Subdudes are back, and better when together
July 12, 2006
Neither music, nor a musical career, has come easy to John Magnie. Magnie went through three states – including two stretches in his native Colorado – numerous bands, and a variety of styles before finally hooking onto a project that attained a measure of recognition beyond its own neighborhood. Even that band, the soul-rock group the subdudes, has endured a sometimes rocky road; the version of the subdudes that performs Thursday, July 20, in the Snowmass Village Free Summer Concert series, is a permutation of the band that emerged out of a breakup that spanned from 1996-2002.Version two of the subdudes, however, has none of the air of a stab for unreachable past glory. The band, in its current lineup, appeared last summer in the Snowmass Village series, and produced one of the highlights of the local music year. The reassembled ‘dudes – including founding members, guitarist Tommy Malone, percussionist Steve Amedée and Magnie on keyboards and accordion – have released a pair of albums in the last three years that are on par with their earlier work. Their latest, this year’s “Behind the Levee,” was produced by Keb’ Mo’.”Artistically, I feel we’re just as vibrant as ever,” said Magnie, in a series of cell-phone calls as the band navigated its way from Connecticut to Long Island, N.Y., a journey that entailed three ferry rides. “Playingwise, I think we’re better than ever. We have a few more colors in the palette, especially with Jimmy Messa on guitar and bass. When you play regularly, you tend to get deeper into the songs. It feels like the blood is flowing pretty good.”Magnie’s own musical juices didn’t start pumping until relatively late in life. His father was musical, gathering with Magnie’s uncles and cousins to sing around the piano in the family’s Denver home. But the style didn’t do much for young John.”That really wasn’t a heavy musical influence,” said the 56-year-old Magnie, one of eight siblings. “Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lawrence Welk – those were the musical staples in our house. I always listened to the soul music.”Apart from a stint on trumpet in the school band, he didn’t play much of any of it. Following high school, Magnie found little reason to attend college (despite three tries). Whatever he was looking for, he found instead in music. “The satisfaction I got playing – I didn’t get that from anything else,” he said.
Magnie’s first musical persona was out of the Dylan mode, with acoustic guitar and a harmonica. At 21, he finally sat at the piano, where he found his musical self.”I figured that was my instrument,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m going to dive into it.'”Magnie’s first gig of any note was in a band with the notable name, the Righteous Meatball Boogity Band. (The name came out of Zap Comix, after a meatball that came out of the sky, enlightening whomever it hit.) The repertoire was fairly straightforward – Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters – which was a relief for Magnie, because even the simplest three-chord tune challenged his abilities at the time.”I got in the band because I owned an electric piano, not because I could play it,” he said. “It was on-the-job training for me. I learned each song as it came up.”When the band – known for short as the Meatballs – broke up after two years, Magnie hit the road, and landed in Boston for a spell. But he knew that was only going to be a pit stop. Somewhere along the way, Magnie had developed a thing for New Orleans piano, and was determined to study it at the source.”That’s where my piano heroes – James Booker and Professor Longhair – were,” he said. “I wasn’t intending to stay there; I just wanted to soak in the music. I had to stay, because I ran out of money. And I ended up finding my musical home there.”His arrival in New Orleans could hardly have been better timed. Magnie didn’t even know whether Booker and Professor Longhair were even alive. But Booker had recently returned to New Orleans, and Magnie became Booker’s driver: “They would never issue him a license, because he was nuts. But he showed me a lot of stuff on the piano,” he said. And Professor Longhair had just come out of retirement. “I got to meet him and listen to him a lot. So I was really lucky – both guys I was really into were still around,” said Magnie.Magnie played in a few country bands, and earned a bunch of solo piano gigs. One of those, at the 500 Club in the French Quarter, his next-door competition was Lucinda Williams. But Magnie had his ear out for the New Orleans rock bands, and two of them caught his ear. One was the R&B band the Rhapsodizers, which would eventually morph into the Radiators, featuring Dave Malone, the brother of the subdudes’ Tommy Malone. The other was a more obvious choice.”Of course the Meters, who were real strong at the time,” said Magnie. “My first band in New Orleans, Black Male, all black guys, they were the next generation after the Meters. After rehearsal, we’d always go see the Meters and soak up what they were doing.”
Magnie landed in a couple of reasonably stable, moderately successful bands, including L’il Queenie & the Percolators, which included Malone, and the Continental Drifters, with Malone, Messa and Johnny Ray Allen. During the latter days of the Continental Drifters, in March 1987, Magnie also had a gig at the famed club Tipitina’s. It was the Monday-night slot, when the music was supposed to be soft, and traditionally was limited to just piano. But Magnie bent the rules, a little.”I decided to make it a the trial spot for this idea I had, to play in a real subdued way,” he said. “No amps, just acoustic guitars, piano or accordion.” The stroke of genius turned out to be a tambourine, covered by a skin and beat with a spatula (all of it pilfered by Malone from his landlady). Beating the jury-rigged percussion was New Orleans drummer Steve Amedée.”The mic had some bass boost, and he got this big sound out of that tambourine,” said Magnie. “It just presented itself that night. The 30 or 40 people there loved it, and we decided to go with it.”The night was memorable enough that Magnie recalls much of the set list: a host of originals that would appear on the 1989 debut, “the subdudes,” and covers that included the spiritual “Rivers of Babylon” and the Beatles’ “Don’t Let Me Down.” By the summer of 1987, the subdudes – Magnie, Malone, Allen and Amedée, a quartet capable of knee-weakening soulful four-part harmonies – was born.Ups and downsThe inspired artistic idea was followed by a geographic one. Magnie led the ‘dudes out of musically saturated New Orleans, where the band could land little more than a regular Tuesday-night gig at the Maple Leaf, and to the relatively empty Fort Collins.”There’s always so much great music going on in New Orleans, and it doesn’t get above the street level. That’s the story of New Orleans,” said Magnie, who still lives in Fort Collins.In Colorado, the subdudes, in short order, took second in Musician magazine’s best-unsigned-bands contest, got their demo played on KBCO, and played at Mishawaka Amphitheatre. By the end of 1988, they had signed to Atlantic Records.
“In Colorado, things just started popping for us,” said Magnie. “We could feel an interest, just from being from somewhere different, being from New Orleans.”From 1989-96, the subdudes released four CDs and toured hard. There was a degree of success: The albums consistently charted, the band earned loyal fans and the subdudes became the regular Saturday-night attraction at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. But the following fell short of expectations, and the wearied band called it quits in late ’96.Magnie calls volume one of the subdudes history “as natural a progression as planting a garden: It fertilizes and grows and runs its course.” One unnatural element, he added, was Malone and Allen forming another band, Tiny Town, while the subdudes were still breathing.”Our communication had broken down, so our song-writing collaboration broke down,” he continued. “That was the lifeblood of the band. We needed to break up, go back to our corners.”Malone and Allen dwelled in Tiny Town; Magnie and Amedée launched 3 Twins. But within two years of disbanding, the subdudes were playing reunion shows. The periodic subdudes gigs not only drew substantial interest, but the band found it got paid better when they were no longer technically in existence. In early 2002, the subdudes – minus Allen, but with Messa, Tim Cook and Sammy Neal, all of whom had been in post-subdudes groups – began touring as the Dudes. The name reverted to the subdudes in 2003. With the releases of “Miracle Mule” in 2004, and now “Behind the Levee,” the hiatus years seem like a hiccup. The subdudes’ upcoming tour schedule includes stops at Red Rocks (July 23, opening for Lyle Lovett), at Seattle’s Bumbershoot Festival and at the Austin City Limits Festival.”We came to the realization that no matter what happened before, we were best when we were reunited,” said Magnie.Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is email@example.com