Popular in-store appearances at the Louisiana Music Factory fill the gap between Jazz Fest weekends
April 26 - May 7
Barry Smith is fairly calm for a man nailing down the last-minute details for a special DVD-release event with the members of the HBO hit series "Treme," organizing a still-shifting line-up of presentations and appearances, handing out music advice, and dealing with the fact that the Rebirth Brass Band has just called in to report that a car accident will prevent them from performing a set that was scheduled to start five minutes ago.
Oh, did I mention that Smith's record store, the Louisiana Music Factory, where all this taking place, has been overrun by a hundred or two customers? Some are grasping to-go cups of draft beer from a bar down the street, others clutching an armful of hard-to-find albums grabbed from the store's formidable selection, still others just leaning on a rack in one of the couple rows that run the length of the slender store.
The attention of the invaders -- a generally friendly, attentive, fun-loving lot -- is fixed on a small stage, parallel to a couple rows of CDs that run the length of the slender store.
"This is a music festival right here, isn't it?" says Grammy-winning, 21st-century bluesman Chris Thomas King, whose Louisiana Music Factory date is his only New Orleans appearance during this year's Jazz Fest. King's in-store show -- featuring the dream-inspired "Sketches of Treme" and other material from his grand sounding gem of a new album, "Antebellum Postcard," his first in five years -- is one of about three dozen 45-minute sets at filling five days that flank and fill-in between the two Fest weekends.
A favorite "Restival," one of the events that occurs outside of the New Orleans Jazz Fest, this is the 21st year that the Louisiana Music Factory has offered the in-store appearances that are an annual must for music freaks. It's like having extended, live "CD listening booths," a chance to really find out what top-flight artists are all about as they play just a few feet from our eyes and ears. And they're free, to boot.
Both big-name bands and up-and-coming artists are willing to cram onto the small riser that is set up with a backline of amplifiers and an upright piano to one side that marks the depth of the stage. Even though many of them will have brighter spotlights before tens of thousands at their official Jazz Fest slots, they are still happy to add these intimate sets at their favorite record store. This year the list of artists doing double duty includes Soul Rebels, Chris Thomas King, Little Freddie King, Trombone Shorty, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Galactic, Theresa Andersson, Rebirth Brass Band, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Anders Osborne, Jon Cleary, and Papa Grows Funk, to name a few.
The in-stores also offer a healthy helping of relative newcomers, like Hurray for the Riff Raff, and the Revivalists, who have now crammed seven band members onto the stage. They're generating a solid head of steam while running down a new CD, "City of Sand," as adventurous guitars, piano and wah-wah pedal steel lines explore fresh paths through their hard-roots mindset.
"The Louisiana Music Factory is the favorite record store among musicians, they have a selection like no other," says Revivalists guitarist Zack Feinberg. "And they treat us well, give us a bigger slice of the pie. That's why so many big artists are willing to play the in-stores during Jazz Fest and every Saturday throughout the year, because they really respect that."
That respect extends to the Smithsonian Institution, which has made the Louisiana Music Factory one of the few retail outlets in the nation that can carry Smithsonian albums, like the special new release of a rare Louis Armstrong title: "Red Beans and Rice-ly Yours: Satchmo at the National Press Club," one of his very last trumpet recordings.
The in-store schedule also includes music-related events like the big "Treme" DVD event and several book signings: for Ben Samdel's meaty new tome on "Ernie K-Doe: The R&B Emperor of New Orleans"; Jay Mazza's "Up Front & Center," a survey of Crescent City music at the turn of the century; and "Groove Interrupted," a look at the post-Katrina renewal of New Orleans music by Times-Picayune writer Keith Spera.
"The in-store music performances at the Louisiana Music Factory are exceptionally intimate and unadorned," says writer Spera. "There's no hiding behind lights or on a big stage. You perform [or sign books] while making eye contact with fans from all over the country."
Apparently singer Robert Plant is a big fan of the LaMF too. In one famous story, Plant was perusing CDs on shelves behind the counter when someone asked him to ring up a purchase, thinking he was an employee. "Truth be told," Spera adds, "he does kinda look the guys who work behind the counter."
While Spera signs away, Basin Street Records owner Mark Samuels is basking in the limelight of the 2012 Grammy that his boys in the Rebirth Brass Band received for their "Rebirth in New Orleans" CD, even though the band couldn't make their scheduled LaMF appearance.
"Most of our artists frequent the Louisiana Music Factory as customers and have a great appreciation for it and the in-stores," says Samuels, who has a half dozen artists scheduled for LaMF sets. "Sometimes a fan of one artist gets turned on to another artist. And Basin Street is built around live performers, so they all excel in an in-store opportunity." And even though the huge crowds can make it difficult to shop during the performances, the in-stores sell records.
"The Louisiana Music Factory staff has more retail knowledge of New Orleans music than any store in the world," Samuels continues. "And our bands know it's important and fun for us to support the store with the performances, just as it's important for people to support the free in-stores by buying CDs and LPs."
One of Basin Street's most popular artists, Theresa Andersson, is now on the LaMF stage with her band, showing off material from her just-released album, the gritty, sophisticated "Street Parade." During one particularly affecting stretch, Andersson is looping and layering vocals -- including some background singing provided by the LaMF audience -- and the end effect sounds like an other-worldly tribal choir. "If you people up front don't sing, you lose your spot to someone who does," Andersson jokes, as she launches into a grand version of Allen Toussaint's "On Your Way Down" before ending the set with her own "What Comes Next."
A video from Theresa's set, along with those of all the other acts who perform for the in-stores -- all shot by Linda Abbot -- will be uploaded to the LaMF website, www.louisianamusicfactory.com, within a week or two.
As I'm daydreaming about revisiting the live music, I hear an announcer from the Louisiana Music Factory stage. "Help keep the doors open," he reminds us, "buy music here." And on that note, I that I drag my "Funky 16 Corners" and a stack of other can't-believe-I-finally-found-it CDs to the cash register.