Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans

Keith Spera

New Orleans' history is fraught with tragedy and triumph. Both are reflected in the city’s vibrant, idiosyncratic music community. This excerpt tells of but one of the city's musicians captured in this fine book; the somewhat curmudgeonly, terribly talented Gatemouth Brown.

Excerpted from Chapter 1: Gatemouth Brown’s Last Ride, from Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans by Keith Spera, published August 2011 Copyright © 2011 by Keith Spera and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Gatemouth Brown’s Last Ride

In the fall of 1997, photographer Jennifer Zdon and I visited the notoriously cantankerous Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown at his ramshackle bayou-side bachelor’s pad outside Slidell, Louisiana. He immediately antagonized Zdon. He’d rather marry a gorilla and keep it in his lemon tree, the thrice-divorced Brown informed her, than marry another woman. Not amused, she struggled to maintain her professional composure even as Brown refused pleas to pose with his trademark cowboy hat.

Eight years later, as Brown wasted away from cancer, heart disease and emphysema, Zdon asked to document his struggle for The Times-Picayune. He agreed, with one provision: That he be allowed to preview the photographs before publication. In the end, the dying musician objected to only one image of himself, shirtless and skeletal, being helped into bed. It was too intimate, too revealing, too raw.

As evidenced by his frequently impolitic assertions and boasts, Gatemouth Brown didn’t worry all that much about other folks’ opinions of him. But to expose his own weakness so nakedly was more than he could stomach. Even Gatemouth, at some point, was vulnerable.

Zdon honored his request. The photo never ran.

Book: Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans

Author: Keith Spera

Publisher: St. Martin's Press

Publication date: 2011-08

Format: Hardcover

Length: 272 pages

Price: $26.99

Affiliate: (St. Martin's Press)

Image: black-and-red backpack never strayed from Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown’s side. Inside were the tools of the guitarist’s trade as a living legend of Gulf Coast music: copies of his latest CD; promotional photos; a Sharpie for signing autographs.

The backpack also contained personal items: a reserve sheriff’s deputy badge from St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana; assorted pipes and tobacco; an ashtray for use in establishments that didn’t ordinarily accommodate smokers.

Most critically, it concealed the realities of his precarious day-to-day existence in the spring of 2005: two portable oxygen tanks; an inhaler; an electronic blood pressure gauge; a supply of pills.

The previous September, Brown, then eighty, announced that he had lung cancer. After consulting with doctors at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, he opted to forgo treatment. He would ride it out, one day at a time, puffing calmly on the pipe that was his constant companion and a likely culprit.

Cancer was not his only ailment. He also suffered from emphysema and partial blockage in his arteries. Doctors wouldn’t risk an operation because of his diminished lung capacity.

Clearly, Brown was nearing the end of his remarkable run. During a fifty-year career, commercial success on par with that of fellow blues traveler B. B. King had eluded him. But to fans and admirers, including Eric Clapton, the broad scope of his musicianship was unparalleled. Fluent on guitar, fiddle, mandola, harmonica, drums, viola and piano, he released his seminal single, the horn-heavy instrumental “Okie Dokie Stomp,” in 1954. Like many of his roots-music peers, he faded into obscurity until European blues enthusiasts “rediscovered” him.

Brown stormed back, a font of jump blues, big band swing, country, jazz and Cajun music. Long, elegant fingers teased out precise licks; he demanded similar perfection from his musicians. “He’s a very opinionated, hardheaded person sometimes,” said Kenny Wayne Shepherd, the young blues-rock guitarist from north Louisiana who recruited Brown for his Grammy-nominated 10 Days Out: Blues from the Backroads project. “I mean that in an endearing way. If he wasn’t like that, he wouldn’t be Gatemouth.”

A string of acclaimed albums in the 1990s—American Music, Texas Style, Long Way Home, Gate Swings—found him at the peak of his powers. Clapton enlisted Brown and his band, Gate’s Express, as the opening act on arena tours of Europe and North America. Brown was riding high once again. Not surprisingly, as illness encroached on his world, he refused to relinquish it quietly.

A weekday afternoon in October 1997 found Gatemouth Brown at his home near Slidell, a sleepy bedroom community east of New Orleans on the edge of Lake Pontchartrain. His abode alongside Highway 11 teetered above a canal on wood pilings; the back porch overlooked an expanse of marshland stretching to the Big Branch Marsh National Wildlife Refuge. Parked among the banana, plum, pecan and lemon trees out front was his barge-like black 1976 Cadillac DeVille. A side window bore a caricature of him as a lean cowboy guitar-slinger.

The arrival of visitors roused him from a siesta necessitated by a late night in Baton Rouge. “Gimme a few minutes to wake up,” he mumbled, embarking on a quest for coffee and his trusty pipe. The restless Brown was rarely that idle. That July, at age seventy-three, he performed in both China and South Africa. Tours of the West Coast, France, Slovenia, Austria and Belgium followed.

Slowly coming alive at his kitchen table, he reflected on his epic life. He was born in 1924 in the southwest Louisiana town of Vinton, months before his family moved across the Sabine River to Orange, Texas. Accounts of the origin of his nickname varied. Some say the source was an exasperated schoolteacher who said young Brown’s mouth swung open and shut like a gate; others claim it was Don Robey, Brown’s first manager, who concocted “Gatemouth” as a stage name. Brown generally declined to elaborate—he planned to save the story for his autobiography.

Music abounded at home. His father, a railroad engineer, was also a bluegrass and Cajun fiddler; Brown’s brothers played guitar and drums. In his late teens, he cut his teeth with various Texas bands, then served a stretch in the Army. Back in Texas, he worked as a journeyman guitarist. One evening at Houston’s Bronze Peacock nightclub, he picked up an ailing T-Bone Walker’s guitar and improvised a song. Impressed, Robey, the club’s owner, resolved to get Brown a record deal.

Starting in 1947, Brown cut singles first for Los Angeles–based Aladdin Records, then Robey’s own Peacock label. Those early sides contributed to the development of Texas blues; the Lone Star State would continue to claim him even after he settled in Slidell in 1983.

After the blues market dried up in the mid-1960s, Brown rambled around Colorado and New Mexico. In 1966 in Nashville, he fronted the house band for an R&B-based TV variety show called The!!!! Beat; he and The Beat Boys performed alongside African-American go-go dancers in white boots and fringed miniskirts. After the show’s one-year run, he dropped out of sight.

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From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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