In anticipation of Mardi Gras, Pandora Radio decided to throw a party. Rob Adler, who works for them in advertising sales, described it as “an attempt to encourage our clients to get out of their musical comfort zone and discover New Orleans music. At Pandora, we’re all about music discovery.” And to this end, they did it right.
An exclusive crowd of approximately 200 lucky people was invited to Sullivan Hall in the West Village for a taste of what that club does better than anyone else in New York since the greatly lamented closing of Tramps. In addition to food and an open bar, we got to hear some great music. Big Sam’s Funky Nation [I previously reviewed & described them as the perfect party band] treated those in attendance to an energetic hour-long opening set that included the crowd favorite mash-up of Gnarls Barkley’s Crazy, Cee Lo’s Fuck You and Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance. And after a short break, an All-Star band took the stage for two hours of pure spontaneous jamming in the spirit of the Crescent City.
The legendary George Porter Jr. flew in from N’awlins to lead a five-piece band that included Big Sam Williams on trombone, Marco Benevento on keyboards, Will Bernard on guitar and BSFN’s “Milk” Williams on drums. With no prior experience playing together and little more than 30 minutes of discussion and a few quick lessons from George in the dressing room, the band treated the audience to a rocking set. Amongst the songs played were The Meters’ classics People Say and Just Kissed My Baby from 1974’s Rejuvination and their 1969 instrumental Pungee from Look-Ka Py Py. George also led them through a funky Blues cover of Mississippi Fred McDowell’s You Gotta Move made famous by the Rolling Stones and even referenced Sly Stone’s Sex Machine at the tail end of the song.
The set had a very loose feel to it. This came mainly from a bunch of talented musicians playing familiar music even if they didn’t particularly know all the songs as well as Mr. Porter. But in the spirit of the event, the band functioned just like the Music Genome Project that was the foundation for Pandora: it played a random mix of music that one can associate to New Orleans and its musical tradition.
Benevento worked his Baldwin piano, Rhodes and Hohner Clavinet keyboards. Bernard played the funky staccato rhythms and fills along with some tasty leads (even a little slide). Williams played the perfect foil to Porter adding backing vocals and dance moves to go along with his inspired trombone playing. And as the one band member who didn’t even sit in for the “rehearsal,” “Milk” was the glue that held it all together with his funky drumming. And as for the man himself…is there anyone who understands the history of American music that could ever question what George Porter Jr. brings to the plate?!?
But the best part of the night came just after the set ended and the last of the invited guests had exited. With only a few of the friends of the band left mingling with the staff of the club and some Pandora employees, the DJ put on some “play out” music. The first song was perfect for the night: Fats Domino’s Blueberry Hill. With Will Bernard and Big Sam already off the stage, Marco started to play along with Fats’ rolling piano. “Milk” joined in on drums and George sung along. When this ditty ended, “Milk” left the stage as well. Then something truly special occurred. The DJ played Elton John’s classic Bennie & The Jets and Marco again played over the track. The few of us left in the crowd started to cheer and sing along, so George sort of faked the vocals as he smiled that huge smile that only George can. And then George walked over to the drum kit, sat down and played the beat while Marco kept tickling the ivories.
And finally the night was over and it was time to “log off,” to go home. But just like using Pandora, for many in attendance it was a chance to hear some new music. And for the few of us already well versed in the genre, it was a really special night. It was the type of night that will be cherished for quite some time to come. And the perfect way to get in the mood for Mardi Gras…