Buffa’s Bar on Esplanade in New Orleans was bursting when we got there late, after dinner at Mandina’s on Canal Street. David Roe’s band the Royal Rounders had finished playing when we edged inside a space so jammed that the owner went outside to watch through the windows as crowds danced to Mama Digdown’s Brass Band.
Their grooves were deep — bass drum, sousaphone and snare — and the solos up top sizzled: trombone, two trumpets and two saxes. The laid-back sax player fronting the band — how upper-Midwest modest to give the most laconic member the mic! — had way less personality than the sousaphone player, whose persuasive merchandise pitch claimed the band needed bus fare home to Wisconsin.
Wonder what bus they rode back from Switzerland where they recorded the live CD he touted. A Wisconsin woman at the bar said, “There’s gotta be 85 bands playing in town tonight, but we had to be here with our homeboys!”
Dennis, Mike and I hit Buffa’s because we knew we had less than no chance to see Allen Toussaint at Snug Harbor, a Frenchman Street bar cozy as Northampton’s Iron Horse and guaranteed to be packed during Jazz Fest. The Mama Digdown guys, who met in the University of Wisconsin marching band, rocked Buffa’s all the way. Dancers clustered in the back so those up front could see as they tucked into steaming dinners a big clean-head waiter in a black skirt served at top speed.
New Moniker needed
The Mama Digdown guys need a better name: the Cornbiters, the Dairy Co-op, the Cheesehead Parade? But they learned their lessons well in what keyboardist John Magnie (the subdudes, Little Queenie and the Percolators and the Continental Drifters) called the “musical college of New Orleans,” a citywide funk and jazz school.
Dave Roe from the Adirondacks also enrolled there, leading the Royal Rounders now as Buffa’s house band. Trumpeter Mario Abney, a Chicago transplant who hit town after Katrina, plays clubs and the streets where he was discovered and offered a part in “Treme”; he’s twice played the Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival. Other graduates include Tommy Malone of the subdudes, from tiny Edgard, La.; and Dayna Kurtz from New Jersey.
Before I arrived in New Orleans for the second Jazz Fest weekend, Dennis and Mike attended the first, then discovered Kurtz hosting a weekday afternoon “Writers’ Hang” at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Street. They were knocked out by her and C.C. Adcock (Lil’ Band O’ Gold) and Spencer Bohren. Then they left on a blues and barbecue Mississippi ramble and missed the next night’s “Hang” when Kurtz hosted Paul Cebar of the Milwaukeeans and Tommy Malone.
Malone and Kurtz share a record label (MC Records) where both have new albums I’m enjoying to maintain my New Orleans buzz.
Malone has launched and left several bands since the subdudes went on (permanent?) hiatus. His “Natural Born Days” co-stars New Orleans studio aces drummer Doug Belote, keyboardists Jon Cleary and Nigel Hall, bassist David Hyde and others. His reach doesn’t exceed their grasp: soul ballads, roadhouse blues, alone-on-the-levee laments, leaving and being left cries for help and beefy slide guitar rockers. Malone plays and sings at the top of his game.
Singing the blues in Irma Thomas’ town takes big nerve, but Kurtz has the feel, the chops, the players and the songs on her “Secret Canon Vol. 2” album to more than hold her own. A human horn, Kurtz belts, croons and caresses and slides from note to note. Her sound is beautiful, grown-up; but she never goes for just pretty and always sings with both real emotional heft and a teasing lightness as the songs guide her.
A week after they saw Kurtz at Chickie Wah Wah, Dennis and Mike were still talking about why she should be a star as we walked upstairs at Elizabeth’s in Bywater for dinner. Bostonians both, they hoped to find Nat on duty, the bartender from Northampton who’d gladly changed the TV channel when we ate there last year so we could watch the Celtics in the NBA playoffs. Nate obliged once again; dinner was typically terrific.
But we were doubly disappointed: The Celtics made a game of what been a blowout but lost and, unlike last year, no sousaphone-powered band showed up to fight for attention with the game.
Guess we can’t have sousaphones every night, even in New Orleans.
Neville in town
More New Orleans? We’re in luck, big-time: Aaron Neville plays MASS MoCA (87 Marshall St., N. Adams, Mass.) on Saturday at 8 p.m.
Closing the Gentilly Stage at Jazz Fest, Neville fronted a quintet co-starring saxophonist brother Charles Neville and sang doo-wop classics from his quite wonderful “My True Story” album. On the first songs he loved, he let everybody else there love them, too. What a warm and heavenly voice.
Tickets are $75 (premium), $49 (priority), $40 (orchestra) and $34 (mezzanine). Phone 413-662-2111 or visit www.massmoca.org.
Still more New Orleans?
-- “Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans” by Ben Sandmel.
-- “The Brothers Neville” by Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril, with David Ritz.
-- “The Great Deluge” by Douglas Brinkley.
-- “1 Dead in Attic” by Chris Rose.
-- “Zeitoun” by Dave Eggers.
-- “The Tin Roof Blowdown” by James Lee Burke.
Video and audio:
-- “When the Levees Broke” produced by Spike Lee.
-- “Treme” (HBO) produced by David Simon.
-- “The Cosimo Matassa Story” (five CDs of classic R & B and blues recorded at his Rampart Street studio — now a laundromat, with historic plaques).
-- “Yellow Moon” by the Neville Brothers.
-- “A Tale of God’s Will” by Terence Blanchard.
- “The Bright Mississippi” by Allen Toussaint.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at firstname.lastname@example.org.