Wednesday, September 4, 2013

British R&B band discovers mother lode

On a recent Friday night, Tipitina finally met Tipitina’s. Back home in England, singer Debbie Jones and pianist Justin Randall front a band called Tipitina. Throughout Europe, they showcase music from, and inspired by, New Orleans, especially rhythm & blues.
But the title of their first CD, “I Wish I Was In New Orleans,” was hypothetical: Neither Jones nor Randall had ever actually been to New Orleans, the source of the sound they’ve dedicated their lives to learning.
Instead, they were smitten from afar. By reading books about the city. By studying its music intimately. By David Simon’s New Orleans-set HBO drama “Treme.”
“I care about the place,” Randall says. “I fell in love with New Orleans.”
They finally resolved to consummate the long-distance romance. For 16 days and nights in August, they would immerse themselves in New Orleans. “These places have always just been something in a book, or on TV,” Randall said. “To experience it for real…”
It would be overwhelming.
After booking the trip, the couple learned Jones was pregnant with their first child. The baby isn’t due until November, but the pregnancy would alter their New Orleans adventure.
“Normally, we’d be staying up until the morning,” Randall said. “But we’d have to pace ourselves, and get home at reasonable times.”
Canceling wasn’t an option. “Not for a minute,” Jones said. “If we don’t go now, we might not get a chance to go for years.”
So, on Aug. 9, she and Randall found themselves at the corner of Napoleon Avenue and Tchoupitoulas Street, contemplating Tipitina’s, a destination they previously had known only from lyrics, legend and Google Maps. “It’s weird,” Jones said, “but good weird.”
And it was about to get better.
Randall, 42, grew up in Leyland, a small town in England’s northwest not far from Manchester. His father compelled him to take classical piano lessons as a child. Later, an album by British pianist Jools Holland, “A to Z Geographers’ Guide to the Piano,” introduced him to the boogie-woogie style.
In the album’s liner notes, Holland cited such inspirations as Professor Longhair, Dr. John, James Booker and Allen Toussaint. Randall had never heard of these exotic-sounding musicians. Pre-Internet, he rode the bus to various record stores, seeking information.
And thus he started connecting the dots to New Orleans. He realized it was Dr. John whose performance of “Such a Night” in “The Last Waltz,” Martin Scorsese’s 1978 chronicle of The Band’s final concert, had so impressed him years earlier.
His obsession grew. He soaked up the New Orleans second-line beat via the instructional DVD “New Orleans Drumming,” with Johnny Vidacovich, Earl Palmer, Herman Ernest and Herlin Riley. He speaks knowledgeably about James Booker’s influence on Harry Connick Jr., and about the contributions of Freddie Staehle, the drummer on Dr. John’s classic “Gumbo” album.
Around 2000, he was toiling as the pianist in a 12-bar blues band. At the Dublin Blues Festival in Ireland, New Orleans pianist Henry Butler, one of his idols, took a seat near the stage as Randall played. Afterward, Butler didn’t mince words: “You’re good, but you ain’t that good.”
Butler suggested Randall study the exercise regimen created by Charles-Louis Hanon, the 19th-century piano master. Randall promptly bought a Hanon book. He realized he still had work to do.
He’s still doing it. He recently spent two months dissecting New Orleans pianist Tom McDermott’s approach to “Maple Leaf Rag” on YouTube.
And so Tipitina now deploys a McDermott-inspired “Maple Leaf Rag” as a segue into “Such a Night.”

Jones, 37, also is from Leyland. Her father was a guitar-playing Ray Charles fan. Family sing-alongs were not uncommon; she learned guitar and piano, too.
The New Orleans sound first seduced her surreptitiously: She adored the piano part in Elvis Presley’s recording of “Lawdy, Miss Clawdy,” not realizing the song was written and first recorded by Kenner native Lloyd Price.
Later, she “found” Aretha Franklin via “The Blues Brothers” movie. Franklin’s “The Delta Meets Detroit: Aretha’s Blues” album impacted her own soulful approach to singing.

She and Randall met on the Leyland music scene. One night in a pub, Randall propositioned her with, “How’d you fancy gettin’ a band together?”
Their first project played disco music at weddings. Gradually, “we realized we had this shared love of blues, jazz and gospel,” said Jones, who still sings with a gospel choir in Leyland. “He introduced me to all these incredible piano players from New Orleans, and that was it for me.”
Seven years ago, they formed a band to play New Orleans music, the music they loved. “It was just for enjoyment,” Randall said. “We had no plans to do anything with it at all.”
Henry Butler’s 1990 album “Orleans Inspiration” inspired their new band’s name. On it, Butler storms through Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina”; on the album cover, he poses next to the red neon Tipitina’s sign in the nightclub’s window.
“The name is so connected to the music,” Randall said. “You couldn’t really pick a name that is more connected.”
And so they became Tipitina.
As Tipitina, they joined the relatively small community of New Orleans-style rhythm & blues bands in the United Kingdom. Kindred spirits include London-based pianistDom Pipkin & The Iko’s.
Their repertoire covers such standard fare as “Something You Got,” “Big Chief,” “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” and “Tipitina”; Allen Toussaint’s “Play Something Sweet (Brickyard Blues)”; Jon Cleary’s “Go Ahead Baby”; and Irma Thomas’ “I Never Fool Nobody But Me.”
“We could make a lot more money playing other music, but we’re happy now,” Randall said. “And it’s building slowly. The work’s getting better.”
Their name causes some confusion overseas. Jones is occasionally asked, “So are you Tina, then?”
Advertising themselves as a “New Orleans Band” wasn’t specific enough. One busload of traditional Dixieland jazz fans left a Tipitina gig particularly disappointed.
“When some people see ‘New Orleans Band,’ they’re expecting banjos and clarinets,” Randall said. “So we’ve started saying ‘New Orleans Rhythm & Blues’ to make it more obvious what we’re going to do.”
They worked the clubs in Leyland and beyond. Festival promoters throughout Europe started calling. So did Jim Simpson, founder of Big Bear Records, the venerable blues and jazz label based in Birmingham, England.
Simpson has a history with Louisiana music: In 1974, Big Bear released an album by Pleasant “Cousin Joe” Joseph called “Cousin Joe: Gospel-Wailing, Jazz-Playing, Rock ‘n’ Rolling, Soul-Shouting, Tap-Dancing Bluesman from New Orleans.”
Simpson signed Tipitina to Big Bear. They’ve released two albums so far. The new “Taking Care of Business,” recorded live at the Birmingham International Jazz & Blues Festival, opens with “Hey Pocky Way” and continues with “Such a Night” and Huey “Piano” Smith’s “Rockin’ Pneumonia & the Boogie Woogie Flu.”
And as of Aug. 5, the title of their first album, “I Wish I Was in New Orleans,” was no longer wishful thinking.
Jones and Randall prepared for their New Orleans odyssey by reading Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” and pouring over WWOZ-FM’s nightclub listings online, plotting an ambitious itinerary.
Scheduled to arrive in New Orleans at 8:30 p.m., they intended to drop their luggage at a downtown hotel and proceed directly to the Maple Leaf to hear Jon Cleary — himself a British piano player fallen under the spell of New Orleans — and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen.
But their connecting flight out of Washington turned back because of a fuel leak; fire trucks lined the runway as the plane landed. Twenty-six hours after departing England, they finally arrived in New Orleans at 3 a.m. — way too late for Cleary.
“We were gutted,” Jones said. Translation: They were extremely disappointed.
They next day, they strolled along Bourbon Street and the Mississippi River, brimming with excitement to walk streets they had fantasized about for years.
They made amends for the previous night’s snafu by catching Cleary’s solo piano gig at Chickie Wah Wah. Cleary offered them a ride back to their hotel, which turned into a nighttime tour of old New Orleans. They drove through Treme and past the one remaining building from the Storyville era, and a house where Jelly Roll Morton lived.
“For the first day,” Randall said, “it was just amazing.”
Their Manchester accents, and the linguistic challenges of proper names in New Orleans, resulted in occasional communication breakdowns. Aboard the Esplanade Avenue bus, the couple informed the driver they were bound for “Lee-EW-aza’s.” He had no idea what they meant.
They repeated their destination for a woman aboard the bus; she, too, was mystified. Finally they figured it out: Liuzza’s By the Track, where they sampled gumbo for the first time.
Adventures piled up. They rode the Canal Street ferry to Algiers Point. A sudden, afternoon monsoon drove them back to the boat before they reached the Tout de Suite Cafe.
“We were scared at one point,” Randall said. “The lightning and thunder was so loud, it sounded like the storm was on top of us.”
They looked back toward the city, Jones recalled, “and you just couldn’t see anything. And within five minutes, the rain was gone. It was unreal.”
On Bourbon Street, a strip club barker propositioned Jones with, “Do you want to change careers, baby?” He apparently didn’t notice, or care, about her pregnant belly.
Sitting on a bench near the Mississippi River, they fell for the oldest of New Orleans hustles: The “I bet I can tell you where you got them shoes” scam. Randall balked at the guy’s initial demand for $20 and talked him down to $5.
Night after night, they heard music. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan’s. Trumpeter Jeremy Davenport at the Ritz-Carlton (Davenport, it turns out, uses the same sound system as Tipitina). Herlin Riley at Snug Harbor. Johnny Vidacovich at the Maple Leaf, where owner Hank Staples regaled them with tales of James Booker, Randall’s favorite pianist.
“James Booker actually died on my birthday,” Randall said. “It’s full circle.”
At d.b.a. one night, Cleary asked Randall to join him on stage for a bout of tandem, four-handed, boogie-woogie piano. The crowd ate it up.
So did Randall: However briefly, he had played music in his city of dreams. “I was floating on air. It was somethin’ else.”
Jones held out hope that she’d get a chance to sing. “That,” she said, “would be a dream come true.”
On their fourth night, they made their first pilgrimage to Tipitina’s. The club’s size surprised them. “On ‘Treme,’ it doesn’t look as wide,” Jones said.
The room was full, the New Orleans Suspects on fire. Drummer Willie Green personified the New Orleans groove; Jake Eckert wailed on slide guitar. The band sounded like a Big Easy Allman Brothers.
Taking it all in, Randall nursed a draft beer — and a secret. He had planned to propose to Jones during the Aug. 16 Dr. John show at Tipitina’s.
But as the Suspects soared, the music and moment were just too perfect. It doesn’t get any better than this, he thought.
And so, shortly after midnight, during an epic solo by Suspects saxophonist Jeff Watkins, Randall turned to Jones and spontaneously popped the question. Caught off guard with a cup of orange juice in her hands, she tearfully answered yes.
Tipitina got engaged at Tipitina’s.
An hour later, the band was still going strong, but Jones was exhausted. Pregnancy and emotion had taken a toll. On the way out, Randall and Jones rubbed the head of the Professor Longhair bust for luck.
“It was a night we’ll never forget,” he said.
More such days and nights followed. On Aug. 15, Randall bought the first hat he tried on at Meyer the Hatter. At Naghi’s, on the corner of Canal and Royal streets, Jones fell for the first engagement ring she saw — a New Orleans ring to mark a New Orleans engagement.
Later that day, they saw Fats Domino’s historic home in the Lower 9th Ward and paid a visit to Irma Thomas, one of Jones’ heroes. On the drive to eastern New Orleans, a star-struck Jones wondered, “What do you say to Irma Thomas?”
Turns out, she didn’t need to say much. Gregarious and gracious, Thomas told stories and shared tips on vocal maintenance (avoid lemons) and motherhood. She predicted Jones’ baby would be a boy.
And she assured the mother-to-be that she’ll be fine for a Tipitina gig at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London on Oct. 20, four weeks before the baby is due: “Your stomach’s pregnant, not your mouth!”
Thomas sent them off with copies of her new CD single, “For the Rest of My Life,” and a signed poster.
“I’m shell-shocked,” Jones said afterward. “What a lovely, lovely woman.”
“For the first 15 minutes, I couldn’t say anything,” Randall said. “Then she was so warm, welcoming and friendly, I had to keep reminding myself that this was Irma Thomas, and not a friend I’d known for years.”
Jones and Randall have seen Dr. John in England, but were eager to hear him at Tipitina’s, his spiritual home. From their vantage point on the club’s balcony, they could see his set list. To their dismay, neither “Right Place, Wrong Time” nor “Tipitina” were on the list.
But like just about everything else on this trip, it worked out. Rebennack inserted both songs into the set.
At a Sunday afternoon house party at jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield’s house, the couple listened, enchanted, to 102-year-old trumpeter Lionel Ferbos & the Louisiana Shakers.
Ferbos sang — quietly at first, but with determination — “When I Grow Too Old to Dream.” Jones dabbed at tears, not for the last time on that dreamy afternoon.
Afterward, Ferbos happily let Jones give him a peck on his cheek.
“I feel like I’ve been to the whole series of ‘Treme,’” Randall said.
With only two nights left, Jones still had not sung anywhere in New Orleans. Randall already had made his second appearance on a New Orleans stage, lending a hand during Johnny Vidacovich’s Sunday afternoon student workshop at Tipitina’s.
Determined to help his fiancée live out her New Orleans fantasy, Randall approached drummer Shannon Powell at d.b.a. Could Jones sing something with the band?
“You’ll have to ask the boss,” Powell replied, indicating keyboardist David Torkanowsky.
Randall went over to Torkanowsky. “You’ll have to ask the boss,” Torkanowsky said, indicating Powell.
Eventually, they all agreed. Backed by Powell, Torkanowsky and bassist David Barard, Jones made her New Orleans debut with “Something You Got.” Thrilled, she pronounced it a “brilliant experience.”
By the final day, they were spent. They relaxed by the hotel pool, bought gifts for friends, sat for an interview and shot a video at Snug Harbor. “The thing is, we’ve got to go home,” Randall said. “I don’t know how I’m going to deal with it.”
They made the most of the final hours. Together, they performed “Such a Night” and “Mardi Gras in New Orleans” with a band at the French Market. They saw Cleary at Chickie Wah Wah again, Davell Crawford at Snug Harbor and, as their finale, the Treme Brass Band at d.b.a.
Appropriately enough, Treme sent them home with “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
“Having been here for 16 days, we feel like we’ve soaked the city into our hearts even more so than before,” Randall said. “That’s bound to come out the other way, when we go and play the music again when we get back.”
Fantasy doesn’t always live up to reality. For Tipitina, it did.
“It was exactly as I thought,” Randall said, “and more.”
Music writer Keith Spera can be reached at or 504.826.3470. Follow him on Twitter @KeithSpera.

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