Old time traditional and gospel Bluegrass
508 Frenchmen Street
New Orleans, LA
September 12, 2014
It’s 4:15 PM Friday afternoon and a fair amount of the crowd sitting at the bar and tables are yakking it up. There’s no cover charge so no investment in listening unless that’s exactly what you came to do.
The Ramblin’ Letters are undeterred. The music business is just that. It brings people in from the street which the bar/restaurant owners want, and gives the musicians a chance to play for tips (really, this is how they’re paid, so if you like what you hear, put some good denomination folding money in the tip jar or better still buy a CD).
Many musicians have other jobs. Unless you’re really good and have a following, the income stream from this kind of gigging is tenuous at best. The daily take is short money but for these guys the reward is what they get when they nail their solos or the harmonies are pitch perfect or their energy gets going in an acoustic centrifuge and comes out with a rare element not yet found on the Periodic Table.
At its best, music takes you away in a transporter, much like the one on Star Trek, when “Beam me up, Scotty,” makes all your earthly cares vanish for a brief and glorious slice of time.
Well now, a Bluegrass Band on Frenchmen Street? Why not? The street already boasts ragtime, swing, funk, gypsy and traditional jazz, blues, R&B, and rock n roll. Bluegrass, sure, baby.
This rowdy bunch of Americana musicians has been playing together since 2008.The first song in the Ramblin' Letters set is an instrumental that serves to warm the band up, get the fingers limber and the psyche settled into the “play” groove.
Watch them play together in both senses of the word. A bluegrass carousel, they shuttle back and forth trading places on the bandstand like a bunch of kids at a summer camp sing along. Their energy easily radiates to the audience.
Sure enough, each song is introduced with a bit of patter that tells us who’s going to take solos and off we go. Not a brass or percussion instrument in sight but these guys can make your feet pound the floor as good as any band on the street
True confession: I’m not a fan of Bluegrass but the free flowing spirit of Frenchmen Street called to me in the form of this band today. I’d listened to a bunch of rock, swing, blues, traditional jazz and was in the mood to push my music horizons. Advertised as Americana, Gospel. Bluegrass this band fit the bill.
Heartbreak, hard times, heartache, sly or dark humor aren’t the sole province of blues. After listening to a few songs, I see that this band sings it all, just in different tempos, with different instruments and harmonies. The banjo and fiddle are universal donors to a whole range of music. On Frenchman Street, you hear fiddles in gypsy and traditional swing bands, jazz and even a few blues bands. With its unique timbre, banjo adds steam to a host of genres – swing, jazz and even at Preservation Hall. And a mandolin, with its crisp tones a bit higher and purer than a banjo, is a fine fit for country music.
“We play at parties and have sung at the Abita Springs Opry. We’re going to be featured on the Hazel Show on WWOZ Sunday morning from 11 AM-12 PM,” says guitar player Michael Millet.
”We have a small perch in a sea of brass” Michael says. True but they’re in no danger of being knocked off. New Orleanians appreciate fine musicianship no matter what the genre.
Fiddle: Harry Handlin
Bass: Will Gordan
Guitar: Michael Millet pronounce Millay (we’re in Louisiana, remember?)
Mandolin: John Norwood (guest today)
Banjo: John Depriest
FIRST SET LIST (NOTE- The recording capabities of my digital camera could not capture the harmonies very well, many apologies to the Ramblin' Letters. Trust me, they sound sound real Kentucky in person.)
“Take Me Back To Old Kentucky”, a Kitty Wells song, they say, with lovely sharp edged harmonies that will be the hallmark of their singing for the whole set.VIDEO
“I Ain’t Comin’ Down No More” Full tilt Appalachian Bluegrass lament
There’s a brief powwow before each song, a key is chosen and off we go. Like lots of the bands I hear on Frenchman Street, the set list is decided on the fly, a formula based on the moods of the musicians and the audience response (or not) to their music. If all else fails in gaining traction, they’ll play for their own satisfaction.VIDEO
REMEMBER...the audio produced from my digital camera can't adequately reproduce the sharp harmonies of Bluegrass, apolgies to the band.
“99 Years” Uptempo song for the shooting of his lover which may or may not have been worth the cost of those 99 years. VIDEO
“Winter’s Come And Gone” a Gillian Welsh song says Harry
“The Sun Is Shining Somewhere” says Michael Millet dryly as we watch rain fall in buckets outside the door in a typical short-lived New Orleans cloudburst. “Normally the sky parts when we sing this song. It usually works when you buy one of our CDs.” Up-tempo footstomper. VIDEO
“That’s Why I’m Writing You This Letter” one of the few slow ballads today, again with sharp bluegrass harmonies these guys have mastered. VIDEO
“Broad Minded” An uptempo Lubin Brothers cover followed by slower tempo
“My Baby’s Gone” another Lubin Brothers song “cut number 7 on our CD!” with harmonies.
“Have A Drink On Jesus” uptempo Gospel song! John Norwood on mandolin makes the most of his solos mandolin fits in smoothly VIDEO
Mid tempo http://www.ramblinletters.org/sportsmans_paradise/s/have_a_drink_on_jesus
“Touch Of God’s Hand”
Not a brass or percussion instrument in sight but these guys can make your feet pound the floor as good as any band on the street.
“Cherokee Trouble” On their first CD.
Like most songs, vigorously picked, stomped, plucked with banjo taking an uptempo feisty lead followed by mandolin and fiddle.
These guys are the most libertarian band I’ve seen in some time, they can pack three or four spirited twenty-second solos in each song. These guys have a listenable formula for packing a ton of their talented musicians ship. Most songs are in the three-minute range and by the time they hit the final notes nearly everyone has had a say.
Photos and videos by Paul A. Tamburello, Jr.