December 7, 2011
“Supergroups” are described by Wikipedia as one “whose performers are already famous from having performed individually or in other groups”, citing a 1974 Time article that such configurations are an “amalgam formed by the talented malcontents of other bands”. Wiki does not know all, but the concept of taking a bunch of disparate talents of some repute, throwing them together and expecting them to live up to their progeny is typically a recipe for failure, or at least a really lame experiment (or an overt attempt to cash in). They’re not always stinkers, as this year’s “SuperHeavy” project, or the legacy of the “Travelling Wilburys”, and even “Blind Faith” exemplify. But what some may call a “supergroup” is often just another night in NOLA during Jazzfest, when the best of the NOLA music scene can’t stay away from each other and keep going ‘til dawn cracks the sky. These loose jam sessions don’t always click. Overly familiar material, too much noodling and no cohesion are not unusual. But other nights, magic gets sprinkled and familiar material becomes musical epoxy for epic jamming that can’t be bottled, or more daring tunes work their way into the mix. NOLA musicians form so many different constellations during the Fest it borders on incest, but it really is just the natural order for players who love to flat out play wherever, whenever they can.
Which brings me to Dragon Smoke. Neville. Moore. Lindell. Mercurio. Names not as familiar west of the Mississippi, but NOLA royalty be it as Galactic, Dumpstaphunk, the Nevilles, Lindell, Garage a Trois and others. Formed in 2003, they have played every Fest since, but rarely travel west to bring their 3 AM spirit around a corner that’s not on Frenchmen, Napoleon, Peters or Oak. The lineage speaks propulsive, jammy funk meets soulful vocals as one would expect with the Galactic rhythm section, stinging Lindell leads, swampy Neville keys and alternating Neville/Lindell voices.
At Wednesday’s Dragon Smoke gig at The Mint, I went looking to see if the whole would be bigger than the sum of its parts, and whether the vibe and sound would be more of the loose one-off of funk covers variety, or filled with the swagger and punch of seasoned vets excited to find a fresh voice. Surprise. From the first tune through last of two full sets, the band played as a singular unit totally conversant with each other, and were tight, tight, tight all night long. Opening with Lindell’s “Country Livin’”, (from his 2009 Gulf Coast Highway release) these guys jumped right in and never let up. Lindell was in strong voice and coaxed the right twang out of his SG (not an easy thing to do), trading licks with Ivan Neville, then stopping on a dime for a cascade of Stanton Moore fills. The straight up funk of Dyke & the Blazers “Let a Woman Be a Woman” nicely showcased Ivan’s straight from the early 80s clavinet chops. Lindell’s “It Won’t Be Long” (from the 2006 release, Change in the Weather) and Ivan’s father Aaron’s “Hercules” continued the nice back/forth between Lindell and Neville arranged tunes. Ivan and Stanton Moore brought some nice seasoning to “Injuns, Here They Come”, with Moore’s snare really leading the way. Later in the set, Neville brought just the right touch of churchy keys to complement Lindell’s Anders-esque vocals on the tender “Lullaby for Mercy Ann” (from Gulf Coast Highway). The first set closed with a rollicking and hard edged cover of Steve Miller’s “Jet AirLiner”. So far, so good.
After a refreshingly reasonable break, the band returned for the next set. Despite pushing midnight for a mid-week show, everyone stuck around, and no doubt, glad they did. The second set had deeper grooves, and some extended playing. Not loose single-minded solo excursions, but concise all for one explorations that allowed the quartet to settle into just the right pocket with each other. A cover of Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” had some great moments, especially slinking around every note of Ivan’s clav and keys, creating plenty of space for Lindell, Moore and Mercurio to reach, punch and throw more into the stew. Delicious. Lindell’s “Lucky, Lucky” (from the 2011 release, West County Drifter) brought a “Sugaree” reminiscent feel with some compact and very tasty turns on his SG. The jazz-blues inflected “Valerie” (made famous by Amy Winehouse) was perfectly suited to the Dragon Smoke treatment and covers of “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” were completely gratifying. The set wrapped with Lindell’s “It’s a Pity (from his 2009 release Low on Cash, Rich in Love) with the sickest jam of the night – all four guys just hugging the minor 7th-ish change for all it’s worth. Everyone stretching out one more time, the whole unit bringing an almost Derek & the Dominoes cum NOLA infused feel to the Lindell tune. That’s high praise. The band came back for the upbeat soul of Lindell’s “Nothin’ Can Stop Me” to cap it off.
Far from being thrown together, the four musicians that make up Dragon Smoke are meant to play together – each bringing something to complement and wring the best out of the other. They just fit. The band intends to lay down some tracks soon, but in the meantime their recently released live CD, “Live in New Orleans” is available on Amazon and iTunes, and features many of the songs featured at The Mint.