There’s shows you go to in NYC when an artist from Nola comes to town, brings their funky soulful music with them, gets the crowd moving to their syncopated groove and brings that Crescent City flavor to the New York party. You see the New Yorkers do a mock second line like their in New Orleans, and it’s fun. It’s a New York party with a New Orleans soundtrack, always great. But then… every once in a while, when the stars align at just the right place, right time and with the right people… A New Orleanian in exile can close their eyes, open their ears and almost feel like they’re back home. King James and the Special Men did that for me last night, and Lord, it felt good!
Red Hook, Brooklyn, a working class neighborhood far off the beaten path, where generations of families have lived for years that’s currently rebuilding itself after being nailed by a hurricane, subsequently proved the perfect place for King James and the Special Men to serve up their New Orleans flavor. The Red Hook Bait & Tackle Bar, a former fisherman’s mercantile, adorned with taxidermied animal heads, red brick and xmas lights proved the perfect setting for this gig. Coming off a special performance outside Lincoln Center and a great July 4th show at the good ol’ Bait & Tackle, King James and the boys closed out their NYC run here in proper fashion.
Backed by a 7-piece band, made up of some of Frenchmen Street’s most seasoned veterans, a great catalogue of covers and some very colorful orginals, King James and his Special Men got the room shakin’! I happily recognized old friends Domenick Del Grillo on sax, Erick Heigel on drums and the slicked-back Porkchop Rodney on guitar. The 9th Ward’s own, Jimmy James, bandleader extraordinaire, is an institution in his own right. He’s been down in the depths of New Orleans for much longer than I can remember and has hung with many of the greats and forgotten legends that the city has produced. Anyone who’s resume includes playing the Mother-in-law lounge for years, and getting paid, non-begrudgingly mind you, in nothing but free drinks and big ol’ sack of Miss Antoinette K-Doe’s red beans and rice, is okay in my book. Not to mention the time he’s spent hanging out at Jessie Mae Hemphill’s house in the Mississippi hill country. What I’m really trying to say is Jimmy James has paid his dues sevenfold and I’m quite pleased to see him get some recognition and be able to share the music he loves. The Special Men’s catalogue drew deeply from the golden age of New Orleans Rhythm and Blues, music that changed the world and affected every rock n roller that ever followed, from the Beatles on down the list. Tunes like “The Fat Man”, “Her Mind Is Gone” and “Junko Partner” got the crowd, many of whom seemed to be from Nola, boogie-woogie-ing all over the limited dancefloor space. Meanwhile the group busted out some lively originals, penned in a similar vernacular. As James sang “I got the coldest ice in town, baby, lemme put it in yo’ box!” the crowd jeered with their tongues-in-cheek. It was just enough irreverence and mischief to make it that much more entertaining. The crowd was treated to a fabulous surprise when former New Orleans and now current Brooklyn resident, Maurice Brown joined some of his old friends onstage for a few numbers. Well schooled in the New Orleans canon of jazz and R&B along with so much else, Maurice jumped right in with the horn section like he’d been in the band for years. Brown has an incredible musical ability to arrange horn sections on the spot within seconds and in the midst of improvisation he and the Special Men’s sax players orchestrated themselves together with wonderful results. Meanwhile Jimmy James’ leads the band alternating between guitar and his trusty tambourine, shouting out to his players, showcasing their chops and seeing to it that they all sound good and greasy. His voice sounds somewhere between a fallen R&B star crooning by the wayside and hobo fresh off the boxcar from the last town bringing its song with him. The gruff of a man who’s spent a lifetime of late whiskey nights hearing cats like Coco Robicheaux tell stories that may never be heard ever again. Now if Kermit Ruffins’ had just mailed a pot of red beans to the Red Hook Bait & Tackle and heated it up for King James and the Special Men’s set, I woulda sworn I was right back home.