Day of the Dead Takes On Greater Significance

Partly because I’m at the age where I know more people who are dead and partly because the pandemic is helping to increase that number for all of us, the Day of the Dead holds more meaning now. While the playlist for this show is similar to past Day of the Dead (Halloween) shows, the vibe (my vibe) has definitely changed.

The show kicks off with a riff on “St. James Infirmary” by Wendell Pierce playing the character of Antoine Batiste in the HBO series Treme. Batiste is waiting in the Touro Emergency Room when he does his impromptu singing, accompanied by an anonymous slap beat on a tin waste can.

Day of the Dead

What follows is music about death including a Preservation Hall Jazz Band version of “St. James Infirmary,” King Oliver’s “Dead Man Blues,” Treme Brass Band’s “I’ll Be Glad When You’re Dead,” Dirty Bourbon River Show’s “All My Friends are Dead” and Spencer Bohren’s “Ghost Train.”

That theme rolls into the next set with Shotgun Jazz Band’s “White Ghost Shivers” and a fascinating song called “Seven Skeletons Found in the Yard.”

After the first hour, its voodoo time with the help of The Neville Brothers, Spider Murphy, Charles Sheffield, Sunpie Barnes, and Benny Turner.

If you make it that far, you’ll hear my annual send up of Morgus the Magnificent — the original New Orleans fright show host that spawned a movie and a regional hit by Mac Rebennack, Jerry Byrne and Frankie Ford from 1059. This year, you’ll also hear the Creole String Beans cover of the same song. Here’s an earlier post with a lot more detail on Morgus, his show and the song.

I finish with a few spirituals including the most recognized one, “Saints,” by the Zion Harmonizers. My best to you and love to all those who are remembering a lost one.

HBO’s Treme is an excellent introduction to New Orleans music

Occasionally, when someone learns about my New Orleans music show, they’ll ask me: “Have you seen. . .

And I know where they are going.

Yes! I have watched all 36 episodes of HBO’s Treme — some of them more than once including the commentary and music notes. The program is that good at portraying New Orleans.

The show ran from 2010 to 2013 and chronicled the lives of New Orleans residents upon their return to the city after Hurricane Katrina. And the show’s creators, producers and writers nailed it. The show is well regarded in New Orleans as having captured the unique and diverse culture and character of the city–both the good and the not so good.

Treme focused on the lives of musicians. Wendell Pierce, with cap, plays a trombonist struggling to make ends meet. He's marching with Rebirth Brass Band in this show and his trombone was played by Rebirth's Stafford Agee.
Treme focused on the lives of musicians. Wendell Pierce, with cap, plays a trombonist struggling to make ends meet. He’s marching with Rebirth Brass Band in this scene from the show and his trombone was played by Rebirth’s Stafford Agee.

Unfortunately, the show wasn’t sufficiently well regarded beyond the city (at least at the time) so no new episodes are being made. But if you’re reading this blog, you probably already understand the disconnect between being good and being popular. A theme that Treme also explores.

There’s lots of reasons to love this show, the main one for me is the music. There’s lot of New Orleans music in it. Literally hundreds of New Orleans-based musicians participated in its filming. Some of them even acted.

Yesterday, I pulled up the full cast listing of the show on IMDB and did a search for “self” and “selves” as in people and bands portraying themselves. I found over 250 listings. While some of the people playing themselves were politicians, chefs, writers, community activists and Mardi Gras Indian Chiefs, most of them were musicians.

The show featured literally hundreds of musicians. Some well known such as Dr. John (Mac Rebennak)
The show featured literally hundreds of musicians. Some well known such as Dr. John.

Some are well known like Dr. John, Fats Domino, Trombone Shorty and Irma Thomas. Others are not but should be such as Aurora Nealand, John Boutte, Tom McDermott, and Kermit Ruffins.

Several of the fictional characters are musicians attempting to make a living. One is a journeyman trombonists, played by Wendell Pierce, struggling to find gigs so he can pay rent and child support. Two others busk on the street and are learning the New Orleans style of music.

Throughout the series, the viewer is treated to music venues such as Tipitina’s, House of Blues, Blue Nile, Spotted Cat, and Snug Harbor and the music you hear on the show is recorded in situ. What you see is truly what you hear

In many cases, the musicians simply perform, either in the background or as a part of the plot. In other cases though, they deliver lines from a script or, in the case of Dr. John, ad lib. It’s a wonderful blend of reality and fiction.

A bass player with Jon Cleary's group, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Williams did quite a bit of acting and bass playing on the show.
A bass player with Jon Cleary’s group, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, Williams did quite a bit of acting and bass playing on the show.

Cornell Williams, a bass player who in real life performs with Jon Cleary, portrays a member of a band formed by Wendell Pierce’s character and helps another character recover from drug addiction.

A more bizarre blending of real life and fiction is the character Davis McAlary, who often supplies the show’s comic relief and social commentary. McAlary is a musician and an on again, off again deejay at WWOZ, which is a real  community radio station in New Orleans. His character was inspired by Davis Rogan who has released several albums of original songs and was a deejay for WWOZ. To really twist your brain, you will see in various Treme scenes the real Davis performing on piano backing up the fictional Davis. (Another character is patterned after Donald Harrison Jr. who is also seen regularly in the show.)

Clarence "Frogman" Henry in a scene with fictional character Davis McAlary, inspired by real musician Davis Rogan.
Clarence “Frogman” Henry in a scene with fictional character Davis McAlary, inspired by real musician Davis Rogan.

If you have a propensity to love New Orleans, its food, culture and music, watching Treme will deepen that love. If you know little about New Orleans but are interested, the show is a great place to start your education.  Well, subscribing to this blog (upper right hand corner) and listening to my show won’t hurt either.