On a hot and humid New Orleans afternoon, we reminisce of seasons past; musical gatherings and triumphs of old seeping into the wonder and fantasy of young adventure and philosophical starscapes. A treasured plethora of moments recalled through sight, sound, and mind, perhaps delving into that of an older era known to many only through media nostalgia. A summer serenade among the dew drops in. And a perfect twilight ventures into the French Quarter; love and light guiding the way through stoic backdrops of jazz legacy. Preservation and rich tradition bellows from all corners of the Crescent City. With these roots forging into the new, Charlie Gabriel’s solo album, 89, is a trip back in tribute, but also a look forward into the noir and divine majesty of one of music’s most cherished legends in the genre. To further encapsulate the auditory experience that is 89, let us first look back into the mythos and iconic story of Mr. Gabriel.
Clarinetist, saxophonist, and flutist Charlie Gabriel is a fourth-generation jazz musician from New Orleans. Raised in a classically trained musical family that emigrated from Santo Domingo in the 1850’s, Gabriel began playing clarinet professionally with the Eureka Brass Band when he was eleven years old. During World War II his father, clarinetist and drummer Martin Manuel “Manny” Gabriel often sent his son on gigs. Charlie himself became a prominent member of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band in 2009. I would be remiss in my journalism if I did not mention that Mr. Gabriel is a very accomplished chess player and has a wonderful video with the Preservation Hall band leader Ben Jaffe. The two have a wonderful interview and casual conversation over a chess match, which is available on the Preservation Hall YouTube page.
The opening track, “Memories of You”, paints the rainy southern landscape of beauty in solitude. Guitar harmonies and saxophone jazz serenades sparkle this uplifting noir opus that is the album 89, capturing a mixture of crisp guitar jazz theoretics and perfect brass rings compels the mind and soul throughout the album.
Following this is “Chelsea Bridge”, a 1941 compositional Jazz standard classic by Billy Strayhorn. This rendition is celebratory of its creation and displays the range and vibrato of Mr. Gabriel’s voice.
The album’s single is accompanied by a music video. “I’m Confessin’” showcases a sharp-dressed Mr. Gabriel being chauffeured around New Orleans. It also depicts behind the scenes of the writing and recording of 89, and beautiful glimpses of chess games, and bandmates laughing and hanging out. It’s a wonderful glimpse into the creative life of one of music’s most treasured geniuses.
Following the slow, heavenly tones of “I’m Confessin’” is the soothing noir love letter sounds of “The Darker It Gets”, an original song written by Charlie. The tune opens with beautifully strummed jazz chords by the record’s guitarist Joshua Starkman, with Ben Jaffe adding some walking swing dynamics on the upright bass. Charlie Gabriel’s smooth and soothing vocals warm up the mix. As I sit and listen, I am transported mentally to another time; rainy gas lantern-lit streets of New Orleans’ historic district and music clubs with black tie dress codes. A tenor sax solo brings out the sun in our adventure through a wonderful world created by Mr. Gabriel. Heard in the lyrics Charlie sings, “the darker it gets the better I see, the hidden place that’s inside of me.”
The next song on the album is “Stardust”. The 1947 Hoagy Carmichael classic brings the feel and love of the original version while adding a bit of flavor that can only come from New Orleans. Charlie has stated that of the Jazz songs he picked for this album, he never plays them the same way twice. A seasoned player in the game, he exudes musical creativity in a natural and inspiring way.
“Three Little Words” is a shift in sound as we get vibes of flamenco Jazz, cuban beats, tiki lounge, and a beautiful brass solo that will get every fan of music to the dance floor. The song was written by Harry Ruby and Bert Kalmar, and published in 1930. The song would go on to receive fame when it was recorded by Duke Ellington on August 26th, 1930. The musicianship and arrangement on this cover puts further emphasis on how versatile and deep the love of the genre’s history remains. The production on 89 is bright and vibrant while also feeling intimate, and gives the listener a front row ticket to the show.
At 91, Charlie Gabriel is still touring, and playing at Preservation Hall. I had the opportunity to see his performance in Jackson Square for French Quarter Fest in 2023. And without a doubt, he is on top of his game. An in-depth, unique audio experience, 89 is a glimpse into the mind and joy of an artist like no other. Should you choose to listen, 89 will illustrate a stand-out moment in time, as well as cement Charlie as a staple in Jazz. Pick up the chess match and listen to 89 for an amazing adventure.
Do you know what it’s like to lay it all on the line? Have you ever gone all in and not turned back? Travis Mark has, several times; for music, for love. And his efforts have spanned three continents. He’s had his fair share of irony. Like the time his band was finally on radio rotation and had charted in his home town. But he was living in another country by then. Or the time his band mates were veering toward their own relationships while, on the other side of the Atlantic, his was on hold for the sake of that very band. He’ll be the first to attest to his naiveté over the years. But even if you’ve never put everything on the line, I’m sure many of you have muddled your lives at one time or another through inexperience. None-the-less, over time his acquired sophistication and focus has landed him here in New Orleans. And periods of reflection have only bolstered his art.
Our story begins in the mid-eighties in Johannesburg, South Africa. With his parents being big fans of music, Travis recalls Carol King, The Beatles, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and the Rolling Stones filling his ears as a child. The age of eight is earmarked in his mind, because this is the point in life when he truly fell in love with music. A component stereo unit sat tucked in an alcove along with a collection of records. Discovering their collection at eight years of age, his parents’ albums became another world in which to venture. And he remembers many a day and night falling asleep with those Beyerdynamic headphones stuck to his head. When you sit and talk to musicians about their life, there is a common thread you’ll find. Typically, at an early age, they are introduced to a friend or family member’s music collection. And they feel as though their whole life has changed. Being able to interact with and investigate every little detail of a physical album has a way of drawing forth an affection for which words cannot describe. As Travis recounted his experience with this collection, he pauses and declares, “…and dude, I found The Police.” Six words drove home the sentiment that, even at that age, he knew he would never be the same again. This record collection would sustain him for quite some time until a cousin introduced him to Nirvana. Though Carol King and The Beatles were lovely, this insinuated edge cut deep; deeper than the initial romance he found in that record collection. It was final. He was going to be a rock musician. The pursuit would yield a group of four kids that called themselves Pyramid Tongue.
Pyramid Tongue gigged regularly. And over time, the crowds grew. They found themselves seeking out larger venues to accommodate their fanbase and had even signed with an indie label. The action caught the attention of a major label in England, and an invitation to showcase was extended. Plane tickets and visas were expensive, and band members sold everything they possessed to make this happen. Still a teenager, Travis found himself anointed. Universal Records would sign Pyramid Tongue and once again, music would forever change his life. Travis felt on top of the world. The trouble with that place is, there’s only one way to go from there; down. Their manager became severely ill, placing all momentum on hiatus. The guitarist and bass player wound up moving back to South Africa. Their drummer ended up moving away to a different part of England. And while all of this is happening, he found out Pyramid Tongue was charting back in South Africa and getting regular radio play. Determined to stick it out, Travis stayed put. He would go to as many jams as he could while simultaneously writing songs, and recording on a borrowed Tascam multi-track. He was fortunate enough to land a job that provided housing, too. In England, it is commonplace for some of the staff to live at the pub. The pub itself rests on the bottom floor, while accommodations for select employees sit above. He would write and record by day, and stock the coolers in the early morning hours after gigs. His nights were now spent playing in a band he’d joined. Though gigs were steady and arrangements stable, there wasn’t much money to be made. Persistence would pay off though. He ended up meeting a label-affiliated producer that was looking for a bass player. And being well versed in several instruments, Travis was able to meet with him and discuss things. “So, I’m thinking we’re going to meet and talk like this; maybe about music, kinda get a bit of a vibe… see what happens. Maybe he’s in the band. If he’s a producer, he must know what he wants. You know? He doesn’t want to talk about any of that. We meet at this coffee shop in central London. And dude, we’re talking like long before smart phones, right? But like Motorola flip up phones when the Razors were like the thing, right? We sit down and he’s like ‘hey can I take a couple pictures?’ I’ve never met this guy. I’m like, uh… ok. That’s so freaking weird! So, he whips out this Motorola. He takes a couple pictures. And he then sits down and sends off a text. He goes, I want you in the band.” And like that, Travis found himself in another band on a major label once again.
His intentions originally were to form his own band. He had his own songs he wanted to get on a record. But what had just happened was that he was signed to, as he put it, a bubble-gum pop band. No matter, he would stick this out as well, long enough to get his foot in the door and continue on his intended path. But with so many ups and downs in his future, parts of the road that lied ahead were hard to see, and even more difficult to chart out. Hard rock, then pop bubble gum, indie band, then hard rock again; one cannot simply plan ahead for these things. The advantage came in just being there. Showing up for every engagement, taking a piece of each with him as he went along. This is what constantly sharpens and increases odds. And with each would come a bar set higher and thus a metric with which to gauge the next project. The real challenge then became staying true to his own identity. With age, the prospect of becoming the next Nirvana had lost its gleam. Looking back, he never viewed his initial meteoric rise in England as intimidating. Being a typical teenager, ‘what if’ never crossed his mind. And as they say, ignorance is bliss. He fell so hard for music that plan B wasn’t a consideration. And by the time he was 19, he was living on his own in a new country, doing tours and making a decent living from music. He recalls his father letting him in on a secret one day. “Your mother and I were really quite worried when you said you wanted to make this your career, you know. It’s not an easy career. Some guys make no money.” Travis couldn’t see where his father was coming from at the time. He had always made money in music. That was never the focus. But he had always made enough. And he always had the foresight to be frugal with his funds. Being in a band, or even being signed to a major label for that matter, never stopped him from pursuing other avenues. When that bubblegum pop group fell apart, he was still under contract. Still, he remained in England and on stages. And it landed him in another band that was signed to a major label. While riding that wave, he was still developing another band on the side. When it became clear that Universal was never going to reconvene his band, he altered his course toward another project. The point is that he never stopped moving forward. And sometimes that involves pivoting in directions you hadn’t fully developed.
At a certain point in his journey, pivoting meant taking some time off from a by then defunct band while still being signed to a label. He found himself back in South Africa on a “visit” that would ultimately last for years. Avoiding stagnation religiously, Munkinpure was a side project of his whose roots began in England. The concept began to take form after returning to South Africa. Though Pyramid Tongue had found success in South Africa. Travis’ growing appetite for alternative rock, coupled with the explosion that genre was seeing in England at the time, meant yet another pivot in his path. About this time, in the early 2000’s, bands like Kaiser Chiefs, Franz Ferdinand, and Arctic Monkeys were seeing great success. Although this was encouraging, it was at the same time worrisome. As we’ve all seen before, oversaturation can oftentimes burst a bubble before you know it. But his familiarity of England had Travis encouraging his band mates to make the trek there and give it a shot. They planned for a solid year while gigging constantly in South Africa. Ultimately, the bassist would leave with him and the guitarist would stay behind. But the duo would soon acquire another guitarist, and Munkinpure would see packed venues as well as radio play in England. Travis was just 26 years old at this time. And the band signed a management contract with clauses that weren’t exactly in their best interest. But they figured while that management company might screw them a bit, they would still increase exposure. Eventually they could part ways having grown in the process. Insert another curveball. Management informed them that they could no longer book their own gigs. Though this seemed peculiar, what followed was a slow and grueling death. Little by little, the gigs became fewer and further between. Their buzz suffocated in its wake. Travis considered his options. Munkinpure had come a long way. Several albums and an EP were out, shows saw great turnouts, the radio was playing their songs. He approached management to see if they would release the band from their contract. They refused. So, he broke up the band.
At their last show, he made the announcement on stage that the band would be no more after that night. As luck would have it (if you would consider it so at this point), he is approached by an independent yet well-connected management rep after the show. Over time, and with the support of his newfound management, Travis found himself forming yet another band, Dead Days. The next three years would yield countless gigs, a live album, a studio album, and an EP. But along the way, he sensed trepidation on the part of other band members. Sometimes he could tell that Dead Days wasn’t first priority with them, as it was with him. At some point he found himself swimming against the current, so-to-speak. And he questioned his own dedication in the face of their waning allegiance. It wasn’t so much whether or not he still had any. It was more a weighing of involvement in something that had apparently become less important to other members of the band. “People were going through divorces, getting married, starting new jobs. And I was living alone trying to do the band thing. And I kind of took a step back. I had gone through some personal stuff of my own. And I was like, hmm, maybe I need to think a little bit about my actual life. I’ve spent my whole life thinking about bands. Maybe it’s time I think about life. And life lead me to New Orleans. And this is why I’m here.” At this point I had to back things up to make him expand on this, which he did. It was all incredibly involved. And the past three years he’s spent here have lead him all over the city, learning the intricacies of the music world in New Orleans. We spent some time discussing his experiences here, which included the formation of Deep Sleep Atlantic; a powerhouse of talent with three music videos and an album, Prelude, out right now. Some people would kill for the kinds of opportunities Travis has had along the way. And there have been more since his arrival. You can hear about the progress he’s made while here on our podcast interview, along with more details of this incredible journey by clicking your favorite streaming platform below.
Though his life started out in the city, Chris spent the majority of his childhood in the country-side of East Baton Rouge. At the age of ten, the view outside his window transformed from traffic ladened buildings to the serenity of grass and the trees. He was surrounded by friends, and recalls fondly those small-town ball fields, cutting up on dirt bikes and skateboards, and of course, the family gatherings. He was one of twenty-eight grand children in a family that was always together. Spending much time in his father’s rehearsal room, it was his family that started him in music. All his life, Chris’ father was playing bass and singing in a band. And his mother, sisters and uncles all either sang or played an instrument. So, it’s no wonder he found himself alongside others at functions performing for family and friends. This didn’t just acclimate him to being in front of spectators at an early age. As he recalled, it brought to him the idea that there was no “us and them” when it came to the performers and the crowd. A warm feeling came over them all as a young child played bass, belting out old Hank Williams tunes. In fourth grade, Chris was able to join his school band. Though he originally wanted to play alto sax, he opted for the trumpet after seeing his dad’s face wince at the price tag. He took an interest in the saxophone probably because it was the instrument never around at family gatherings. And although he will say the trumpet, in particular, never spoke to him. He points out that music theory and the communication of music on paper was an invaluable gift bestowed upon him through the experience.
Chris’ head was constantly in music. Whether it was at school under the guidance of instructors or at home in his room, he would come home after reading sheet music and playing brass at school, slap on a record, and listen to it over and over again. With a bass in hand, he learned every single tune. He wasn’t just processing the notes. This was teaching him song arrangement as well. He was simultaneously immersed in music outside of these avenues. Back in 1976, he attended his first concert with family. Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings were on the Redheaded Stranger Tour. He recalls it having such an impact on him. “The next show I go see, my uncle takes me to the superdome to go see the Rolling Stones in 1980. And there’s fucking 90,000 people there bra! And I’m like… the Rolling Stones! I’m a kid! I’m eleven years old! I’m probably the youngest kid in the place. And I’m watching the Rolling Stones! I’m like, I’m gonna play rock and roll for the rest of my life! I am going to play music for the rest of my life. I don’t care what it takes.” For the most part, Chris had been in a bubble of sorts up until this point. He knew what it was to play in intimate familial settings. And he had the benefit of symphonic band, marching band, and jazz band through school. But these instances were more or less in traditional genres from older generations. He had now witnessed firsthand the awesome power of a global rock band in an energized stadium. And this occurred during his foray into the multi-genre pop explosion that swept the 80’s. There was blood in the water. And he would constantly look for more. Bob Marley, The Police, The Clash, Duran Duran, Lynyrd Skynyrd; the list went on and on. Previously embracing this sonic world as a student, he found all of this easy to dissect. The discipline of music had finally connected with his passion, all of the pieces fitting together.
High school really opened up his mind. Under a strong band director, Wayne Frazier, he was able to learn and grow enormously. What’s funny is that he approached high school band with the mindset that he would be able to put down the trumpet, play bass in the high school jazz band, and not let on to the director that he could or wanted to play anything else. But Mr. Frazier having other things in mind explained, “I’ve already heard about you. I know who you are. I know you play trumpet. And you’re gonna play trumpet in marching and symphonic. If you wanna play bass in jazz band, you’re going to play in marching and symphonic.” While this may have stopped any other 13-year-old in their tracks, Chris went along with the plan. As a result, he was able to learn coordinated shows in marching band as well as the complexities of symphonic band. Throughout high school, he was completely steeped in music and growing as a musician at an incredible rate. At fourteen, he was playing in his father’s band with grown men. They would hand him the work tape, and before you knew it, he had learned forty songs on his bass. I laughed out loud during the interview when his eyes widened describing the first few times he was handed hundreds of dollars after a gig. By the time he ended his junior year, he had become the drum major of a 200-person marching band and would go on to drum major camp. It was evident in our talks just how much all of this meant to Chris. Not the title, not even the curriculum per se, but the much-needed discipline and the boundaries instilled in him as a musician taught Chris how to focus. On the Monday following a weekend marching band performance, the band would watch tape. This was a revelatory time in his life, one that also further solidified the concept of “there is no us and them”. Because it drew the connection between the band and the crowd. That tape would show everyone, all at once, performing as ants to build the mound. Thus, illustrating to Chris how his and so many others’ parts were perceived. And this, to Chris, was beautiful.
High school ended and he received the Marine Corps Semper Fidelis Musical Excellence Award, recognizing Chris for his musical achievements and leadership, as well as being a role model for other students. It was surprise for me to learn that he didn’t join Tiger Band when he attended LSU that fall. But as he pointed out, at that time in his life he had been in 25-plus bands outside of school and in school, completely saturated in a structured band setting. With the absence of the lifestyle of a “student” of music, Chris was finally able to sit back and ask himself, ‘what is it that I want to do in music?’ He really wanted to front his own band for a change. But he felt as though in order to do that properly he would have to play guitar. Drums, bass, trumpet, and a mic all had passed through his hands. He could strum an acoustic sometimes. But the guitar wasn’t in his hands enough to feel familiar. Back when it was time for him to get his first instrument, he chose brass because it was missing from his eyes and ears. And now, he focused on guitar. Because it too had been missing. There was also this element of exploration that hadn’t played a substantial role in his life. For all the times he found himself with an instrument, there was an agenda. There was sheet music to read. There was a work tape to learn. There were song arrangements to be constructed and deconstructed. He wanted to experience the freeing sensation of exploratory, improvisational bliss. He had seen Jimi Hendrix “ride the wave”. And without lessening his grip, he longed for the euphoric deliverance he knew an instrument could provide given the right circumstances.
Chris invested time in people adept on the guitar. He would hang with them at their houses, often accompanying them on performances and open mic nights. All the while, trying to gain some semblance of this new path to sound. One day a buddy of his showed him the E Major scale laid out on a guitar neck. “And so, I started looking at this. And it was like… I broke the matrix! I really did. When you look at the guitar neck and it adds up longways and crossways. It’s like, I feel like I broke the matrix. And knowing that ok cool, I know where these positions are. And then, all of the sudden, it’s just repeating. It’s just a circle of never ending what you can get out of it. And then, that’s when my world opened up. I had this level of confidence that came over me. And I was like, I can do this.” Time flies by in hindsight, as you will find here. The steps Chris took and the people he surrounded himself with would culminate in the formation of his own band in 1991. People thought it odd that he named it simply, “The Chris Leblanc Band”. Noone does that they would say. But honestly, if you think about it, all the greats did. Jimi Hendrix, Santana, Van Halen, Janis Joplin, and Steve Miller all did it. Why couldn’t he? Getting gigs at places like Tipitina’s and Jimmy’s Music Club, and writing blues-rock tunes had him feeling like he had made it. He opened for bands like Sonny Landreth, Jeff Healy, Yellowman, and The Fabulous Thunderbirds. But not having an album always made him feel a little less-than.
Being in the land of no internet under a band name that was just as unknown as any other, having an album was crucial. The concept of branding wasn’t an idea at the forefront of many, if any, independent bands back then. Gigging as much as possible and networking to get those gigs set the bar. “I’ve got no record. We’re out playing. Things are happening. I’ve got these songs and they’re just floating out in fucking space ‘cuz there’s no record. This buddy of ours, Riley Ethridge, and I say buddy. I didn’t know the dude from nobody. He comes and sees us play in a club in Baton Rouge. And he’s like, you’ve got it. I’ve got a studio behind my house. And he goes, I want you to come… I’m offering to you, you come record in my studio and you don’t have to pay me anything up front. You just come and we’ll track your hours. And you need a record. I mean can you imagine? I’ve got nothing! There’s no internet. There’s no computer in somebody’s house. There’s no digital audio workstation, or protools in their house. The only thing people had was a Tascam four-track multi-cassette recorder. And I didn’t have that because my ass was broke. I was driving around in a 1974 Econoline Ford van.” I brought up the idea that at that time, this didn’t constitute a desperate time. Because it WAS the time. People today think one needs all these things to make anything happen. And it just isn’t so. In my eyes, people today don’t realize that a land existed before the internet. And that land is chock-full of success stories. Before this experience with the guy’s home studio, he had never been inside one. But now he’s finally there. He was getting guidance from an engineer friend, Wendell Tilley, focusing for as many takes as it required. Somehow, he would score the opportunity to get his album mastered by Bernie Grundman. Billy Joel and Whitney Houston were just a glimpse into the credits under this man’s belt. This was a godsend for Chris, because at this moment he was nine tunes into eight-thousand dollars in debt. He explained, “Back then I knew, if I wanted to have any kind of legitimacy to what I was gonna do, my record was gonna fall between Lenny Kravitz and Led Zeppelin on the rack at the record store. And it better fucking sound pretty fucking good!” He would follow this turn of events with even greater strides. He booked a night at the Varsity Theater in Baton Rouge to mark the release of his debut album, titled The Chris Leblanc Band, and it sold out. He showed up with 1,000 CDs and sold over 450 CDs in one night, giving him the ability to pay off his record. Bursting with pride, he finally felt as though he was a success. He recalled a time when he played at House of Blues back when they first opened up. They wanted a piece of his CD sales for the night. But this was his baby. Without giving in, and much to the chagrin of the club and some of its performers there, he simply gave away CDs that night.
In 1998 after years of gigging, selling CDs and T-shirts, and saving money, he was able to record a second album. One that would be in the same blues/ rock vein, but with more pop sensibility. His sophomore effort would be titled The Chris Leblanc Band: Talent Show. This time, his engineer friend Wendell Tilley had his own studio, one with a great big cutting room. And Bernie Grundman would master his work. The record release party for this record would sell out as well. And at that performance, a rep from RCA would meet Chris and offer to fly him and his band out to Los Angeles to showcase for the company. Things were looking up. And to be honest, they had been even before that moment. During his come-uppance, he had bought a house, he had bought cars, and he had built a home studio. And with a growing comfort in a studio setting came studio gigs. He would record on other musicians’ albums and even do voice-over work for commercials. The courting process between him and RCA seemed like the next logical step. But as that was happening, Chris found out he was going to be a father. It caused him to really take stock in the prospect of this record deal. RCA was ready to sign him after that showcase. A move to Los Angeles would be in order directly. But to himself, he felt as though things were going great as they were. The guarantee of the present felt more secure than RCA’s promise of his future. And ultimately, he opted to decline their offer. Fatherhood would now take center-stage. And the trappings of even a studio regiment would have to wait. But this would not be the end of Chris Leblanc as a musician. Still gigging, and after some time in his new position as a father, Chris would realize his next accomplishment. By this time technology had raced forward. Laptops and Protools meant that studio settings were smaller and most importantly, mobile. His appeal as a performing musician had not waned in the eyes of his fans and friends. And many would hint at the idea of his next album being just that, a stripped-down performance record. He never stopped writing during the pregnancy and following the birth. So, he had some songs to offer. This all would culminate in a proposition from a friend that involved a local chapel, Chris’ recorded songs, and his presence being captured in the most intimate way possible. I spent much time writing and rewriting this. Partly because, in reading back over what I wrote, it felt drab, and less-than. After several attempts, and much thought, I realized why. Several hours over the course of two days were expended talking with Chris and getting to know who he is. And I believe it was hard to capture here because he’s a simple man. He’s simple yet incredible. He has such an immeasurable depth of feeling and he has gone through a lot. Yet he always seemed to put his best foot forward. I think this is what it takes to be a great musician; an intensive sense of emotion, an intuitive good will, and raw talent. I hope to see you all back here in two weeks to read about the road Chris travelled following his child’s birth. At times, our discussion during the second installment parted ways with the tangible and aligned more closely with the ethereal. There was a lot of open honesty, at times even to the detriment of his own confidence. But Chris Leblanc was and is human in its truest form. I applaud him for it. And I know you will too.
As a kid, I remember seeing a cut out of a Ziggy cartoon from the Times Picayune. It was Ziggy looking up into the cosmos. And the bubble read, “In case you didn’t notice, the meek are getting creamed down here.” Like Ziggy, Jorge Caicedo is one of us, any one of us; unassuming and humbly patient. To peel back the layers is a mystery and a privilege. As we sat and talked, my mind was brought back to days of watching That Metal Show. Eddie Trunk, Don Jamieson and Jim Florentine would sit and discuss their opinions and the goings on of metal, current and past. And though it wasn’t done intentionally or with braggadocio, Eddie Trunk would hold court. Similar to Eddie Trunk, Jorge is not loud in appearance or audibility. But if it’s metal you’re talking about, he will reel you in. Any one of Jorge’s points were backed up by a handful of musicians; such to where if you couldn’t relate, you obviously didn’t know your metal.
Bassist Jorge Caicedo was born in Cali, Columbia in 1971 and moved to New Orleans when he was about three years old. He would come to settle in the 9th Ward with his mother, while his father stayed behind in Columbia. His earliest exposure to music was on the local New Orleans radio station, WTIX, playing pop and rock from the 60’s and 70’s. He would eventually begin his musical journey playing clarinet in 5th grade band. It was here that he learned theory, scales, and arpeggios, and get to play in a marching band. He would move onto guitar just as he began attending high school. By this time, he was living in Arabi, Louisiana and attending Holy Cross. While at Holy Cross, he could be found hanging out with the metal heads. He recalls being a big fan of bands like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, and Motley Crue. Perhaps it was more of a testament to his nature than his chosen music styles. But I found it ironic that, at this time in his life, he took a liking to jazz music. Around the time he was sixteen, Jorge had parted ways with the clarinet moving on to guitar, bass, and a focus on thrash metal. It turned out the attraction for him could be found in thrash as well as jazz. He enjoyed listening to music that was different or experimental; music where the artist was clearly venturing outside their comfort zone. And he tended to steer clear of music that was obviously a clone of someone else’s sound. In this light, his favorite guitarist at the time was Allen Holdsworth, who frequently used advanced music theory concepts. And he was a fan of King Crimson’s early material, as well as Steve Morrison, Maja Vishnu Orchestra, and Chick Corea.
By now, he was graduating high school and discovering the local music scene. And what an introduction it was. In May of 1989, he was one of the many in the audience at Storyville Jazz Hall to see Eyehategod, Soilent Green, and Exhorder. He was quick to recall these facts from so long ago. And I could tell it was an experience that resonated with him. The experience was raw. All of these bands had yet to release a studio recorded album. Eyehategod had a self-released demo, Garden Dwarf Woman Driver. And Exhorder had two of the same with Slaughter in the Vatican & Get Rude (Slaughter in the Vatican, the official studio album would be released on Roadrunner Records the following year). But the experience never left Jorge. On the contrary, he was hooked. He would stick with guitar until the year 2000, when he picked up a bass and began playing… you guessed it, thrash. Surprisingly, he started out on a fretless bass. When visiting in the Marigny, he would always pick up his friend’s Yamaha RBX80 and noodle around. He would later reveal that it mesmerized him. He couldn’t believe the action he was seeing from some of its extreme thrash players like Steve DiGiorgio (Sadus, Death, Autopsy, Testament, and 26 others). His friend finally insisted he take it home. This gave him the courage to actually start out on fretless. Most start out on fretted being that it’s easier to learn. But he was drawn to fretless because of its nuance and unique sound when played. He enjoyed the different techniques that it offered like being able to slide harmonics. Once he got his chops up, Jorge liked to attend open mic nights at places like The Turtle Lounge and Mid-City Rock and Bowl and try things out on stage. These experiences ushered him into a fondness for blues, expanding his musical tastes yet again. The open mic nights he typically encountered were centered around blues and gave him time outside of thrash on the strings. Another element of his musical expansion was the time he spent with local Latin band Vivaz (previously Acoustic Swiftness). He would work the door for them at Café Brazil on Frenchmen St. and help them set up their gear. Oddly enough, this was his main exposure to Hispanic genres. His father, whom remained in Columbia, spoke fluent Spanish. And he left Columbia at such a young age that its musical influences hadn’t had time to set in. But working with this band gave him an appreciation of genres like salsa and merengue. He found the clave style and percussion to be a powerful proponent and driving force.
Jorge would join his first band around 2008, an alternative rock band going by the name Vice. Following that he would join a band more in his style, Built to Destroy. Built to Destroy was more of a technical thrash band and provided him a space where he could really show his abilities. In speaking with Jorge, one can quickly pick up on how detail oriented he is. And this bleeds through into his playing style even to this day. We’re talking about a guy who, during Hurricane Katrina, bought a copy of a Fender Jazz bass, replaced the pickups with EMG jazz pickups, and used that to consume two Jaco Pastorius books. And for those of you not familiar, Jaco was a jazz bassist, composer, producer and member of Weather Report. He’s long been revered as one of the greatest bassists of all time; not easy material to emulate in the least. Jorge would also join and play with The Great Void during this time. All of this hard work and attention to detail paid off for Jorge through random circumstances one night when Malevolent Creation was in town playing at The Bar in Fat City. Happenstance and preparation would lead to the opportunity of a lifetime. Jorge recalls, “I think the way I got the gig, I’m convinced, was that the band Malevolent Creation from Florida, they were playing a show at a venue in Fat City at the time called The Bar. Which used to be Ski Lodge. The promoter hit me up, he’s like ‘Hey dude, we need an opening band. Can you guys do it?’ And so, I hit up my guys (Built to Destroy). I’m like, we’re opening for Malevolent. Let’s do it. So, we did it and Kyle (singer, Exhorder) and Vinnie (guitarist, Exhorder) were there because Malevolent was on Roadrunner Records, as was Exhorder. And they saw us play.” Less than a year later, Exhorder’s bassist, Frankie Sparcello would pass away of unknown circumstances. Being familiar with Jorge’s talent, he was chosen to fill in on bass. But the Exhorder dates clashed with dates Jorge had booked with his bands. One in particular was a night he would be pulling double-duty. The Great Void and Built to Destroy were scheduled to play on the same night at Siberia in New Orleans. “And I told the guys, I said look, Exhorder wants me to do some shows in Texas with Rigor Mortis. I said, I’m taking the gig. They weren’t too crazy about it. But they understood. And then after we did a few shows there, a month or two later we did the Marylin Death Fest. We co-headlined with Viovod. Which was kind of a dream come true.” When Jorge landed that gig and played at Marylin Death Fest, he became part of something huge. That event is arguably the biggest event of its kind in North America, attracting attendees from more than 40 U.S. states and 25 countries every year.
Nowadays Jorge is a member in several bands and is focused on composing new material for MIMIC, a prog rock band he formed with Apollo Xydias of Heraklion. Apollo is on guitar and vocals while Jorge plays bass and programs drums. And they’ve just released a new EP. He’s extremely proud of the fact that his bands, both past and present, are unique. They don’t sound like anything out there, locally or otherwise. He also gives bass lessons independently and is sponsored by Bartolini, a company based in San Luis Obispo, California, that builds pickups and electronics for some of the most respected luthiers around the world. He remains current on social, including a series of Instagram videos demonstrating his talent on bass via unlikely coverings of works by Randy Rhodes, Bach, Beethoven, and a really cool translation of the keyboard and guitar from Liquid Tension Experiment. He chooses some pieces based on their melodic sense, while others he highlights mainly for the challenge. We talked about so much in our interview that it was hard to cover it all here. Being such a resource for music trivia and history, our discussion was loaded with call backs to happenings amongst bands, both local and global. And we also discussed his release strategy for his current EP and upcoming album under Mimic. You can find our podcast episode with Jorge Caicedo by clicking your favorite streaming service icon below. And you can also keep up to date on his current media by using the links below.
Reflecting on our conversation, I felt as though it took Will some time to come out of his shell, so to speak. At first, his answers seemed slightly guarded and intentionally humble; contrived perhaps. But as the interview went on, I believe Will identified the sincerity in my contributions and line of questioning. And eventually he became more invested in the exchange. I’d say this would summarize his childhood years quite well. Where at first, he was tasked with navigating a tough populous in his hometown. But eventually, as he came to trust music as a nonjudgmental, creative outlet, he began to reveal his true self.
I was speaking with Exhorder’s founder Vinnie LaBella recently. And the topic of punk music came up. We exchanged ideas about how it influenced thrash music, and how the two were both extremely intertwined and infectious. I brought an idea to the forefront that we both agreed was fact. If you do not live the genre of music you currently write and produce, you will not be successful. Moreso, you will be lying to yourself, a fallacy in the court of public opinion, and at the very least, a hard sell. I believe this to be true for all genres. And I believe it to be one of the many reasons why Will Wesley will always pass muster. At times country, at times rock and roll, and always with an underlying current of blues, he has lived and breathed these elements since he was a child. Growing up in Baker, Louisiana, which was settled but not thriving, an impoverished society delivered these principles to Will at a young age. He was the youngest of three children. And with a growing family to feed, his father had set down the guitar to pick up more shifts at a local plant. Though family finances had overshadowed his father’s dreams of being a full-time musician, Will quickly became of age to have that torch passed down to him. Sharing in Will’s ambition and love of music, he made sure to instill in him the idea that playing music was to be taken seriously. He wouldn’t have Will simply learn a few chords. He wanted him learning music theory. And he imparted to Will how important the business aspect of music would become in due time.
Exploring his motives as a young man, Will was the first to admit that he picked up the guitar in an effort to get more girls. It is worth affirming there were a few other factors that garnered his attention, like the support of his father and the strength it lent their bond. He would also admit that playing guitar didn’t change much when it came to girls. But before long, ironically, he was passing up dates to play shows. Falling in love with the art gave him tunnel vision. No tangible thing could replace it. Unlike his surroundings, it didn’t judge him. It didn’t threaten him. And it brought him closer in the mind of a working father of three.
Drawn to punk music in his early years, Will was a fan of the idea that “three chords and the truth” could transcend genres and audiences. The similarities in the cores of genres, he pointed out, kept him relearning the things he already knew. These subtle resemblances provided comfort for a youth that was constantly trying to find his voice in music. Yet he did not hesitate to decide upon original songs as his chosen path. Like many, he would practice covering a variety of songs in his room to get his chops up. But for Will, his expression manifested itself as original compositions of straight rock and roll. Given his propensity for punk rock, he became an avid fan of bands like Green Day, Sublime, and 311. His first band would be called Crotch. Before you knew it, this kid from the small town of Baker, Louisiana had orange hair and was stage diving. He recalled a surreal experience one night at a Green Day concert when he was just fourteen. “Billie Joe Armstrong asked if anybody plays guitar. And my brother at the time lifted me higher than anyone else and this dude gets me on stage. And I look out in this crowd and there is just thousands and thousands of people. I’m scared but its just like… I am alive! You know what I’m saying?” He went on to tell us what Billie whispered in his ear at that moment. “Look dude I really hope you know how to play. The chords are G, D and C. And I was like, yeah yeah I know that. And the dude just gives me the guitar, and he kisses me square in the mouth. And when I started playing and the crowd started going nuts, I knew from there… man crowd applause and live audiences are quite addictive. I was addicted and I’ve been that way ever since”.
An experience like this made him want for nothing else. All he wanted to do was play bar chords and get laid. Luckily, the urgings of his parents would still permeate through the desires of a young Will. Though he had dropped out of school, to his mother’s wishes he acquiesced and returned, getting his diploma. And to his father’s wishes, he allowed words of wisdom to take the place of his immature cravings. As his father explained to him, “If you’re gonna do this, you can’t do it half-way. There’s musicians on the street homeless that can play you out of this city. You’re gonna have to be a business person to survive.” Into his twenties, Will became a music director for Grady Champion, a Grammy Award-winning blues musician out of Canton Mississippi, and toured around the world. During his time home, he got involved with a woman who was also a musician. The two would form a duo. The goal for Will at that time, aside from pursuing his relationship, was to see the music they made gain traction. So, he immersed himself and his efforts to that end. The relationship would eventually fade, as did their musical duo. The typical town gossip would follow and belittlement had him feeling low. Depression began to set in as Will began to question himself. Looking back, he realized that he had come from making great strides in his own career only to put himself in the background for a relationship. The promotion of this duo was perhaps motivated more by love interests and less by creative interests.
Will began to hear his father’s words in his mind. There would be no more playing for the sake of playing, or playing for the sake of a relationship. He needed to return to his roots; creative writing through close attention to music theory, and creative direction through close attention to business acumen. He needed someone that existed outside the local whirlpool of small-town mentalities and rumors, someone that could help clear his mind and focus. He called a friend he had worked with in the past by the name of Phil Chandler. Phil had produced for Will in the past and done some bar gigs with him. But most importantly, Phil was from out-of-town. The two began to discuss a number of songs that Will wanted to get recorded, as well as Phil’s recently recorded EP under the band name Orange Joe. Opportunities to gig at that time were few and far between. Being that this occurred during the onset of Covid, the two had to get creative to kept things moving. One solution they settled upon was writing (and subsequently selling) commercial jingles. As their momentum began to accelerate, they decided to take what else they had and publish it together. The result would be a body of work that housed Phil’s EP as well as Will’s recorded songs. It was a seventeen song, double album called Both Sides of the Tracks. Characteristically typical of any bands’ first album, they described it as an extremely polar, country rock/ country americana album. But despite Covid, it kept them productive creatively. And it earmarked a moment in time, both good and bad. Some of Will and Phil’s friends, family, and fellow musicians that were involved with this album didn’t make it through the pandemic. But on the other side of this traumatic occurrence, Both Sides of the Tracks stood tall. Its reception was global, garnering radio play on stations everywhere. This was a fortunate break being that distribution services were backlogged due to many cooped up musicians at home writing and recording. This catalyst also contributed to the star-studded roster on their debut album. Singer/ songwriter and guitarist Kern Pratt, fiddle player Michael Cleveland, singer/ fiddle player/ producer Allison Krauss, singer/ songwriter/ guitarist Doc Watson, and singer/ songwriter/ guitarist John Marty Stewart were some of the people that contributed to this release.
Obvious hardships gave birth to a robust independence for them both. The album that was recorded, produced, and promoted from their homes now had a global presence. They formed their own label, Roanoke Records and solidified management with Brian Abrams of Century Palm Agency on a beach over a fifth of honey whiskey. Since then, their hard work has resulted in a European tour, a spot opening for the globally recognized band Alabama, and multiple show dates in Switzerland and Bangkok. Their next album, Ready to Ride is set to drop this summer. Subscribe to our podcast by picking your streaming service below and hear about the duo’s experiences overseas, the noticeably darker tone of this next album, partner Phil Chandlers thoughts on music business, and so much more. Thanks goes out to Will Wesley and Phil Chandler for such a great interview.
Here’s a quick word about a unique privilege on Neworleansmusicians.com. On our home page at the top is a link to our classifieds section. It is broken into three main categories; For Sale – For Rent – Wanted. The advantages are outlined below. But first, some general info to consider.
Users on NOM must register to list on our Classifieds. We implemented this to weed out bots and vet outsiders just passing through. It is my intention that we all become a close-knit community here. Listings in the Classifieds section are relevant because they were made by someone that is already a part of this site. And this area is policed by admin. So, you won’t have to tolerate trolls or spam.
All listings get the boot after 30 days to ensure that you’re not wasting your time on old postings. So that guitar is probably still for sale. And if that DJ is serious about finding a gig, he/ she will repost, ensuring you’ve found the right person for your next event.
Shopping within our state means your money is going to a local fellow musician. Lets keep “us” a priority in everything we do!
For Sale – On social media, it doesn’t take long to end up under a stack of other sellers. We assure our listings are relevant to the music community and current. Ebay, Facebook, Etsy, Amazon…. Frankly, you’re a drop in a sea of listings. By design, we help avoid this pitfall by restricting our community to Louisiana residents only.
For Rent – You won’t find apartments or spacewalks on here. This is about rehearsal space and other musician needs. Check the listings in the For Rent section of our Classifieds. Perhaps you need some sound and light equipment for your next show. You’ll find listings from individuals and companies. If it’s a company, chances are they have a business profile on our site. Without leaving, you can research them and decide if they are a fit for you.
Wanted – You won’t find your mugshot here. But do send us a copy of that. We glue our own decorations to the milk cartons in the break room. Seriously though, looking for a new gig? Need a replacement for the drummer you just kicked out the band? Would you like to find a DJ for your next event? There’s a wanted section just for these situations.
In closing, I see this area of the site as self-explanatory. But, by Neworleansmusicians.com catering to Louisiana musicians only, it tunes out a lot of the foreign and irrelevant noise found on other sites; the same noise that covers your listing up within seconds. I hope to see your band on our site soon!
You can register and begin using the classifieds with the link below.
Start by creating a profile on Neworleansmusicians.com. Be sure to fill in all the blanks and upload a song. With your registration, you can message other bands and businesses in the industry. You can also list on the show calendar and music classifieds. And any tracks you have on the 12 streaming platforms we are a member of will be added to our public playlists on those platforms. Your music presence online has just doubled!
Because you uploaded at least one track, you are e-mailed a questionnaire. This contains questions about your band’s style, inspiration, and history. Once this is returned, you will be featured in our podcast. Instead of commercials half-way through every episode, we shout out our members. We draw our discussion from your questionnaire answers, and then play an example of your work for the audience to hear.
Once you are a member, you are able to upload videos. This would preferably be footage related to your band, and you do this from your profile. Your video is displayed on your profile, as well as our Videos page. And it will appear on our Youtube Channel as well. We will also began promoting your video on social media. You’re one of the family now. We’ve got you!
Contact us via e-mail, social, or by phone and inquire about being interviewed. After we verify that you have a complete account with us, we confirm your eligibility and place you in the interview pool. We choose all our interviews from this group, making sure to cover every genre. Our interviews result in several Youtube videos, an article on our blog, and a podcast episode on our show.
Becoming a member of NOM means many things….
In becoming a member of our growing network of Louisiana musicians, you gain many advantages. This site is not like facebook and other social media sites. It exists strictly for networking purposes. We are onboarding Louisiana bands currently, and will move on to filling Vendor directories soon. These will include venues, sound & light companies, recording studios, and the like from all over the world. Our goal is to empower Louisiana’s talent with tools while remaining exclusive to bands from our state. This is why we only accept bands from Louisiana. Members can message other bands or vendors directly within the site at any time. I created this site and personally keep in touch with its members. Promotional material that our members create is shared constantly on our social. You will begin to see your show announcements shared by us. Promotional material that we create for our interviewees is shared repeatedly on social for months. Any leads on gigs that we generate are sent to members first. We have assisted in filling spots at venues, in movies, and on podcasts. Members’ song plays are tracked through our site and those with the most plays earn placement as Artist of the Month. There are three chosen per month. Those bands are given a spot at the top of our home page with a graphic and link. I look forward to getting to know your band and fulfilling your needs. And remember, I will NEVER ask you for money. I have created a line of merchandise and an account at BuyMeaCoffee to help support my efforts. With enough eyes and ears, I also hope to generate money from Youtube and podcast ads. Any money generated from this site goes right back into it, back into supporting Louisiana’s independent artists.
Childhood memories are of such a profound permanence. Not only are they the antecedents of our future existence. But they play an integral part in shaping who we become in this world. Whether it be parallel of or contrary to, those closest to us in the beginning are the means from which we model ourselves. For Robert, growing up amongst musicians exposed him to the many sides of music at an early age. His father, Sidney Snow, was playing bass and guitar professionally in various bands since 1957. And both his cousin and uncle were musicians as well. Answering the house phone sometimes meant hearing the voice of someone like Eartha Kitt on the other end. And before Robert would go on to choose his own path in life, he witnessed his father successfully support a family performing with people like Dr. John and Teddy Riley. Celebrity may not quite register in the minds of children. But hearing his father play guitar on the radio most definitely did. And knowing his dad played the guitar in Angel Baby may not have struck a chord with a young Robert. But he knew who the Beatles were. And hearing John Lennon compliment the guitar piece in that very song by Rosie and the Originals certainly resonated with Robert.
As fate would have it, by the time he was at Mcmain Magnet High School in New Orleans, he was playing second chair coronet. It was here that Robert spent some time picking up on music theory and a deeper appreciation for jazz. He would later make the move to Chalmette High where he was selected for all-state in the school band. For his exceptional talent, he was awarded several scholarships. But playing jazz in a school band wasn’t something that he took all too seriously. Many of us have a time in life that we can look back on where we chose desire over opportunity. For Robert, this would be one of those times. The transitional period from adolescence to manhood swayed Robert more toward his girlfriend and less toward the out-of-state scholarships. Combining this factor with the hold early eighties metal had taken on him, playing coronet away from home in a College jazz band just didn’t appeal to him. Still, the fact that playing music had become elemental in Robert’s landscape was clear, no matter the course.
As with many musicians coming out of high school, the need for cash landed him at various jobs and further away from any consideration of a career in music. A tinge of rebellion had seeded within him though. And it manifested itself in Robert trying out anything other than music as a profession. Life sent Robert through a myriad of jobs, from washing dishes to construction. And by the mid-eighties, he had moved on to casually playing bass in metal bands while making ends meet through a roofing job. While his metal roots took hold and felt right, his band practiced more than they gigged. Sweating atop a roof in Algiers one day, he stared at the skyline of downtown New Orleans across the Mississippi River. He recalls thinking, “my daddy’s over there making money man… playing music. I can play bass!” The thought became the catalyst for Robert quitting his job and vowing to make it in life as a career musician. Well, maybe not THE catalyst. We can’t leave out the persuasive impact he felt the time he fell off a roof while on the job (pun intended). Either way, his mind was made up. And he sought guidance from his father for his next steps.
“My old man helped me out to get some gigs. And it took me about four or five years to really get a repertoire of songs in my head”, Robert explained. And as he pointed out, most people don’t realize what it takes to ingrain such a sizable collection of songs in one’s memory. But through determination and repetition, he was able to build and retain a catalog in the hundreds over time. The first gig Robert’s father was able to book for him wasn’t for coronet. The music director had too many trumpet players already. And it wasn’t for the electric bass he had been playing in rock bands. Out of necessity, Robert was thrown in the bullpen clinging to an upright bass with a jazz band. Robert recalled, “Oh God that was painful. Because I was an electric bass player and I didn’t have the chops. It’s a different animal too. It is bass. But you got to know intonation ‘cause there’s no frets. So, there’s nothing to guide you. There’s no dots. So, it takes a little while. But after maybe four or five months of me doing it, I finally got to where I knew my intonation; where everything should be. I could here if I was out of tune. The cool thing about upright bass is you can slide into tune. You might hit the wrong ones but you can fudge it a little bit.” One might say that the upright bass that landed in his lap basically outlined his life up until this point. He was slapping notes and making sounds. But he wasn’t quite in tune with where he should’ve been. Over time, he slid into his groove and true tones came ringing.
For decades Robert played in countless bands like King James & the Special Men, The New Orleans Jazz Vipers, The Abitals, and Three Piece Mix to name a few. He built his repertoire, sharpened his skills on the upright bass and electric bass. And he is still very much involved in music today. He currently occupies the roster with bands like The New Orleans Cotton Mouth Kings, The Melatauns, Little Freddie King, Franklin Avenue Overpass, and The Smokehouse Brown Trio. As he pointed out, this month (October), he’s got 32 gigs in 31 days. And I’m willing to bet he’s the only man in New Orleans that could pull off a two-fingered death punch with those well-earned callouses. Along the way, there have been certain times in life where he’s had to make decisions concerning his path in the performing arts. One can choose to go with the flow so-to-speak and feel or appear to be progressing. As long as your band keeps getting gigs, things are going as they should, right?
Ever present in the back of Robert’s mind existed this aversion. It was based on his antipathy for being confined to one genre. I’ll be the first one to tell you that stagnation is death. And I would imagine this rigor set in over time with him. For example, while playing with King James and the Special Men, all seemed fine. Things were better than fine as a matter of fact. That band became largely popular in the New Orleans area circa 2010-2020. And with them he enjoyed a ten-year run in front of packed houses. But that aversion started to set in, and through it he came to realize that the band had missed its mark. In his opinion, they should have peaked years before and made it big. And despite their successes and camaraderie, he felt it was time to move on. It was right about this time that Little Freddie King came calling. Freddie had parted ways with his bass player and was in search of fresh talent. He was acquainted with Robert through their mutual gig spot, BJ’s in the Bywater. And both Freddie and his drummer, Wacko Wade, knew Robert’s father Sidney. Now, at the time Robert received the call, he told Freddie that due to his current involvement in so many bands, he wasn’t sure he could commit. But the two agreed that Robert would play with King James and the Special Men that night and talk to Freddie the next day. So, Robert played with the band that night at their regular gig, The Saturn Bar on St. Claude. The next morning, before he spoke with Freddie, Jimmy from King James and the Special Men called him. He explained to Robert that he was moving in a different direction with the band and would be laying off Robert, along with a guitar player and a sax player. The parting was, and still is, looked back upon as amicable between the two. And Robert acknowledges that this experience truly helped him shed his skin. Not ten minutes later came the call from Freddie King. And to Robert’s confirmation that he was ready to make the move came Freddie’s quick response, “Ok great. We’ve got a gig in two days… Bayou Bugaloo.” Almost immediately, Robert had gone from packed houses to a three-day outdoor festival event that sees attendance in the tens of thousands. Making Little Freddie King his main gig, he’s stuck by Freddie’s side ever since. And he was even able to enjoy work through the pandemic because of this turn of events. And this is no surprise given Freddie’s prominence. Little Freddie King’s gut-bucket style blues has carried him through fourty-two years of appearances at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an induction into the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, and the achievement of Blues Performer of the Year three times. He took home Best Blues Album at the 12th Annual Independent Music Awards for his 2012 album, Chasing tha Blues, and has appeared in countless publications. And he has fourteen albums on the books.
Another band Robert plays with, his baby as he calls it, is The Melatauns. He’s published seven albums with this band, one that he founded with a buddy from high school, Pat Ricks. True to form, they’ve always written and recorded original songs. And you never know what genre they’re coming from next. Their first two albums were heavy metal. From there they moved to an all original album of latin and swing music. And the prefix to The Melatauns name would change with the tone. The first two albums being heavy metal found them as The Mighty Melatauns. For the next, they were The Swinging Melatauns. And so on. Their singer Pat has always been able to keep pace with Robert’s constant quest for the next genre, despite his modest beginnings in a church choir. Robert describes his tone as “blue-eyed soul”. And the keyboard player for The Melatauns can also play accordion. Which also contributes to their diversity amongst the genres. On their albums, Robert would use a rotating roster of about twenty different guys. And live, you could find five or six guys on stage covering guitar, drums, keys, and horns with Robert on bass.
A recent development in Robert’s life has been the formation of the Smokehouse Brown Trio. Smokehouse plays with the band Johnny Mastro and Mama’s Boys, a blues band based out of New Orleans that travels all over the world. And somewhere around April of ’22, Smoke called drummer Chris Davis, also known as “Cakewalk” to discuss Smoke’s interest in forming his own band. He was particularly hopeful in snagging a few of the guys from the old group King James and the Special Men. So, on Mardi Gras night, they all got together and opened for C.C. Adcock. “We were under the impression that we were gonna go into the Special Men kind of bag. And it wound up not being that. So, three of the Special Men quit and me and Chris stayed. So, we wound up being The Smokehouse Brown Trio.” They now perform every Monday night from 9 p.m. until 11 p.m. at BJ’s in the Bywater. And as Robert describes it, it’s really hardcore Chicago style blues with a rock and roll feel. You’ll see Robert on both upright and electric bass for this arrangement. And if you’re lucky, other musicians will sit in on the session as they sometimes do. Harmonica player Andy J. Forest is one of them. Bobby Lewis, also a harmonica player, from Little Freddie King is another. As for now, they are considered the house band at BJ’s. And the band isn’t sure if they’re going to start pushing their music out into other areas. But there is a possible album on the horizon. Robert couldn’t give up the name at the time. But a notable blues label out of Chicago is interested in the trio to re-record a record that was made in the 60’s. We went on to discuss his education in copyrighting and sync licensing, as well as his delving into writing scores for movies. And you’ll be able to hear about that on our Youtube Channel. If you click subscribe, you’ll be notified when this interview publishes. Or you can click your favorite streaming platform below and catch the podcast.
Not remaining in any single genre has been a common theme throughout Robert’s life. His innate desire in the beginning to explore the many facets of music and be a part of them all plotted his course to success later on in life. Through it, he’s met and worked with too many musicians to name. And he’s performed in so many places. He was even able to land a gig in Italy because of it, expanding his contact list while there. And there’s a bit of irony here in that, in the beginning, he didn’t want to entertain the idea of his father’s intentions for him as a musician. That adolescent, rebellious nature came calling as it does in so many of us. And during that time, Robert questioned the notion of ever becoming a professional musician at all. Nowadays, being well versed in so many styles of music, he frequently borrows from one genre to experiment with in other genres. And as he affirms, everything is related to the blues. “Rock and roll is related to the blues. I mean, listen to Led Zeppelin. Listen to any great rock band. They were all into the blues. Same thing in swing. They use blues progressions. Not all of ‘em. But a lot of ‘em, they use blues progressions. Listen to the Saints (When the Saints Go Marching In). It moves to a blues progression. So, I think a unifying genre that unifies all of them would be the blues. And it’s rooted in gospel.” In some ways, one might say that Robert became his father’s likeness, sliding into genres just as he would slide in tune on his upright bass. You can find Robert’s music under the many monikers above at Louisiana Music Factory on Frenchman Street, as well as Spotify and Neworleansmusicians.com.
While preparing for a radio interview for a program aimed at independent musicians, I was forewarned that the host would likely ask me about Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). NFTs are supposed to be the next big thing for independent musicians like me, but I had been avoiding the subject, since it’s highly technical and drowning in jargon like “blockchain,” “smart contracts,” “distributed ledgers,” and “bonding curves.” Even the name “Non-Fungible Token” is off-putting. Why should musicians even care to learn about it? All I ever wanted to do was to write songs and perform them at a few gigs!
Anyway, not wanting to seem like a Luddite, I decided to school myself about NFTs. After some study, I concluded that an NFT serves the same function as a portable flash drive on which can be stored files like digital art, mp3s, video game items, documents, and other digital goods or links. Assuming that any of those stored digital files are rare or unique, the flash drive itself could become valuable.
But if NFTs are simply like flash drives, why do we need them? The answer is that NFTs are created using blockchain technology – like cryptocurrency – that provides a failsafe way to prove ownership of a particular digital asset and assure it cannot be altered. In contrast, the contents of a flash drive can be easily altered, and absolute ownership by any one person would be fairly difficult to prove. By imbedding that same information on an immutable blockchain, proof of ownership and identity of the contents are secure.
To see the implications, let’s say that NFTs existed back in 1952 and the Topps Candy Company minted a Micky Mantle rookie year baseball trading card not on cardboard but using an NFT. Would it today be seen as a valid collectible worth $5.2 million, just like the cardboard version? Many NFT boosters would answer yes, and that’s what has helped set off the NFT gold rush we’ve seen in the past year.
According to Chainalysis (a cryptocurrency research house), an estimated $41 billion was invested in 2021 to create new NFTs, and that amount is likely understated. That’s billions with a capital B – an amount almost as large as the entire world market for art and antiques in 2021, and more than 3 times the music industry’s total 2021 revenues for streaming, CDs, vinyl, and digital and customized radio services, combined.
The vast majority of those NFT investments so far have been in digital art, rather than music. But since music, like art, can be digitized, those eye-popping investments have grabbed the attention of many in the music industry. Depending on who you listen to, NFTs are poised to revolutionize the industry by opening up a new revenue source for musicians that will reduce their reliance on stingy streaming companies, touring, and record label payouts. On the flip side, others say NFTs are just a fad generated by the current over-the-top infatuation with cryptocurrency and will soon confirm P.T. Barnum’s observation that there’s a sucker born every minute.
Some recent attention-grabbing NFTs include one by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey who just auctioned off an NFT that links to a jpeg of his very first Tweet for $2.9 million. Another recent NFT sale that astonished even its creator (Mike Winkelmann, an artist also known as Beeple) was Christie’s auction of his NFT-linked jpeg art entitled “Everydays” for $69 million. What did the purchasers get for those millions? In the case of Dorsey’s Tweet, the purchaser received a certificate of authenticity signed by Dorsey’s @handle, but no copyright or commercial rights for the Tweet’s image were included. In the case of Beeple’s $69 million jpeg, the purchaser also seemingly did not get much – just a link to the file and some vague language about display rights.
Could these simple jpeg files actually be worth that much? It’s common wisdom that the fair market value for any item is the price agreed to by a willing buyer and a willing seller. That’s an economic fact but examples like the above have left some people questioning whether NFT sales at such astronomical prices can form the basis for a sustainable economic model.
If you were to buy the Mona Lisa, you would get a one-of-a-kind physical painting, with the original brushstrokes and pigments carefully applied by the great Leonardo DaVinci himself over 500 years ago. With a digitized piece of art or music, you get something that can be duplicated exactly digit-for-digit and is likely already widely shared on the internet, and can be downloaded anytime by anyone simply by right-clicking the image and hitting Save As. In essence, these NFT purchasers got bragging rights but not much exclusivity. It should be noted that NFTs do not actually contain any digital files – rather they contain a link to files that are stored somewhere else, a setup that raises a host of access and security issues.
Despite these questions, many recent NFT offerings have been remarkably successful and have naturally opened the floodgates to digital offerings by numerous other artists looking to cash in on the current craze – some excellent and some showing questionable talent – but most priced far higher than one might think considering that all you get is a link to file.
In the music realm, one of the earliest NFTs was created by the Kings of Leon who sold tokens for $50 each that provided a download link for their latest album, artwork and access to a limited vinyl edition, along with entry in a lottery to win VIP concert seats and other perks. The band also sold high-roller level NFTs (so-called golden tickets) that included a lifetime pass for the band’s concerts, guaranteed front row tickets and VIP treatment on every tour, and other perks. One of these “golden tickets” sold for about $160,000. The ones that did not sell were destroyed but altogether the Kings reportedly raked in some $2 million for these offerings.
Taking a slightly different approach, André Allen Anjos (also known as RAC) released 100 NFTs linked to a cassette tape of his latest album BOY. Each token (known as $TAPE) could be redeemed for a physical copy of the tape. Since the auction, those tokens have changed hands for as much as $4800. Justin Blau also known as 3LAU auctioned for $11.6 million a collection of 33 NFTs that included tokens for vinyl records, unreleased music, special experiences and an opportunity for one token holder to collaborate with 3LAU on song creation.
Other recent random NFTs include Duran Duran auctioning 100 images taken from its AI-created video for the song Invisible; Whitney Houston’s estate auctioned for $1 million a “never-before heard” demo track she recorded when she was 17 years old, along with a digital art video; Mick Jagger joined with Foo Fighter Dave Grohl to benefit a charity with an NFT auction of a new song coupled with 3D art by Oliver Latta (who goes by the name Extraweg); and Grimes made $5.8 million with some of her artwork NFTs that sold out in less than 20 minutes.
Those transactions are fascinating but an even more intriguing idea is now evolving, which takes advantage of the NFT’s ability to execute “smart contracts,” which are simple if/then contracts imbedded in the token that run when certain preset criteria are met. Using these, the creator of an NFT might automatically get a commission on subsequent resales. In that same vein, multi-platinum recording artist, Pia Mia, auctioned an NFT collection in December that included not just her new song “Whole Thing” and artwork by Ben Ditto, but also 10% of the master royalty for that song. 3LAU recently gave tokens to 333 fans entitling them to 50% of the streaming rights to his latest song, “Worst Case.” As of this writing, 3LAU’s royalty-bearing NFTs are trading in the $5000-7000 range giving them an aggregate value of over $2 million.
Hand-in-glove with the explosive growth of NFTs, we’ve seen the emergence of numerous online marketplaces – such as Opensea, Rarible, and Nifty Gateway – where people can create, showcase, buy and sell their NFTs. There are now dozens of such marketplaces with an aggregate annual trading volume in the tens of billions of dollars. Meanwhile, new types of cryptocurrencies are being launched at the rate of one per day.
For musicians, one conclusion that can be drawn from all this is that to be successful, an NFT must have some element of collectability, i.e., some scarcity, rarity, or baked-in benefit, that combines ownership with exclusivity. We do not see successful music-only NFTs, i.e., those that link solely to stand-alone digital mp3 files, precisely because mp3s are not scarce. Consider that the goal of every musician is to have their music become ubiquitous – broadcast on the radio, streamed on numerous playlists, danced to in clubs, downloaded, synched, listened to on CDs and anywhere else a song can be played. It’ll be hard to convince potential NFT buyers that an mp3 file is rare or collectible when it’s available everywhere.
Moreover, it wasn’t very long ago that the peer-to-peer file-sharing service Napster had 80 million registered users happily paying nothing to download music collections from other users, some of whom boldly proclaimed that music should be free. It’s going to take a lot of work and chutzpa to convince many of the same people to now pay substantial sums of money for an mp3 simply because it’s linked to an NFT that’s bundled with some artwork or a t-shirt. This may change if clever marketers can somehow tweak an mp3 to convey rarity such as by indelibly marking one as an “original file” or a “limited edition,” assuming that the marketplace will value such things. But at the moment one mp3 pretty much looks like another – unless of course it’s bundled with a bunch of other unique goodies or the promise of royalties.
A second conclusion is that average working musicians should not think that by minting an NFT it will suddenly start raining money. The headline-making NFTs yielding big bucks for their creators are pretty much the province of very successful multi-platinum Grammy winning artists, with hundreds of thousands of followers and very high profiles. These are not the common folk of the music world. Sure, lower-level artists can and will issue NFTs but stripped of all the technobabble, these more likely resemble GoFundMe campaigns, where fans support their favorite local artist by swapping dollars for t-shirts and memorabilia, except those benefits are linked to an NFT instead of a fulfillment house – basically old wine in a new bottle.
This leads me to a third and perhaps less obvious takeaway, that many NFTs are being snapped up not by fans or supporters of a particular artist, but by investors and speculators. In a review of the overall NFT market, Chainalysis found that just 9 per cent of NFT owners held 80% of the market’s value, and many of those engage in flipping to turn quick profits. Cooper Turley, the Editor of DeFi Rate, observed with respect to RAC’s cassette $TAPE NFT, “Trading at $100 just 2 hours after its release, the $20 entry price was quickly purchased in heaps by speculators, with many buying upwards of 5-10 $TAPE at a time. This was the first signal that there was no intention for the vast majority of early buyers to redeem the product. In fact, roughly 50 of the 100 total tokens were scooped up in the first minute of the offering going live.”
Finally, most of the artists who are pioneering the use of NFTs are young, hip and tech-savvy, which is also true of their fans. Given that demographic, it’s no surprise that genres like pop, EDM, dubstep, house, electro-pop, hip-hop are disproportionately overrepresented in the most successful NFT drops. Conversely, more traditional genres – blues, classic rock and country, for example – have not been on the cutting edge of the NFT boom. This has implications for old school artists who appeal to an older less tech-savvy demographic who may be more skeptical of NFTs and unwilling to tackle the technicalities of purchasing them.
Looking ahead, if we want to peer further down the NFT rabbit hole, we may see a future where many of us are supposed to be sitting around in virtual reality headsets, hanging out in virtual nightclubs, and using crypto to buy and sell NFT-based assets including virtual real estate where we display our NFT art and listen to our NFT music. That may sound like something out of the Matrix but for some it’s already here. In one online virtual world known as Sandbox, Snoop Dogg is building a virtual replica of his luxurious California home where fans can come and hang out, and someone else just paid $450,000 for some virtual land in Snoop’s vicinity.
The Sandbox will be even more crowded in the future due to companies like Adidas that purchased 144 parcels as a platform from which to market digital and physical wearables. Meanwhile Warner Music is planning a virtual music theme park where its artists can “hang out” and mix with fans, to be accompanied by a sale by Sandbox of adjacent parcels for music fans. Elsewhere, a virtual real estate developer recently put up $2.5 million to purchase a parcel in Decentraland, another virtual world. The digital asset manager company Grayscale estimates that the entire virtual real estate market may be worth more than a trillion dollars and I personally think that’s what this whole game is about – NFTs are a gateway drug that will hook people into a plethora of virtual realms that generally come under the heading of the metaverse.
It’s obvious that NFTs have been successful and profitable for some big-name entertainers in the recent past. It also seems obvious – to me anyway – that the market for NFTs is experiencing irrational exuberance and driven by speculation, with some folks paying tens of millions of dollars for digital files that can be had for nothing, through simple expedient of “right click and SAVE AS.” It also may soon be saturated.
So, what happened to my radio interview? It turns out that my conversation with the host pretty much focused on live music, studio recording and songwriting, so we never got to the subject of NFTs, and that’s pretty much the story for most of the musicians I know who also have not gravitated to the subject. In fact, there’s probably more interest in exploiting the 70-year old technology of vinyl than there is in embracing NFTs which appear to offer very little value for money to purchasers and performers alike – except for wealthy speculators and Grammy winners.
About the author
Jon Spear is an independent musician and retired public policy analyst with a law degree from American University. (He is also an alumni of Bruce Houghton’s Berklee College course of music technology).
Neworleansmusicians.com Podcast can be found on these platforms.
“I got inside of it (the tomb)… I dug down a little further, and it was about the size of a cigarette pack. It looked like the little bible you get from Sunday school. And I knew immediately what it was… I could barely read any of the words. It was weathered and in bad shape. But I read those words, that poem, and it hit me what this guy was going through.” What Levi held in his hands was actually a diary containing the last words of a man headed off to battle in the Civil War. He would go on to include this in his upcoming EP, Gettysburg.
Levi Clark grew up in Metairie, Louisiana in typical American hard-working household. They built cars, they played football, they worked on dead people, and they played music. Okay, maybe not entirely typical. But they were close knit and full of life. The youngest of five children, he began to gravitate toward music at a very early age. And there was certainly a wide variety where he was raised. Levi remembers, “My brothers were listening to Sly and the Family Stone, Jimi Hendrix, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin; there was Woodstock basically in that room. And my sisters listened to LTD, Earth, Wind and Fire, and Peabo Bryson. Mom had Coltrane and Billy Holiday. Dad had Willie Dixon, Robert Johnson, ZZ Hill, Muddy Waters.” His first experience making music was on his brother Avery’s drum set. At the age of six, he snuck into his brother’s room with the intention of figuring out what drums were all about. But with no drum sticks in site, he proceeded to break a drum head using a brush and a comb. Being a percussionist, part of the discipline his father handed down was playing Led Zeppelin IV over and over, and making Levi learn how to play the proper way, this time with actual drum sticks. “Every time I made a mistake, I got popped with a drumstick. And when this (interview) comes out, my brother Avery will find out how I learned that because he has no idea that I got my ass tore up for breaking his drum”, Levi recalled.
At family gatherings, the Clarks didn’t break out the radio. The family would bring their instruments and a live session would serve as entertainment for the occasion. With his brother Avery on drums, his other brother Ronald on bass, his step-brother Donald on keys, and his cousin Wade on guitar, the gatherings became real events. “They were kids, barely in their 20’s! And they’re back there playing Hendrix. And they’re back there playing Muddy Waters, and Sly and the Family Stone” Levi exclaimed. Music would always be a huge influence in Levi’s world as a child and even to this day. At the young age of five, he got a chance to see his father DJ at a dinner reception for his brother. And one could argue that this experience forever changed his life. The place was packed, everyone was on the dance floor. And to close out the night, his father played Who’s Loving You by the Jackson 5. Levi explained, “I had already known that Michael was my age when he sang that. And I’m watching these grown, drunk ass men belt out the words being sung by a 5-year-old. At that point it became my disease. I thought, I wish I could create something that made people move the way I saw those people move.”
With an ear for the drums, Levi would spend the rest of his life in pursuit of his new found passion. Though his first band was known by the name of Never Fall, his first gig was a sold-out show at the municipal auditorium with a band by the name of House of Dread. He was just sixteen years old. Accompanied by his two cousins, he showed up with all his gear only to find out that, unbeknownst to him, the band had hired a guy named Kufaru to replace him. Yet he didn’t cower, nor did he break. Wounded, betrayed, and dressed to the nines, Levi got on stage anyway. “It’s a live gig man”, said Levi. “Shit’s gonna happen that’s out of your control. Not everything is going to go the way you want it to happen. You just have to duck and cover and move forward.” With a hard lesson learned, he went back to playing with Never Fall which, according to Levi was a three-piece progressive rock band influenced by bands like Rush and Saga. And oddly enough, he would be using his brother Avery’s drum kit. On the bill with Big Sum, Exhibit A, and Dead Eye Dick, Levi recalls one night playing at Muddy Waters, in Uptown New Orleans. “So I’m on stage during our last song doing my Neil Peart thing, my big rock thing (insert mouth drum sounds here), you know. I hit the last note and found out that someone had put a door behind the drum riser. When I hit this last note, the centrifugal force threw me back and through the door to the outside. I had to run back inside and up on stage to close out the set.”
As Levi was well aware, paying dues came with the territory. But the common goal was always to make it to the big leagues. One time at practice, he found himself face to face with an A&R for Sony Music Group. The only thing more they wanted was a bassist and a rhythm guitar player to make the outfit complete. At the time, Levi was occasionally jamming with another band by the name of Sobriquet. From that experience, he was able to call on some friends. As Levi explained, “I contacted Michael Prado and a guy by the name of Brad Richoux. They were ready but Adam and John decided that school was more important. And they were right. John went on to be a banker or some shit but Adam went on to do work for Steve Vai.” Always moving forward, Levi would form his new band Cain immediately following.
Cain would start out playing at The Abstract on Magazine Street, and even got an opportunity to Play with Green Day before they made it big. To hear him paint the picture, Levi described The Abstract as the CBGB’s of New Orleans. “They had Dang Bruh WhY, Cain, Apostacy, Abuse played there. One of Philip Anselmo’s projects called The Satanic had played there. It was a shithole. But it was the best shithole. It was the atmosphere, the ambiance. To get any further underground you’d have to go to Haiti. But it grew. It grew like an oak.”
I wanted to shift focus a bit so I inquired about a bar in Fat City that so many people of that era used to frequent. Arguably, it was one of the most important bars for the metal scene in the greater New Orleans area. This gem was known as Zeppelin’s. With bands like Crowbar, Sevendust, Morbid Angel, Sepultura, Obituary, Anal Cunt and countess others, and often for as cheap as five bucks, you couldn’t find a better place to go see live rock music. Alongside this hotbed of talent came networking and opportunity. And Levi with his band Cain was eager to come up. He thought back to one such fortunate night playing at Zeppelin’s where his band scored a chance to perform on tour with Sevendust. “We showed up that night, played our asses off, and hit it off pretty well with Lajon. We threw all our shit in a minivan and followed them.”
Remembering a time after a particularly rough day on the job at the funeral home, Levi told me how he came to meet his now guitarist and closest friend, Trey Heflin, at the Ski Lodge in Fat City. “I drive up with my entire 10-piece drum kit packed into my Nissan Pulsar, don’t ask me how. But I get in there and standing on the bar, smoking, drinking, doing shots is Trey Heflin. We had played with his band called Genocide at the time. And about a month after that gig we got a call from The Abstract to go do a gig at the New Orleans Music Hall. (We played with) MeJack, Gwar, and Rawg. That was insane. Genocide would end up being Cain’s brother band. We would play around town with them. I haven’t left that dude’s side since.”
Albeit small, the metal scene was very interconnected at the time. Sometimes, the same guys you heard on the local radio station that day were the same guys you saw in the bar that night. And Levi’s experiences were no exception. “I was at Last Stop one night when I actually got a chance to hear the Down’s album NOLA record demo there. Philip (Anselmo) had gone in there some time after midnight when the crowd had thinned. I heard Temptations Wing, Underneath Everything, and Eyes of the South. I said to Philip, ‘man I don’t know if you know it man but that’s some bad ass shit.’ That was the first time I actually saw Last Stop…. Stop.”
As a current member of not one but two bands, Misled and Southern Brutality, he’s somehow found time to cultivate a new sonic venture. Levi’s latest project, 1016, is named for the address of the house he grew up in, where his love and obsession for music began. Resonating an influence of blues from his mother and his father, he maintains that 1016’s style is raw, uncontrived and unpretentious. His vision is to see it fester into a disease that will infect as many people as possible. (That ought to trip a few Covid algorithms) Following 1016’s eminent EP, Gettysburg, their first album will come. And they hope to spawn a tour shortly thereafter. When asked about his vision for the band, he cited no one particular direction, literally. “I’ll put it to you like this. The same vision that Robert Johnson had, the same vision Leadbelly had; they had no vision. They just did it.”
Whether it be visions or messages, both can be found hidden in the sounds coming through your speakers. Levi pointed out one such message conveyed through the power in 1016’s melodies. “The reason why we’re tuned to C and still playing the blues shit is to show people you don’t have to be blast heavy. The technique I’m using is a blues technique; the call and response technique. And the reason I do it tuned like this is to get rid of that whole death core, metal core, blues core… whatever you want to call that shit. It’s called Rock and Roll man.”