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Sean Riley

Often times musicians have a way of letting emotion be the divining rod. And the good ones manage this at no expense to their goals. Sean Riley wasn’t always like this. Many miles and many crowds have since subdued the fifteen-year-old in him that was a bit on the shy side. Back then, he kept playing and practice to himself, emerging occasionally to strum a few chords of Smoke on the Water or Layla for friends. Words of encouragement, coupled with desires to be like what he heard, are what kept him going.

He knew what the end result was supposed to sound like. Saratoga Performing Arts Center was located in his hometown, and he’d seen acts like The Allman Brothers, The Grateful Dead, and Steely Dan. He also listened to Roy Orbison, Beach Boys, and Waylon Jennings when his parents played those records. And he knew where the sound came from. His aunt gifted him an old Stella parlor guitar when he was a child. He would often marvel at it where it hung on the wall in the living room. Connecting the dots between those stage shows and this, until now, wall art meant pulling it down and seeing how it felt. Sean recalls, “I didn’t know how to tune it. We didn’t have those tuners you plug in back then. It was tuned to a piano. And I didn’t have anything. So, I had to learn from… I bought one of those what looks like an old harmonica that’s got a little tube. You blow the E and I would tune it. That’s when I got my first lesson. I was like, I gotta learn how to tune the damn thing. But when I first picked it up, I just loved the feel of it.”

I found that, throughout our discussion, he would speak frequently about taking lessons. Although he did take formal lessons for a short period of time, there were a myriad of things that he referred to generically as lessons. This experience was one. And you’ll hear about more later. I specify this because within him, as should be any aspiring musician out there, lived the drive to master the art. Existing in this mindset means that lessons come from all areas in life. This perspective inevitably leads one to greatness. His dedication did not go unnoticed. After spending countless hours with that Stella, his father agreed to buy him an electric guitar. Formal lessons were a condition of this gift.

From a wall amongst many, this self-described late bloomer grabbed a ‘73 SG at an old guitar shop because he liked the way the thing looked. But the esthetics began to shift focus within him and it may not have been noticeable at first. As many children do, he listened to most genres back then. From punk to hip hop, a blues/rock spoke to him louder that the rest. Wherever this voice came from, it was naked and undecorated. He didn’t want to be famous. He didn’t want to be rich. He wanted to play that guitar on stage. And he wanted to do it right. So, whenever the voice spoke, he listened.

The rudiments were found in a few places; tab books, instructional DVD’s, and “The Guitar Grimoire: A Compendium of Formulas for Guitar Scales and Modes”. What he learned would be put to the test whenever a friend could come over and play along. He laughed when he remembered how amateur they all were but maintains he will never forget that initial feeling. Loosely associated jam bands would form and dissipate. Whenever he encountered those with less drive or interest, he would simply revert to playing in his room.  As he got older, he was able to get more of those lessons going to local pubs to see shows. Watching the guitarists pick things out and hearing how it sounded taught him a lot. College became a good place for meeting musicians and getting more of these lessons too. He explained a time at college when he played for someone that he felt was better than him. The guy said, “you’re good, but you’d be better if you learned theory”. That one statement impacted him, compelling him to seek formal lessons once again.

From here, advancement took him from playing in a basement with roommates to bars and frat parties. He teamed up with guys from the college jazz band, playing what the Allman Brothers covered.  Elmore James and Junior Wells became his expression of a strong love of the blues. Lessons still came from local pubs. He would see a band playing and think to himself, man we can do that. But the lack of ambition from other members always seemed to stifle growth. Taking a semester break and travelling to Europe would definitively end the college band days. It would be the genesis for him to strike out on his own in new surroundings.From there, he returned for a work study program in New York City. It was there that he would remain for the next fifteen years.

It was the early 2000’s and the Black Keys had just come out. Sean played anywhere and everywhere, bringing with him that stripped down blues rock style that he loved. His background in graphic design gave him something to fall back on during leaner times. A bottleneck in music commerce had become noticeable. Rates were on the rise and some of the larger venues were closing down in Manhattan. But across the river in Williamsburg, things were booming. So, he would take the L Train to a patch of small, underground places and DIY house shows that garnered a good crowd and sometimes hosted small label reps. He would play rhythm guitar in funk bands, sound off in indie rock bands, and cater to the booking agents that loved the blues. This was the mix of the day. And there was a decent folk music following at places like Jalopy Theater in Red Hook, a southwest Brooklyn town with a diverse, laid-back community.

So, how did Sean come to live all the way down in New Orleans? The Jazz Fest sold him on the place. He travelled down for the event once or twice before and was captivated by the music, the food, and the night life. One too many cold nights up north were enough for he and his wife to make the move ten years ago. He’s certain his career has benefitted from this and cites the city as inspiration for his writing. He began by busking on Royal Street and, after meeting a few people, was able to get a gig on Frenchman Street. He sees the main contrast between New York City and New Orleans being the communal aspect. Things seemed clicky up north. He’s had to remain versatile while here, playing from uptown to the Bywater and playing with many different people. His band, Sean Riley and the Water, was actually named for this. The water represents the constant flow of players passing through the band.

He does have a couple of musicians with whom he plays often, bassist Dean Zucchero and drummer Mike Barras. Sean explained, “Those guys I’ve been playing with a lot throughout the years. So, I would road test the songs with them. That was one tight unit that I felt comfortable with.” And when it came time to record his new album, Stone Cold Hands, he played with those guys and invited a slew of Louisiana locals to contribute. This ten-track body of work has charted in many places, including Billboard, and features Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes, Waylon Thibodeau, Phil Breen, Tiffany Pollack, Megan Harris Brunious and Whitney Alouisious. It is his sophomore effort, released on Dean Zucchero’s label Pugnaceous Records and recorded at RiverShack Studios, and is preceded by one 7 song EP, Biting Through, released in late 2019 under name Old Riley and the Water.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

Seanrileyandthewater.com

@Seanrileymusic on IG

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Dean Zucchero

It’s funny how things came about. Post World War II families raised their children in the burrows of New York, eventually seeking a better life in the suburbs. Their children, however, would eventually come of age seeking the artful bohemia of cities like Manhattan. In the 1980’s, the East Village became a creative epicenter where people like bassist Dean Zucchero would cut his teeth. The industry was thriving back then with hundreds of clubs for bands like his. Notable destinations for live music included The Bitter End, The Cat Club, and later on, The Mercury Lounge. These clubs were on and near Bleecker Street, a two-mile stretch filled with live music venues connecting the East and West Villages. Dean’s band, Anastazia (later, Major Domo), was gunning for success back then. Each member would spend hours a week crafting and distributing mailers and fliers by hand, cultivating a following.

For a relatively unknown, original band in a sea of the same, some venues weren’t an option. But after landing a manager who was connected, they were able to play the famed CBGB’s in the East Village. Even with a high postured manager, this was no easy feat according to Dean. Monday auditions amongst ten other bands were a challenge and the owner was particular. Times like these seemed to always hold success just around the corner. Dean recalled one such occurrence, “The President of MCA flew in from L.A. to see us because his A&R guy said ‘you gotta see this band’. And then, as the night progressed, his partner got drunk and passed out at the table. So, he left early. And then when our manager got in touch with him the next day and said ‘what did you think’? He goes, ‘eh, I liked them but it wasn’t that great’. And he passed on the band.” But they kept trying, eventually finding an indie label that would sign them and invest a considerable amount of money. With this, the band could afford tri-state and east coast tours. It was fun while it lasted. But tight sets with four-part harmonies and a history nearly a decade long wasn’t enough to keep them together.

At this point Dean began to question why he was in this. Was it for the money and the fame? Sure. Was it for the women? Sometimes. But of himself, a man now in his early 30s wanted to know what aspect of being a musician truly interested him. He wanted to know how to pursue that. So, for the immediate future he would take a step back from writing and recording trying simply to be a working bassist. In this, Dean would find happiness, humility, and a better sense of the word “success”. A departure from living a transient lifestyle and constantly contending for attention brought him comfort. And a lineage that included some of the more prominent clubs in New York brought him an abundance of gigs.

Prior to all of this, before he ever picked up a guitar, Dean fantasized about being a musician. He wanted this before he ever knew what it meant to be such. So, finding a glimmer of direction in this transitional moment was serendipitous. It could have been on account of his brother exposing him to his record collection. It contained such influential albums as Led Zeppelin’s “Houses of the Holy”, Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”, or Cat Stevens’ “Tea for the Tillerman”. He will affirm that his brother’s album “Who’s Next”, by The Who, is still his second favorite album of all time. He was a kid that wanted to rock. And he managed to do this at a level that most of us dream of. But The Beatles and Elton John, from his parents record collection, seeded in him a long-since unaddressed love for the blues. Now that Major Domo was no more, the urge to pursue this further resurfaced. His tastes were as a painter’s palette. And his shade of blues came more from Jimi Hendrix than, say, Muddy Waters. He dissected this succinctly by saying, “I think for blues, I don’t like hybrid music so much. I like blues-rock. I like blues in any music. But I don’t like jazzy rock. But I love blues-rock. And I love jazz. I love jazz infused with blues, but not really blues infused with jazz. So, I think blues is always a good ingredient to use in any style of music. It adds some color to it.” This statement stuck with me after the interview. You may need to read it a few times to get the gist. But being in the room with him at that moment, hearing him explain this, it made perfect sense. 

After some time assuming his role as a working bassist around town, he landed a high-profile gig. Suddenly, stages in small blues bars were traded for crowd-front platforms with tens-of-thousands of eyes and ears looking on. And local real estate was dispensed with for all of Europe. Sadly, this was to become a breath of fresh air that would soon sour. He found that he did not care for the person he worked under. As this became more apparent, a relationship in his personal life floundered simultaneously. These once intoxicating potions had become too much for Dean. And we’ve all felt that moment when we start to realize that we have imbibed too much. Our immediate reaction is to begin brainstorming as to how to make our exit. Our brains struggling to reason through the fog of disenchantment. The situation bore feint similarities, in part, to what became disheartening with Major Domo. Only, this time the road was thousands of miles away from home.

He resolved to leave it all behind, returning home and once again shifting focus. He went back to NYU to pursue a career in entertainment law, taking a job at a law firm. His hope was that he could get into NYU law school. But the radical lifestyle change rubbed him the wrong way. Dean recalls, “I was playing while I was in school. But when I got the job at the law firm, I wasn’t playing so much. I was pretty busy and you’d have to work late hours. You had to be on call all the time. So, I said I’m going to put that (performing) aside for a little while.  And then, slowly but surely after about eight months to a year, I started peeking in at some of the jams, seeing my friends playing. I started showing up with my bass. I just kinda got back into it. And then I just decided that’s it, I’m a lifer.” This was not at all time wasted. Through these times he was able to gain useful knowledge of the entertainment industry, as well as find his voice due to the demanding requirements of writing. It might seem hard to believe, but some of this writing he viewed in a creative light. In any argument, you must choose a perspective, then paint a picture to which your audience will be compelled to relate.

Returning to playing locally once again furnished Dean with that sense of familiarity and comfort. He placed much of the ill-fitting experiences in Europe on touring in general, dismissing the singular causations of an at-odds band leader and/or a withering love interest. Both of which are the very definition of resolve. While this might have spelled relief in some ways, restlessness would soon creep in. In 2004, while on break one evening from a gig, he ran into an old guitar player friend on Bleecker Street. The guy mentioned that he was about to go on the road with another musician. Piquing his interest, Dean told the friend to relay the message that if a bassist was needed, he would be interested. The next morning, the phone rang and it was his friend asking if he would be interested in going to Shanghai. Dean responded with “gimmie one hour”, and he was off across the water once again. He played in a band out there for three months, and Zurich, Switzerland would follow. He would spend roughly four years playing out there, even bringing Thomas Bucknasty over, whom he played with during his time in The Healers back in New York.

Dean then travelled to and lived in Italy for the next three years. The bands he played in during those times included one formed by American ex-patriots and a couple of European jazz bands. Dean cited a point of interest here which was, in all of Europe, the atmosphere differed in that people attended to see a show. He said this to illustrate that patrons would sit and pay attention. There was no background chatter or distraction. His success was, in part, due to his ability to deliver authentic American blues. He ultimately landed a gig with pop-jazz band Sugarpie and the Candy Men, playing with them for some time. The plan was to return to the U.S., finish recording their album, then go back to Europe for their tour. But as the album was completed, the tour began to fall through. By now, he’d spent so much time abroad that he no longer had a residence in New York. So, after three months of living in his brother’s basement, he decided to come down to New Orleans and see what it was all about. And this is how we have been honored with his talent and presence.

He’s seen Europe again since then, touring with Ghalia Volt and Mama’s Boys, as well as Cyril Neville. He’s played Jazz Fest with Cyril four times and went on tour to Africa with him. He even touched down in Australia with guitarist Sean Riley playing and touring. Back in ’89, Dean came to New Orleans for Jazz Fest. One of the records he purchased while in town was Uptown Rulers: The Meters Live on the Queen Mary. Imagine a world where, two decades later, he’s playing on stage at the Jazz Fest with Cyril Neville. This guy just hasn’t stopped. While acting as program director, promoter and house bassist at Bratz Y’all in the Bywater, he’s released an album, “Electric Church for the Spiritually Misguided”. He also produced, co-wrote, and performed on several tracks for Ghalia Volt. These works have landed him on the Billboard Blues Charts several times over. He released his album on his new label, Pugnacious Records. He then acted as producer and bassist to Sean Riley & the Water’s “Stone Cold Hands”, which also debuted on the Billboard Blues Charts. We went on to speak about his producing techniques and the musicians he has worked with since residing in New Orleans. My time with him was insightful and candid. So, I do hope you tune into the podcast to hear what it was like to walk in his shoes across continents. Famed bass player Charlie Haden once said, “The bass, no matter what kind of music you’re playing, it just enhances the sound and makes everything sound more beautiful and full.” Without a doubt, for the lives of so many around the world, Dean Zucchero has done just that.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

https://deanzucchero.com

https://pugnaciousrecords.com

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Adam Pearce

From the outside looking in, one would not have guessed Adam Pearce would be the musician he is today. No one is his family played an instrument. His parents weren’t what he regards as music fanatics. And in high school, he spent his free time playing sports. Yet at eighteen, he found himself in the Silver Dollar Pawn and Jewelry store picking out a guitar. You may recognize that name, as it was the centerpiece of a show on television called Cajun Pawn Stars. With graduation on the horizon, he realized most people didn’t wear their class rings in the years following and figured he would get more use out of an instrument. So, his father agreed to let him get a guitar in leu of the momento. Two-hundred dollars landed him a pretty little thing off the wall, and away he went. He would attend the Alexandria branch of LSU for the next year and a half. And any spare time he came across was spent on that guitar. He picked up pointers from his father’s friend, his brother-in-law, and Youtube. He began writing almost immediately, assembling four of the five chords he knew to perform a song for his family. Seeing them impressed with what he composed fueled his newfound passion. And that guitar would accompany him on his move to LSU campus in Baton Rouge.

Though music was always at the forefront of his mind, he realized it would probably never pay the bills. So, college was just his way of going through the motions to secure some sort of future. Ironically, campus life provided him with the members he needed to form his first band, Black Magnolia. They scored their first gig at a bar called Bogies, frequented by fraternity and sorority members. And the band did well, performing around town often. With performances under their belt and a solid group of songs, the logical next step was to put out an album. Painting a typical picture, life rendered a passionate musician with small funds and big dreams. Paying for studio time was out of the question. So, he found a house for rent with a garage, obtaining permission from the owners to craft a studio in that garage. This process took roughly two years to complete from beginning construction to completing his album, “Fields Are Burning”. But this course was anything but smooth. At some point, he walked away from his job specifically to pursue a career in music. There was also a falling out between band members during the span of time following construction and preceding recording. He would be left with himself and his bass player. What little money he did have was reserved for an audio engineer. This meant he had a deadline to meet. The week before the album was due, he counted eight ulcers in his mouth. No doubt this was stress related. He scheduled a release party at the House of Blues in New Orleans which was supposed to coincide with his completed product. Though the album was completed, the physical CDs had not been pressed in time. So, he spent countless hours burning copies in the days leading up to the show. He stamped them all with the words, “redeemable later for a real album”. When people showed up to subsequent shows and presented that copy, he gave them a real CD free.

The following year held some big changes for Adam. He got married and moved from Baton Rouge to Jefferson, Louisiana. Within him lied an undercurrent of fear, seeded by a sense of urgency. He shuddered to think of what he might become. In his mind flashed the stereotypical musician, falling short of making ends meet and allowing his wife to support him. So, being both driven and tech savvy, he began to beat the internet down searching for gigs. Adam will tell you, even though he was realistic with his expectations, and even though he took a calculated approach, it was a lot harder than he expected. “Like pulling teeth” were the words he chose to describe the experience. He figured out early on that if he pitched himself as a solo acoustic performer, he could get more gigs. This dispensed with the scheduling issues common to bands with several members, as well as having to divvy up what little money venues paid. It also allowed him to perform smaller spots on weekdays, leaving his weekends open for larger venues. “My first gig that I got after I moved here. I was pumped about it. And they offered some BS bar ring deal; like twenty percent of the bar ring or whatever. Those are almost always BS deals. I don’t take that anymore. And I went and played three and a half hours, and I made twenty bucks. And I’m pretty sure I had a bar tab too, that I had to pay for.” Still, he persisted in blowing up the phone and devised an ingenious method on Google Maps for keeping things organized. “I would zoom out and I would have all these bars, little pins. And I would mark them red, black, green, or yellow. So, red would mean that was something open. I never even messed with it. Green was a gig that I had. It was like that’s a solid gig. And you could click on the little dot and put notes. So, it’s like, Rivershack Tavern, I got that gig. Here’s the contact, follow up with them to book a gig every once in a while. If I labeled it black, that was a dead-end gig. Like, it’s not gonna happen. I’m never gonna play there or the bar is closed. Yellow were all my (prospective) gigs. So, it’s like call back on Thursday between ten and twelve and speak to Rob or something. Most of my pins were yellow. So, I would get on there a few times a week… ok, I need to convert ten yellows to either green or black.” The visual element was something he enjoyed, and it helped to lend perspective in his efforts, offering focus. It also quickly shed light on what areas he needed to increase his presence and the areas in which he approached saturation. 

Upon reflection, these things were apparent to me. First, college was and will always be a transient location. Some people maintain contact in the years following. But many go their separate ways. And this would probably happen regardless of any falling out he had with bandmates. Two, in speaking with Adam, I picked up on the fact that his level of dedication during the Black Magnolia era was unmatched. There was more to the story mentioned in the podcast interview that you can seek out below. But to think that he would’ve remained content with that arrangement for any amount of time is unlikely. Holding others to one’s own standard is a recipe for disaster. And he concedes that this happens with most bands. Burnout is compounded when you bear the brunt of this. But serendipity would step in when he received an email inviting him to try out for a popular television show, The Voice. He realized that people drive cross-country for an opportunity like this. And these tryouts were happening eight minutes from his house. So, he gave it a shot. Adam explains, “We’re in a room, like, the waiting room before you can go in and audition. So, we can hear everybody ahead of us auditioning. They get, like, ten seconds of singing and they go (clapping) ‘thank you for coming, bye’! They’re just cutting people. So, everybody in the waiting room is hearing everybody get axed… They know immediately if they’re not going to make it. So, that’s a little nerve wracking. You’re just hearing everybody get butchered.” Pushing his nervousness aside, he walked into a room with one person, a camera, and a square on the floor. He didn’t have a strap for his acoustic that day, but he spotted a stool in the corner and grabbed it fast. He belted out “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin. At two minutes in, he was cognizant of the fact that they were still listening. He would be asked to play a second song, and then a third. Ultimately, he received a call-back and was flown to Los Angeles to audition in front of the executive producers.

After making it past these hurdles, Adam appeared on Season 12 of The Voice, performing in front of a live audience and judges That year was Adam Levine, Gwen Stefani, Alesha Keys & Blake Shelton. He didn’t get a chair turn. He cites being given “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, by Procol Harum, as one unfortunate circumstance that contributed to his demise and points out people don’t realize the contestants can’t choose their own song. He affirmed, “I was super pissed-off. If you go back and find that (footage), you can see it in my face. They were like, talking to me and giving me advice. And I just remember thinking y’all can all shut the hell up. I’m ready to just walk off this stage. Gwen Stefani is talking to me like, being all supportive. And I just wanted to be like, shut up. I was so angry, just like seeing red.” But that marked the end of the road for him. And, in case you’re wondering, I did ask, and he did say what stopped him from telling all of them to kiss his ass was the fact that seventeen million people were watching. He had to keep it together. Adam Levine was giving him advice. Carson Daily was all over him. All the while, he was just looking for the way out.

In a rare occurrence, he was one of three invited back the following season. And he was the only one to make it onto the show. This time he was given “Hot Blooded” by Foreigner, a much better match for his style. He made it four rounds into the show, landing him in the top twenty, but ultimately did not win overall. For him though, the whole experience was a victory. Bringing a silver lining to the picture, Adam said “I got a ton of publicity. All of my performances were at the end of the episode. And they built them up, showing little clips. And I never got montaged. So, some people that made it further than me in the show got less air-time than me because their performances got montaged.” He stressed what a great time he had, enjoying five full-length performances that aired internationally. He laughed when he admitted he snuck whiskey backstage, sipping after he got cut. He made it known to producers announcing, “I just wanna let y’all know I snuck whiskey back here. What are y’all gonna do, kick me off the show?” They directed contestants that didn’t make the cut to sit before a psychologist, then sent them on their way. He could see the importance of such a practice, being that for so many, this is THE make-or-break moment in their minds. Immediately following, Adam Levine invited Adam to perform with him for George Clooney’s Halloween party. He got to dress up in costume and sang with the celebrity. Sammy Hagar sang a song with him too and would later stick around to get drunk with Adam. His description of these experiences was priceless, and I do hope you tune into the podcast. Because no one can describe those moments like he did. I could not stop laughing!

After appearing on The Voice, the television show America’s Got Talent showed interest. And he got offers from the show I Can See Your Voice. But Covid effectively cancelled those opportunities. The show Don’t forget The Lyrics has also come calling. It appears as though he’s now in some pool of talent for TV appearances. In a strategic move, Adam dropped the Black Magnolia moniker directly following all of this, opting to seize notoriety by performing under his own name. And he launched a Kick Starter, raising twenty-three thousand dollars to fund his next album, Warbird. Overall, his attitude toward all of this has remained realistic and healthy. He recognizes those appearances as giant ads for his brand. Aside from his solo project, he plays in Mothership, a Led Zeppelin tribute band, four to five times a year. He puts out original music every few months and maintains a Youtube channel where he posts weekly.

In the weeks leading up to this interview, I took a poll asking followers on social media who they would like to see get interviewed. There were over one-hundred and fifty respondents; several of which named Adam Pearce. One in particular, Paula Belmont, stood out. After only a few days of having suggested Adam (and while the poll was still running), she asked “So, are you going to interview Adam or what?” The words on my screen made me want to retort with a “look lady…”. But I explained the polling and interviewing process and made clear my intention. She never left my mind. And when I finally did interview Adam, I mentioned the lady whose name escaped me at the time, describing our interaction. Adam instantly chimed in “Paula Belmont!” He went on to explain that she could best be described as a ‘super fan’ of his. I made it a point to message her when his podcast interview aired. Surprisingly, I did not hear from her. I later learned through a family member that she had passed away. So, I’d like to dedicate this article to Ms. Paula Belmont. My heart goes out to her family.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

Adampearcemusic.com  

Youtube.com/adampearcemusic

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Kirk Windstein

There is something to be said about the trials of those of us on the fringe, and the use of extreme music in our expression of these trials. Society at large would have everyone believe we are of some agnostic heresy, whereby all roads do not, cannot, lead to Rome. That somehow, we are not due the benefaction of such luxury and comfort. The way I see it, two options of recourse exist. One being to scale back, to tone down the saturation of color that fills the sounds we hear. The other is to simply own it. And not just own it but dissect it publicly, in an effort to turn everyone’s eyes and ears in its direction. So, beyond the electric, the notes hang low and long. Cymbals crash and voices howl proclaiming pain and love, and dreamlike images are draped amongst our ears. It is almost as if we bathe in the blood to not only savor the life, but to assure the nay-sayers observe its rich color upon our flesh. We dispense with the fear and angst because condemnation is no longer looming; it is here. It is now. And from this moment, it will use public denunciation to shape its being. Kirk Windstein lives here. His lyrical style reads like a voice that beckons from some semi-lucid dream state. Though it may coerce your mind toward the destructive pain, you cannot ignore the armorous scab created in its wake. “Sorrow grows. Life it dies. Strength within. Fuels my cries. Shattered hope. Born again. Will to live. Need to win.” (Obedience Thru Suffering). In days of old where augurs interpreted the will of gods, Kirk’s present-day lyricism presents itself as those of an oracle. His reflective counsel and wise words are electrified through stacks of speakers. He takes the time to execute his intent with each riff, dwelling within it to deliver a groveling message. Because to him, “heavy” isn’t necessarily defined by the instrument, or even the way it is played. It’s more the emotions evoked through his words.

Born in Middlesex, England in 1965, Kirk moved with his parents to Texas for a year before settling on Steamboat Ln. in River Ridge, Louisiana. His father had just completed his time in the U.S. Airforce and was delivering milk for his father in a milk distribution business. From the East Bank to the West Bank, Kirk’s summer ride-alongs would fill his ears with The Rolling Stones, The Who, and other classic rock stars. Popping out of his room on occasion during his parents’ cocktail parties yielded much of the same. He still remembers hearing those Rod Stuart and Bee Gee’s 45’s spinning. Coming into his own, he would cut grass and wash dishes to score the latest albums. “When I got my allowance every Friday, I’d get on my bike and ride from my house on Steamboat Ln. over to Barker’s Department Store. And I remember… an album with tax was $4.53. And I remember, I’d just got into Kiss. I saw Kiss Alive II, which was a double album. So, it was like maybe $6.99 plus tax. And I only had five bucks. So, I literally… I remember it vividly. I took the record, and I put it in the children’s music section. They only had one copy of Kiss Alive II… I hauled ass home on my bike and robbed, my sister knows, I robbed her piggy bank. And I had a pocket full of quarters or whatever. And I had my five bucks. And I went up and it was seven something for Kiss Alive. That started it all. From then on it was like, that was the thing, the bell, the epiphany… And it’s like, this is what I want to do.”

Kirk channeled this doggedness wholeheartedly into rock and roll. In the coming years, he would structure his pursuit in much the same fashion as the rest of his life; persistence, practice, organization, and perseverance. He would do so with an Epiphone Acoustic his parents bought him when he was twelve. That same persistence demonstrated enough merit for them to buy him a black Les Paul Custom on Christmas of 1978, courtesy of his dad’s cousin using an employee discount from Norland Music. For a while, Kirk attempted to learn the way many of us have, drinking in chords and pentatonic scales from his friend Ted Usie, and being introduced to theory from an instructor by the name of John Freeze. But beginning theory meant playing simple standards and Kirk was fiending for that rock and roll sound. While he never did put the guitar down, he bailed on lessons in just a few months. There were a couple of things that stood out in his mind during this time. He read somewhere that Eddie Van Halen had a back and forth with a high school teacher about what worked sonically and what didn’t. Eddie was classically trained in piano and still found moments to think outside the box. Classmates would affirm his suspicions that things could be unorthodox and still create a space in life. Kirk never forgot this. And one night back in ‘84, while trying to master a shredding piece from some famous musician, his father addressed Kirk’s frustration with words of wisdom. Kirk recounted his father’s advice, “Son, great musicians are a dime a dozen. There’s one on every street corner in New York. There’s one on every street corner in L.A. There’s one on every street corner in New Orleans looking for work. Great songwriters are few and far between. Why don’t you concentrate on writing music and quit worrying about how many notes you can play.” He carries these words with him to this day, along with that Les Paul Custom. And, to this day, if he’s holding a guitar, he’s either writing, rehearsing, or playing a gig.

The coming years included a commitment within him and a regimen of work and band practice. Weekdays following work at D.H. Holmes warehouse, from five until eight or nine, Kirk, Todd Strange, Sid Montz, and Danny Theriot would get together and practice in his parents’ garage. For just under two years, this was the routine. And he’s earmarked this time as one where he advanced the most. Not too long after, Kirk began hanging out with Mike Hatch. Mike brought Kirk to his first punk show when Black Flag played the Dream Palace in the French Quarter. This was at a time when the punk scene and the metal scene were veritable enemies of each other. This helped open Kirk’s eyes to a new scene. And being a staunch rejector of cover music, this was probably what prompted Kirk to eventually quit playing covers in ‘87. One day he got a call from Mike. He was making a move to San Fransisco, near his younger brother Greg, with Jimmy Bower and Mike Savoy. They all had second thoughts and were calling Kirk from a rest stop in Arizona to see if he would like to join their band, Shellshock. This came at a time when Kirk felt like he’d hit a wall creatively. For Kirk, this marked both a foray into a new genre and the first time he would meet Jimmy Bower (Eyehategod, Down, Crowbar, Superjoint Ritual, etc).

Following the death of Mike Hatch in ’88, Aftershock would be born. Short-lived, the remnants would go on to form the Slugs. Kirk and Jimmy would be reunited at this point, with Jimmy once again playing drums in this project. Jimmy was a key component in Kirk’s quest to curate sonics unlike any other because he always had a more punk sound. His influence paired well with Kirk’s stepping outside his own realm with Mike. We are all sponges moving throughout life. Fluids seep into us from our surroundings over the years. The things that drip out the bottom are all our own; an amalgamation of these influences forming a unique mixture. Jimmy would stick around for about a year, long enough to record a Slugs demo, before leaving for Atlanta to help family. He had made his mark with Kirk though, helping to form what was to become Crowbar. And Kirk will say he still tunes to B because of he and Jimmy’s love for Carnivore’s album, Retaliation. Kirk would continue to surround himself with talented people who were also pursuing this underground vein. He would also side-step a near complete band break up when an interested indie label, Pavement Music, called with interests of publishing an album with him. This would begin a five-year relationship between he and Pavement Music, and mark the assemblance of Obedience Thru Suffering, Kirk’s first release under label. The immediate future of what was to become Crowbar unfolded in rapid succession. Kirk explains here, “I knew how good of a drummer Craig (Nunemacher) was, so we went to go talk to him; me and Todd (Strange). And Kevin Noonan who is an amazing guitar player, who had played in the Slugs on and off, and played with me in Victorian Blitz for a while, was playing in the band that Craig was playing in. It might have been the Moon Crickets. So, we talked to Craig a little bit. I said you know what, as much as I’m into the Melvins and Sabbath and all that, I’m totally into Thin Lizzy and Trouble; bands that just have amazing two guitar harmony stuff. So, we went to try and get Craig and ended up with Craig and Kevin. Which really was a great blessing in disguise because it turned Crowbar into a harmony guitar driven band.”

Whether it be in his opinion or your own, he has resided in an atmosphere of heavy, underground music ever since. For both lyrics and sound, he sometimes writes “by the seat of his pants”. He may show up to the studio with one or two good riffs. And the rest comes in real time. Under these conditions, his lack of theory has become an advantage. Though it has come to mind on more than one occasion (and for more than one project), pandering to the satisfaction of a crowd hasn’t broken his stride because he remains in the realm of the underground. Innovation is a mainstay there, as are Kirk’s motives, regardless of audience reception. A prime example of all of this would be an unreleased track on one of his projects, EyeAm (working song title, Etta James). He had filmed himself that morning working out a riff on guitar. Kirk recalls, “Kenny (Hickey) had this little thing and I had this riff that was kind of Hendrixy to me. We kind of put them together. It’s kind of like, you know, we’re still developing our sound but that’s bringing in a new element to me. It’s a classic 70’s… could be a Robin Trowerish or bluesy Zeppelin Tea For One thing. There’s no rules, and there’s really no ending to anything.” That last sentence might as well become Kirk’s mantra. He is currently active in Crowbar, Down, Kingdom of Sorrow, his solo project, and now, EyeAm.

Employing things like remote studio sessions from contributors and setting time aside in blocks for each project keeps this manageable. Right now, he’s in EyeAm world. He will be in Crowbar’s world come the first of the year. Down will be starting back up soon too, writing and recording new material. And his second solo effort has been wrapped since the summer of last year. At this point, and with so many projects actively producing, it becomes a question of strategy when it comes to release time. But it simply must remain this way in order for him to be happy. It puts him where he wants to be found, in the studio. For the socialite, being in public is what makes them tick. But for the creative, society does not nourish them. The creative prefers to be found in places conducive to creation. With this, his methods fortify his direction. It’s really no different than when he was a child working for money and riding his bike miles to get an album. Or when he was just out of high school committing to twenty hours of practice despite a forty-hour work week. One constant remains certain, that he has and will continue to make an indelible mark on Louisiana’s music scene, and do so as our ambassador to the heavy metal world.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

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Congo Square Suite

I began in the aftermath of the Krewe Du Vieux Parade on Decatur Street. Beaming with nightlife, the serenades of satire and counter-culture themes make it one of my favorite Mardi Gras events. Walking past Check Point Charlie’s down to Frenchmen Street, I was greeted by beautiful brass bands illuminating the Crescent City sky with sounds of dance, love, and laughter. As I walked further, I was enchanted by the music seeping through open doorways of nearby nightclubs. Out of a smokey haze, I was greeted by a stranger dressed in full Victorian costume who, unprovoked and without a word, handed me a CD. At first, I assumed he was looking to sell it to me, so I shook my head. But he persisted by saying, “It’s Carnaval brah. You need this blessing”. That CD was Donald Harrison Jr.’s “Congo Square Suite”, an album that came into my life at random, in a most mysterious and beautiful way.

Big Chief Donald Harrison brings us a three-part musical journey with this latest release. At just over thirty-seven minutes, the opus showcases the Big Chief’s conducting and instrumentational genius, blending European influences with tribal, bebop, classical, and jazz fusion genres. The album is from the perspective of a New Orleans native, the Chief of the Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, and a performer in the iconic band, the Jazz Messengers. At a tenure of forty years and counting, his career also includes an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music, and collaborations with artists such as Ron Carter, Billy Cobham, Miles Davis, Lena Horne, Eddie Palmieri, and the Notorious B.I.G. He is also a former tutor to his nephew, New Orleans native and critically acclaimed musician, Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah (Christian Scott).

Back home I sat with a cigar and a glass of Haitian rum accompanied with a lime wedge. Incredibly intrigued, I was ready to begin my journey with this magical gift from beyond. The album started to play, and the first track, “Movement I” (feat. Max Moran, Joe Dyson & The Congo Square Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group) wisped me away to those Sunday afternoon drum circles in Congo Square. White dresses danced, sage burned, and ceremonies brought offerings for the ancestors. “Movement I” drew me into a trance with its pulsating percussion and repeated chants singing out “Congo, Congo, Congo, Congo Nation”. According to the description on Harrison’s Bandcamp page, “This movement is a chant composed by Donald Harrison for drums and voices. The drum and vocal performances showcase an example of the Afro-New Orleans offshoot culture, rhythms, and music forged in Congo Square. Harrison integrates elements of ancient African music kept alive in Congo Square with ideas he learned listening to tribal African field recordings. “

“Movement II”, originally written in 2015, is an epic orchestral performance by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra that was composed and orchestrated by Donald Harrison, Jr. I was quickly transported to another world by a revolutionary recording that completely changed pace with grace and complexity. A monumental achievement in fusion and classical music, it is a stunning cultural piece that implements chants and drum patterns. “Movement II” unifies Harrison’s experiences as the Big Chief of Congo Square with his sixty-plus years participating in Afro-New Orleans culture. I quickly jumped up from my chair, put my cigar down in the ashtray, and began miming conductor motions with my hand. I am not the most versed in classical theory, but the performance and direction given to me by the Moscow Symphony Orchestra was nothing short of robust. It delivered my imagination to a whirlwind of instrumentation, painting an energetic yet soothing picture. Sonically, it demonstrated some of the most innovative ways to incorporate genre mixing while remaining cohesive from start to finish.
With a freshly refilled cocktail, I paced around my apartment for a bit to reflect on my journey thus far. Then I returned to my stereo to finish this wonderful acousitcal quest. Rounding out “Congo Square Suite” is “Movement III”, a suitable closer that shapes together a hybrid of Congo Square tribal rhythms, contemporary Jazz, and classical orchestration. The foundation is set forth as a laid-back samba. Where Harrison’s saxophone dabbles a bit of attitude, Zaccai Curtis’ piano moves to-and-fro between several ostinato phrases, delivering a classic jazz civility. With the samba maintained and two-thirds of the track behind us, Harrison begins to break free with an improvisational style.

Both Harrison and the Congo Square Nation act as custodians of culture while pushing boundaries through experimentation. Harrison assumes the position of master of ceremonies for celebration and meaning. The entire album of “Congo Square Suite” is cinematic, reeling the listener in further with its ability to evolve and morph into a style all its own. Whether you’re exploring the rich history of jazz, classical, tribal, or experimental music, Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr.’s work will be a satisfying, educational delight to the senses. I highly recommend setting aside some time to get lost in the soon to be classic oeuvre that is “Congo Square Suite”.
With my drink empty and cigar extinguished, I closed my eyes and began to dream about the fortunes I have come to encounter in New Orleans. Talks with strangers, new live music experiences, eating and drinking with friends, and unexpected events have become the fortunes I desire. Finding this album amid Mardi Gras festivities seeded sentimental feelings of how lucky I am to live and grow in a very deep-rooted musical and cultural city. Reminding me of the past, grounding me in the present, and brightening my future, I hope the journey of “Congo Square Suite” gives you a similar experience.

Author: Ryan McKern

Editor: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

From Congo Square Suite, released April 28, 2023
Donald Harrison: composer, orchestration, producer, saxophonist, lead vocals, percussion

Joe Dyson, drums
Zaccai Curtis, piano
Max Moran, bass
The Moscow Symphony Orchestra
Gerald French, percussion
Howard “Smiley” Ricks, percussion
Antione “Tuba Fats”, percussion
Bruce “Action” Jackson, percussion

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Steve Mignano

Drab has rich soundscapes. There seems to be a thirst lately for bands with driving basslines whose guitars saturate the aural soundscape with lavish, soulful melodies. That may sound elementary, but the truth is that too many bands these days are trying to find the next direction with compositions that have shed elements of the tried and true. For me, Drab’s sound harkens back to an era when grunge rock was mighty. And music like I’m hearing from these guys was the tasteful counter to that movement that somehow found a way to compliment it simultaneously. It was anything but pop, super original, and slightly unpolished in its own right. A band like Drab is tipping its hat to this notion that there exists a space between extremes that does not lend itself to popularized conformity. In other words, you don’t have to commit yourself to either death metal or typified pop extremes to express a deviation from the norm. There’s a vein of rock that maintains an edge slightly left of center that is still respected by those that would normally find their comfort zone right in the middle. For his whole life, Steve Mignano has been able to move freely throughout these spectrums due to his lust for movement and change. And his ability to achieve accuracy amongst chaos affords listeners a guide through these waters. You can’t understand the plot if the acting sucks. And you can’t get a feel for a sound if it’s not in tune or on time. Now Garguts, Steve’s second project, pushes the division between what works and what doesn’t. They take the above notion of “unpolished” and kick it in the teeth. But again, Mr. Mignano embraces change here while feeling his way through at the top of his lungs. Because for this project, Steve isn’t holding a guitar. He’s strictly singing. Dylan Hemard (Green Gasoline) checks the axe for him, allowing him the freedom to roam. This band delivers the reassurance that can be sometimes felt in extremity. Because oddly enough, you can here a bit of Zeppelin in the beginning of their song Miller High Death. But then the kicking starts, giving listeners a bit of “oh yeah, I remember that” followed by “oh sh*t!” We will get into the line-up of this band later. But trust me, we’re all in for a wild ride with this one.

Originally, Steve is from Toledo, Ohio. His dad played guitar in bands and owned a guitar store in Westfield, Michigan. It always felt like guitar was his first language. But his eyes really lit up when he saw the movie Back to the Future. Seeing Marty McFly transform into a rock star at the high school dance struck a chord with seven-year-old Steve. Funny enough, he didn’t realize how deep that chord would carry at the time. But it was enough to get the ball rolling; well, that and countless air-guitar solos. His dad agreed to furnish him with lessons and Johnny B Good was the first. But unfortunately, a rambunctious Steve collided with a bit of attention deficit disorder and the guitar idea was soon shelved. By eleven, he returned though. And by fifteen, he had become serious, practicing daily. Being around his father and the musicians in his bands facilitated an accelerated learning rate. At this time, Youtube didn’t exist and real, human experiences still reigned. He would be at his father’s performances as a pre-teen and by the age of twelve, he was attending concerts. He recalls fondly being at shows for bands like Soundgarden and Megadeth. In a word, his sixteen-year-old self would say the Rage Against The Machine concert he saw at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Detroit was…. intense!!

There were three main radio stations where he grew up. Classic rock was on 104.7, Buzz 106.5 was an modern alt-rock station, and pop music played on 92.5. Classic and modern rock would escort him through his formative years. Bands like Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Black Sabbath, Metallica, and Alice in Chains would not only influence him sonically, but furnish him with a sense of identity. Back then he also relied on tab books to further his music education. He would save up money to buy a book, learn the contents, then pass it around amongst friends. Nirvana’s In Utero, and Countdown to Extinction by Megadeth were a couple he remembers. He learned Nirvana, but he still struggles to this day with those Marty Friedman solos. There was also his parents’ album collection to help guide him down the neck of his path. He still has some of these records. His first love on vinyl was the blues master B.B. King. And he remembers how the haunting ballads like The Messiah Will Come Again and Sweet Dreams by Roy Buchanan sounded even creepier because that record had a slight warp to it. His father was into many styles of music. So, to appreciate different genres seemed natural to Steve. And this open mindset allowed him to see the similarities between the genres. While absorbing these sources; lessons, tab books, concerts, and records, Steve was playing in a garage band with friends. They would learn together, playing covers like Black Flag. One year, a band mate’s mom gifted him with studio time for his birthday. The band would record a two-song demo and instantly be famous in their own mind. The drum line at Steve’s high school would be his first experience performing publicly. They needed a guitar player for their rendition of Change of Seasons, by Dream Theater. He tuned his low E down to a low B so he could resemble the seven-string played originally in that song. Cranking up the amp and flexing his chops for a sizeable audience excited him so. He got to see the impact of loud guitar on his peers. Any fear quickly gave way to understanding within him. “It’s like when you’re standing in front of an abyss, and like there’s nowhere to go, you know, jump. And once you do it you begin to realize, oh well that’s not so bad. It’s not going to kill you. So, it gives you courage. It gives you more confidence. And you come back and you look at it. You can examine; oh I could do this better. This was awesome. This was my favorite part. Playing music is the most exhilarating thing in the world man. And um, it starts with a spark. But, you know, if you nurture that spark it grows into a fire. And, as I’ve gotten older, it hasn’t diminished at all man. It’s just gotten more complex. It’s like turning into this lotus flower of fire now”, Steve imparted.

He got good grades in school and was academically inclined naturally. But many of his friends in music would go onto vocational schools, leaving him a bit isolated. He resisted private school urgings from his parents, becoming more withdrawn and studying music during this time. He focused on listening to the elements contained within the music and began to think about what he wanted to do with his life. Music was the obvious vision. He also had an interest in film. He figured he could work in film while trying to launch a career in music. The day after he graduated high school, Steve packed all his stuff into his car and pointed the wheel toward Los Angeles. There was no plan in place or reason for that destination. But the town’s reputation for being a hot bed of cinema and ground zero for the recording industry was calling his name. This adventure, however, was short lived. He was in and out of bands while there. But he concedes his expectations were ridiculously high. And though he attended the Musician’s Institute for a semester, ultimately the cost of living would ground this flight. Steve would be back home in Ohio nursing his ego before he knew it. For the next three years, he worked in his father’s appliance parts warehouse. He would bring his guitar and practice every chance he could. Listening to records, transcribing solos, and trying to learn new chords kept the pilot lit for now. One day a friend reached out to him telling him about auditions happening nearby. The gig was with Johnny Reed, a Chicago style blues harp player. Steve was familiar with this artist through his dad’s record collection. The man’s stellar reputation made this proposition intimidating. But Steve muscled up the courage and went down to try out. He played two songs and was hired on the spot! For the next three years, Steve would tour the U.S. and Canada, playing counter to, and being coached by, Johnny. Though he had crawled many miles of paper in theory, nothing could prepare him for the techniques and methods involved in running with a band of this caliber. The experience would be the education. And he was cognizant enough to experience the revelation. He recalls, “I can’t remember exactly what festival we were at. But I remember it was on a large outdoor stage. And I remember listening to Johnny soloing. And what occurred to me is that he wasn’t just playing his harp. He was playing the whole stage. He was listening to the environment. He was listening to how his tone was coming through the speakers, how it was resonating. I remember being on stage with him and that occurring to me at that one moment. He was taking the environment and making it work. He was making adjustments on the fly to make sure his tone was cutting through.” Steve was coming to the realization that there was no one set of rules or standards for this. To show up at every performance, regardless of the venue, and play as you did at another time and location just wouldn’t have the same impact. What he witnessed was a musician making the stage resonate with his instrument. Through focused reflection, he’s been able to grasp these elements and affix them to his target as a professional musician.

After playing with Johhny Reed, Steve would move to Denver. And before long, he landed another gig playing with Cassie Taylor, a native of Boulder and daughter of well-known blues musician Otis Taylor. From 2010 to just before 2013, Steve toured the U.S., Europe, and Canada with Cassie’s band on her neo-soul release, Out Of My Mind. Getting this gig was different than how he got the Johnny Reed gig. With Reed, the slot was one that had been filled many times before. The style of music was rooted in traditions of a certain vein and the phrases were already mapped out. With Taylor, he was given songs that lacked his part. It was up to him to find what fit. He pulled from the many years he spent studying theory. Knowledge of the language allowed him to become versed in this variety. He also drew from his time studying technique. The books from his dad’s shop were filled with the rudiments of this and did not adhere to any particular genre. A book by Pat Martino taught him chord inversions and chord voicings. The CAGED system (author Bill Edwards, 1983) also expedited his progress. Once he learned those patterns it became easy to learn scales and chord voicings all over neck. Steve would use the literacy to express his newfound creative freedom with Cassie. And if you look, you’ll find what author Andy Ellis of Premier Guitar said about his work to be commendable. “In guitarist Steve Mignano, Taylor has a perfect foil. His long, searing bends and snarling riffs wrap around Taylor’s latte voice like a well-worn leather glove. Tone for days, deluxe dynamics, spirited delivery—Mignano has it all.”  

While still touring with Cassie, Steve went on vacation to New Orleans and was struck by its indelible charm. He would ultimately move here on the conclusion of that tour. Absorbing the indigenous music and becoming a working musician in this environment satiated him. He was previously familiar with a reputation the city had amongst musicians. Of the territories surrounding this far-reaching microcosm, Steve says, “This is my favorite city in the world, man. I love everything about it. I love the food, love the people, love the music, love the atmosphere; everything. You know, I feel like it takes a particular kind of savage to live here. But I am that savage. I feel like it’s in my DNA in a way. Some of us belong here. And I feel like I belong here.” Together, with Casey Freitas on bass, Aaron Levy on drums, and Jacob Fitzmorris on guitar, Steve has formed Drab. They dropped a self-titled album in 2022. And their most recent single, Blacklight, is a dead reckoning for the grit between your toes. You know life put it there to disrupt you. But you begin to rub it around, and you come to like the sensation. Blacklight is evidence of the recent shift within the band’s sound. Casey Freitas was a newcomer on this imminent work. So, the inner mechanics of their line-up have changed as well. There is a new single on the way, Open Wound. But when this album drops, you’ll hear the movement toward a murkier, more malignant sound, doubling down on their freshman effort. With his second band, Garguts, Steve has set down the guitar to concentrate solely on testing the limits of his vocals. On indefinite hiatus, Green Gasoline’s Dylan Hemard (guitar) and Jon Castiex (drums) have aligned with Steve and Sterling Anderson (bass). Where Drab had become a comfortable grit, Garguts has created an annoyed flesh wound. Their sound penetrates while possessing the sensation of a rowdy garage band experiment. Rhythmic changeups, amp distortions, and effects quickly usher the listener into a chaotic bliss. This band will let our frustrations breathe. I do hope to see many of you tune into Steve’s podcast interview. As he and I discussed how these projects came about, how their first shows have been, and what the business end of these creations has taught him. And hearing him describe his experiences with Johnny Reed and Cassie Taylor was truly exhilarating. I thank you all so much for your continued interest.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

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David McBurnett

David McBurnett has always been a music enthusiast like the rest of us. One of the ways his direct involvement influenced our local scene was the time he produced a tribute to Fats Domino on national television. But let’s back up to the beginning. As a child, David grew up in Connecticut with an older sibling, Dean. From his mother, he would pick up playing piano. He was something of a child prodigy, learning the compositions of Bach, Beethoven, and Rachmaninoff. And from his brother, he would be introduced to the music of David Brubeck. But at some point, instability would rupture his household sending him to boarding school. In the future, he would pick up the guitar. But he hasn’t played the piano since. After boarding school, David would reunite with his brother in Boston, where his brother roomed with Andy Pratt. Andy was/ is an experimental rock musician who, by now, has amassed thirty albums. Back then, his most notable hit was “Avenging Annie”. David would take work with Andy as a stagehand. And so, his immersion professionally into the music scene began. He was dedicated to the world of music then, even scoring Andy his second record contract, which was with Columbia Records, following his debut on Polydor Records. He also worked with a Scottish rock band by the name of Cloud. From there he would soon befriend Duke Edwards, a vocalist and drummer for the 60’s supergroup, Rhinoceros. And the two would form a travelling musical commune called Papa Dukie and the Mud People. David played guitar on stage with Duke and others. This is how he came to live in Louisiana.

Two school buses were purchased, equipped to serve as living space and painted white, and driven down to Wallace, Louisiana, where Duke (a.k.a. Papa Dukie) had family. There, they were able to set up camp, putting on shows on land that lied between the levee and the river, known as the batture. The mobility of their set-up was important. Because the Mississippi River would flood this area seasonally. When Duke’s grandmother died, David accompanied him to her services. He was able to witness, firsthand, the services at a Baptist church. The melodies and incantations made his jaw drop. The rhythms, chanting, and call-and-repeat style revealed to him where a lot of our music comes from. I don’t believe he was ever the same since. The musical commune would eventually disintegrate. And David came to settle in New Orleans, befriending and working for Jed Palmer. Jed owned Jed’s University Inn on Maple Street and later, Jed’s on Oak Street across from The Maple Leaf. “Jed’s was just the place for music. That’s where Professor Longhair played before Tipitina’s opened. That’s where (Paul) McCartney came crashing through our back door to come listen to Professor Longhair. It’s where everybody would come after the big shows were over at three or four o’clock in the morning. It could be anybody; from Willie Nelson, to Paul McCartney to (Bruce) Springsteen. It didn’t matter, you know. Cause where do you go late night? Well, we were the place.” For David, Jed’s was not only a deep dive into live music, but it also gave him an education on the music business. He would use these lessons while being involved in production, finance, and logistics for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in its early stages, as well as The Celebration of Life, a rock festival held in McCrea, Louisiana in 1971. In the coming years, David would take on responsibility for a slew of star-studded productions for television. These television specials would span over a decade and include people like Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles, Paul Schaeffer, Jerry Garcia, Linda Ronstadt, the Neville Brothers, Dizzy Gillespie, and Herbie Hancock. David’s present-day company, McBurnett Productions, encompasses all the music and videos that David McBurnett has created or collaborated in over the last 55 years as well as his concert productions, festival productions and logistics work. He maintains ownership of several past shows, including three shows for HBO. David served as executive producer, producer and is the copyright holder. The way he depicted these artists at their craft established an immeasurable amount of credit. “I’m still on that credit to some degree. And that credit was like, with musicians. Musicians, yeah, they want to get paid. But what they really care about is you treat their music well. And some of the other producers of television were ok with that. It was business though. No, I’m only going to spend twenty grand on post-production. I’m not gonna spend fifty. I’d spend the fifty. I’d put the money into the mix. You know, and not just slap together a hot edit. Well, visuals most people pay attention to. Not so much the sound. I always… because I was a musician, it mattered to me. I had been on that stage. Not on the stages those guys rose to. But I had been on a stage in front of people, right? And it mattered. That was what was important, was the sound. And that’s carried me to this day.”

These days, David has several productions in development. “There Will Be Dancing: Got to Love It” seeks to embrace and expose the incredible strengths of New Orleans; from the food and music to the culture, beauty and history. His love of music will lend a special focus on the interconnectivity of musicians to different music settings, as well as paint a picture of why every major musician in the world comes to New Orleans to learn. “Deva & Miten” will be an exclusive documentary on the life of a world-famous musical, spiritual duo. The two have fifty-one albums and, in 2024 alone, will be on the east and west coast of the U.S., in Canada, Mexico, Australia, England, Scotland, Germany, France, Italy and elsewhere. His third production in development will be major artists playing music for children and parents, entitled Not Just For Kids, NJFK.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

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Justin Curry

Born in Madison, Ohio, Justin Curry basically kept to himself as a child. His father was a drummer based in Houston and wasn’t around much. But his mother and aunt were. And both could sing; his aunt even performing on stage. Though violin wasn’t the first instrument he picked up, it was the first one chose of his own volition. In high school, where there was no orchestral program, he played trombone and could manage basic piano and guitar. With a laugh, he recalls how the music teacher told him he would never have a career in music. To all my budding new instrumentalists out there, this story will show that you should never let another dissuade you from your dreams of becoming a musician! Having not yet found the instrument that resonated with him the most, Justin’s true talent was not yet apparent. For that teacher and all his classmates, this would not come to light until his solo violin recital in high school. I’ve always maintained that underestimation is the greatest gift anyone could ever give. And Justin took full advantage of this, surprising everyone at that recital. He received a standing ovation for that performance. He would again surprise everyone when he became student council president. He would also amaze them by graduating a year early. His pursuit of becoming a professional violinist was a fervent one. He took lessons from a private tutor and was a student of the classical music genre. He realized if he wanted to make it in music, he would have to leave his hometown. Throughout the nineties, Madison’s live music scene experienced a whitewashing of sorts. Such to where the town was overrun with generic dive bars when all was said and done. Although Ohio had music education programs available at the time, it was becoming apparent that one would be hard-pressed to make it as a local musician financially. So, while taking lessons on the violin, Justin planned his move for years, unbeknownst to anyone.

He would continue in this vein, honing his craft in private. But once he left high school, he began performing publicly in and around Cleveland. Though jobs were scarce, he did prefer to play in restaurants as opposed to bars. He found that in bars, the music was secondary to the focus of socializing and libation. Whereas in restaurants, a musician’s performance was more central to the atmosphere. At one particular restaurant, he enjoyed a residency as well as their high-end client base. He started to notice his presence bringing in more and more customers. But when he approached the owner about an increase in pay, he was unfortunately shunned. Influenced by his hometown’s whitewashing of bars as well as this disheartening experience, Justin was prompted to form his own perspective on the venue philosophy. And in his opinion, many bars and restaurants have been involved in a “race to the bottom”. Whereby the caliber of services and features are gradually reduced while the price point persistently rises. And I agree that the competitive essence of many businesses these days seems to result in a reduction in quality. With long-term vitality being sacrificed for the sake of short-term profits, returning patronage suffers. Conversely, I understand that quality over quantity is a characteristic of maturation. Where may the two converge comfortably though? Justin says that a society centered around pop culture is afraid to appreciate finer arts. And while venues following suit is a direct result, it should not be tolerated, much less rewarded. 

Ever since he was a child, Justin took a peculiar interest in Japanese culture. Their ways stood as a sharp contrast to what he found himself surrounded by in Ohio. He could appreciate how both art and discipline were revered there. In Japan, it wasn’t as common to find a musician with two to three jobs because their art was more appreciated and thus would provide sufficiently. Following his dreams, he travelled there and enjoyed a successful career as a musician. His first stint was for four and a half years. It was from that time, when he returned to the states, that he found himself in New Orleans. Many of his guiding principles still held true here, like avoiding bar performances and contending with pop culture and low pay. But a big part of him was drawn to the city’s rich cultural heritage and musically significant history. And certain lagniappes like busking could help to subsidize his venue-based income. This may come as a surprise to some. But the amount of foot traffic a tourist destination supplies occasionally makes performing on the street a more viable option. And for Justin, it has proven to be of greater profit than playing in most venues. He does have his own strategies when it comes to busking. “Be respectful of where you are. Clean up when you’re done. Be good to the people around you. Because doing this is just as much a people skill thing as it is a musical thing. But on top of that, be good at making music. Because if you’re not good, you’re going to make nothing. It’s one of those things, sink or swim.” He continued by pointing out that adding to your environment is paramount. And by this he meant that getting to know the surrounding shop owners and neighbors shows them that you care, that you are a part of the community. He’s busked in places like New Orleans, Los Angeles, and New York City. And according to Justin, busking in Los Angeles can bring in twice what he sees in New Orleans. But I would attribute that to an overall higher cost of living. He contributed the fact that disposable income levels are lower here and that, unfortunately, the “city of drinking” narrative is pushed more than the “city of the arts” perspective. He maintains that New Orleans will always hold a special place in his heart. And he considers its appeal as a second home a significant one. But for now, he’s looking once again to explore his geographic options in hopes of finding himself surrounded by a healthier social ethos; one with greater emphasis on art and culture.

Justin’s third album will be coming to streaming soon by the name of “Between Worlds”. It is a live album that was recorded during his recent performance at the Marigny Opera House in New Orleans. The best way to view a complete list of all his relevant links (there are many) is on his Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/justin.curry.777. I interviewed Justin in the foyer of The Saxon House at 536 Royal St. The location is steeped in the New Orleans cultural history for which Justin is so fond. It is a two hundred plus year old dwelling owned by New Orleanian Louis Dufilho Jr., who was America’s first licensed pharmacist. It was also owned and renovated by Lyle Saxon, a local resident and six-time author on New Orleans and Louisiana history. Whom, through multiple purchases and renovations, is credited with making the French Quarter “more art colony, less an underworld.” Justin assured me that while the abode is both warm and inviting, it is definitely haunted!

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

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Steve Staples

As I sat down to write this, I was immediately taken back to an old track that you may be familiar with, Grandma’s Hands, by Bill Withers. It’s a sentimental tune that captures the essence of the matriarch as perceived by a young boy. Though Steve Staples of The Iceman Special will tell you he doesn’t quite remember that far back, he began with a story of how he used to sit on his grandmother’s knee while she played piano. Those hands would produce melodies at home and at church that ingrained music into his being. Of his singing, she would say he could carry a tune by the time he was two. Steve and his mother had moved from Oklahoma to his grandmother’s house in Oakdale, Louisiana immediately following his father’s calling to the 38th parallel to fight in the Korean War. But his first memorable encounter came in 1955 when his family bought a television. He still remembers how Waylon Jennings looked with his guitar and that slicked back hair. Not too long after that, his next-door neighbors would purchase two Fender Esquire guitars and two Fender Pro amps. They would sit on the porch and play. And a young, curious Steve was inexplicably drawn to the sound. How peculiar are the seemingly minute happenings in a child’s life that bear the most impact. Because sitting at the core of Steve Staples, these two moments coupled to ignite a passion that would never be extinguished.

It wouldn’t be until he turned thirteen that he would start playing his own guitar, an acoustic. The following summer, his grandmother bought him an electric guitar and he would put this one to use on stage. Steve fondly recalls, “Myself, Mike King, Ricky Hall, Brian Collins, and Johnny Baker just made up a band for that performance called The Gonks. And we played in our junior high school auditorium about four or five songs that were British invasion kind of songs. And the girls went crazy. I mean, they were all up and dancing in the isles. They went crazy! That was it…. I told Brian, I’m going to do this for the rest of my life!” Though The Gonks were somewhat of a fictitious band, being that they were only formed in name for that show, Steve’s mind was made up. Disbursement would soon affect two popular local bands, The Twilights and The Gaunga Dyns. And through a series of shufflings amongst those members and Steve’s friends, he would finally be in a real band. “There was a band called The Twilights. And there was a band that formed called The Gaunga Dyns, simultaneously. I wasn’t in either one of them. He went on further to say, “We didn’t like our bass player that much. And we liked the bass player in The Gaunga Dyns. And The Gaunga Dyns were going to break up because the two guitar players and singers were going off to college. That was going to be the end of that band. But they were good. So, we broke those two bands up and formed one band, what we called The Gaunga Dyns, not the Twilights. And we had Neil Lundgren and Beau Breamer were singing. And they could sing like the Everly Brothers. I mean they could really sing. They were both super talented. And that was the Gaunga Dyns for a while. And it got real popular really quick.” Neil would leave the band soon after to pursue his own musical interests. But The Gaunga Dyns would go on to record at Cosimo Recording Studio on Gov. Nichols Street, in the French Quarter. Steve laughed as he mentioned that they were on the national charts for about a week or so at number ninety-nine. They had a formula that fit the time, touching on some British invasion tunes, and covering rock and soul genres as well. Steve and Mike King would do the writing for the originals. But a slight change would spell trouble further down the line. Their bass player, Bobby Carter, would end up moving to Connecticut when his father pursued a job opportunity there. And the band would turn to Steve to play bass and sing. He did oblige, but with hesitation. Because he knew this to be a daunting task. When the band called a song on stage that he didn’t feel well-rehearsed enough to play, he walked off. The Gaunga Dyns would kick him out the next day.

At home things were touch-and-go. Steve loved his father but viewed him as silently seething most times. He knew early on in life that his father wanted him to be a lawyer because his father told him so. But this path wasn’t in Steve’s sight. And as time went on, the rift would grow between them much like the separation between his father’s ideals and Steve’s intentions. But there were the occasional touches of sanguinity from time to time. At sixteen, without any warning, his father presented him with a really nice guitar. Which was bizarre considering he had never come to see his son play; not even once. One can only imagine the opinion a rugged war veteran might have had of “musician” as a career path. Ironically, his father had originally wanted to be a painter. Looking back, Steve acknowledges the existence of a softer side. But being a soldier instilled a toughness that made revealing this both obviously difficult and sporadic. The fracture in their relationship may have begun while he was still in school. His father had hopes of Steve joining the R.O.T.C. But Steve would instead choose to go off to college. Later in life, when Steve was quitting his job and turning to the road in pursuit of his desires, his father’s disapproval was more than apparent. He told Steve outright that he was throwing his life away. But again, intermittent gleams of positivity would shine through at times. On the day following this argument, for instance, his father called and said, “You’re right. Go do it.” Though his father’s hopes for him never quite seemed to align with his own, and the support wasn’t always apparent, his father would evidently have a change of heart from time to time. There was another instance where things were already not going as planned for Steve, who was on a path that surely wasn’t set out for him by his father. But he surprised Steve, giving him a van to help him along. The messages always seemed mixed. And it would take years until the relationship with his father would be resolved. Today Steve concedes that the instability between them was answered with his own alcohol and drug abuse.

After the fall out with the Gaunga Dyns, Steve would move with his family back to Oakdale in time for his Senior year of high school. He played guitar in the orchestra there. And get this… he played the string bass too! Life would find him amongst friends and musicians at Louisiana State University that following year. He sold that electric guitar his father bought him, a decision he regrets to this day. But the singer/ songwriter era was in full swing and he used the money to buy an acoustic guitar. Artists like Paul Simon, Van Morrison, and James Taylor owned the day in the late sixties. And Steve was anxious to make his contribution to the art. He would spend his idle time playing and singing with guys on the common ground. One day, he saw a post on a bulletin board in search of a songwriting partner. Through this he would meet and begin working with Quentin Powers, who would go onto work with such greats as Reba McEntire, Ronnie Milsap, and a host of other now famous musicians. The two worked on their own material, hiring friends and other musicians to make a demo at a studio in Baton Rouge. They shopped it around and were basically told it wasn’t good enough. But the second time around they landed a deal with Ardent Studios. With this they would have the opportunity to work with Ron Capone, a drummer whose catalog included work on the Shaft soundtrack with Isaac Hayes. They would also get to work with Steve Cropper, a guitarist, A & R man, engineer, producer, and songwriting partner of Otis Redding, Eddie Floyd and a dozen others and founding member of both Booker T. and the MG’s and The Mar-Keys. Ron was especially enthusiastic about Steve and Quentin’s work. He urged them to move up to Memphis, where Ardent was located, which they did. Things were going well at first. At the time there were a lot of rock and roll clubs. And a lot of hotels and motels had clubs in them. They would hire a band for a week, providing room and board along with pay. Together with their band, Steve and Quentin were able to work consistently while recording their album. But life eventually offset this stasis, sending the members in different directions. And the album they recorded at Ardent never came out. Their bass player would eventually leave town with his girlfriend. His replacement would subsequently leave to become a brain surgeon. Quentin would remain, as did Steve who had by now developed an intravenous methamphetamine habit.

His habit would follow him back to Oakdale, where he would take a job at his father’s car dealership. He once again found someone to play music with and would stick with this guy for a few years until 1980. But he was pulled over and arrested one night, landing him in jail. His lawyer advised seeking treatment. And so began Steve’s life-long path of sobriety. Steve’s complete ethos would align with this new way of life. He became a full-time rehabilitation counselor for twelve years, eventually running programs at different facilities in Louisiana. All the while he found ways to integrate music into his life with other musicians in recovery. In my eyes, his life has read like a success story from this point on. He built a mobile recording studio and travelled the country. He attended Loyola University, where he was in class with Stanton Moore. A band he played in, Merit and the Bloodhounds, won a competition at the New Orleans House of Blues and was flown to Hollywood to perform. He opened a shop, International Vintage Guitars, which operated in New Orleans for twenty years, later moving it to his hometown of Oakdale, Louisiana. It is still in operation to this day. And now he’s playing in a sensational band by the name of The Iceman Special. They’ve been playing numerous dates across the country. I attended one of their performances at Toulouse Theater in New Orleans, and I was truly blown away. Their talent, their stage presence, and their bevy of smoke and laser lighting seized the attention of all, enveloping the audience in an experience I for one will never forget. For the genius that Charley Murray, Will Murray, Steve Staples and Hunter Romero form, and for the wonderful man Steve himself has become, I can’t recommend enough seeing them play. Their new album Zycordia dropped this year. I hope everyone gets a chance to listen.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

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Oktober Sky

While his style will always be uniquely his own, his dream has been no different than many of you audio players out there; gaining traction with the masses. Though, for him, this aspiration came with the exception of one caveat, that he arrive with a certain musical sympathy. Off the rails early on, Tylar Cash (a.k.a. Oktober Sky) lived a life that wasn’t contained by the traditional barriers that prop the rest of us up as children. The yard and the white picket fence passing him by, he was corralled with foster care and group homes. After moving from his birthplace of Modesto, California to Dexter, Missouri, his sense of longing was replaced with the quest of belonging. But by now the parameters had changed. At twelve years of age, he stood in that middle ground between childhood and adolescence, observing all the while the goings-on around him. He internalized his questions and emotions, revealing them only to a notebook in which he would constantly write. One might liken this to passive-aggressive expression. Outside of its cover, he tried to remain well-mannered and stay out of trouble. But within it, he could scream. He could poetically verse the things no one wanted to hear. And when he read them back, he understood it all. Rap music was prevalent at the time. Creative writing would teach him cadence and allow him to build and destroy worlds and the barriers within them. But by thirteen, he would be in a group home. And with less privacy and more proscriptions, that notebook would be taken away. Strong will, an inquisitive nature, and a desire to escape reality led him to disappear into books as a result. This opened his eyes to fantasy. Not so much for the sake of escapism, but as a means of artistic expression. Visualizations became similes and situations were captured as metaphors.

With the atmospheres constantly changing around him, he was exposed to many different forms of music. He could see the beauty in them all. Classic rock and heavy metal possessed as much worthiness with him as rap and electronic dance music. Each with their own styles of grammar and expression. When he was able to free himself from the grips of the group home, he bought some equipment and began learning how to record himself. Still searching for his own voice, he rapped about the things around him. But these things sounded out like so many of the typical rap songs of today, guns, drugs, women, cars and fast cash. One self-imposed bar he set for himself was to deliberately stray away from convention. Sounding like someone else was something he couldn’t live with. So, to measure up to this, he would constantly explore. A change in his cadence, a twist on the subject matter, singing… singing! He would land on an alternation between rapping verses and singing the choruses. And he was already veering toward a multi-genre approach of rap, pop, rock, and emo. The “musical sympathy” I spoke of earlier was born out of his personal experiences. There were a lot of somber feelings associated with his childhood. And of the many people he met along the way, some in his own predicament, he felt it necessary to touch on their lackluster reality. But never-before leaving it with a bit of a shine. Put simply, he understood and respected the trials of others because he lived them. But he believed it a good cause to insert a bit of optimism into his written realism, even if that sometimes meant a touch of fantasy.

Anxious to evolve, one day he Googled “what cities do people advance in music?” New Orleans, believe it or not, was number three out of ten. So, he packed all his things and moved to New Orleans. He has brought with him a message of mental health. And he views his multi-faceted style as an advantage. He hopes that it will speak to his audience as it does to him, ever-changing but always positive. The move has delivered him from the ill-willed surroundings of Missouri and the subject matters that came from there in his music. He has aligned himself with producer Rahul Borkar and video director Opius Mercury to release a collection of singles, each with their own music video. For the first time he feels like he’s in an environment that suits him. With this newfound liberty, he has felt free enough to do things like insert rock songs into a rap show. This allows him to try out his varying styles. He says he is not aware of any markets more conducive to this variance encapsulated into one presentation. I think we can all cite this as sometimes problematic territory. Cross-over styles can make some feel hesitant to go along with those who create it. Many people, especially younger crowds, often feel an allegiance of some sort to one genre or another. It is a utility by which they define themselves, and so must pass muster through a distinct set of principles and mores. Nevertheless, the music he makes now has predominantly more rock overtones. And he still does retain rap elements such as flows, tempo, and some looping melodies. He explains how when he’s writing, he’s in a depressive mode. But once he has written down his emotions, he feels at peace with it. Oddly enough, it is difficult for him to express himself verbally, but putting words into a song comes more natural without losing the thoughts and emotions he is trying to convey. I believe this to be a common sentiment among musicians. These days, he feels the challenges of being a solo artist. He wants the camaraderie and capability of a full band. It’s funny how a music scene such as ours can both congeal and isolate at the same time. But this too, I believe, is common territory. We did talk in-depth about his childhood and the places he has been in life, as well as his goals and methods to which his music videos and lyrics aim. You can hear our interview with Tylar Cash (a.k.a. Oktober Sky) on our podcast by clicking your favorite platform below. And please, help propel this artist’s journey forward by stopping by one of the destinations in the Linktree and giving him a like or follow. Once you see what he’s managed to do thus far with his music and videos, you won’t be disappointed. If you’re a musician looking to explore soundscapes within the realms of rap/ rock, pop, or emo-rock, you should consider reaching out to him as well. Forming connections or passing a kind word can go far these days.

Author: David Trahan

Neworleansmusicians.com

Oktober Sky’s Linktree: https://linktr.ee/oktobersky999?utm_source=linktree_profile_share&ltsid=31990f69-2da3-4084-8c7d-1986e0917074