PortFolio Weekly

PortFolio Weekly
June 20, 2006

Boogalooing Behind the Levee

by Jim Newsom

Tommy Malone lives in New Orleans. As Hurricane Katrina approached last August, he was watching the Weather Channel, keeping an eye on the approaching storm.

“I was there two days before it happened,” he said recently. “I told my wife Saturday morning, ‘this is a monster; we’ve got to get out of here.’ I nailed up some plywood on my windows and my front door. I put all my guitars upstairs, got my wife, my cat, my dog and my daughter, and got out of there about 1:00. The way this thing looked on the tube scared the hell out of me.

“We got out kind of uneventful, crossed the causeway and drove to Jackson where my in-laws live, and then watched this whole insanity unfold until the power went out up there. Then we listened to it on WWWL radio, and just couldn’t believe what we were listening to. We spent the next four months in Jackson, Mississippi.

“I live right in the middle of it, right off of Carrollton Avenue and Orleans Avenue—close to Bayou St. John, City Park. It was pretty well destroyed; my bottom floor had to be gutted out completely and everything had to be redone. We’re just hoping we did the right thing there.”

Malone comes to Town Point Park this weekend for the Bayou Boogaloo with his band, the Subdudes. The ‘dudes were pretty popular around here in the early ‘90s on the strength of albums like Lucky and Annunciation and knockout live shows on the waterfront. They were critics’ darlings, but the stress of almost-but-not-quite busting through to the next level took its toll, and the band broke up in 1996. >{? “We’d worked very hard for a long, long time,” he told me. “Nine years on the road—you get pretty worn out.

“In May of 1996, I got sober. I had to go off to the Ha-Ha House for about six weeks, and came back and …it’s hard to describe. When you’re not around people that respect that or can even understand it, it’s very difficult. I just didn’t have a tolerance for doing all the crazy stuff, and I didn’t want to be around it. So just for fun, me and Johnny Ray [Allen, the group’s former bass player] hooked up with a couple of other people who were sober—it was a group called Tiny Town. It was just part of the healing process for me.”

For the next five years, Malone worked and recorded mostly as a solo artist, but early in 2002, he reunited with fellow Subdudes John Magnie and Steve Amedee, and within a couple of years they were back in the recording studio with new bandmembers Jimmy Messa and Tim Cook, their former tour manager. The music is as strong as ever, maybe better. The harmonies are thicker and richer, and the songs have a hard won maturity.

They recorded their latest album, Behind the Levee, last spring, just months before the levees broke. Its centerpiece is the opening track, “Papa Dukie and the Mud People.”

“That is very much a true story,” Malone replied when I asked about the song. “This guy’s name was Eddie Edwards, they called him ‘Dukie,’ and he was from Wallace, Louisiana. He had gone off in the late ‘60s and formed a band called Rhinoceros. He was the drummer. He did a couple of records for a major label, then they split apart; and apparently he had these buses with lots of hippies. They drove back and camped behind our levee there, played music, wore beads and sold weed.

“I was just getting into guitar and music in general, and to me it validated everything I was feeling. It was like being in the circus but you get to play an instrument!”

Malone and Amedee were friends back then in Edgard, forty miles west of New Orleans. (“We literally grew up across a sugar cane field from one another.”) Originally a drummer, Amedee put his kit away when they decided to pursue a more “subdued” brand of music in 1987. He does more rhythmically with a tambourine than many do with a full set of drums.

“It’s pretty fascinating,” Malone explained. “It really amounts to putting a microphone on it, turning it up really loud, and he goes through this series of preparations where he prepares the skins on the head, superglues ‘em and has a special plastic beater that he uses with it; he keeps the head very loose and manipulates the skin with his thumb like an African talking drum. And he kinda whips the hell out of it with that thing and something magical happens…it turns into this big thing, with no electronics of any kind.”

Tommy Malone is one of the most soulful singers you’re likely to hear anywhere these days.

“I listened to a lot of old Sam & Dave,” he remembered, “and Otis Redding was my favorite. But I loved Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. My father was from Mississippi, and we had a lot of country LPs, old school country. I just loved it.

“But in the other ear, we’d walk down half a block and get our little fried pie from Miss Victoria at the Honey Hush Restaurant—this was all black folks—and she’d have her jukebox with R&B and black artists. So it was a weird mix as a kid—walk down the street and get an earful of soul music, come back home and get an earful of country. And I just loved it all—that purity, the sound of those old recordings. It was so beautiful. All the instruments had their own personalities, and nothing got in the way. The vocal was always stacked way on top where you could really hear what he was saying.

“That’s what we aspire to do.”

copyright © 2006 Port Folio Weekly. Used by Permission.