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Published: 2004/01/30
by Jesse Jarnow

Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Joe’s Pub, NYC- 1/27


Last night, it snowed again: big, wet blobs filling the sidewalks and
streets. Inside Joe's Pub, the swanky nightclub adjunct to Manhattan's
Public Theater, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band seemed about a million miles
from their New Orleans home. During their performance celebrating the launch
of their new Preservation Hall Recordings label – and the release of its
first quartet of monumentally gorgeous albums (in every sense of the word) – band members could be caught staring wide-eyed from the stage, through the
big windows in the back of the room, out to the falling snow beyond. "We'll
never complain about the humidity again," one laughed mid-set, shaking his

There are several causes one might attribute to the reason the band had
trouble finding their groove at the beginning of their hour-and-a-half set.
The first might simply be the snow. Music – especially highly idiosyncratic
stuff like Preservation Hall, devoted to a style that was already beginning
to pass from the Crescent City in the early 1960s – is still regional. The
music doesn't simply evoke the climate of New Orleans, it is precisely
of the climate — the way the banjo strings sound (rusted just so in
the humid air), in the rhythms of their bodies (used to navigating a certain
width of street). In Manhattan, the situation is a bit different — though
it is precisely the yearning of snowbound city-dwellers for narrow streets
and tropical air that makes Preservation Hall's music as much as it does.
The music itself wasn't out of place (it was nicely escapist during a snow
storm), though the musicians might have felt that they were.

Indeed, they – especially singer/trumpeter John Brunious – seemed a bit
uncomfortable as the big lights above them whirred into place on mechanized
tracks — a far cry from the funky digs of the dingy storefront Preservation
Hall occupies in the French Quarter. Mostly, though, their discomfort seemed
musical. The band – stripped down from its usual home turf swell – played as
a drumless quartet for the first half of their set — Brunious on trumpet
and vocals, Don Vappie on (flat-picked) banjo, guitar and vocals, Benjamin
Jaffe (son of the Hall's founders) on bass, and Rickie Monie on piano. On
their album, Preservation Hall Hot 4 with Duke Dejan, that
arrangement works just fine. There's no need for drums. In Joe's Pub, the
sound felt a little empty. Likewise, Brunious and Vappie seemed a little put
off by having to sing into a microphone, restraining their voices and
missing the powerful projection that comes from the micless singing in
Preservation Hall.

But, just as soon as drummer Joe Lastie came out and struck up a marching
beat, all that changed. The band swung into perfect gear for the rest of
their set, subsuming themselves within Lastie's awesome clatter (and good
humor). The remainder of the set was a raucous party, the band's
good-hearted call-and-response vocals serving them well. When Jaffe
dedicated the set's closing numbers – "Just A Closer Walk With Thee" and the
requisite "When The Saints Go Marching In" – to Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen, a
Preservation Hall friend of long standing who was supposed to make the trip,
but passed away a week ago, the set got even more raucous — a jazz funeral
gone north. Brunious and Vappie tramped through the crowd, chaos equaling
excitement, excitement moving bodies (however rhythmless), moving bodies
being nice. Outside, the snow fell like snow, floating gently to the ground.
Inside, as the moving lights fired up to track Brunious and Vappie through
the crowd, and the room heated up, the notes began to fall differently,
zinging through the more familiar thick air and landing in great colored
splotches, hot like kisses and nice like a familiar voice wafting up from
the street.

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