By Andy J. Gordon
It happens often in music. Artists from different groups get together for a side project. Sometimes they record an album, but usually it is for a live show where the members jam on some cover songs and try to create a unique musical experience. They each go back to their respective groups with memories of a special night – some fond, some mixed. The problem with these so called “superjams” is the lack of cohesion and big egos getting in the way of a magical music experience. That is not remotely the case with Dragon Smoke. This New Orleans based quartet of band leaders came to The Mint on December 7, 2011 during a brief California mini-tour. Although they have performed as a group only a handful of times, they played like a band that has been a successful unit for years. The savvy, NOLA music loving packed house was blown away by their awesome show.
What started as a onetime gig during New Orleans’ Jazzfest in 2003 has morphed into an annual ritual and maybe a new group that merits the “super” accolade. Stanton Moore on drums and Rob Mercurio on bass are the stars that make up the funky rhythm section of Galactic (www.galacticfunk.com.) Ivan Neville has been the long time voice and keyboard wizard for Dumpstaphunk (www.dumpstaphunk.com/.) Eric Lindell (www.ericlindell.com/,) a prolific songwriter, vocalist and guitarist from San Mateo, CA. has called New Orleans home for several years. He leads a bluesy, Americana band that draws inspiration from the musical gumbo that New Orleans provides. These four musicians came together to form Dragon Smoke. All are big hitters in the vibrant NOLA music scene and at the annual music extravaganza known as Jazzfest. Each of their bands tour extensively, so when the four get together for a gig it is a rare and special time. Their original 2003 show at The Dragon’s Den in New Orleans started the tradition of an annual Tuesday night show between Jazzfest weekends that has become legendary. The guys have had such a blast together that they are planning to record an album. This short West Coast tour came at a time when each of their bands was on a break and allowed Lindell a chance to visit his roots. It also seems like Stanton Moore has made The Mint (http://www.themintla.com/) his unofficial California home with a number of gigs, clinics and visits in 2011.
Dragon Smoke draws from the Eric Lindell and Ivan Neville Dumpstaphunk song catalog with additional covers of soul, rock and funk classics. The highly anticipated show opened with a catchy Eric Lindell tune called “Country Living.” Ivan Neville took over on vocals for “Let a Woman Be a Woman,” the 1969 Dyke & the Blazers song that has been reinterpreted recently by the English rock band, The Heavy, who sampled the original horn lines with their song “How You Like Me Now?” Dragon Smoke’s version had a funky, addictive sound that made it impossible not to dance. After Lindell sang another of his songs called “It Won’t Be Long,” Neville went old school with a sweet version of his father Aaron’s classic “Hercules.” Neville continued the trip down memory lane with the call and response classic “Here Dey Come,” a Mardi Gras Indian song originally sung by his great Uncle with The Wild Tchoupitoulas. Lindell was back on lead vocals on his romantic melody “Love is a Beautiful Thing.” The first set closed with the rock classic, “Jet Airliner” made famous by The Steve Miller Band but originally recorded by Paul Pena. The Dragon Smoke version kept the bluesy vibe but with the band’s unique dose of funk and soul.
For the second set the band opened with “Gonna Move” another catchy Paul Pena song that Lindell sang. Neville followed with the Bill Withers classic “Grandma’s Hands.” The band paid tribute to Neville’s roots with the Meters’ standard “Out in the Country.” Neville and Lindell took turns on vocals for “Valerie,” a 2006 Zutons tune that was popularized by the Amy Winehouse and Mark Ronson cover version. The show became epic when Neville started singing War’s “Slippin’ Into Darkness” and the band segued into Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle.” Moore did a killer drum solo which transitioned into The Temptations’ “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” The set ended with Lindell singing George Jackson’s “Aretha, Sing One For Me,” an obscure 1972 soul treat that fit perfectly into the band’s vibe. “It’s a Pity,” Lindell’s heartfelt song about the hardship caused by Hurricane Katrina closed the show. The crowd demanded an encore and the band came back with Lindell’s “Nothing Can Stop Me” and finished things up with the Curtis Mayfield classic “Hell Below.”
For a quartet that plays so infrequently, these guys are super tight. It would be a scheduling nightmare to get them together more often, but when it happens, it is magical. The Mint show and the few additional California dates are all fans will get until the Jazzfest show in May. Until then, check out Amazon or Itunes for the mp3 release of their One Eyed Jack’s show earlier this year. It contains much of the material performed at The Mint show and is the next best thing to seeing these brilliant musicians perform together live.
Photos courtesy of ©2011 Jim Brock Photography www.eyeonthemusic.com