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New Orleans music news and reviews.

Queen of New Orleans
Irma Thomas surveys her kingdom

July 8, 1997:  As the Superdome plays host to the third annual Essence Festival this week, a virtual Burke's Peerage of R&B royalty will descend on the streets of the Crescent City. The ranks will include the crooning kings of New Edition and those brassy barons of funk, the Ohio Players; reigning pop princess Erykah Badu and Archbishop of Gospel Kirk Franklin. But however popular these monarchs of the charts may be abroad, here they're on the home turf of the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas.

Perhaps best known for '60s gems such as "It's Rainin'" and "Ruler of My Heart," Thomas still is a prolific and active performer, with one new CD (Story of My Life) already on the shelves and another (with Marcia Ball and Tracy Nelson) just wrapped.

Still, for the average French Quarter tourist, the perception of Thomas is that she's a living legend, like Pete Fountain or Fats Domino, and not the Next Big Thing.

But that image doesn't rankle Her Highness.

"I don't have a problem with that," says Thomas. "I don't mind being called a nostalgia act, if that's what they want to call me. It's better to be thought of as something than not thought of at all."

By the same token, Thomas certainly would like to disabuse visiting audiences of the notion that New Orleans music equals old-time standards -- and that you'll only find sounds downtown.

"People are waking up and realizing that New Orleans is still a great mecca for music," she says, but "they're doing themselves an injustice when they only center on one area of the city. There's a lot of great music all over, a lot of great clubs outside of the Quarter."

And, of course, there are events such as Essence, for which Thomas is particularly grateful.

"I think it's very positive," she says. "It's for everybody who wants to attend a music festival. It's a community thing. It's good for the economy here in New Orleans, and there's a lot of local music [involved], so it gives local entertainers an opportunity to earn a living."

Beyond the action in the Superdome, Thomas continues to earn her rank as the Grand Dame of New Orleans Soul by holding court at the Lion's Den on Tulane Avenue. "And we'll continue to be there," she laughs, "until times get either worse or better." -- K.M.

Toad the Wet Sprocket
Coil (Columbia)

Toad the Wet Sprocket is one of the most under-appreciated bands of the decade. And thank goodness. Despite generating truly beautiful rock music, the California quartet hasn't experienced the sort of massive radio success that would allow commercial interests to affect its members' musical decisions. This means Toad is one of the few bands able to continue with its original musical vision. (For an antonym, refer to U2.) Following the disappointing In Light Syrup, the newly released Coil is a refreshing break from current rock radio fare. Tight and solid throughout, the disc finds a band more sure of itself than on previous efforts. While Glen Phillips' voice and lyrics still benefit from an easy familiarity, the songs here are less self-conscious than ever before, and they even venture in to harder territory (see "Desire"). "Throw It All Away" might be the band's first anthem. "Little Buddha" is a risky, melodramatic Beatles reference. And "Crazy Life" gives Todd Nichols a chance to show off his songwriting. Overall, much of Coil would be perfect radio fare -- but maybe we shouldn't tell anybody. -- K.S. (worthwhile)

The Reverend Horton Heat at Howlin' Wolf

Say your prayers, sinners. The good Reverend is here to reclaim your soul. The former Jim Heath and his disciples of devil music have brought their rockabilly revival to town once again, and there's no more satisfying spectacle this side of the Pearly Gates. Over a string of hard-driving albums and near-endless touring, the Rev has rewritten the rock 'n' roll hymnal, casting aside the tortured musings of most modern rockers for the simpler pleasures of hard living. His straight-on, two-fisted stage presence and his manic blend of rockabilly, country, swamp blues and good, old-fashioned punk sensibilities have won him countless converts and brought many a club crowd to a religious frenzy. See for yourself tonight and be born again. Showtime 10 p.m. Cover $15. -- K.M.

Average White Band at House of Blues

What a difference a couple of decades makes. Twenty-two years ago, the Average White Band scored a bona fide radio hit with "Pick up the Pieces," then began to release a chain of R&B hit singles and platinum albums that put this Scottish import at the top of the charts alongside such colleagues as K.C. & the Sunshine Band and the BeeGees. Fast-forward to the post-grunge era, however, and in the strictly-formatted world of modern radio, these bonnie lads' potent blend of soul, rock and blues can't seem to find a marketing niche to call its own. That's a shame, because as the new Soul Tattoo makes clear, these guys are still capable of turning out high-quality grooves that will set the most discriminating dance floors ablaze and send other truly average white bands with comeback hopes to the sidelines. The bottom line: tonight's show should be an eye-opener and an appropriate complement to the Essence Festival. Showtime 9 p.m. Cover $15. -- K.M.

Alvin "Red" Tyler Quartet at Snug Harbor

Visiting Frenchmen Street to catch saxophonist Red Tyler is a great way to stretch out this Fourth of July and Essence Fest weekend. Tyler is perhaps best recognized internationally as an R&B player, because he toured and recorded with the highly visible Dr. John. Back in the city's R&B heyday, Tyle alsor was extremely active in the studio. But as locals know and some have discovered, Tyler has always been a jazz man -- a player and composer -- and he is often heard around town as leader and sideman. (You may catch Tyler with vocalist Germaine Bazzle at Essence Fest.) Tonight, his quartet will include one of the most imaginative pianists anywhere, David Torkanowsky. When Tork's on a gig, you know there will never be a dull moment. And drummer Leon Anderson's presence has really been felt on the scene since he began teaching at the University of New Orleans. "He listens," says Tyler. "He always complements the musicians." Expect a mix of standards and originals from one of New Orleans' finest. Showtimes 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. Cover $10. -- G.W.

More Morris?

So New Orleans has just one truly "alternative" radio station, huh? Maybe not for long. The new owners of the city's first alternative station, 106.1 FM/The Zephyr, stunned listeners with an abrupt switch to a country-western format on May 12. But former Zephyr drive-time disc jockey Grant Morris told Gambit Weekly that all may not be lost.

"I saw a letter in the paper ("Vox Populi" June 17), and I wanted to let you know what was going on," Morris says. "I can't say too much about it yet, but a couple of the original Zephyr staff members, some wiz-kid types and me are trying to pull together a new station that is truly alternative." Morris didn't want to give too many details about the new venture, but he said the focus of the proposed station will be on "really new music."

"There's so much good music that never makes it to the radio because of [music business] politics. We'd like to play stuff from unsigned bands -- if there's a way to not be bound by business, to promote it before it's been `approved.'" Morris, a New Zealand native who became a local celebrity thanks to his first-ever radio gig on the Zephyr, says that he and his partners should know in just a few weeks if they will be able to launch the new station. And if they do get the green light, Morris says, it won't be long before the station begins broadcasting.

"Things will move very quickly if we get the go-ahead. Our appearance will be as sudden as our disappearance," he said, referring to the overnight format change instituted by Guaranty Broadcasting, the company that bought the Zephyr. As for the proposed station's transmission capabilities, a problem that always plagued the now-defunct Zephyr, Morris would say only, "We're not planning on broadcasting from a swamp. I can't tell you anymore now, but from where we want to broadcast -- you can't get any bigger."

Stay tuned for details. ... -- M.Y.

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