this guest post written by Matt Hall (@mattisonherenow)
I’ll never forget the first time I visited New Orleans, Louisiana. I took a redeye to Houston, and landed in NOLA the early afternoon. I was met at Louis Armstrong Airport by one of my oldest friends, who is now a proud member of the NOFD. In those days he was a recent expat to New Orleans, part of a small group of people who had loved the city, and spent a significant amount of time there pre-Katrina. At that time folks there were dead set on just being in New Orleans, and encouraging others to come experience it to help the city through its long and hard resurgence.
I spent a week or so bumming around, off the standard tourist track of overpriced hurricanes on Bourbon Street, and checking out strange dives. I met a lot of the kind of offbeat characters that drove my friend to want to live there in the first place. New Orleans is unlike any other place I’ve ever visited. It can be rundown and terrifying and opulent and transcendent in the same minute. On my first day in town I had the longest and greatest meal of my life courtesy of a chef who owned the place down the block from my friend’s house. Two hours and three blocks later a kid who was barely a teenager flashed a Colt .45 and told me to keep walking as we went around the corner to check out another bar. This was all well before midnight on a Sunday evening. I’ve been back a few times since, and no matter what, every visit is punctuated by music and food. It’s cliché, I know, but goddamn, New Orleans does those two things better than anywhere I’ve had the fortune to spend time.
Now, traditional New Orleans jazz is obviously one of the most significant and influential styles of American music, and bounce continues to have a profound weight on rap even now, but on that first trip I was introduced to a style of soul music that exists in New Orleans that I was more or less unaware of before then. My favorite artist in that realm is James Booker. If you can imagine if Jimi Hendrix played the piano instead of the guitar, and could sing as well as James Brown, you would have James Booker.
Booker was a classically trained virtuoso, and as a young child he was as comfortable playing jazz standards as he was with Chopin and Bach. He had some fairly successful hits in the 60s, played in Jerry Garcia’s band and toured Europe pretty extensively during the 70s, and eventually came to settle back down in New Orleans as the house pianist at the Maple Leaf Bar in the Carrolton neighborhood. Throughout the decades, James was an addict. He abused alcohol, cocaine, and heroin to an extent that really fucked with his ability to preform with any consistent ability. Fortunately, some of his greatest shows at the Maple Leaf during the late 70s and early 80s were recorded, and when that dude was on he was fucking on.
He has some really solid studio recordings, and wrote some great songs, but to me, his greatest accomplishments are the two records that were recorded live at the Maple Leaf, Spiders on the Keys and The Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah. They both feature a lot of standards, a lot of crowd noise, and some of the most honest and soulful singing and piano playing I’ve ever heard. The Resurrection of the Bayou Maharajah is genuinely one of the most awe-inspiring live recordings of any musician I’ve ever heard. It’s on a Band of Gypsies level of reverence for me. I’m only going to link one song on this post. The first track from that album is a medley of a handful of songs, including a couple of standards you’re no doubt familiar with. Even so, I can promise you’ve never heard them like this. I don’t know the specifics of this recording, but Booker is skating a fine line between brilliance and going totally off the rails. Fortunately, the combination of an amazing performance, a shit load of drugs, and receptive audience (who are very clearly heard clapping, singing, and yelling along throughout) is perfect on this one. Just sit back, and experience it. And yes, the whole album is this good.
James Booker – Medley: Slow Down/Bony Maronie/Knock on Wood/Grapevine/Classified