Straight from the Crescent City

Boston Globe, March 12, 2010

No city in America owns a musical tradition as rich and distinctive as that of New Orleans. The paradox of this state of plenty – with famous destination events like Mardi Gras and Jazzfest and a year-round cornucopia of restaurants and club dates – is that great New Orleans musicians don’t hit the road all that often. They don’t need to.

So it’s a treat to see an all-star trio profoundly steeped in Crescent City tradition – Hammond B-3 organist Joe Krown, drummer Johnny Vidacovich, and singer-guitarist extraordinaire Walter “Wolfman” Washington – take a swing through the Northeast that brings them to Johnny D’s in Somerville tonight.

The three combine for a century at the heart of New Orleans sound – especially Washington, who was born there in 1943 and has been a working musician since his teens and a bandleader since the 1980s. They are supporting a recent release, “Live at the Maple Leaf,” recorded live at the New Orleans club of that name. (It features Russell Batiste on drums; Vidacovich, a bandleader with a cult following in the drummer world, is the regular fill-in.)

Their sound is all New Orleans – that is, at once traditional and eclectic, from boogie-woogie to funk with a consistent foundation in groove. Ecstatic organ solos, crisp drumming, and Washington’s graveled, sonorous voice with its currents of experience and pain make this rhythm and blues in the full, literal meaning of the words.

The material includes soul classics (“What’s Going On” or “Use Me”), honky-tonk romps (Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “You Can Stay But the Noise Got to Go”), or the deep, slow blues of “Talk to Me, Talk to Me.”

Only trio leader Krown is a non-native. A Northern transplant, he fondly remembers living in Boston in the 1980s, working as a soundman at Bunratty’s in Allston and playing the Tam in Brookline. Krown joined Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s band in 1991; he moved to New Orleans the next year and has never looked back.

“Even before, I was a fan of the New Orleans sound,” Krown says on the phone. “But it’s one thing to play that music when you are far from it. It’s another thing when the music is in the blood of everything you do. During Mardi Gras you hear Dr. John, Professor Longhair, and it’s like Christmas carols.”

Krown arrived with the credential of playing in Brown’s band but not much more. He had to break in. “New Orleans is deep in a lot of old school stuff,” he says. “If your name is Marsalis, Andrews, Neville, Batiste, the golden carpet is out. There’s so much royalty here.”

He picked up a regular Monday solo piano gig and built from there. There were plenty of opportunities: “It’s wild down here with the work. All these great players are hanging out down here, I see them in the grocery store, and next thing I know I’m playing with them.”

Washington says he and Krown have an uncanny playing relationship thanks to both having worked with Brown, who died in 2005 soon after Hurricane Katrina. “Gate was one of my mentors,” Washington says. “Once you learn how to play, you have to learn how to have a conversation. Gate took the time to explain that to us.”

Krown says he and Washington find themselves effortlessly anticipating chord changes and grooving in the fills: “The way we both play, it was like a puzzle coming together.”

This trio formed after Krown bought a beat-up but playable B-3 in 2006, his fourth, and thought to make it the house organ for a regular gig. The Maple Leaf took them on, and they still play every Sunday, after the crawfish boil.

The gig is characteristic of a New Orleans scene that is back in full swing from the storm, at least in the neighborhood bars, Krown says. The bigger picture is still dicey: “Bourbon Street is still struggling,” he says. “Some of the corporate work, the convention work hasn’t come back. And the economy has struck a blow that is beyond Katrina.”

Washington played the first gig in town after the hurricane, at the Maple Leaf, sneaking in with his band down back roads to elude the National Guard, powering up off generators. In his neighborhood, he says, “I was the last to leave and the first to come back.”

Now these musicians are busy with numerous projects and sessions. Washington also has a new record with his own band, the Roadmasters, though he enjoys being a sideman: “I don’t have no weight on my shoulders,” he says. “I can just relax and enjoy playing.”

Washington says the scene is so rich that it keeps him sharp after all these years. “There’s always something to keep the spirit uplifted,” he says. “Each day I learn different stuff to accent a certain song. You play the same song every day, I guarantee you’re going to play it differently, and improve how you’re playing every day.”