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Published: 2008/09/23
by Randy Ray

On the Edge of the Hurricane with Brian Stoltz

That’s when you know that you’re happening: when you’re making mistakes together. – Brian Stoltz

Porter-Batiste-Stoltz returns to the road for a series of Northeast dates beginning on September 24, in support of their new live release, MOODOO. The trio becomes a quartet for the run as they are joined by Phish keyboardist Page McConnell. On November 2, 2007, McConnell sat in with PBS at Club Metronome in Burlington, and the night was so endearing that it yielded a vigorously energetic live album which put the trio, and the Vermont improvisational veteran in a new sonic setting. Stoltz discussed the collaboration with Jambands.com, his experiences working with George Porter, Jr., and Russell Batiste, Jr. in PBS, the Neville Brothers, and the Funky Meters, his work with Bob Dylan, and his numerous near misses on the edge of several hurricanesmost prominently, the recent Gustav, and its tumultuous predecessor, Katrina. Stoltz is a longtime resident in the Louisiana area, and is also intimately involved in the music coming from New Orleans, as well as being a candid gentleman about the role of luck, mystery, and a strong sense of humor and perspective in the evolving world we inhabit.

PART I Any Colour You Like
Wonderful, indeed, was the electric insight which Fate had now given himPierre, Herman Melville

RR: PBS has played some selected dates, and high profile festivals this year.

BS: We haven’t done a long stretch since February. We went out for the whole month of February into March, we did Bonnaroo, and just a few choice festivals since thenGathering of the Vibes, and gigs like that.

RR: And you’re about to embark on a few dates with Page McConnell. I suppose it doesn’t take a genius to make the connection between New OrleansVoodooand Vermontcowswhich has created the title of the live album, MOODOO featuring the Phish keyboardist. (laughter) It’s a great idea. Who came up with that?

BS: Actually, that was Phil Stepanian, our manager. He had that concept in his head as we were just trying to figure out how to merge Vermont and New Orleans. That’s what popped in his head, and it works pretty well. We love it.

RR: The MOODOO movies on the PBS site are hilarioussimple yet very funny.

BS: (laughter) Yeah, Splash pages are great. They are very uncluttered.

RR: Let’s explore this a little further. PBS plays some gigs here and there, and festival dates, but what about a series of shows with another musician such as Page? Is the machine pretty greased at this point?

BS: Yeah, the machine’s pretty greased. Page sat in with us that night that we recorded [November 2, 2007 at Burlington’s Club Metronome], and that was the first night that he had ever played with us. Basically, the way it came about was we were going to Burlington, and those guys are all friends. You know how it isPage had Vida Blue with Russell [Batiste, drums] in the band. We called him, and invited him to the show. We also talked with him, and said, “Hey, if you want to bring a keyboard or something, we’d love to have you sit in on a couple of tunes.” He did, and he ended up playing a good bit.

When JazzFest came along in April, we asked him to make an appearance with us as we had decided, at this point, to put this record out. There were no rehearsals or anything. He had the tracks from what we had done in Burlington, and he came up and played on some of the same songs, and he played on a couple of other ones, too. There was really no preparin’; we just played. (laughs)

RR: There wasn’t a thought at the time that PBS would record this gig for a live releaseit just happened to be a really strong night, right?

BS: None whatsoever. We’re not even conscious that we’re being recorded. PBS multi-track records just about every show, so that’s running and we’re not even conscious of it because we’ve done so many shows. No, there was no talk of that or anything. Matter of fact, we sat on those tracks. It wasn’t until, probably, March of this year before we even started thinking about it. I guess back in February we were thinking about it. At first, we were thinking that maybe we should put something out around the time of JazzFest.

We didn’t have anything studio ready although we have a lot of studio tracksstuff we’d been working on here and therebut nothing even close to completion. We thought, “Well, let’s put out something live,” and we started randomly listening to some old shows. Then, we thought, “Wait a minutewe’ve got that show with Page, and that was a pretty hot night.” (laughs) You know, we remembered. At that point, we asked him to be on the festival with us, and putting out that show so that’s how it came about.

RR: You didn’t release the entire show. How were tracks selected for MOODOO?

BS: We thought about it and, at first, we were going to release the whole thing and do two CDs, and then we said, “Fine, you know, let’s just do a single, nice, tight, compact thing, and that way it’ll have more of Page on it.” If we did the double thing, it would have beenI don’t knowit just didn’t feel right. It felt right picking certain songs, including all of the stuff that Page played on. We just wanted to make everything nice and tight and concise and I think it works.

RR: Let’s talk about the material you bring into PBS from your own solo careersongs with segues like “Funky Miracle>Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” where you are throwing in some Sly Stone into the middle of those two songs. Are you also guiding those segues from one idea to the next with PBS?

BS: Yes, it is basically the same medley I have on Up All Night [Stoltz’s 2007 live album]. We don’t write a setlist or anything. We never work off a setlist. When we take the stage, we still pretty much have no idea what we are going to play, and (laughs) somebody starts doin’ somethingeither me, Russell, or George starts playing something that usually turns into something. We might decide what the first song is, but from song to song, there’s no setlist, we just pretty much call it on the fly.

If you notice, we’ll finish a song, and just stand there looking at each other, (laughs) waiting for somebody to say something, or for somebody to start playing. When you’ve got to that point, George or Russell will look at me like, “Hey, it’s your turn.” And with “Funky Miracle,” that’s kind of how that happens, usually. From song to song, getting close to the end of the song, we might figure out what to do next, and just cue each other as to what’s coming next, so that’s pretty much how it works without a setlist.

RR: For example, during “All We Want to Do,” each musician takes a measure to play some solo notes and you toss out a bit of The Beatles’ “Day Tripper.”

BS: Now that you mention it, at the end of “All We Want to Do,” I think Porter plays that lick, too, once in a while. He plays some old Beatles lick, and sometimes it is “Day Tripper.” (laughs) Yeah, it’s funny how that happens.

RR: PBS is a well-oiled machine, and Page McConnell joins the band for a few gigs. What does he bring to the music?

BS: Just a whole lot more of what you hear on MOODOO. Page brings a really nice element to it because, you know, he’s not overbearing, but at the same time, he holds his own. It’s really a nice feeling, and I really appreciate it because it kind of gives me a little bit of a break that I don’t have to drive the rhythm so hard. I can lay back a little bit more. Page is already filling a lot of that space that I’m in. You notice [on MOODOO, the position of the guitar changes when Page comes in. It fills up that space, and really gives me a nice little space to work in, and play some different things. I’m not driving it hard. I can sit back and play some little things, too, that are not so driven.

RR: Yes, that’s interesting because I noticed that you’re playing a lot of unique combinations of rhythm and lead notes when he enters the mix.

BS: Yeah, I play a little bit different when there’s a keyboard player on stage. Without a keyboard player, there’s more space to fill up. Actually, when it’s just the three of us, I guess we all play just a little bit more, and a little bit better. George fills a little bit more, too, but when Page comes in, everybody settles in, gets in our little space, and relaxes.

RR: Let’s talk about the other two other members of PBS. Speaking of the Beatles, George Porter Jr. plays about 412 days out of a 365-day year, right?

BS: (laughter) I know. I know. Oh man, it’s wonderful. I started playing with George and Russell in the funky Meters in ’94. They’re just phenomenal. The three of us together is just one mind working. There’s no place that we can’t just go. We’re able to anticipate each other so well that a lot of timesespecially on the MOODOO album, if you listen to that Curtis Mayfield song, “Check Out Your Mind,” there’s one part where we’re just jamming it out towards the end, it’s in the middle of the guitar solo, and all of a sudden, George and I start playing the exact same lick over and overit just falls into that place.

Our minds are working along the same path, along the same lines, and next thing you know, we’re playing exactly the same thing. I’m soloing, and he’s playing some totally different pattern, and we’ll find ourselves playing the same thingwe just look at each other, and start laughing. That shows you that it’s all out there; you’re just channeling it in. Same thing happens when George and I will be in the middle of something, and we’ll make the exact same mistake together. You know, sometimes when we’ll do those medleys? In certain songs, we’ll go from song to song, and on some nights, when it’s time to switch to the other song, there’s been nights when George and I will both go to the wrong song together. (laughter) We’ll both start playing a totally different song that’s not part of it, and we look at each other, and bust out laughing. That’s when you know that you’re happening: when you’re making mistakes together. (laughter)

RR: And Russell thinks, “Forget those guys. I’m playing my own tune, too.”

BS: (laughs) Right. Well, you know, that happens, too. It’s phenomenal playing with George because he’s always there. He’s always there. He’s always rock solid. He’s wonderful. Russell, too. Same thingthat groove, there’s always that big solid groove underneath it. Even though Russell plays a whole lot, he’s not just sitting back there holding down the rhythm, he’s not just holding down the groove. But he’s got a way of holding down the groove, and playing all kinds of stuff on top of it, too. (laughs) With a three-piece band you can do that. Same thing, too. It’s just one-mind work. When George and I are making mistakes, he’s right behind us doing the same thing. Reallyit’s unbelievable some nights. Some nights on stage, you’ll see us bust out laughing because
of stuff like that. “How did that happen?” But it did. We have no idea, but it did. George and I will go to the wrong chord. I’ll hit a bad chord, and George will hit the same note. “How did that happen?”

RR: What happens at rehearsals with Porter-Batiste-Stoltz?

BS: With Page, we’ll go in a couple of days early, and try to get some of Page’s stuff together, and find a couple of new things to play so it’s not just songs off of MOODOO. We’ll get him on some other stuff, too. You knowtry to find some things that he wants to do, too.

RR: It must be interesting for PBS to play in a quartet format.

BS: It’s a whole other band. Page adds that Phish sound. That Phish sound comes to PBS. He’s so much a part of Phish, so you hear that. It’s really nice because it’s different fromyou know, he plays those New Orleans songs, that New Orleans style really really well, but at the same time, he’s got his own thing happening. It’s different from the typical New Orleans style players, so it adds a really nice element that’s foreign and, at the same time, familiar. Foreign and familiar. (laughs)

RR: That’s a good definition. I was listening to MOODOO, and thinking that the common denominator is that the quartet mastered the language of funk. Someone like Page sits in with the trio, and there are different colors added, but it is still within the funk that PBS brings to the music.

BS: Absolutely. Like some of that really funky Clavinet stuff that he’s playing, I’ve got the wah wah pedal going on the other side, and it’s just this funk orchestra, and it’s so cool. It complements each other so well that we were really happy with it.

PART II Echoes
He had outgrown his former schoolmates and lived in a much-envied higher realm.Beneath the Wheel, Herman Hesse

RR: Let’s talk about your solo band. On your live album released last year, Up All Night, you state to the crowd that “it’s the best band you’ve ever had.” I think I’m paraphrasing. (laughter) You want to talk about your band for a little bit?

BS: Yeah, sure. As far as my personal bands, my solo bands, not counting PBS, or funky Meters, or Neville Brothers, my bands, these guys are just phenomenal. What I love about them is that they’re just so giving; they’re so open to whatever I bring in. They actually understand the music, they know where I’m coming from, and they don’t take the music for granted.

Honestly, I might piss some people off, but when I’ve tried to put together bands from New Orleans, I’ve always had a problem with guys taking the music for granted. They come in unprepared, and you can’t get them to really understand the music, so it’s kind of played cavalierly.

These guys not only understand the music, they understand where I’m coming from, and they put a lot of effort into it. They go out of their way to make sure it’s really happening. I’m pleased with it. They actually open their ears, and listen to what I’m playing, and they follow where it’s going. I’m trying to take that same thingyou know, I don’t want it to be just a group of songs that we come out and play exactly the same every night. I want it to be live and in the moment, just like PBS, and all those other bands. Those guys give me that. Their ears are wide open, and they come in, and they play according to how it is setup each night. On any given night, it’ll be different.

RR: What you’re saying reminds me of your solo band’s version of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire”reggae by way of New Orleans.

BS: Yeah, actually, I stole that from those guys. In my band, Kilmo [Carl “Kilmo” Pacillo], the bass player, and Jeff Renza, the drummer, also play in a band called the Shack Daddys. Along with their guitar player, they did a version of “Ring of Fire.” That’s where I originally heard it. One weekend when I was up there playing, they opened the show and they played that, and when I heard it, I thought, “God, what a killer groove. I gotta do that.” (laughs) So I just started doin’ it on my shows, and when we recorded it that night, it came out so well that I had to put it on Up All Night. I just love that kind of feel on the song.

RR: Bonefish Johnny is the guitar player in the Shack Daddys, right?

BS: Bonefish! Bonefish! Yeahthat’s pretty much Bonefish’s arrangement, and that’s where I got it from, and I’ve been doing it since because I just love it. Those guysKilmo and Jeff Renza and Bob Taylor, my piano playerset up a bed that just allows me to go up on top of it, and do anything that I want to do. I never feel like I’m struggling with the rhythm; I never feel like I have to drive it somewhere else; it’s always really relaxed, so I can sit back and sing relaxed and play relaxed, and not have to force things, and that’s when you know it’s happening.

RR: Along with the groove that is being laid down, your lyrics tend to contain very little small talk. I suppose there are passages rooted in the Woody Guthrie/Bob Dylan tradition where one wants to talk a little bit more about something other than “I miss you,” or “I love you,” or “I’ve got the blues.” Would that be fair to say?

BS: I’ve got some of those kind of songs, too. But, as a rule, even when I was younger, I listened to all kinds of stuff, but the stuff that really sticks with me, and the stuff that stands out, or the people that set a precedent for everybody else were people like Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Neil Young, Jimi Hendrix, and Bob Marley. These are people that set a
precedent that everybody tries to follow, and I guess I’ve listened to more stuff like that than anything else, so I guess, lyrically, that’s where it comes frompeople who are more real, and people that are actually saying something.

RR: So I haven’t misapplied that lyrical connection?

BS: No, not at all. Not at all. Matter of fact, I’ve been dabbling with songwriting for a long, long time, but it was, I guess, when I did the Oh Mercy album with Dylan in ’89 that I realized (laughs) I need to get to work on some of this because this guy is justI mean, I’ve always known where Bob is coming from, but to actually be in the studio with him, watch him pull his pages out and re-work them, watch his processman, that really was a moving experience. Afterwards, I just kind of found myself naturally spending more time putting more thought into things as opposed to just: “O.K. I wrote some words, we’ve got the song,” which some people do, and probably what I was doing before that.

RR: I’ve talked with Tony Hall [Neville Brothers, Dumpstaphunk, Trey Anastasio] about those Dylan Oh Mercy sessions, and he had some similar experiences, as well.

BS: Right, yeah, he was on Oh Mercy. I’ve never really had a conversation with Tony about that period, but it was a really moving experience. I was a big Dylan fan already, of course, but Bob had come out with that string of records that he made in the 80s_Empire Burlesque_ and _Knocked Out Loaded_and I liked a lot of the songs that were on some of those records, but production was weird, and they were making him sound 80s or something. It was just not really as great an album or a record as a whole.

When I heard [Daniel] Lanois was going to produce a Dylan record, I thought, “Oh, man, _finally_he’s going to close out the 80s with a bang.” It ended up being a great, great record. It was a moving experience to be in the studio with him because, you know, he’s a powerful figure, and things transform around him. (laughs) He does transform things. If you were open to it, you could get a lot out of it, and I was definitely open to it. I was trying to soak in as much as I possibly could from not only him, but also the whole Lanois experiencethe studio, and everything involved. I’ve done a lot of records and a lot of stuff and that one, by far, stands out in my memory. Just talking to you right now, it’s like I’m still sitting there, it’s just like it was yesterday. It’s been almost 20 years, and time’s flying quickly, but it doesn’t seem like 20 years has gone by.

PART III Remember A Day
It’s a corner of paradise compared to the rest of the world.In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles, edited by Jeffrey Miller

RR: A week ago today, September 4 (and today, of course, is a monumental day in history, September 11), you posted an entry on your blog about your experiences before, during, and after Hurricane Gustav. Would you like to talk a bit more about your thought process since Hurricane Katrina also impacted you?

BS: As far as going into this hurricane after Katrina, when Katrina hit, I was in India. What was hard about that was not having to deal with the hurricane, but being 9,000 miles away from home, I couldn’t find my wife, I didn’t know where my parents were, and I didn’t know what was going on. I spent four or five days in a phone booth trying to call, trying to find somebody. At the same time, when the hurricane hit, I was in Haridwar, and I had just checked into this hotel, and I walked down to the phone to call my wife. I hadn’t talked to her in five or six days. The last time I talked to her, I think I was in Badrinath, up in the mountains. The trip was winding down so I decided to call home. I had a T.V. in my room, but I hadn’t turned it on, yet.

I walked down to the phone, and when I did, it said, “Your call cannot be completed as dialed due to the hurricane in your area.” So, I ran back to the hotel real quick, and turned on the T.V., and when I did the eye of Katrina was moving across Slidell, where I live. I cannot even describe that feeling. I don’t even know where to start to tell youit was so horrible. For four or five days, I just sat in the phone booth, trying to call somebody.

I was in India, and I was there with Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, the Spiritual Head of the Himalayan Institute in Honesdale, Pennsylvania. I’ve been studying with him since ’83. Funny, when I walked back from the phone, when I walked back to the hotel that dayhorriblehe was standing on the steps, and when he saw me walk up, he said, “Brian, I forgot to tell you about that hurricane. When we were in Joshimath, I saw that it was coming, and I forgot to tell you. (laughs) He said, “Isn’t this the third hurricane that you’re with me?” I said, “Yeah.” When I thought back, I remembered that there were two times that he had asked me to come up to Honesdale for a certain period, certain dates, three or four months ahead of time. So, twice I was up there, and I escaped a hurricane.

During Katrina, again, I was in India, and the reason I was on that trip was because two years before, I had a dream to go; I had a dream that I had to go to Badrinath. So I did. While I was there, I missed Katrina. That was three times I was with him that I missed a hurricane. I missed it, but my wife had to go through it on her own, which is pretty difficultwe’ve got seven cats, (laughs) and it’s tough, and she had to go through that on her own. She packed a little Mazda with seven cat kennels, and followed our neighbor up to Oxford, Mississippififteen hours or something, just for a six-hour drive.

Going into [Hurricane] Gustav, going into this one, we didn’t know what was going to happen. The mayor of New Orleans was saying, “It was the Mother of All Storms, you’ve got to get out, you’ve got to escape.” The whole time, I was thinking, “It might be bad; it might not be bad.” My parents wouldn’t leaveyou saw that in the blog, right?

RR: Yes.

BS: They didn’t want to leave, and we ended up at my brother’s house. Although, I kept an eye on it in case we had to get out at the last minute. I was a little apprehensive about
what was going to happen, but really deep down, I was never really nervous about it. I thought it was going to do what it did, and we would be O.K. And it was fineI sat there with the doors open, and really enjoyed most of it. I thought it was a pretty pleasant day.

RR: You were also sitting at the table, reading a soothing book at the time.

BS: One Hundred Years of Solitude [by Gabriel Garcia Marquez]. (laughter) I don’t know how soothing it is.

RR: I’m being facetious.

BS: Yeah. Yeah. That cat’s pretty wild. He’s such a magical writer. Yeah, that’s how I spent the day. The doors were open, and there were only a couple of times where it got up to 50-60 MPH winds, maybe 70 MPH gusts. For the most part, I sat there with the doors open all day. There were a couple of times when I had to close it. One door opened in, and the other door, on the other side, opened out. It was like a glass outer door protector, and that one opened out. There were a couple of times where I was afraid that the wind was going to catch it, and rip it off the hinges, so I closed it for a little while. On the other side, the rain was whipping in pretty bad for a few minutes. Afterwards, I opened it up, threw some towels on the floor, and sat there with the doors open. It was great. (laughs)

RR: Interestingsomehow seeing the beauty in all the madness.

BS: Oh, yeah, man. Well, you know, I’ve been through lots of hurricanes. I’ve been through lots of them that were not dead-on, but catching the edges of it, but a lot of really bad weather, and high, high winds, and, for the most part, that’s such a powerful time. I hear people cursing them when they come. I don’t know. I just don’t really feel that way about them. Of course, when Katrina came in, it caused a lot of damage. It caused a lot of problems for people, but it also created a lot of opportunities for a lot of people, too. Not being that affected by it, I kind of have to walk down the middle. I had some damage on my house after Katrina, but nothing major. I was in India, and that trip to India ended up being a pilgrimage to Vishnu, who is the Preserver. I came home, all my family was fine, had some damage to the house, but nothing major, and I feel so blessed.

I have a metal roof on my house. In the backyard, I have a cherry tree. The cherry tree uprooted, and it leaned so gently on the house, on the roof, that it didn’t cause any damage to the roof, and my wife and I are convinced that it held the roof down. People all around metheir metal roofs got blown off, and there was a cherry tree just leaning on the roof, no damage at all, just holding it down. (laughs) How can I not feel blessed?

My house sits up on ten-foot beams and it took a nice little twist in the wind, so we had cracked sheet rock all through the house, and lots of downed pine trees. Downed pine trees were down all over the place, and none of them touched the house. They went in a circular pattern completely around the house, and not one of them hit the house. Really,
there were probably a dozen of them that could have hit the house. There were so many trees down that when I got to the house, even though the house is ten feet up, as I was coming down the road, I couldn’t even tell at first if the house was still standing or not. There was so much debris, and so many trees down that we had to cut our way in. It wasn’t until I got right up on it that I could see. “Oh, O.K.it’s still standing.”

As far as New Orleans goes, it’s been a headache, and heartbreaking to a lot of people, and it’s been a blessing to some people. Right now, where it stands, you know, I don’t knowsome people are thriving, and some people can’t come back, so that’s where it stands. There’s been a lot of great organizations, and a lot of great people comin’ down and helping outlots of church groups all over the country. There’s people still down here helping outBrad Pitt’s down here building houses in the 9th Ward. A lot of wonderful people came down, and that’s the positive side of it.

POSTSCRIPT See-Saw
The thunder’s died down to a mutter, and the window’s spatter’s gone random…Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace

RR: Beyond your work with Porter-Batiste-Stoltz and, most recently, Page McConnell, do you have solo material coming out in the near future?

BS: Yeah, that’s what I’m doing right now. I’m working on the next solo record. We’re looking at early 2009. I’m getting close to finishing. I’m actually doing some mixes on some stuff right now, but with the MOODOO album out, we want to work that for the rest of the year, and don’t want to release anything until early 2009 at this point. Soyeahhopefully, early in the year, or at least by spring, we’ll be able to get it out.

RR: Road dates, as well?

BS: Hope so. I’m kind of hoping that PBS will keep me busy. (laughter) But, you know, we’ll see. I’m thinking that’s the plan at this point: PBS is going to hit it hard.

RR: And right now, the focus is obviously a rare chance for a little bit of quartet work with Page McConnell.

BS: Absolutely. We’re really, really looking forward to that. It’s added an extra element to the band, and it has helped grow the band in different ways.

_- Randy Ray stores his work at www.rmrcompany.blogspot.com

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