The piece below was originally published in 2010 on the Rhapsody blog, but I guess some time after I left they changed blogging platforms and didn’t think keeping several years’ worth of entries worth the hassle of shifting them over. As you’ll see if you keep reading, my trip to NOLA as a guest of Air Traffic Control felt pretty profound at the time, and that feeling has only grown since then — to the point where I wound up on ATC’s board, and am now its Treasurer (ATC has since re-branded itself Revolutions Per Minute). I attended another retreat in 2012, and brought along a film crew from Google to document the shenanigans. All pics were taken by retreat attendees, but I’ve lost the original photo credits, so if one is yours, just let me know.
I just spent three of the best days of my life. At a band camp.
Well, technically it was an Artist Activism Retreat, which sounds a lot more lofty, but still doesn’t hint at the transcendent joy of the experience. And it took place in New Orleans, which explains some but not all of that joy.
Explaining the rest of the joy might not be possible. But I am going to try.
The retreat was the sixth in a series put together by Air Traffic Control and the Future of Music Coalition, two organizations devoted to musicians and social justice. They brought the first group of artists to New Orleans in 2006, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Since then, about 60 musicians have attended, including Steve Earle, Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine, R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, The Coup’s Boots Riley, Hank Shocklee, members of Sleater-Kinney, OK Go, Death Cab for Cutie, the Indigo Girls, and many more.
They could conceivably hold these retreats anywhere, but New Orleans remains a perfect location for three reasons. First, it’s a city that eats, drinks and breathes music. Second, it’s a living example of what can happen when government fails, and individuals have to band together to start solving crises. Third, it’s just a mind-blowingly fun place to spend some time, especially when you meet the right people.
And that’s what the retreat is about, ultimately: music, fun, and connecting people interested in making sure there’s more of both in the world.
That’s right: “fun” is a synonym for “social change.” Don’t believe me? The diary below is my attempt to change your mind.
Day One, March 24th:
The retreat began at Ernie K-Doe’s Mother in Law Lounge, in the area known as Tremé. A combination juke joint and shrine to Ernie (who had a massive hit in 1961 with “Mother in Law”), it was an appropriately colorful place to kick things off, surrounded as we were by oversized Ernie heads that looked like Mardi Gras floats and other bits of only-in-New-Orleans folk art.
While a crawfish boil was being prepared for us in the courtyard, we had some drinks and got introduced to one another. This year’s attendees included singers Jill Sobule, Toshi Reagon, and Rebecca Gates; Tim Mcllrath from Rise Against; two members of Portland’s Blind Pilot; Thao Nguyen from the Get Down Stay Down; saxophonist Matana Roberts; drummer Jon Theodore from the Mars Volta and One Day as a Lion; and Mark Mullins, one of three trombonists in New Orleans’ own Bonerama.
We were welcomed to the lounge by Miss Betty Fox, Ernie K-Doe’s step-daughter, who explained that her mother and Ernie had opened the lounge so Ernie, whose career was pretty much over when they met, would have a place to play. Over the years it became a neighborhood institution, serving as a practice space and gathering place for multiple generations of New Orleans musicians. Inundated with water after Katrina hit, the lounge had to be gutted and rebuilt after the storm (Usher and the Hands On Network helped in that effort).
As we feasted on crawfish, potatoes, and sausage, the lounge started filling up with locals tipped off that there was something special happening on stage that night: a pick-up band featuring George Porter Jr. from the Meters on bass, Terence Higgins from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on drums, plus members of Bonerama on guitar and trombones.
The performance was the first of many spine-tingling moments to come. I think I spent a good twenty minutes just watching George Porter’s fingers slide up and down the neck of his bass as the band tore through Dixieland and R&B classics, and the crowd whooped every time a different player took a solo, each one inspired by the last and carrying the band – and the crowd – someplace new and better. My personal high point was when Terence Higgins played a drum solo that included a few moments of silence during which no one in the audience made a noise, because we knew there was more pounding on the way.
It was more than a simple party. Sure, the audience included a lot of local community organizers, so there was plenty of talk about different causes, but the magic lay in the fact that it went beyond talk. Hearing a kick-ass band play “Let’s Make a Better World,” surrounded by dancing people who want to do just that (and a mannequin of Ernie K-Doe smiling down on it all), actually makes it a better world, briefly.
The trick is to extend moments like that, and make sure other people can be so lucky. And that’s what the next couple days were going to be about.
Thursday morning found us all assembled in a meeting room in an old building in the French Quarter. Erin Potts and Deyden Tethong from Air Traffic Control explained their mission: ATC was created to help integrate music and activism. Two bullet points jumped out from their presentation: first, research indicates that music is the most important influencer in the formation of young people’s identities – even more so than religion. Second, biologists have found that music activates the part of the brain that governs optimism!
So, music engages people in community service, and then it also helps those same people believe their participation can make a difference.
Since ATC exists to enable whatever causes particular musicians want to support, Erin drew us out on what we’d seen work or not in our own endeavors. Toshi shared stories of working with well-meaning but hapless charities. Blind Pilot talked about their experience touring on bicycles, and were curious how other musicians worked politics into their performances without alienating the audience. I shared war stories about going to jail with Too Much Joy, defending 2 Live Crew’s right to suck. Matana expressed some doubts about the impact niche artists could have, but one of the lessons I got from the retreat was how powerful even the smallest gestures could be when Tim from Rise Against explained how his band had turned the awkward misery of meet-and-greets with radio station contest winners into far more enjoyable trips to local food banks where band and fans bonded while making sandwiches or bagging food.
We also got a fascinating presentation from Jordan Hirsch of Sweet Home New Orleans, a non-profit that sprang up after Katrina to help repopulate the city’s music community. He made a convincing case for New Orleans as the birthplace of American music, where European influences most fruitfully collided with Afro-Carribbean culture. We learned how Jazz Funerals had evolved, what a Second Line is, and how Mardi Gras Indians fit into this mosaic. Mostly, though, we got a sense of just how profoundly music is weaved through New Orleans life. It’s not something some people play and others watch. It’s an integral part of how different communities remind themselves who they are and where they came from.
To prove it, we were all piled into a van and driven beyond the French Quarter. Our first stop was a small house in the 7th Ward: the home of Chief David Montana of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe. The Chief and two of his “spyboys” brought out their insanely elaborate headdresses and costumes, and led us in a few of the chants the tribe sings as they parade, looking for other tribes to challenge. Those challenges may once have been actual fights, but now they just try to outdo one another with the best outfit. Accordingly, the suits they wear take most of a year and can cost thousands of dollars to make; every single bead and feather is hand-sewn by the wearer.
After a quick lunch of shrimp poboys, our next stop was in the Lower 9th Ward: the House of Dance and Feathers, a small museum focused on the cultural traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians and Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. The museum sits in the backyard of its founder, Ronald Lewis, and began as his personal collection of Mardi Gras artifacts. Katrina destroyed the original museum, its entire collection, and Lewis’ house, but they’ve all been rebuilt, and Ronald Lewis spoke to us forcefully about the challenges making that happen, and the ones still to come.
The tiny museum was a hodgepodge of parasols, newspaper clippings, photos of various skull and bones societies, and, oddly, bottles of Manischewitz – that last, Lewis explained, because he was a proud member of the Crew de Jeux.
Like so much of New Orleans – its cuisine, its music, its people and their parades — the museum had a little bit of everything, but was entirely unique. As the day progressed, it was becoming clearer and clearer why so many people are working so hard to preserve and protect that heritage.
Aaron Viles from the Gulf Restoration Network took us to our next stop: a set of “green houses” that are part of an effort to rebuild the 9th Ward with sustainable housing (learn more about them here), followed by a trek to the sad remains of Bayou Bienvenue. Long-time lower 9th Ward resident John Taylor told us what the bayou had looked like when he was younger. Once a verdant swamp of cypress trees, the bayou formed a natural levee that would have protected the 9th Ward from the worst of the flooding caused by Katrina – if it had still existed. But the bayou was overrun by salt water that killed all the trees after a shipping canal known as Mr. Go was dug in 1965.
While we stood there contemplating the fact that Katrina was a natural disaster but its aftermath was largely man-made, Erin Potts pointed out that the dead cypress stumps in the bayou were a haunting mirror of the empty lots on land behind us – every one of which had once been someone’s home.
Just like Ronald Lewis’ museum, however, the bayou has people like Aaron and John working to bring it back, and our drive back through the 9th Ward showed similar signs of rebuilding. There are still too many empty lots and abandoned buildings, but there are also new homes rising. We’re not quite to the part of the funeral where the dirge ends and the celebratory music starts playing, but it’s at least possible to imagine that music playing soon.
The evening consisted of another stunning meal of creole and soul food prepared by Leah Chase at Dooky Chase’s restaurant, followed by more fantastic brass at the Hi-Ho Lounge, where the 7 horn players and 3 percussionists that make up the Stooges kept everybody dancing through two sets. Granted, I’d had quite a few beers by the time they got to their interpretation of “Empire State of Mind,” but hearing one of today’s top 40 hits played with that NOLA beat seemed like a fitting cap to a day that had been all about tradition, community and renewal.
Sometime around 2am, we all had beignets and stumbled to bed covered in powdered sugar.
We reconvened the next morning at our charming meeting space, where Michael Bracy from the Future of Music Coalition walked us through his organization’s work. FMC is a DC-based advocacy group that makes sure artists’ voices are heard when lawmakers are crafting legislation that affects them (record labels, music publishers, and even technology companies such as Rhapsody love to invoke artists and artists’ rights, but that doesn’t mean those artists are being represented effectively).
There was more discussion about our own causes and ways to work together, but, unlike other meetings of this sort I’ve attended in my life, it didn’t have that dour-hippies-arguing-amongst-themselves vibe you sometimes can’t avoid. Everyone was happy, and everyone was humble. A roomful of musicians, and nary an ego in sight. For all I know, every last one of us is a raging diva at home. But New Orleans brought out our best.
Which might be why the show we put on Friday night felt so special. Every retreat ends with the assembled musicians putting on a benefit for Sweet Home New Orleans. I’d been told the show was always a highlight, and had seen retreat alum Wayne Kramer doing a killer three-trombone version of “Kick Out the Jams” with Bonerama at an FMC shindig last October, but I still wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead.
Bonerama had been preparing all week, taking tunes we’d sent them and practicing the horn arrangements Mark Mullins had written for ‘em. The whole group spent Friday afternoon in a rehearsal studio, taking turns stepping up to the mic to run through a couple songs. And every single one of us had the same reaction when we heard our songs sprinkled with Bonerama’s New Orleans pixie dust: ear-to-ear grins, cries of, “Oh my god I want trombones on everything from now on!” and, naturally, more dancing.
The vibe from rehearsal carried on into the night. The show started around 10:30 at One Eyed Jack’s in the French Quarter. It was astonishing watching Bonerama shift so effortlessly from Rebecca Gates’ and Blind Pilot’s dreamy indie pop to Matana Roberts’ experimental jazz to Toshi Reagon’s powerful, gospel-inflected folk rock and on to Thao Nguyen’s crazed guitar attack. I had the time of my life hearing what horns did to Too Much Joy’s “King of Beers.”
Those horns and the cause kept everything connected, and in the best communal spirit, everyone kept helping everyone else: Thao drummed along with Blind Pilot; Tim Mcllrath joined me for a cover of the Clash’s “Hateful;” Tim, Rebecca and Jill Sobule tackled “All the Young Dudes;” Ani DiFranco jumped onstage with Toshi for “Life is a Book;” and everyone crammed onstage with Al “Carnival Time” Johnson to clap and dance along to a raucous version of “Carnival Time,” which is basically the theme song of Mardi Gras, so it’s like a law in New Orleans that you have to sing along whenever it’s played.
At some point, I remember offering Harry Shearer a beignet.
After we shut down One Eyed Jacks, most everyone wandered down to Molly’s, where the love-fest continued. I made sure to grab the horn chart to “King of Beers” on my way, still amazed my little song could have all those notes in it.
I went back to the hotel sometime after 4am. Others kept going till dawn, and apparently sat by the Mississippi watching the sun rise, which certainly sounds like fun.
But it’s impossible to imagine I could have had one ounce more of fun. I know I’ve been babbling rather effusively about all this, so you just have to trust me that I have actually toned down the excitement and optimism the retreat generated among all the musicians.
I swear. For instance, here’s a random list of adjectives pulled from emails the group exchanged with one another in the days following the retreat: joy, love, wonderful, optimistic, hugs, pleasure, inspired, amazing, magical, unforgettable, humbled.
It’s a week later, and I still feel all of those.