditional jazz.
JJ: Dr. Michael White is teaching members of the Hot 8 Brass Band the old songs like "Bugle Boy March," "Dark Sunshine" and "Shake It and Break It." Here are informally educated street musicians "from around the way," attending a workshop with a clarinet-wielding doctorate. As Antoine says, "There isn't a musician who's worth a damn who ever stops learning."
It's a teachable moment for Antoine's student, Jennifer. Earlier in the episode, Antoine teaches "Careless Love," another staple in the New Orleans tradition. When he asks how the lyrics affect the interpretation of the melody, he learns that his budding trumpet player cannot read words; she has a severe learning disability. The school is aware of it, yet they continue to pass her through a broken public education system. "Careless Love," indeed.
PJ: We also heard Guitar Lightnin' Lee play a song which was highly apropos for his strung-out keyboard player.
JJ: The tune is called "Missing Mama." Sonny is about to lose another job.
PJ: To close the episode, we have a live performance from the New Orleans sludge-metal band Eyehategod, where Everett seems to be enjoying himself.
JJ: I'll be the first to admit this was never my jam. I'm much more familiar with the preceding scene at Gigi's, where Chief Lambreaux and his gang are working out to "Let's Go Get Em" at Indian practice. Here I defer to NPR Music's resident authority, metal enthusiast Lars Gotrich:
If New Orleans isn't technically the birthplace of sludge metal — Seattle and Melvins have a strong claim there — it certainly represents the dive bar where everyone gets plastered beyond reasonable thought. Sludge metal does what it sounds like: Black Sabbath riffs trudge slower than Swamp Thing, with a bit of a Black Flag hardcore spit-take to swirl the filth. Often, there's a good ol' boy Southern rock swagger to it all. When I think about it, bands like Crowbar, Acid Bath, Kingdom of Sorrow, Eyehategod and Down (a bit of a "supergroup" featuring members of most of those bands) are kind of a distorted, feedback-damaged take on the NOLA funeral march. Sludge isn't NOLA's only metallic export, of course: Exhorder's groove-heavy thrash paved the way for Pantera (an Austin band that featured Down vocalist Phil Anselmo), while Goatwhore is the Crescent City's long-running black/death metal band.
Though I may get flak for it from Down die-hards (and I am one of them), David Simon does right to represent NOLA's metal history with Eyehategod on this Treme episode. The band makes music that hurts: Squeals of feedback are like shots to the arm, with lyrics of drug-addled hatred for everything and everyone. Mike IX Williams is a confrontational frontman who either cares nothing for himself or cares too much about the world crumbling around him. Like many of his local brethren, he saw his home washed away during Hurricane Katrina. I suspect that may have something to do with the title of the song in the episode, "New Orleans Is the New Vietnam."
PJ: Thanks again to Lars. Finally: Any good background music catch your ear? I noticed Irma Thomas returns for the end title song, "Anyone Who Knows" — which I gather was co-written by Randy Newman, among others.
JJ: I heard Aaron Neville singing "Hercules" while the Chief flirts with LaDonna at the bar. Killer bass line on that tune.
Most of Sonny's French Quarter scenes feature music from C.C. Adcock, a Louisiana native whose career has taken him from California glam bands to zydeco and swamp rock. He records infrequently, but his Lil Band O Gold group and Lafayette Marquis band are worth a listen. We hear "Stripper Boogie" and "Harmonica Stomp" while Sonny is on Bourbon Street, and "Slangshotz N' Boom-R-Angz" inside the strip club. Between Treme and True Blood, Adcock is getting a fat royalty check from HBO.