Lindell finds everything but the blues in the Big Easy
Eric Lindell knew Aaron Neville’s ’50s hit record, “Tell It Like It Is,” that his mother played. And he was familiar with Lee Dorsey, the late rocker whose offbeat hits included “Ya Ya” and “Ride Your Pony.”When Lindell moved to New Orleans in 1999 – so that his now ex-wife could be closer to her family – that was the extent of his knowledge of New Orleans music. Dr. John, Tipitina’s, the Neville Brothers, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Professor Longhair, Mardi Gras – all were lost on the northern California native. The poor soul hadn’t even heard of the Meters, the icons of New Orleans funk.”I figured it would be a lot of blues,” said Lindell of his relocation to New Orleans.A big blues scene would have made Lindell feel at home. After taking on skate rock, then Sly Stone-style funk, in his high school days – the period to which most of his many tattoos date – Lindell got turned on to the blues. Switching from bass to guitar, he soaked up the sounds of Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. His band, Eric Lindell & the Reds, became a respectably successful outfit, releasing three albums and playing festivals across the country. But the Reds came to an end when Lindell met a woman who took him away from the San Francisco area. The couple first went to New York, where they stayed a year and a half. Then it was on to New Orleans, where Lindell figures to stay for quite a bit longer.At first, his new home was a mystery. Brass bands and Mardi Gras parades were a world away from the blues Lindell expected to find in New Orleans. Not knowing where he fit in, he took to hanging around music stores, blues jams and out-of-the-way clubs. Eventually Lindell began hooking up with local players; one night, in his Algiers Point neighborhood on the West Bank of New Orleans, he happened to see one of his neighbors put on a show behind his drum kit. It turned out to be Stanton Moore, of the popular funk-jam band Galactic. Lindell enlisted Moore to play on his first New Orleans album; Lindell also landed another relatively big name that was unfamiliar to him, Harold Brown, of WAR.When “Eric Lindell” was released in 2002, the sound was – perhaps oddly, perhaps not – identifiably New Orleans in origin. A song like “Let Me Know” has that familiar Big Easy rock style – a smattering of funk horns, a shuffle rhythm that dates back to Fats Domino. To Lindell, it is the ultimate process of absorption on one’s surroundings.”I think all the musicians you work with bring a lot to the table,” said the 34-year-old Lindell, who plays two upcoming dates in the valley: Thursday, July 29, on Fanny Hill as part of the Snowmass Free Summer of Music series and Saturday, Aug. 7, at Carbondale’s Blues, Brews & BBQ Fest. “And I use a lot of side guys who bring in a lot of flavors. My music isn’t straight blues; it’s borderline of a lot of different things. But it goes well with a lot of the New Orleans styles – the funk and the jazz. And that’s everywhere in New Orleans – that beat, that groove – it’s on the radio, on the street.”While his sound has been a smooth fit with the native New Orleans styles, his new home has suited Lindell himself even better. Lindell has lived there for five years – his residence outlasting his marriage – and he still gets noticeably jazzed talking about his adopted home. He raves about WWOZ, the community radio station for which he does volunteer work. (“I’ve never seen anybody support local music like that,” he said.) He marvels at the way established players will, at the drop of a guitar pick, jam with talented newcomers. (“Most places, older guys who have been successful elsewhere wouldn’t want to play on the local scene on a Monday night with a guy like me.”) It doesn’t remind him at all of what typically went on in New York or San Francisco.”Absolutely not. There’s nowhere like New Orleans,” said Lindell, who is currently touring as a three-piece band, backed by drummer Mike Volker and bassist Erin Wilkinson. “Everybody plays with everybody. People seem more close. People in cities like New York don’t seem so close. If you hire someone as a sideman in New York and don’t call him the next time, they’re like offended. Now, I find that, like, funny. In New Orleans, you’re more free to jam.”Lindell is still a small shrimp in the Big Easy gumbo. He still has just the one studio album to date from his New Orleans years. But recently “Eric Lindell: Live at the 2004 New Orleans Jazzfest” was released, one of a series of 20 recordings from this year’s festival. Lindell is working out some label affiliation business and hopes to release an album when he does, within the next year. Meanwhile, he tours and plays his regular gigs with a variety of side players at New Orleans dives. And slowly he works his way into a scene he once knew nothing about.”I didn’t know about the Meters or the Neville Brothers,” he said. “Now I’ve worked with Ivan Neville, played with the Neville Brothers. I’ve learned about Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Johnny Adams. New Orleans is definitely a melting pot of musicians from all over. And after a while you can find all kinds of music, all different scenes.” In the early years of the Grateful Dead, Robert Hunter was a shadow figure. Deadheads revered the name behind the poetic lyrics of “Ripple,” the anthemic lines of “Truckin'” and the cataclysmic vision of “Dark Star.” But Hunter did not perform or, indeed, rarely even join the Dead tours.So when Hunter appeared at the Shady Grove, a rustic spot in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury in 1975 to take in a show by Dead-ish band Comfort, the band’s bassist was unaware he was in the presence of one of his idols.”None of us knew Robert Hunter. He was this mysterious figure,” said bassist Larry Klein, a Deadhead who moved from upstate New York to San Francisco in 1970. “He sat down right in front of us, but I had no idea what he looked like.”And Klein couldn’t have imagined Hunter’s reason for being there that night. The lyricist was looking to become a performer and was scouting for a backing band. When Rodney Albin – Comfort violinist and brother of Peter Albin, owner of the Shady Grove (and one-time bassist for Janis Joplin) – informed Klein of Hunter’s presence and purpose, Klein was in disbelief. Not until Comfort was in the Grateful Dead’s studios, recording Hunter’s debut “Alligator Moon” – and alternating studio time with the Dead, who were recording “Terrapin Station,” and the Jerry Garcia Band, who were recording “Cats Under the Stars” – did that sense dissipate. Klein’s dance with the Dead world continued as Comfort backed Hunter on tours of the East Coast. Often they appeared as the opening act on a bill that included the Garcia Band and the psychedelic country band the New Riders of the Purple Sage. When it became economically unfeasible for Hunter to tour with a full band, he fired the group – including Klein’s wife, Kathleen, a backing vocalist – but carried on performing as a duo with Klein.”And that was wonderful because it was just Robert Hunter and me, traveling the East Coast for two to three years, sharing a car and hotel room,” said Klein, who has lived in Everett, Wash., for the past 12 years. “It was eye-opening, a lesson in life, especially meaningful. He was a gentleman and a scholar, a real sage. He could be testy, but only because there’s so much going on in his mind. He stands among the small handful of lyricists of our time who will be remembered in centuries to come.”Touring with Hunter gave Klein access to the Dead’s world. In addition to some backstage and hotel-room jamming with Garcia, Klein played at the wake for Emmett Grogan – founder of the Diggers, the radical Haight-Ashbury community group – where he exchanged licks with Garcia, Dead drummer Mickey Hart and New Orleans icon Dr. John. Somehow, Klein got hold of Garcia’s wah-wah pedal, which he still owns and considers “one of my holy relics.”Klein provides the authentic, though indirect, Dead connection for this week’s Jerry Garcia tribute concert. The Night of the Dead will be held every other Sunday at Club Chelsea; this week’s jam lands on the 62nd anniversary of Garcia’s birth, Sunday, Aug. 1. Joining Klein will be local guitarist Randy Leach, who played with Klein in the mid-’90s in the Seattle band China Rose; rounding out the group are a group of locals: keyboardist Rob Dasaro and guitarist John Carlin of Seventh Hour, and drummer Mike Prosser.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com
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