“I slept last night in a good hotel
I went shopping today for jewels
The wind rushed around in the dirty town
And the children let out from the schools
I was standing on a noisy corner
Waiting for the walking green
Across the street he stood
And he played real good on his clarinet for free.”
New Orleans, Louisiana–So I’m walking through the French Quarter grooving to all the sounds coming from the door of each bar as patrons groove to funk, jazz, blues, hiphop, Cajun, rock’n’roll, soul and wait, what is this? A bar with a Liberace-looking jerk pounding out Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” at ear-bleeding volume to a bunch of drunken tourists all chanting and spilling their beer. This must be what hell feels like. With all due respect to the Boston Red Sox, this has to be the worst song ever written. As the strains of this lamentable ode to a Kennedy child fade from the air, I’m already two blocks away, listening to five gentlemen in tuxedos performing “I’m Gonna Sit Right Down And Write Myself a Letter.” Now we’re talkin’! I dip my head into the bar and immediately get pulled into a front row table by a gorgeous hostess who asks me what I want to drink.Three songs later I’m lustily singing aloud to the strains of “When You’re Smiling.” There ain’t no town like this anywhere in the world.
An hour later, I’m nursing a Hurricane in a bar where naked girls are making the tassle covering each of their breasts rotate in different directions. This astounds me. It baffles science. How do they do that?
“It’s a New Orleans secret,” says the guy to the left.
Not even realizing I spoke that question out loud, I nod to my neighbor and go back to my Hurricane. Soon it’s time to stagger back to my hotel room but as I pass this one bar, the sound emanating from inside is too curious to ignore. I sit again, order a Creole Bloody Mary and listen. The drink itself is way spicier than a usual Bloody Mary so I wash it down with a Sazerak. They say the Sazerak is the first cocktail ever invented in the U.S. It’s a Crescent City tradition and the bartender tells me that it was Antoine Peychaud who invented it in 1838 “right at this very bar where you’re sittin’.” Although I find that a bit hard to believe, I have two more before running into another fine gentleman.
His name is Steve Picou and he has a band called Bas Clas. We belt back a few and he tells me his story. Before this turns into the Kris Kristofferson classic where the guy with the guitar buys me a drink and I steal his song, Steve promises to mail me some CDs and I drift back to my room on gossamer wings, so fueled with Crescent City lore my head is spinning.
“Now me I play for fortunes
And those velvet curtain calls
I’ve got a black limousine
And two gentlemen
Escorting me to the halls
And I play if you have the money
Or if you’re a friend to me
But the one man band
By the quick lunch stand
He was playing real good, for free.”
Fast-forward two weeks and two discs arrive in the mail. One is the 2012 self-titled Bas Clas debut and the other is its 2013 “Love Food Sex Peace” follow-up. This was a month ago and I haven’t stopped playing them ever since. It reminds me of that great Joni Mitchell song, “For Free.” Bas Clas ain’t trying to be stars or rich. They’re in it for the music as is their town. As a matter of fact, these grooves are so good, so unlike the crap perpetually shoved down the throats of impressionable consumers, that it makes the whole world seem upside-down. Hell, Bas Clas, with its real-life accordion, guitar, keyboard, fiddle, harmonies, melodies, stiff backbeats, trustworthy bass, and the kind of vocals that slide right off the disc into your central nervous system, should be multi-millionaires instead of scratching at the door still trying to get in. Folk-rock-zydeco heroes like this who don’t know where their next paycheck is coming from rarely can sustain. What’s the story here?
Lead guitarist Picou put down his ax for nine years in the 1990s. He had had enough of an industry where Shelby Lynne isn’t a superstar and Taylor Swift is. Developing “an intense hatred for radio consultants” who made the concept of “free-form FM” obsolete, he produced his own damn two-hour radio show as well as 100 episodes of a live, one-hour TV concert show now owned by Tulane University which has yet to be rediscovered.
He’s also a great ambassador for The Big Easy: “this place is a muse, a mystery, a dangerous habit, a hole that swallows dreams of the shallow, and a lightning rod for the enlightened, or those merely open to its complex charms. It is a force of nature where the planet wells up with creativity and culture , where the earth gives birth to new crust. We have an invisible such source here in New Orleans that produces art, music, literature and gives rise to characters whose often brief lives live on in legend.”
Did he really just say that?
I listened a little closer to the two discs and untold pleasures awaited. This is a band that back in 1976 was courted by John Hammond of Columbia Records. Cheap Trick producer Tom Werman flirted with the idea of getting them into a New York studio. John Scher thought thrice about promoting them. The dream continued for a decade and a half until 1991 when the guitar was put away.
“My Louisiane” is an irresistible travelogue. Other songs bemoan the obliviousness of shallow lifestyles yet you can still dance to them. Bas Clas is a Cajun Little Feat. I hear vestiges of The Radiators, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Band and Mink DeVille.
“Nobody stopped to hear him
Though he played so sweet and high
They knew he had never
Been on their T.V.
So they passed his music by
I meant to go over and ask for a song
Maybe put on a harmony
I heard his refrain
As the signal changed
He was playing real good, for free.”–Joni Mitchell, Crazy Crow Music/Siquomb Music Publishing
(Photo Credit: Michael Loftis (l-r) Steve Picou, Geoff Thistlewaite, Ted Cobena, Brother Donnie Picou) For more information, go to www.wdpicou.com.