Dirty Bourbon River taps into a canon

by Brian Clarey

I know we’re 800 miles from that magnificent bend in the Mississippi River, but there’s a real New Orleans vibe going down in the Triad this week, what with the Super Bowl at the Superdome this weekend and pictures of Mardi Gras parades flooding our Facebook feeds It was the perfect time for the Dirty Bourbon River Show to come through town, a quintet of native and transplanted New Orleanians who in their stage act, honed by years busking in the French Quarter, manage to cram every signature sound of the Crescent City and a few of their own design.

Billing themselves as “New Orleans gypsy brass circus rock music,” the guys opened their set at the Blind Tiger Thursday night with a number that brought to mind an old professor of mine from my New Orleans days who tended to overuse the descriptor “carnivalesque.”

Baritone sax and sousaphone laid the backbone for a fusion of the Squirrel Nut Zippers and Dr. John, while Big Charlie Skinner crooned operatically into an old-school carbon mic.

Skinner, plump and gregarious, with a haircut straight from Metairie, has “native New Orleanian” written all over him. Noah Adams, the bearded multiinstrumentalist who holds down center stage, “drifted into New Orleans” in 2008, according to the band website, but it seems he quickly embraced the musical ethos of the city.

For the second tune, a swamp polka, while Skinner played a kazoo to a cacophony of horns and keys. And then Adams pulled out a trumpet for a genuine second line. Seriously: It was all I could do to keep from breaking out into my big-step funky street stomp.

The music of New Orleans — all of it, from the brazen brass bands to the pocket funk to the weird jazz to the Dixieland, the hoodoo and the swamp pop and everything else — was the soundtrack to my life for almost 20 years; I rarely listened to anything else. And I had never heard of the Dirty Bourbon River Show, so how good could they possibly be?

But when they pulled out their second line, any prejudice I held against these guys melted away.

The rest of the set pulled from the canon of New Orleans Music. “Up to No Good” is a bluesy, lazy dirge laden with clarinet tones and slidewhistle. “Ain’t No Place Like New Orleans” brings the sentiment with a Neville-ish calypso beat that confused the crowd on the dance floor with its complex rhythms. But they came back online for “Somethin’,” another brass-heavy number with a deep enough pocket to keep at least one young lady in the front row into her sloppy-swish step throughout.

Throughout the performance I heard the voices of New Orleans: Walter “Wolfman” Washington. Galactic’s Ben Ellman. ReBirth. Anders Osborne. Johnny Adams, “The Tan Canary.” Al “Carnival Time” Johnson. James Rivers. I  heard Bourbon Street buskers and Frenchmen Street cool. I heard all the familiar sounds of my youth from these guys who were still in diapers when I came to town.

And I heard something more. “The Train Is Gone” is about as metal as an acoustic guitar and saxophone can get. “The Beast and the Man” brings a gypsy twist to the Loup Garou legend. And “Keep Those Goddamn Hippies Out of my Backyard,” for which Adams squeezed a concertina accordion, reminded me of the whimsy that I miss so much from my old home.

But soon after that the clock struck midnight, and though the band surely had hours of material left to play, it was time for me to punch my ticket. Where I once would ridden the night well past sunrise, today I have to be mindful of the hour so I can get the kids off to school in the morning. But for just a few moments on Thursday night I was back on Oak Street, back in the Marigny, back on the floor at Tipitina’s, when the music was all that mattered to me.