It was one of those New Orleans serendipitous occasions. Something that could only happen in our most magical of music cities thanks to the mysterious workings of the karmic machine.
Before leaving Calgary, Canada for this trip, I’d invested in a high quality digital camera and was feeling its capabilities by capturing those “only in New Orleans” scenes of daily life. On the long seven hour flight south, I’d finally finished Dan Baum’s Nine Lives, and of all the stories in the book, I think I was most affected by the dilemma in which the young police officer, Tim Brunell, finds himself. What should he do with the corpse of a young woman he finds lying on the street after Hurricane Katrina? Who is she? Why was she left to lie, dead and abandoned, on a desolate street?
And then, after over 10 visits to New Orleans, I finally got to take a good look around the funky and fabulous Bywater with a good Threadhead friend who pointed out Piety Street Studios as we stopped by Satsuma just steps away for a fresh juice and healthy salad.
These disparate experiences came together on the last few days of my trip. With many of the local Threadhead family out of town for a wedding in Florida, I checked the Jazzfest chat board late one night. There was our esteemed leader Chris Joseph looking for Threadheads to spend an afternoon at Piety Street Studios, picking up videos and photos of the first Nine Lives session. I immediately volunteered.
Standing on the corner outside Piety that afternoon was Justin Butts, Paul Sanchez’ young friend, and someone we’d all seen second-lining at the Nightcrawlers gig at Chickie Wah Wah two or three nights before. Justin had also answered the call for help, and he and I quickly decided that with three cameras, four memory cards and one monopod between us, we had this in the bag.
The hours flew by. First, Shamarr Allen downloaded the underpinnings of the song that Nine Lives’ police officer Tim sings to the young dead woman laying in the back seat of his patrol car. Our host, and the day’s producer (along with Shamarr) was Paul Sanchez, who’s blazed a trail in the post-Katrina era as a New Orleans songwriter, troubadour and creative instigator.
Laying down Tim’s voice was the ultra-talented Alex McMurray, and singing the role of the young, but very deceased. young lady was the lovely Arsene DeLay. Alex’s vocal completely personified the disaffected and distraught Tim for me – and when we heard Arsene’s ghostly, yearning vocals weaving in and out of Alex’s anger, we could feel the pain and confusion of a soul who’s earthly time has ended prematurely.
Of course, being New Orleans, all things serious are balanced with all things silly. I tried to keep up with meandering discussions about Jolly Rancher candy, the distinct nature of Boutté family celebrations (Arsene is a Boutté), the list of favorite meals one demands of your New Orleans relatives when you return home, and a running joke about Jesus and the consumption of swine.
It was a real treat to be included in such a special experience, and I can’t thank Paul Sanchez enough for indulging all my questions about which New Orleans musicians were cast to play my favorite Nine Lives characters. Special kudos to Arsene and Alex for bringing this poignant scene from the book to immediate life — and for leavening the day with their humour.
And as the session ended, outside Piety Studios on the corner of Dauphine and Piety, the day’s light dimmed while the memory card capturing the voices of Tim Brunell and his dead companion — and the monopod that Justin would use more than me — were packed into Justin’s backpack for the bicycle ride home.