Is This Not Bonkers?: Wild New Pirate Music From New Orleans
by Gabe Soria
Originally posted Dec 3, 2007 on Yahoo’s Arthur blog
Friday, November 2nd, 2007, New Orleans: The Saturn Bar on St. Claude in New Orleans, a place you’ve probably heard of, even if you’ve never been to New Orleans. T-shirts bearing its stylized planetary logo and address are ubiquitous leisurewear among certain sorts of folks in cities worldwide. Its fame is well deserved–it’s a friendly and immaculately disheveled corner watering hole, kind of like the platonic ideal of Southern urban dive bar, complete with great signage. The stretch of real estate it’s on–St. Claude Avenue between the railroad tracks near and the bridge to the Lower Ninth Ward–is unapologetically spooky after dark. Gunshots in the distance: check.
But still, it’s inviting.
The occasion tonight is the record release party by the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, a project of local musician Alex McMurray. The wife and I haven’t heard a note of music from the record yet, though McMurray’s former outfit, the Tom Waits-esque trio Royal Fingerbowl, are a favorite around the house.
We’ve just heard compelling code words: “sea shanties” and “beer” and “Saturn Bar” and decided that attendance is mandatory. Turns out, it’s the type of show that you realize you’re going to be telling people about until the end of your days. For real.
The car is parked on the neutral ground in the middle of the avenue, directly between the Saturn Bar and the Spellcaster Lodge across the street. Entering the Saturn Bar, the mood is instantly, irrepressibly ebullient. Folks are drinking Miller High Lifes like they’re going to stop brewing them at the stroke of midnight, and more than one person is dressed like a PIRATE. Actually, the crowd is liberally sprinkled with pirates. Friends greet us with grins; some people lounge casually in booths and others jockey for position at the bar in the Saturn’s ramshackle front room. I realize that it’s been a long time since I’ve felt such an unselfconscious BUZZ before a show, like people don’t know exactly what’s going to happen and are DIGGING it. It’s like they’re on really good, really happy drugs.
Finally, the needle tips, and folks start cramming themselves in front of the nonexistent stage, located under a balcony that runs the length of three sides the Saturn’s back room. The small venue feels like a time warp, like you’re attending a rocking show in the back of a second-tier bordello in 1915. The small band has assembled, looking well lubricated: McMurray on banjo; Chaz Leary and Matt Perrine, his band mates from his primary band, the Tin Men, on washboard and sousaphone, respectively, and the addition of Jannelle Perrine on pennywhistle, and Carlo Nuccio on bass drum. And then there’s the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus themselves: at least 20 strong, maybe more of them, weird moustaches, ruddy faces, big grins, a bunch of dudes and a smattering of ladies who serve as the crew on this ship.
McMurray takes a moment to instruct the audience on the chorus of the group’s first song, “What Do You Do With a Drunken Sailor?” and the group barrels ahead. What follows is nothing short of extraordinary.
What could have come off as pure novelty (“Hey, guys! We’re going to sing a bunch of sailor’s and pirate songs!”) instead becomes a roaring thing of rough beauty. McMurray actually learned many of these songs while playing the character of Cap’n Sandy, a roving sailor minstrel at Tokyo Disney, but instead of covering the tunes, he seems to be channeling them from some alternate universe where Alejandro Jodorowsky and Werner Herzog asked him to do the soundtrack for their NC-17 version of the Pirates Of The Caribbean films. The band plays these old songs as if they were born to them, skipping reverence and piousness and going straight to their dirty hearts. It’s raw, nasty and funny; some lyrics have been changed, some have been added, but it’s all honest and kinda dirty. And the Chorus themselves… yikes. They’re howling and smiling, and the crowd picks up on their lyrics, singing and bellowing along with them. It’s the real old, weird America to paraphrase, right here in a bar in New Orleans. Strangers in the crowd link arms and sway back and forth; soon, it seems as if we’re all pitching back and forth in the hold of a ship about to go down. People are dropping beers, drinking multiple beers and forming a real (and really drunken) community around some blazing hot music. And everybody, by the time the shindig winds down, is exhausted and deliriously HAPPY.
You don’t see that too often at a show, not nowadays.
The wife and I are so happy and toasted, we forget to actually purchase Guano And Nitrates, the self-released CD from whoever’s selling them, so have to contact McMurray a couple of days later and drop by his place to purchase it directly from him on his porch. And the record itself… I’m reminded of something Jay-Z once said about R. Kelley: “Is that not bonkers?”
Recorded live at the end of 2004 at the now-shuttered Mermaid Lounge, nothing seems to have been lost in translation and the intervening years (the band itself has only played live three times). Nothing. It’s a raucous party record and folk archaeologist’s dream all at the same time. These are old songs done right. It’s the real folk sh*t: hard and hilarious and rousing. Man, it’s been awhile since I’ve heard and seen something so dirty and lovely and real.
Gabe Soria is a contributing editor to Arthur magazine.