By Andy J. Gordon
A New Orleans-based all-star lineup kicked off their annual West Coast tour with an explosion of sound at The Mint nightclub in Los Angeles on November 27, 2018. Ivan Neville, Eric Lindell, Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio each have successful bands that tour frequently, but all make sure to have some downtime near the holiday season every year. That’s when they re-form their rarely seen Dragon Smoke band, performing in a few select West Coast clubs. And Angelenos always show up in droves when they hit the City of Angels, as the packed house of NOLA music lovers at the intimate club proved, giving their passionate approval and roaring their enjoyment during the group’s prolific performance.
The “supergroup” moniker is an often-overused term, but for these musicians who first got together as part of a “superjam” session during Jazz Fest in New Orleans 15 years ago, the shoe fits. Each band member has a loyal following and a busy schedule with successful, separate bands. Neville is the leader on keys and vocals for funk powerhouse Dumpstaphunk. Lindell is a productive songwriter who leads his own eponymous Americana/blues rock band while playing guitar and singing his clever tunes. Moore is the kinetic-energy rhythm machine on drums while Mercurio is the perfect low-end beat master on bass that form the killer rhythm section of funk powerhouse Galactic.
Back in 2003, the foursome came together for that one-time Jazz Fest gig, held at the Dragon’s Den nightclub in New Orleans. It was such a crowd-pleasing event that the quartet decided to make the show an annual tradition on the Tuesday between Jazz Fest weekends each Spring and took their band name from that NOLA club. About eight years ago, they took the show on the road for an annual, but brief, West Coast tour.
Their journey each year to Los Angeles brings them to The Mint, the beloved club on Pico Boulevard where the group members have fond memories of past shows. Neville lived in L.A. in the ’90s and had a regular Sunday night gig at the club. Dumpstaphunk and Lindell also hit the club annually as part of their touring schedules. Galactic plays annual shows at larger Los Angeles venues.
Dragon Smoke shows feature Lindell and Neville sharing lead vocal duties, mostly singing songs from their individual band catalogs. The quartet seems to appreciate the freedom of the short-lived reunion as they cherry pick each other’s songs and cover classics that they reshape as their own. The two-set show at The Mint featured several songs from Lindell’s catalog. His twangy, pleasant voice and electrifying axe work were showcased on “Two Bit Town,” “Take Me Back,” “Appaloosa” and “Me and My Woman.”
Neville added some keyboard magic on each tune. He took over lead vocals on “Hercules,” a song originally recorded by his father, Aaron Neville. Ivan’s version has a lot of passion, as do all his songs. “Welcome to New Orleans” was all funk, grit and emotion. Another tasty Neville treat was “Let a Woman Be a Woman,” the hit by ’60s funk band Dyke & The Blazers. Other crowd pleasing covers included “Yes We Can,” the Pointer Sisters hit written by Allen Toussaint and “Everyday People,” the Sly & the Family Stone classic.
Moore and Mercurio have an indispensable role in this lineup. Their playing lays the foundation for each song, while both have standout moments, too. Moore unloaded some machine-gun-like flourishes and leapt off his drum stool, while remaining perfectly in rhythm. Mercurio’s heavy bass lines filled the room and his facial cues provided the other musicians with the information they needed for song transitions.
The latter part of the second set included great vocals and solos from Neville on Bobby Womack’s “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out.” Neville also performed his “Makeup of a Fool” and at the end teased Crosby, Stills and Nash’s “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound).” The show ended with Moore and Mercurio performing a super-funky instrumental duet.
After a very short break, the band came back to the stage for an encore. Neville sang a soul-and-reggae infused rearrangement of “Landslide,” the Fleetwood Mac ballad originally sung by Stevie Nicks. The late-night crowd roared for more but the band called it a night and then mingled with fans into the early morning hours.
Dragon Smoke is a special live-music indulgence. The four exceptional musicians have busy careers touring and recording – their jam-packed schedules allow them to get together just a few times a year. They are so in sync when they do play together that it is hard to believe how rarely it occurs. The fans in attendance at The Mint in Los Angeles got to share the magical moment. It was a rare early gift to kick off the holiday season.
Dragon Smoke’s limited West Coast tour also includes Santa Barbara, Sebastopol, San Francisco and Denver, with gigs from November 28 to December 1. They will be back in New Orleans for a show at Tipitina’s on December 8 and, although not announced yet, their Jazz Fest night show will surely take place on Tuesday, April 30, 2019. What started out as a one-time jam has evolved into an annual run of a few spectacular shows. If you get the chance, be sure to see this “supergroup” perform. You will not be disappointed.