Now Playing: The New Orleans Suspects

 

It should be noted at the outset that the New Orleans Suspects are not a super group, though they certainly qualify as such in so many ways.

Inasmuch as all five Suspects are former longstanding members of some of the biggest names in music, New Orleans and elsewhere, too—the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Neville Brothers and the Radiators, to name but a few. And inasmuch as all five of them are possessed of an unimpeachable facility on their axe of choice.

No, but what really separates the New Orleans Suspects from most other so-called super groups is the fact that the members are no longer beholden to any of their previous outfits.

“It’s taken a while to defeat that notion,” says NOS bassist Reggie Scanlan, who served 33 years as four-string ace for Crescent City rock act the Radiators, in addition to stints with Professor Longhair, James Booker and Earl King.

“Because we all have good track records, we relied on our resumes to open doors at the beginning,” Scanlan continues. “That carried a certain cache. But it also made people think this is just a side project. We’re not a super group. We’re a band of musicians who share a common vision. It’s a working, organic band. This band is our main focus.”

It’s probably fair to say that the Suspects didn’t really begin so much as they happened, in 2009 at popular New Orleans music venue the Maple Leaf. Scanlan explains that the Maple Leaf owner keeps a list of talented local players he can call in a pinch, pull together on a day’s notice when one of the club’s scheduled acts cancels a booking.

“That’s basically what happened that night,” Scanlan says. “And as we did the show, it was like, ‘Hey, man, this is kind of fun.'”

Even as the would-be Suspects returned to the Maple Leaf stage for repeat performances, their bands of origin began to look increasingly uncertain. Scanlan notes that, “Ed Volker [Radiators bandleader] was retiring, and the Nevilles were falling apart.

“Others were having problems with their bands, too. So finally I said, ‘We spend half our time bitching about the bands we’re in. Why don’t we just do this?”

On the face of it, “this” didn’t look like a particularly viable option—an unlikely mix of schooled musicians like guitarist Jake Eckert, sax-man Jeff Watkins and pianist C.R. Gruver, plus a couple of street-level intuitives in Scanlan and drummer Willie Green, all of them reading from very different musical primers.

“We had three guys who could read charts like they can read a book,” Scanlan laughs. “Then you had me and Willie, guys who came off the streets and learned the hard way, playing in clubs we weren’t old enough to get into yet.

“It doesn’t look like it would work on paper. But it’s that ‘X’ factor that makes it happen. It’s one of those quirky things where we just seem to fit in together. And we knew it from that first note.”

Of course, one could argue that NOS are wholly representative of a certain New Orleans aesthetic. Because New Orleans is a city where—moreso than any other musically fecund urban area—cross-pollination and hybridization, the successful marriage of various and unwieldy musical genres seems more a matter of custom than anomaly.

And the Suspects are in so many ways of a piece with their home city—trafficking in a familiar brand of spicy, swinging N’awlins R&B, but with a potent underpinning of virtuosic jazz fusion that marks the sound as wholly their own.

Scanlan agrees that there is something distinctly New Orleans-centric about his band, and that a different city of origin would have fundamentally altered the Suspects’ DNA. “New Orleans is really more of a European city than any other city in the U.S.,” he explains. “Music came here from all over Europe, from all over the world.

“And bands here, more than in other places, have a tendency to let all that stuff filter through. That’s what keeps the music here moving forward. You could have had the same dynamic with our band members in another city, but it wouldn’t have had that New Orleans feel.”

The New Orleans Suspects’ latest album, Ouroboros, is available at their website, Neworleanssuspects.com. The New Orleans Suspects will play Scruffy City Hall Thursday, Jan. 29  at 10 p.m.

 

 

What’s in your earbuds?

 

10850070_1516363521973255_4914227263785598398_nJinx Valentine

1. Hurricane Dream: “They’re German. My ex discovered them, but I love them. They’re mine now.”

2. Foreign Fields: “A Nashville local.”

3. Rhye: “They have my favorite song to have sex to.”

4. Justin Timberlake

5. Foo Fighters: “Always with the Foo. I want to be Dave Grohl’s second wife.”

 

Zeus Speaks

unnamedZeus, Preservation Pub’s resident spiritual counselor, holds forth on matters great and small.

Do you have any wisdom for the New Year?

I believe that every day is New Year’s. That means we must be open to change every day.

For this New Year, people should be more spiritually minded, and open to the Truth.

And don’t go with what somebody else has told you. Go by what you have seen and heard for yourself. Have patience because the Truth will be revealed.

Remember that there are a lot of fools in this world. And they all want company.

Who do you think killed John F. Kennedy?

“They” killed him. Certain groups, organizations that want to keep themselves hidden. And they were able to play from the left field instead of the right.

Do you believe in extra-terrestrial life?

I know life out there exists. The Universe is too big for humans to be alone. We’re just one little dot. There are many different realms, and Earth is a gateway.

That’s why you should be good to everyone you meet. Because you never know who you’re talking to. Kindness and goodness will always be your protector.

Will Kim Kardashian and Kanye West stay together?

I think they will, but at times they will be separated in the public’s eye, for promotional purposes. It will appear they aren’t together in the public eye, when they really are. Because money makes the world go ’round.

Zeus’ wisdom for the month: “There’s a well over there, and it’s got water. But you’ve got to get your own cup.”

 

Who do you think you are: Contemporary and modern belly dance instructor/performer Claire Metz

 

1004843_10203405035946114_1437252703_nSP: What’s the best joke you’ve ever heard?

CM: “What’s brown and sticky? A stick.” That’s my go-to.

SP: Who’s your favorite superhero?

CM: Annie Oakley? She counts, right?

SP: Whatever you say, Ms. Metz. Describe your most embarrassing moment.

CM: I broke my back in front of an entire roomful of people, at a party.

SP: Who is your least favorite celebrity?

CM: A Kardashian.

SP: If you were going to torture somebody, how would you do it?

CM: I’d make them listen to terrible electronic music, and never let them sit down.

SP: If someone made a movie about your life, who would you want to play Claire Metz?

CM: Bruce Lee.

SP: Describe Hell.

CM: Hell is never having even a shell of hope ever again.

SP: What would you like to put on your tombstone?

CM: The sun, the earth, the sky. I’d like to be cremated; I don’t want to be buried in just one place.

SP: What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve ever received?

CM: “Follow your heart.” That was both the best and the worst.

SP: We’ll end with a lighter question. Describe God.

CM: Really??? Hmmm… Okay, to me, God is the one unfathomable string, the tie that brings us all together.

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Now Playing: Marina Orchestra

 

Scruffy City Hall’s 2014 Band Eat Band competition final in August hosted a remarkable line-up of performers, maybe as much local talent as has ever taken the same stage on the same night in Knoxville, Tenn.  But no band shone brighter—or drew a more enthusiastic response from the near-capacity crowd—than seven-piece self-described Trop ‘n’ Roll outfit Marina Orchestra, the night’s eventual winners.

Playing a mix of songs from their two sterling self-released albums, plus a well-timed cover of Jackie Wilson’s ‘60s soul nugget “(Your Love Keeps Lifting Me) Higher and Higher”, Marina O. carried off a performance that was as much musical celebration as it was a concert proper, a groovy, good-times showcase of the band’s distinctive brand of pan-African/island funk-pop.

And though the band had already been together since 2010, the show in so many ways represented Marina Orchestra’s coming-of-age. “I don’t think I had ever won anything in my life,” says Marina singer, co-founder, and bandleader Justin Powers. “It was great, because none of us expected to win. But it helped us mature as a band. It made us question everything, and it made us step up our game.”

Now the band has released a pair of lovely acoustic renderings of songs from their first two releases—“Midnight Tonight” from Take on the Silence, and “Body Language” from 2014’s Oceans—and is looking to establish a stronger presence in other cities throughout the southeast.

With other, brand-new songs already in the can, awaiting the next release, it seems that the four-year-old outfit is beginning to hit its stride. “I couldn’t be any happier with where we are right now,” says Powers. “With this band, I’ve accomplished so many of my goals. And yet I’ll never stop setting goals with them. And there’s a beauty in that. I’m never completely satisfied. Yet everything is perfect in the moment.”

Powers is an interesting fellow; soft-spoken and thoughtful, yet deeply driven, spurred on by an often-unfathomable muse—equal parts tortured artist and boy-next-store. One could say that the story of Marina Orchestra is his story, seeing as how his is the creative spark that founded the band, and it is his vision and sheer force of will that has kept it moving through various upheavals.

But that would be reductive, nor would it be fair to other members who have passed through Marina’s ranks over the last four years.  No, Marina Orchestra’s is also the story of the bond between Powers and fellow founding member/bassist Tim Eisinger. And it’s the story of how a group of friends and kindred spirits have collaborated and clashed, come and gone, creating a whole that is truly greater than the sum of its not-inconsiderable parts.

It’s a story of fate and serendipity and perseverance; it’s a story made for and of the digital era, of how a gang of white suburban indie rock kids created Knoxville’s most interesting local rock outfit from a flotsam of old African dance and big-band records, classic world-beat stylings largely unknown stateside outside of music nerd circles and ‘net-savvy tech geeks.

It’s been chronicled in this space before how Marina rose from the ashes of erstwhile Knoxville rock band I Need Sleep. Teetering on the brink of a collapse, INS nonetheless made an appearance at the 2010 South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Tex., where Powers found himself captivated by the sheer volume and diversity of music on display across various bars and stages.

“I started romanticizing the idea of, ‘If I came back here with my own band…’ The goal I came up with was to bring this band I was forming in my head back to SXSW. And one year later, that’s what I did.”

Which is the short version of how Marina came together, but hardly the complete one. The idea fomenting in Powers’ active brain involved a mélange of African styles, gleaned from many hours of plumbing the Internet for unheard musics, and propelled by his increasing distaste for I Need Sleep’s aggressive brand of punk-inflected indie rock.

“I’m always interested in new music, and I’ve gotten pretty good at scouring the web for out-of-print LPs,” Powers says. “I’d find a record from Ghana that I loved. So, let’s see who else was playing popular music in Ghana in the 1970s.” An early favorite was Orchestra Baobab, which Powers had discovered through a jazz-savvy high school buddy. “I thought they were this little-known band with one record,” Powers says. “Little did I know they were the band for Senegalese music.

“In the ‘70s, they were killing it; they toured all over the world as the Senegal National Orchestra. But as a white kid growing up in Chicago, how would I know something like that? It would be like asking me the price of tea in China.”

His discovery of Orchestra Baobab was a jumping-off point. Driven to find music that was of a piece with the Orchestra’s Afro-Cuban hybrid style, Powers discovered Miriam Makeba, an activist South African soul artist brought to international prominence through the efforts of Harry Belafonte in the 1960s. “It was very swing-y jazz music,” he says. “And it was music that on the one hand was familiar to me, but on the other had these melodies that were completely foreign… different scales, different approach to vocals.”

And then came Ignace De Souza, a Ghanese highlife trumpeter whose records provided the igniting spark for Powers’ new creative fire. “I was listening to De Souza when I said, ‘I should start a band like his,’” he recalls.

So then it fell to Powers to find other musicians with whom he could share his budding obsessions. Yet he knew from the start that Eisinger—I Need Sleep bassist, and a grade-school pal from his youth in Chicago—was a necessary part of any new endeavor. “Tim and I had always played together,” says Powers. “So it wasn’t even a question that he would play in Marina Orchestra.”

But for better and worse, Powers ended up filling out the ranks of Marina’s earliest incarnation with some very familiar faces. As the story goes, Powers put up a flier seeking “players for a tropical street band,” stenciling the flier with the image of a palm tree, as if to add a metaphorical exclamation point to this new direction.

But like the protagonist in the old ‘70’s pop nugget “The Pina Colada Song”—about a man who places a personal ad to escape a stale relationship, then hooks up with his own girlfriend on the resulting blind date—Powers found that his best response came from members of the band he was trying to leave. “So the initial version of Marina Orchestra was basically another version of I Need Sleep,” he laughs.

The early days of Marina Orchestra were marked by the chaos of a quick evolution. The  first incarnation featured multiple percussionists, and a rhythmically dense approach that was pared back as the band traded in drummers for horn players, its membership swelling to a peak of 12 singers and players onstage at a given show.

The name derived from a house that Powers had rented in South Knoxville in the I Need Sleep era. “It had this big, awesome deck that looked like a dock,” remembers Eisinger.

It was dubbed the Marina, a reference embedded in an old I Need Sleep song.

By the time Marina recorded the debut their debut Take on the Silence in May of 2012, the band had evolved its signature sound, a striking mix of reggae and island musics and burbling guitar-driven Afro-pop, the whole of it filtered through a post-millenial indie-rock aesthetic.

What didn’t stop evolving was Marina’s lineup. While the founding core of Powers, Eisinger, and singer Rachel Gurley held steady, the band transitioned from its original percussion-heavy lineup, to a horn-based outfit, and finally to the seven-member unit (with one horn, and a single drummer) that recorded Oceans in 2014.

Though certainly challenging—“For a while, it was kind of free-form,” says Powers, “like, whoever is available would come out and play a show.”—the transitions were much less tumultuous than one might imagine. Says Eisinger, “With so many changes, you’d expect more drama. We’re still friends with everyone who has been in the band. Priorities change, that’s all.”

Trombonist/guitarist Alex Stevens was a pivotal addition in 2012. Though currently the band’s only horn player, Stevens actually provided the impetus for Marina’s new acoustic recordings with his deft finger-style guitar chops. “Alex is a great guitar player, and he could probably teach a music theory class,” says Eisinger. “He’s sort of the unofficial theory teacher for Marina Orchestra.”

But best is the story of Brad Duncan’s arrival in 2013, an event that hearkens back to the days of I Need Sleep, when Powers was living in the Marina house—a coincidence that seems to cry out for a grander explanation—in South Knoxville. “Every time I’d go out on the deck, I’d hear someone playing drums, coming from somewhere in the neighborhood,” Powers says. “They would be playing for hours, just straight beats. I always wanted to go ask them, ‘hey, do you want to play drums?’

“I found out later, after he auditioned for Marina Orchestra, that that drummer was Brad Duncan. I’m pretty sure it was Destiny that we would meet Brad Duncan, and he would play in this band.”

Duncan is featured on a few tracks on Oceans, with the rest featuring previous drummer Nick Swofford. The record is Marina’s most complete exposition to date, a deep, sonically engulfing work that yields fresh epiphanies with each listening.

Its potency is exceeded only by the experience of seeing a Marina Orchestra show live. Because for all of the band’s complex musicality and curious genre-blending, Marina is truly an outfit that is best experienced rather than considered— i.e., heard through the relatively sterile medium of recorded sound. The word that best describes them in a live context is “ebullient”—rich, joyful, celebratory, and funky—but funky in a way that defies, and exceeds the standard Anglo/American grasp of the word “funk”.

Even with new songs in the till, Powers says live performance—and touring—is where the band’s focus will be directed in the coming year. “I’ve decided that the most important thing to do right now is to get on the road,” he says. “So that’s what we’re doing.

“I call it ‘strolling the block,’ going in a circle, hitting all the cities in a 300-mile radius—Nashville, Chattagnooga, Louisville, Lexington… We’ve developed a pretty good system where we do weekend shows, four to six out of town per month. And that allows people to stay good with their regular jobs. And we’re getting some money out of it. We’ve gone from just saving money for the band, to doing payouts. We can actually give ourselves a guarantee when we play a show out of town.”

For Powers—who at one time seemed motivated as much by fear and angst as by the will to create—the current state of affairs for Marina O. makes for a refreshing change of pace. “It’s been like a whole new perspective for me,” he says.

“I’ve recently been so motivated and positive by what’s going on with the band. It’s been more of a success story than anything. I’ve been feeling really good about what we’re doing, and it’s been a direct result of putting our heads down, doing some hard work, and not just expecting things to fall in our laps.”

Marina Orchestra will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, Dec. 31 at 10 p.m.