Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Sweet Sound of Success

By Mark Jordan

MARCH 29, 1999:  To state the obvious, New Orleans is a different place. Different from any place anywhere. Southern by geography, European by appearance, Caribbean by attitude, it has characteristics of all these locales but resembles none of them. The rhythms of life in the Crescent City are not quite in sync with the rest of the country’s — sometimes slower, sometimes faster, frequently jagged, even backward. This is a city where French is still spoken on the streets, where it’s safer to drink the margaritas than the water, and where, under the Napoleonic Code, you are considered guilty until proven innocent.

So where else could a band such as the Iguanas develop and flourish? Whereas the rest of the music industry puts a premium on youth, throwing out the old in favor of the new with the regularity of a fashion maven, in New Orleans audiences seem to like their musicians matured like a fine wine. It is as if, innately understanding that you need to live life to sing about it, they don’t trust any guitarist under 30.

Well, the middle-aged members of the Iguanas have no fear of being carded, but otherwise this quintet has all the funky energy of a band of young Turks combined with the nuanced musicianship that only comes with experience. In the best tradition of the Neville Brothers and their friends the subdudes (like them, New Orleans transplants) the Iguanas are a genre-defying group, mixing rock, Tex-Mex, salsa, and funk into something that is … well, the Iguanas.

The group formed 10 years ago when guitarist Ron Hodges and sax player Joe Carbal moved to New Orleans on the urging of the subdudes. For years the band struggled on the bar circuit, honing their sound and adding new influences as their whim and audiences demanded. This pastiche of musical styles crystallized into something uniquely Iguanas when the band solidified its lineup in the early ’90s, adding Derek Huston on second horn, René Coman on keyboards, and Memphian Doug Garrison on drums. (Garrison, whom you may remember from his long association with a number of bands that played at the North End in the late ’80s and early ’90s, first teamed up with Coman to form the Alex Chilton’s rhythm section.)

The group plays about 200 shows a year, and, as Rich Collins of New Orleans’ Gambit Weekly recounted in a recent story, over the years they have had more than their share of road adventures:

“They were nearly sucked under a tractor trailer after their van blew a tire on a remote stretch of Alabama highway. While trying to make a show in Canada, they were detained by a cranky customs agent who wanted them to pay a tariff on the T-shirts they planned to sell. Once, when their van broke down in a small Louisiana town, the guys were directed to a ‘no tell’ motel and had to decline the town sheriff’s offer to provide them with some ‘companions’ for the evening.”

Back in New Orleans, however, the band was building a solid fan base that one night included Bruce Springsteen, who jumped on stage to play a version of “Ain’t That A Shame” with the band. Another famous fan was Jimmy Buffett, who upon hearing the group play in 1993 signed them to his nascent Margaritaville label. The Iguanas recorded three albums for Margaritaville — The Iguanas, Nuevo Boogaloo, and Super Ball — before band and label parted ways in 1996.

Thanks to their tenure on Margaritaville, however, the Iguanas became a favorite of movie and television producers, with songs popping up on the soundtracks to the films Phenomenon, Jimmy Hollywood, Fools Rush In, and Under The Moon and the television series Homicide.

The Iguanas have been touring nonstop since leaving Margaritaville, and have just now made the return to disc with Sugar Town, a collection of 11 originals released just last week. Tracks like the album opener “Captured” and “Love Terrifies Me” may remind some of Kiko-era Los Lobos, while “La Llanta Se Me Ponchó” is a completely traditional Latin tune, a genre that gets a slight techno updating on “Si Amanece Nos Vamos.” “Born Again Devil” and “You Killed My Buzz” are radio-ready rockers, while “Dear Walter,” with its kitschy chorus, is bound to sink its hook into your brain. The Tex-Mex influence pops up on “La Guerra Felix.” “The Latin Kings” and “Arrimate” are a sort of Latin jazz-rock fusion. And New Orleans’ long-under-recognized R&B sound can be sampled on “Fire & Gasoline.”

As a whole, Sugar Town is a bowl filled with different exotic candies, each going down sweet and tasty.

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