By Sean Jewell ::
In the written history of dixieland music, Jazz has served as a salve for centuries of slavery, epidemics, fires, floods and hurricanes –fed by a conglomeration of French, and Spanish colonialists mixing cultures with indigenous peoples, black communities, and tradespeople from afar. It’s said music helped people though the hardship of living in New Orleans, that it has been necessary for healing in a violent, turbulent place, which should not have been built where it sits.
A fertile delta where the Mississippi meets the Gulf Of Mexico, New Orleans is wrapped in the last turn the big muddy makes before spilling into the sea. For some that crescent is more than a geographical boundary. Virtually isolated between Lake Pontchartrain and the river, this Crescent City wraps around it’s residents, hugging neighborhoods closely together against the ravages of nature. Visiting New Orleans people always have one of two responses: “It smells funny, it’s terribly humid, crowded, and absent any moral code, dangerous for tourists and citizens alike” or “Why don’t I live here? I should quit my life and move here. Forever.” To those people New Orleans is the beginning of joy, the end of the color lines, the absence of inhibition.
The latter is the story of Jimmy Horn aka King James, a Seattle transplant to New Orleans since 1993, who, from a young age, admired the rolling, wild piano of Little Richard. Like some of us it only took one trip to New Orleans for him to feel right at home. He began the work of a musician, busking in the streets, learning –as people have for centuries– the songs in the canon of jazz, blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll that New Orleans has graced us with. Working residencies for years at BJ’s in the Bywater, Sidney’s Saloon, Saturn Bar, and Ernie K Doe’s legendary Mother-In-Law Lounge, King James and His Special men learned over 400 songs from musicians like Fats Domino, to Professor Longhair, Jessie Hill and Smiley Lewis.
Still, given the impressive resume, it’s surprising the power behind King James & The Special Men’s debut album of original material. This is no homage to a bygone sound. This band does not make New Orleans music, they are the sound of New Orleans. After garnering fans like Greg Dulli, Robert Plant, and Elvis Costello, and losing band members to the likes of Sturgill Simpson and St. Paul and The Broken Bones the band knew they were onto something. To hear lead man Jimmy Horn tell it dancing audiences of locals, including women and people of color was the sign they needed to record. Behind Jimmy Horn as the Special Men are Ben Polcer on piano, bassist Robert Snow, guitarist John “Porkchop” Rodli, Chris “Showtime” Davis on drums, Scott Frock on trumpet and the sax section – Jason Mingledorff and Travis Blotzky on tenor with baritone man Dominick Grillo.
The album was recorded at House of 1000Hz Studios in the 9th Ward and engineered by Andrew “Goat” Gilchrest. What’s inside is more than the sum of it’s parts, however. Part 50’s Fats, part 70’s Little Richard, with a rhythm section that reaches into Meters and Wild Tchoupitoulas territory, the special men leave no New Orleans sound unturned taking influence from second lines, and Super Sunday Mardi Gras Indians as well. Somewhere Cosimo Matassa and Alan Touissaint are dancing behind a soundboard having the time of their lives.
Act Like You Know opens on “Special Man Boogie”, a raucous Louisiana-style hello, with surf guitar and a clave rhythm calling you in off the street. Like New Orleans musicians do so well, the worldly influence, expressed in sound is already washing over you. The Special Men have introduced themselves thusly: building a mythology with a voodoo like spell of deep rhythms, letting the brass blast, and King James’ gruff voice working in call and response with the horn section. A piano rolls Longhair style in the backgound, keeping us moving down the river. “I believe I’ll buy me a graveyard of my own / I’m gon’ bury everybody dat have done me wrong” is one of the best lyrics I’ve heard all year.
Pulling it back once you’re enthralled, the band rolls into “Baby Girl” crying out from the guitar like Snooks Eaglin or Guitar Slim might. Half time drums echo with reverb and a saxophone moans. “Eat That Chicken Pie” turns that right back around, pulling up like a drunken krewe after King James “went to the gypsy to get my fortune told” and “gypsy done told me / you a fool for the jelly roll”. In the tradition of the loose morals, silliness of hokum, and ribald birth of rock ‘n’ roll (you think those early Little Richard songs aren’t about sex?) they “absotively posilutely” rock out.
After the honeymoon is over, King James & The Special Men move on to testifying on a fretful relationship, asking “woman, tell me, please tell me right now, what you want me to do”. The song fills progressively, a sax solo, a fuzzy riff of electric guitar, and piano building to crescendo represent the miraculous, confusing feelings of love. At the bridge, four minutes in, a piano solo turns into a loving –if stern conversation with an electric guitar, horn stabs and overblown saxophone become a cacophony of blues, fading with no resolve, and you wish it’d go on forever.
Then we’re on to a double time funeral march. “The End Is Near” is your second line. Jimmy announces “we all gotta die, but baby please, not tonight / the end is near, we’ll soon be our way”. Rock piano and the ebb and flow of horns have you marching down Decatur heel to toe in your mind, the insanity of New Orleans is setting in. Could be the heat, could be all the people, could be the booze for breakfast lunch and dinner, or the 24 hour parties that end and begin on Monday, with red beans and rice. The end of the album, and your until-now-average life is near, that move to the 9th ward to die poor in the company of musicians and the spirit of the city is almost complete.
Then it happens (as it happens, for some reason this is the first track that played on my device after downloading in a hell-fire hurry). Guitars drop a key, and groan through fuzzed out amps. A cuban beat pops, Jimmy Horn barks “tell me who baby, who been foolin’ you?”, and “I was born by the mountain raised by the sea / that shit you talkin’ don’t worry me”. Wah-wah telecaster, and maracas join the beat, booming from way down on the low end of the piano. Jimmy raps on, verse after verse of voodoo curse, chanting chiefly, as if commanding the whole damn parade.
Trumpets and tuba jump in at four minutes, and I’m packing my shit to move to New Orleans tomorrow. I’m going to march the whole goddamn way to these transformative “9th Ward Blues” and by the time I arrive I’ll be a better version of myself, with all the swing and swagger of second line dancers, because nothing –absolutely nothing, not wind or rain or hurricane, not levee breaks, or racism or corruption or that river done rise, can stop this music. This is not the salve, the balm to oppression, this is the fight against it, this is what people stayed for — this music is America’s greatest export– this is liberty, Congo Square, Africans and Haitians and Cubans on American time, the blackest people and the blackest mud, the raging river and the salty sea, free, bound together only by the spirit of music. This brass band, this backline, this beat, these bad motherfuckers, this special town and these special men. Act Like You Know.
King James and The Special Men are doing some grown shit, like playing Tonder Festival in Denmark, and recording albums by people and communities of color in New Orleans to further this tradition, in the spirit of those that have gone before. Look for those come Mardi Gras, for now you can pick up Act Like You Know on vinyl, or anywhere music is sold online, July 21st.