Sunday, May 10, 2015

New Orleans Lady

As I've mentioned here before, my goal has always been to use this blog to write about more than just music.  It being Mother's Day -- and almost 10 years since my own Mom died as an evacuee from Hurricane Katrina -- I realized that I've never published the piece I wrote about my Mom here on How Strange It Is...  I've always meant to.  I've written about New Orleans a little, about my son, autism, and my Dad.  Family and New Orleans... those have probably been the two most important things on my life.  This piece pulls them both together.  And of course, it's still a little about music (as it would have to be, given the subject).  Happy Mother's Day Mom, wherever you are.
My mother, Carol Chatelain Guerin, was merely one of countless individuals whose lives were affected when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.  But my mother’s life in New Orleans was as much a personification of this city as anyone’s.  A Catholic mother of four, she graduated from Mount Carmel High in 1957, worked at D.H. Holmes on Canal Street, and married a Tulane graduate.  Of course, it was music that brought them together.  She was a young piano player, and he was a singer who performed in many a show with his deep baritone.  It was after one of his shows that she introduced herself to him, so impressed was she with his performance.  I seem to also recall hearing of wild post-show parties at the Napoleon House, and dancing on the tables. 

While New Orleans can be a wild city, awash with music and parties, she is also undoubtedly a Lady… a mother and a creator.  My mother took her role as a New Orleans Lady to heart.  She was a masterful creator of food, family, and joie de vivre.  With the rekindling of her Catholic faith, she sometimes worried about her imperfections.  But no one among us is perfect, and imagine how lifeless New Orleans would be without its “imperfections”.  She was, however, so perfect in so many ways.   She was loyal and faithful to a fault, and worked through whatever difficulties life threw at her with grace and strength.  She had a stellar track record as a mom -- going “4 and 0” with her kids -- raising a neurosurgeon, a dentist, a scientist, and a teacher.  Her example has resulted in four wonderful families, and 10 grandchildren who will impact the world in countless positive ways that cannot be underestimated.  They are, rightfully so, her pride and joy. 

In her spare time, Mom used a masterful green thumb to cultivate a menagerie of plants, the likes of which could only thrive under her delicate care and in New Orleans’ steamy clime.  She also thrived in the city’s steamy clime.  If she wasn’t in the garden of her West Bank home, she was tearing up the tennis court, or walking around the French Quarter enjoying some festival or other.  In recent years, just downriver from the Quarter, she had become somewhat of a fixture herself.  She was the Saturday “headliner” in the piano bar of a little Faubourg Marigny establishment, Feelings Café D'Aunoy (my father often providing vocals). 

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, my mother evacuated to safer ground, along with my father, Roland Joseph Guerin, and a million other New Orleanians.  In their case, they traveled up to Shreveport, to take refuge in the loving home of my father’s brother Wilfred, and his wife Wilda (for which I will be eternally grateful). 

Although she was never able to return (except of course in spirit), my mother’s imprint on New Orleans will be felt for generations.  In this small way, she may even help this great city to live on.  It lives on in her children, her children’s children, and the traditions and values that she has passed onto them. They will always remember their deep New Orleans roots, imparted to them by Granny, Papá, and by the sheer scope of family history, which has paralleled the city’s growth from its earliest times.  New Orleans will live on in the memories that her many friends have shared with her there, adding to its magical aura and to their impression of it.  It will live on in the thousands of people throughout the country, if not the world, who retain a memory of that one steamy night, listening to the piano in a beautiful courtyard in the Marigny. 

            In the same way that my mother’s life has added to the anthology of New Orleans traditions and memories, New Orleans will perpetuate her spirit.  When anyone she ever knew sits in a misty garden and hears the rain pattering on leaves, or soaks in the atmosphere of a small bistro, or once again enjoys café au lait and beignets at Café du Monde, she will be there.   No matter where they may end up or what they may do, her children and grandchildren will always remember the New Orleans Lady that was Granny.  They will remember the piano, the crazy Mardi Gras hats and glasses, the toy robots, the grillades, and the turkey gumbo.  They will remember walks through Audubon Zoo, the swamp, and the Quarter.  But mostly, they will remember the love, and the love of life that, like her city, she has always embodied and imparted to others. 

Before Hurricane Katrina hit, my mother had been fighting her own storm.  Lung cancer had recurred some months earlier, and had spread to her brain a few weeks before the evacuation.  Shortly after arriving at the sanctuary of my aunt and uncle’s home, her condition worsened, and she moved into a nearby hospice for better care.  My father, family and friends were with her every day.  My brother and his family were there day in and day out, despite their own incredible loss (their home was four houses from the levee breech in Lakeview, and they were forced to relocate to Shreveport as well).  In this hospice, appropriately named Grace Home, my mother lived out her remaining days, as gracious and strong as she always had been throughout her life. 

Carol Chatelain Guerin died in Shreveport, Louisiana, on October 27th, 2005

Some say New Orleans died on August 29th, 2005.  But New Orleans will live on, through her people and their families.  Perhaps in a different form, sometimes even in a different place… but it will live on.  Likewise, my mother will live on… through her family, and through the city.  She will live on through memories made in this wonderful place, a place made more wonderful by her presence. 

I know that my mother has gone to a better place.  My hope is that New Orleans will end up in a better place as well, and I believe my mother’s life has added to that goal.  I know that she has certainly made the world a better place.  

Friday, May 8, 2015

Here Comes the Summer, Darlin’: Free Clinic – Wait It Out

I don’t know what it is.  Being from a beach town (Wilmington, NC), maybe it’s in their blood.  Maybe they absorb the salt from the air, osmotically.  But when I hear FreeClinic, I instantly think waves and sun and sand.  I, too, have saltwater in my veins, so I have a nose for these things.  Oh, maybe it’s also the “ooohs” and “aaahs” that bubble up from underneath Diggin’ My Own Grave and Hide Around, two cuts from their new release, Wait It Out.  Or the beautiful reverb, as on Young.  Or that singer Benjamin Rose outright sings “Here comes the summer, Darlin’” on Better

But the WAY he sings it, the WAY it’s played, you feel it.  It becomes summer right in your ears, all around you, in your personal space.  Regardless of that late-season cold snap, or that it’s still not quite warm enough for a day out the waves in a kayak.  But you want it to be.  Wait It Out makes you really want it to be.  But summer’s coming soon enough, and with this album, no worries… they’ve already got yer soundtrack picked out for you. 

Free Clinic definitely has that beachy/retro feel, albeit mixed with a raggedy, slightly garage-y edge.   But unlike many others worshipping at the altar of Brian Wilson, they don’t sound derivative.  Probably because they practice as much or more in the churches of the Descendents and the Strokes (but hey, I thought the Descendents made some damn fine beach tuneage!). 

But back to derivation… or lack thereof.  Free Clinic just has a real way with a hook, a melody.  Generally, they’re making pop music that’s pretty simple – nothing revolutionary.  Not to downplay that.  It’s mu’fuggin’ CATCHY simple pop music.  You have to walk a mighty fine line to create melodies that are austere and unfussy, yet don’t sound like something you’ve already heard.  There are at least 3 or 4 genuine pop gems on this album.  I mean songs that you could see getting picked up and played anywhere -- in that movie, on that commercial – and enjoyed everywhere, by everyone.

Rose’s voice is a highlight.  He’ll switch from a punk-room wail to a bedroom warble, or back, at the right time.  Even when he's revving it up, there’s a sadness about it.  Maybe that’s where the bittersweetness in the band’s overall sound comes from.  This music is drenched in a wonderful heartsickness.  As poppy as it sounds, it’s also a little wounded. 

Part of that is the lyrics of lovesickness and yearning running throughout.  “I’ll be right there if you want me to”, “With you is always better / just want you to remain”.  But I’m not much of a lyrics guy, and I’m a decade or two and a divorce past my ability to wallow in lovesickness.  Part of it is maybe also the descending melodies and off-kilter keys.  Even when happy sounding, these songs have a wonderful sting.  And it’s great that you can feel that in music.

It starts with the upbeat All Over, which definitely has that sting.  It soars, reveling in a flood of feelings, before crashing in desperation with “please tell me when it’s all over.”  After a couple of more down-tempo charmers, one of the afore-mentioned pop gems, Better, grabs you.  It’s a really great song.  Simple strumming and dejected-but-hopeful opening lines climb to a more optimistic tone, backed by chiming double guitars.  And for the life of me, Rose sounds like a young Billie Joe Armstrong here (not usually, though).    

Off My Rocker and No More Problems are two more carat-laden cuts.  They bounce all over the place (as you probably will when you listen).  Both of those were on earlier demo releases by the band.  I have to admit I still like the demo versions of these two songs better (more atmospheric backing vocals and a “softer” feel).  But this album is great on its own merits.  If the worst thing you can say about a band is you like their demos better, they’re doing pretty well.  On these versions, I hear more layered guitar melodies.  That’s where their sound appears headed for now… especially live, with the recent addition of a second guitarist.  Tight, energy-laden rhythms from drummer Wesley Hewett and bassist Morgan Roberts keep pushing those geetars.  On the whole, I’d say Wait It Out is a little more stripped down and cleaner sounding than the band’s earlier releases.

I just got feelz for this album.  Deep feelz.  I don’t know about you, but my summer has begun.
P.S.:  As for those demo versions, I highly recommend getting any of the MixGrotto compilations on the MixGrotto Bandcamp page (the band had a full B-side Demos album up on their page, but it’s unfortunately no longer there).  MixGrotto, also out of Wilmington, makes sort of millenial “mixtapes” with an NC bent; they’ve put out 18(!) so far.   The last couple have those two Free Clinic demos, as well as tunes from other great coastal NC bands such as Astro Cowboy and Zack Mexico, and piedmont bands T0W3RS, Less Western, Echo Courts, Silent Lunch, Daddy Issues… etc. etc.  If you want a good sampler of current NC music, MixGrotto is a great place to start.