And the Band Played On

IMG_5232It’s hot in the Maple Leaf. Stiflingly hot and I’m having a little trouble catching my breath. And the show hasn’t even started yet. The older black man in the straw hat next to me at the bar is producing a copious amount of smoke from a single cigarette — like a diesel locomotive. There is a red glow about the Maple Leaf that seems to imply something sinister or slightly lewd is about to happen.  It’s Tuesday night of course, which in most other cities would mean early bedtimes or take out food and a movie, but not in this city, New Orleans.  Tuesday night in New Orleans is the Rebirth Brass Band at the Maple Leaf, and everyone knows it.  The packed barroom spills onto the street. The fans, the musicians and the satellites musicians all orbit one another with the sweaty booze soaked familiarity of dance partners.  This is nothing new.  This is a tradition.  This is a right of passage.  This is New Orleans.

For what it’s worth — and it’s probably worth very little — my first time seeing the Rebirth Brass Band wasn’t at the Maple Leaf in New Orleans, but at a small club in Hoboken, NJ called Maxwell’s.  It wasn’t even a club really, but a bar/restaurant with a small back room with pristine sound that somehow attracted some of the biggest names in music — and across the spectrum at that. Bands like R.E.M., Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins, et. al all cut their teeth at Maxwell’s.  But it really wasn’t the bands that were on their way to ascendency that made Maxwell’s so special, but the host of great local acts who were grinding it out on a nightly basis, and the local legends from other places that were just passing through.  Legends like the Rebirth Brass Band.

There is an entropic system of order to a Rebirth show.  Vincent, the tall, cool, quiet saxophone player almost always arrives to the Maple Leaf Bar first.  He hangs at the corner of the bar and sips Budweisers.  There is an otherworldly quality to him, a Zen.  I’m not sure if that is just his demeanor or the result of countless days and nights on the road and the necessity of finding somewhere else to be.  Regardless, with his long braids and his thick-rimmed glasses he strikes you as more of a college professor, cooly intellectual, unflappable.  After Vincent, Phil Frazier, the founder and Tuba player of the Rebirth, is usually next. Phil mingles with the crowd a little and then heads straight to the stage. He is already hot, and the orange Rebirth t-shirt soon yields to the guinea-Tee underneath. Phil is the glue that holds the Rebirth together, both musically and physically.  Even after a stroke, his muscular tuba playing — the bass in brass music — is what gives Rebirth their swagger.  The other members arrive in due time, and in undetermined order.  They sometimes don’t even arrive before the show starts, taking the stage somewhere mid-song, pushing through the crowd to ascend the three steps to the slightly raised stage.  Derrick “Khabuky” Shezbie usually sits on a bench just outside the door of the Maple Leaf, always surrounded by a few younger musicians who are picking his brain. He is both the band’s talented trumpeter and it’s hype man and more than it’s occasional source of frustration. His energy is irrepressible though. Do whatcha wanna. And the rest of the band finds its way to the stage.

It was almost 11 p.m. when we met Aaron and Sarah at Maxwell’s for the Rebirth show (Aaron and Sarah were friends we made in a bar in NYC that I would later briefly become the chef of called The Blind Tiger Alehouse.  The original Blind Tiger was on 10th and Hudson, and was one of my favorite bars ever.  But like all things in NYC, it’s future was rent based, and Starbucks had more money.  Fortunately, the owners were determined not to let it die, and it resurfaced on the corner of Bleeker and Jones, forever changed, but still, fortunately, alive.  After the BP disaster, I organized a benefit at the Blind Tiger to help the victims of the Gulf.  Aaron and Sarah, two native Louisianans, showed up at the benefit, ate my gumbo, and we became friends.  Aaron’s first words to me were “This gumbo is coonass approved.”  I hope to never forget that). The back room at Maxwell’s is frighteningly small. It also has an eerie red glow that I would later come to associate with the Maple Leaf and vice versa.  The small bar on the lefthand side of the stage was packed, but that didn’t stop us from getting a few too many drinks.  And then the show started and my jaw hit the floor. The rhythms, the horns, the almost cacophonous element of a band that sounded like they were about to burst at the seems into complete disarray before once again finding their center — I had never heard anything like it before — and I couldn’t help but move, twitching like the frog from biology class.  Rebirth taps into something essential and primal and almost frightening.  It is music that is decocted and distilled into an essence of passion and sweat and close, drunken contact with complete strangers.  By the time the band invited all the girls on stage for Casanova we were drained and drunk and I’ll never forget seeing Sarah disappear, tripping over a stage monitor and bouncing right back up like a Super Ball.  After the show we spent the remainder of the night at the front bar at Maxwell’s drinking Budweisers with Vincent from Rebirth until it was time to go.  Once again Maxwell’s had delivered.

The music starts as a trickle really.  Phil starts playing a bass line, and then someone else picks up on it. It settles in on top of the drums, the rapid fire snare and the bass pulsing underneath the burgeoning tug of war of the horns.  There is a beautiful tension created when musicians play separately together, weaving lines, harmonies and melodies, consonance and dissonance — but make no mistake, this is a tight band.  The sound is all about the calculated risk of something that can fly off the tracks at any moment.  In fact, in the hands of lesser musicians, it is quite possible to see how this wouldn’t sound very good at all.  But this is Rebirth.  This is what you paid to see.  To stand cheek to jowl with people from here, there and everywhere, twined together in 100 degree heat and shaking like a bowl of Jello.  This doesn’t happen anywhere else.  The glowing red stage lights give the impression that you are listening to Hell’s House Band, and there is certainly enough licentiousness to give credence to this.  Drinks are spilled, and the floor is slippery from sweat, lubricating the dance moves as shoes slide effortlessly, like hothouse iceskating. Women that you’ve never met, but wouldn’t mind meeting, press up on you.  Older cats become young again with moves like you’ve never seen.  Tourists that get it rush the stage, and those that don’t line the walls as if a riot has broken out.  Many push their way out of the crowd and onto the street, unable to deal with the suffocating claustrophobia and skull-rattling rhythms.  But for those that can make it through the first set, you are rewarded with the second set, always looser, more fun, and less populated.  And at around 1:30 a.m., Wednesday morning, it is all over, and if you did it right, your clothes are stuck to you as if you were caught in a squall, and in truth you were.  The storm that is the Rebirth has passed, but it has left you drenched and transformed.

When I heard Maxwell’s was closing at the end of July, my first reaction was shock, followed by sadness, and then bitterness.  Another piece of my youth was leaving the scene, an inevitability of aging I suppose, but nonetheless a bitter pill.  I spent so many great, late nights watching friends trying to make it there.  I even had a friend get married on the stage there.  I also ate many great meals there, as Papi, an ebullient, rotund chef with marvelous mutton chops, presided over the kitchen.  It was comfort food, nothing fancy, and the food I still find myself cooking today.  In, short, Maxwell’s was home. It was the center of the Hoboken art, music, and cultural scene, and honestly a victim of its own success.  Before Maxwell’s Hoboken was a deteriorating port town filled with bars, longshoreman, and crime.  It was the butt of jokes, and hadn’t been a destination town since WW II.  But Maxwell’s, and soaring NYC real-estate prices changed that, and soon Hoboken became the red hot town of NJ, and unfortunately, as is often the case, the baby got thrown out with the bathwater.  The things that made Hoboken desirable — arts, culture, live music, and cool bars — also were the first casualties of rent increases and a demographic that increasingly found these things to be nuisances and family unfriendly.  Today Hoboken is dominated by aging frat boys and double wide strollers.  There is only one other live music club in a town that used to feature dozens.  Sunday brunch and big screen TV’s dominate the bar and restaurant landscape.  Every apartment is luxury with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops — the trappings of upscale urbanity.  The Maxwell House Coffee plant, which used to employ half the town, and where Maxwell’s got it’s name, is long gone.  It is now luxury condos, and not even a vestigial section of the plant was saved for posterity — it was razed in totality. And now it’s lone namesake is headed the same way.

I will be in NJ this weekend to see my son graduate from Kindergarten — another bittersweet moment in my life — and I think I’ll have to make one last trip to Maxwell’s as well.  It will be like visiting a friend or loved one who is terminally ill.  There is so much you want to say, or could say, but in the end it’s just enough to let them know how much you love them.

My truck is parked a block away from the Maple Leaf on Oak Street.  I get into it and stick to the seat.  I am human fly paper.  The drive back to Mid-City is short this time of night.  I drive past a lot of activity, construction, and newness — a newness I am part of — and my slight shiver isn’t just the air-conditioning.  I think about the Maple Leaf, I think about Maxwell’s, and I just don’t know.  How do we hold the forces of change in tension with those of tradition.  What’s worth saving? Worth it to who? I just don’t know.  Sometimes I guess it’s just enough to let them know you love them.

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