Over a thousand miles from the nearest bayou, the sights, sounds and tastes of Mardi Gras landed at UCLA Live’s performance series at Royce Hall on Fat Tuesday. A pre-show crawfish boil on the patio courtesy of Uncle Darrow’s, a bar stocked with Abita Amber and Turbodog, and sets from two of New Orleans’ most treasured exports made for a Mardi Gras to remember in West LA.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band wasted no time getting the initially stodgy-looking crowd on their feet, frantically waving handkerchiefs, two-stepping in their seats, even parading down the aisles. They’re a modernized & partially plugged-in update to their home city’s oldest musical traditions – you’ve never heard funkier bass lines played on a sousaphone in your life. The possibility of a spontaneous second-line parade breaking out is never far away, even as they edge into soul and R&B territory. In a set that pulled heavily from their recent Savoy Jazz release 20 Dozen, drummer Terence Higgins laid down a mind-blowingly complex groove that was inspired bodies to move, one way or another. When people forget where they are and suddenly start shaking whatever they’ve got, it’s very easy to imagine you are in New Orleans, where an unexpected dance opportunity waits around every corner. That ability to transport the listener, physically, to a non-mythical place is a very special thing, and I was grateful to make the trip.
Allen Toussaint is one of those Carole King-like figures, where it’s easy to forget just how many hits he’s written for other singers and which ones – remember the last time you heard the song “Southern Nights”? Me either, but it definitely does stick in the memory. That’s Toussaint. “Working In A Coalmine”, “Mother-In-Law”, “Fortune Teller”, “Yes We Can Can”, “Sneakin’ Sally Through The Alley,” he’s got a million of ‘em, and he did as many of them as he could during a sixty-minute set with his touring group, some in medley form, some stretched out with extended solos. With as many essential originals as are in his catalog, it was a little surprising to hear a number of covers, including Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” and “Going To New Orleans” (the latter of which had also been the Dirty Dozen’s opening number, making the good Professor a heavy presence in the room) and a riveting instrumental “St. James Infirmary”, as well as a version of Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans.” That last one was the kind of moment that sounds potentially corny – if you had to remind the audience where you’re from, of all the great songs ever written about New Orleans, he picks that one? But it was given the same warm, relaxed treatment he gave his own material, and it was generously received.
Whispered suspicions that former UCLA Live curator Elvis Costello might pop onstage for a visit with either or both of his former recording partners failed to come true, but who thinks about English people on Mardi Gras anyway? It was a night for pure enjoyment of one of the least pure musics on the planet. Its unmistakable flavor comes from an artful combination of elements, with no one thing allowed to overwhelm the palate, and it’s still hot enough to get a subscription-series audience at UCLA to lose their minds, strutting ecstatically in their seats, forgetting where they are for a minute. Ya gotta love it.
All photos by Elise Thompson for the Los Angeles Beat.