How subdued can the subdudes sound?
At The Egg on Saturday, the veteran New Orleans crew will play in a new acoustic style, while their week-old two-DVD set — “Live at the Ram’s Head/Unplugged at Pleasant Plains” — displays both their acoustic and electric music-making.
Longtime fans have seen the subdudes do something like this before. In their last two shows at The Egg for example, they carried acoustic guitar, accordion and tambourine into the crowd to play in the plainest, most powerful way possible.
“We didn’t do that in the old version of the band [from 1987 to 1996],” subdudes keyboardist, accordionist and singer John Magnie explained recently from a Texas studio where they’re recording a new album — their first release on brand-new Music Road Records.
Magnie said the strong bass voice of bass player Tim Cook encouraged the reunited (in early 2002) veteran band to concentrate on vocals, a natural enough decision because subdudes singer Tommy Malone wields one of the greatest voices around.
“We found we could really execute a song pretty well with just vocals and guitar behind it,” Magnie said. However, the first time they did this out in the audience, “we really didn’t think it sounded great,” Magnie acknowledged, noting that the audience vehemently disagreed.
“There’s something about the act of walking out into the crowd that people really love.” Magnie said playing softly, in a subdued fashion, also harked back to “our first few days playing as the subdudes.”
The subdudes formed as a reaction to the extra-loud bands that preceded them. Magnie and singer and guitarist Tommy Malone played in Little Queenie and the Percolators and the Continental Drifters, a sort of graduate school for Magnie. Born in Abilene, Texas, raised in Denver, Magnie moved south to what he called “the New Orleans School of Music,” the huge community of musicians and the clubs, bars and festivals they play.
Magnie’s first teachers were all on records, especially Ray Charles and Nat King Cole, who Magnie said were “both very lyrical players and both very accompaniment-minded.” Magnie learned from them by slowing down records from 331⁄3 rpm to 16 rpm. “It was the same thing, only an octave lower,” he said. “So I would play it slower, pick out Ray’s or Nat’s licks, then I would learn to play it at half speed, then get it up to tempo.”
In New Orleans, Magnie joined bandleader Deacon John’s ever-changing crew. “I got really lucky,” he said. “[Deacon John] backed up a lot of people like Ernie K-Doe and Irma Thomas; so here I was — a white kid from Colorado — playing with my heroes.” He had moved to New Orleans mainly to meet two heroes: pianists Professor Longhair and James Booker. “I met ’Fess a few times, and I always considered myself a friend of James,” Magnie said. “He didn’t drive — he was blind in one eye — and needed someone to take care of him and take him around. I had that role for a time.”
In return, Booker showed Magnie, and anyone else who asked, how he played. “James was really generous, and the reason was, you couldn’t play as well as him — never. So he had nothing to fear about anybody getting as good as he was, since he was so brilliant.”
The subdudes’ brilliantly subdued musical concept emerged principally from Steve Amedee’s tambourine, a one-instrument distillation of a full drum set. “The first night we played (as the subdudes), he put that tambourine on his leg and hit it with a wooden spatula,” Magnie recalled. “Over just a few minutes, he learned to replicate all the tones of the drum set,” Magnie said, simply by pushing on the skin of the tambourine. Magnie said: “It was not loud. But it was very funky. It had lots of groove, more groove than a whole big band.”
Ever since, the subdudes have played not loud but very funky and with more groove than most whole big bands. At The Egg on Saturday, they’ll play “not loud”-er than ever. “We’re just going to be sitting down on five seats and play all our songs acoustically,” Magnie explained. He’ll play acoustic piano and lots of accordion, Tommy Malone and Jimmy Messa will play acoustic guitars, Tim Cook will play bass and Amedee will play tambourine and hand-drum.
They’ll play some covers — Hank Williams’s “Lost Highway” and Bill Withers’s “Grandma’s Hands” have edged onto the set list — and songs from their album-under-construction.
They like what they’re recording, but they’re cautious and quality conscious. “We have the three-day rule, sometimes the three-week rule,” said Magnie. “We let it sit and then come back and listen to it, and things tend to sort themselves out.”
One night during the sessions, Magnie and subdudes guitarist/bassist Jimmy Messa wandered out under the wide Texas sky to watch the stars and listen to recordings by Indian sitarist Ravi Shankar and his daughter Anoushka. “It showed us what real music is,” marveled Magnie. “We realized you can do that with some blues or country, or any kind of music, really — and this showed us how deep music can go.”
In fact, the subdudes have been going that deep for years and years.
The subdudes return to The Egg on Saturday, performing at 8 p.m. Tickets are $28. Phone 473-1845 or visit www.theegg.org.
Gospel and jazz
Deep, deep gospel and high-flying traditional jazz roll the Proctors main stage (432 State St., Schenectady) like a big boat down a mighty Mississippi of soulfulness when the Blind Boys of Alabama and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, respectively, team up tonight.
Both are staffed with venerable masters of their traditions: The Blind Boys formed in 1939 and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 1961. And both belie their chronological age through timeless skills and spirit.
Show time is 8 p.m. $40, $35, $30, $20. Phone 346-6204 or visit www.proctors.org.
Eighth Step opener
When Gadelle opens the new Eighth Step at Proctors season on Saturday at the GE Theatre (432 State St., Schenectady), the all-woman, all-Prince-Edward-Island quartet will bring piano and pump organ, accordion, mandolin and guitar — but probably more fiddles and flying feet than anything else.
Helene Bergeron and Louise Arsenault formed Gadelle (Acadian French for “wild berries,” Prince Edward Island colloquial for feisty female) after leaving Barachois, enlisting younger but still tradition-minded Caroline Bernard and Paige Gallant.
Show time is 7:30 p.m. Admission is $26. Phone 434-1703 or 346-6204 or visit www.eighthstep.org or www.proctors.org.
Categories: Life and Arts