"Blue Sunshine" album review "Offbeat" magazine
The Asylum Chorus are back with their second EP, Blue Sunshine. Over the years they have been crafting their sound, layer by layer, developing from an a capella group singing spirituals into a band with a definitive identity. With each subsequent release they have introduced new musical influences into the mix, culminating in a blend of spiritual neo-soul roots-rock interlaced with intricate vocal harmonies.
They hit their stride with their previous EP, Take a Piece, but that doesn’t mean they’ve stopped experimenting on this release.
Blue Sunshine follows the formula of their previous EP in that its seven songs serve as platforms for each vocalist. “Leave That Phone Alone”, “Something to Burn,” and “Sunshine” adhere most closely to the feel of their previous album. “Calling” comes from the same place, but stands out from the rest with its Indian tabla rhythm and genuine vocal from Sybil Shanell. “Get That Get Back” and “Spot Removal” are the most adventurous tracks in that they’re more highly produced and pop-influenced than anything the group has done before. “Changing Time” features the ear-catching baritone of Lucas Davenport and has a hip-hop funk kind of feel that could be an interesting new direction for the group.
Always evolving and pushing the limits, the Asylum Chorus continues to be a unique band. Where will they take us next?
Amy Trail performs at the Historic New Orleans Collection during French Quarter Festival (Photo Erika Goldring)
“Cold Springs” album review via Alex Rawls’ “My Spilt Milk” website
For a long time, I’ve considered Kerry Grombacher the only western – as opposed to “country” – artist in New Orleans. It’s a limited genre, one almost defined by Ian Tyson and songs about people whose lives are shaped by a place where there are miles between houses and the horizon is epic. That framework occurred to me listening to Amy Trail‘s new Cold Springs EP, and the photos on her website made it obvious: Trail with an old Airstream, in a log cabin, in a forest, by a stream in winter shrouded in mist. Not a Ninth Ward landmark or second line scene in the bunch.
The Idaho-born Trail opens the EP with “There Ain’t Nothing There,” a song about the death of a connection to a place, and she does so with an arrangement that suggests the space between people and communities. She sings with a warm stoicism, one that lets the sense of loss sink in slowly. When she belts out counterpoint lines late in the song, they sound like musical choices more than anxious attempts to make sure no one missed the drama. “Back to the Desert” is a blues stomp that takes a desert not as something to be feared or endured but as an energizing challenge.
Cold Springs is unified by its lyrical concerns, even the seeming outlier, “Evel Knievel.” His great failure – to jump the Snake River Canyon – took place in Idaho, but more than that, Knievel in his heyday had a cowboy’s poker-faced swagger. Bon Jovi’s clubbed the motorcycle = steel horse connection to death, but that doesn’t mean he’s wrong.
Still, Cold Springs does seem to step away from the Americana musical vocabulary with “Evel Knievel.” A swinging shuffle drives the song with rock punctuations, and percolating congas add an internal busyness to “Looking for a New Life (Elizabeth),” a song largely built on occasionally strummed chords that are allowed to hang. Both songs work. Trail’s voice is up to the task of carrying the day on “Looking for a New Life (Elizabeth),” but the musical shift blurs the EP’s focus at the end of its six-song sequence.
Trail has found musical ground that allows her to address the world she’s known, and Cold Springs has a forthright integrity running through it – not as a selling point but as part of her artistic profile. That gives the EP a strong backbone, so even when I don’t believe in every musical decision, I believe in her.
Article from "Breakaway" magazine.
Photo by Scott Henrichsen
Nola.com best bet, CD release party, "Lonesome Man"
"Love is All" album review "Offbeat" magazine
...Wrapping up the friendship theme, “Girlfriends” (one of two songs here written by Amy Trail) erupts into a gospel-ish chorus of “Ain’t gonna be shut down.” The sisterhood doesn’t just sound powerful, it sounds like the best party in town.
"Take a Piece" album review "Offbeat" magazine
If this debut EP were only an excuse to create a supergroup out of organist Joe Krown, drummer Doug Belote, and Groovesect and Gravity A guitarist Danny Abel, it would demand attention, but the Asylum Chorus is just that—eight of the city’s finest vocalists gathered together as a bulwark of sorts against ignorance, not so much a glee club with balls or even a chorale covering rock but a Crescent City Staple Singers writ large, complete with their own in-house songs, trained in soul but also the very definition of musically multipurpose.
Nevertheless, gospel righteousness fuels everything they do here—six songs which promote love, inclusion, truth and spiritual fortitude in a world which appears to have given up on them all. (“Buy new shoes and we keep on walking. The truth depends on whoever’s talking.”) And eight vocalists just means there’s more of them to love: Five of the eight get to sing their own words, which means you can enjoy the flavor of their individual personalities just like they were a boy band for smart adults.
Amy is the romantic with the electric piano. Roan wants a lover with a brain. Hannah keeps her eyes on the prize, while Sybil knows the odds are against her and Lucas is determined to lead the charge. If that sounds dismissive, it isn’t meant to be: The Grammys, in particular, are dying for a positive, progressive blended family of roots-music powerhouses just like this. As for the other three voices, they need a spotlight, too. But that’s what the full album is for. And they will get one.
"The Asylum Chorus" profile "Offbeat" magazine
“We decided to go bust and do our regular set anyway,” Asylum Chorus founder and director Lucas Davenport recalls of the ensemble’s 2015 French Quarter Fest appearance. Rained out from their Sunday afternoon BMI Songwriter Stage set inside the Historic New Orleans Collection’s courtyard, the vanguard vocalists’ spontaneous, show-must-go-on spirit paid dividends. “Allen Toussaint walked by, stopped, tipped us, left and then came right back to watch the rest of the show,” Davenport adds. “That’s an all-time highlight for us.”
Davenport talks over coffee in the kitchen of the bright, cheerful Gentilly home of bandmate Amy Trail, whose husband and four-year-old son mill about the group’s standing weekly Tuesday lunch-hour(s) rehearsal with amicable ease. The gathering is another installment in what Trail jokingly describes as “a six-to-one rehearsal-to-gig ratio, an anomaly in New Orleans music.” Certainly the culmination of a unique artistic vision in a city brimming with them, the Asylum Chorus (the name recently abbreviated from St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus), began on November 11, 2011 (yep, 11/11/11) as “a one-off performance of New Orleans musicians who don’t normally sing unaccompanied,” Davenport explains. “We were invited to do a Sunday show at Preservation Hall of some spirituals and some sing-alongs. That’s all we ever intended to do. But everyone loved it so much that we decided to keep on doing it.”
The name change to simply Asylum Chorus came about not just because, as Davenport says with a laugh, “we were afraid of causing too much confusion in a town so heavily Catholic.” It marked a changing point for the band, now consisting of, in addition to Davenport and Trail, Sybil Shanell, Ashley Shabankareh, Melanie Gardner, Mike Cammarata, Roan Smith and Hannah Kreiger-Benson.
With divergent influences from old-school funk to hip-hop to singer-songwriter to neo-soul, the re-branded, re-focused outfit is once again scheduled to appear on the BMI Songwriter Stage this French Quarter Fest. The Asylum Chorus’ eight singers will play musical chairs between their instrumentation of drums, bass, guitar and keys. While this 30-minute set will likely feature trademark a capella vocal harmonies floating behind the beat of classics such as “I’ll Fly Away” or “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?,” new songs recorded for a forthcoming EP could bring in the Quintron church-funk of “How Many More” to the dirty-blues field song of “In the Cane.”
“We’ve become a lot more focused on original material, because that’s what reflects all our disparate styles and that’s what’s interesting to us,” Davenport says. “We’re an original band as opposed to a spiritual homage. We know who we are now.”
"Cold Springs" album review "Offbeat" magazine
Local songwriter/pianist Amy Trail’s third solo album pushes home writer Thomas Wolfe’s axiom held in the title of his 1940 novel: You Can’t Go Home Again. In a long, noble tradition spanning Lafcadio Hearn to Lenny Kravitz of artistic wanderlust following its muse to New Orleans, Trail road-tripped to New Orleans at the dawn of the millennium, leaving her native Idaho in the rearview mirror to find years of labor-of-love in nightclubs, most notably her long-standing residency behind the piano at Pat O’Brien’s, where she has performed requests en route to learning a repertoire in the thousands.
Over Cold Spring’s six racks, she imbues this musicianship into stark, sliced-to-the-bone narrative songwriting about the recent deaths of her father and grandparents in far-off Idaho, a once-familial place now fading in present-day’s shadow of life as a wife, mother and musician working in New Orleans. Spreading honey-butter vocals over verses about universally painful life experiences on opening track “There Ain’t Nothing There,” Trail’s vocals are on fine display, evoking a Stevie Nicks-meets-Shannon McNally vibe (though several tracks detour into some odd vocal territory).
Her considerable piano chops come accented here by Ryan Clute (guitars), Chris Cedaris [sic] (guitar, mandolin), Jeff Mills (drums), Anthony Cuccia (percussion), Emelie Guidry (backing vocals) and Rex Gregory (flute). Cold Springs (a title in homage to her native Idaho) was recorded and mixed by Rick G. Nelson at Marigny Recording Studio. Tune into OffBeat’s Look-Ka Py Py Podcast to hear Trail’s humorous, heart-felt tales and live performance of “There Ain’t Nothing There.”
Singer-songwriter Amy Trail, moved in 2001 to New Orleans from the bucolic canyons of Idaho to pursue a degree in Jazz studies from the University of New Orleans.
Here is my entire interview with Amy Trail:
Profile "Times-News" newspaper
TWIN FALLS, ID
The idea for Amy Trail’s upcoming album came out of a difficult time.“Basically, the beginning of the record was inspired by the deaths of both of my grandparents and father within the last year,” she said.
The 33-year-old Jerome native — who’s a professional singer/songwriter and pianist in New Orleans — was spending more time in Idaho and realized that she missed the beauty and open spaces.
Her latest album, called “Cold Springs,” became inspired by her Idaho upbringing.Trail is planning an unconventional release for the album. She said she’ll release a song every week starting in April. Songs will be available for free download on her website at www.amytrail.com.“Hopefully it will be getting people interested in Idaho and learning more about it,” Trail said.
As a professional musician, Trail works at Pat O’Brien’s piano bar in New Orleans. She describes her musical style as “just a rootsy kind of music with a soul vibe with some hint of a jazz influence.”Trail said she wanted to create a musical project that would reflect her Idaho heritage and honor her ancestors.
“Idaho is really underrepresented in terms of music,” she said.There aren’t many Idahoans who are nationally recognized musicians. And there isn’t necessarily a particular musical sound coming out of the Gem State, Trail said. So she wants to define a Northwestern sound.
After graduating from Jerome High School in 1998, Trail enrolled at the College of Southern Idaho as a music student.“For me, it wasn’t ever really an option to study anything else,” she said.
Trail played in the jazz ensemble at CSI back when Jim Mair was the director.“He was one of my biggest inspirations as far as making a career in music,” she said.
As Trail’s time at CSI came to a close, she searched for a school to further her education.That’s when she came across the University of New Orleans, where she ended up earning a bachelor’s degree.“University of New Orleans has one of the best and only jazz vocal programs in the nation,” she said.
Mair, now the director of instrumental music at Kansas City Kansas Community College, said in his 18 years as a college professor, Trail is among the top 1 percent of students he has worked with.
“I’ve been very impressed with the development of her voice, her piano skills and her compositions,” he wrote in an email to the Times-News. Mair recruited Trail for CSI’s jazz program while she was at Jerome High School.
In addition to playing in CSI ensembles, Trail also had her own band — Missing Josephine — that played a few times a week around the Magic Valley.
Jeff Fox, CSI’s executive vice president, collaborated with Trail back in the late 1990s to record a couple of CDs.Fox said Trail is a talented vocalist and instrumentalist, and has an innovative style.“Amy has a vision of the way she perceives the world through music,” he said.
Fox also described Trail as caring, giving and compassionate.“She’s just a wonderful person,” he said.
Sue Miller, associate professor of music at CSI, said what she remembers most about Trail as a student was her natural ear.“I gave her a composition assignment and her ear dictated the sound she wanted, which was way beyond 1st semester Music Theory,” she wrote in an email to the Times-News. “I felt she had a natural gift for music. She was a pleasure to have in class.”
"Location, Location, Location" profile "Offbeat" magazine
by Courtney Young
Amy Trail knows she shouldn’t be doing this. It’s midnight at Pat O’Brien’s, and the line to get in the piano bar grows steadily once capacity has been met. Inside, a mosaic of hurricanes clutter the tables as sloshy couples continue to order more. Tourists flood inside with their necks adorned with Mardi Gras beads toasting the bachelorettes of Sylvia’s bachelorette party on one end of the room. Nearby, a slurring Ole Miss fan berates a dismissive LSU Tiger fan over SEC domination, all while Amy Trail belts out the greatest hits behind her piano.
“We get to celebrate not only our brown-eyed girls, but also our green-eyed girls,” Trail says. “I’m a green eyed girl myself.” Trail begins to play Van Morrison’s “Brown-Eyed Girl” and the classic is greeted with uproarious claps and chants by the audience as they sing every slurring syllable. Trail continues for another hour, cuing the audience for their requests, but Trail has greater talent than singing the top 100. She’s just completed her fifth album, Lonesome Man, and she wants to advance her art and career, but playing the favorites pays the bills.
“Bourbon Street is one of the few places in the city where musicians can actually make a decent living; it’s a steady gig,” Trail says. “Once you’re in it, you’re really tied to it, and it’s hard for you to do outside performances.” Trail’s Wednesday through Saturday night gig at Pat O’Brien’s offers a convenient schedule week to week plus financial security that many musicians struggle with—at least those who don’t balance more than one job. The financial stability of her lucrative weekly gig offers a dilemma that Trail has been mulling over—stay on Bourbon Street hoping to be discovered, or pursue a solo career with far less financial stability? In a business built on the notions of cool, Trail faces the challenge of establishing herself as a songwriter and artist while her principal gig is playing the top 100 at Pat O’Brien’s, where she’s been since 2004.
“It’s something I really struggle with,” Trail admits. “Do I want to give up the financial security and everything that goes along with having the Pat O’ gig, or going out and playing other gigs that could introduce me to a different market and expand my personal music?”
The rural Idaho native came to New Orleans in 2001 hoping to find the culture and diversity that her hometown lacked. Trail enrolled at UNO to pursue a degree in Jazz Studies. “I didn’t really fit in that box so well because I mainly studied jazz to learn about the intricacies of harmony and improvisation.”
As she worked to make a place for herself in New Orleans, Trail was introduced to another challenge.
“There’s definitely a ‘Who the hell are you?’ type of vibe when you first come down here and get into the scene,” Trail says. “Once people hear you and you prove yourself, people are very accepting.” But Trail admits she’s uncertain if she’s received that nod of approval from the music scene of the city.
Trail was given word of the gig at Pat O’s through a friend. She endured a three-month auditioning process during which she was instructed to learn 100 songs, the most-requested songs by customers at the piano bar. Trail described the musical homework as learning “the basic tourist songs” ranging from “Piano Man” to “Margaritaville.” “Pat O’s is one of the weirdest gigs in that you play from any genre of the decade, every artist,” Trail says. “I’ve played everything from standards, to country, to heavy metal, to Lady Gaga.”
Trail admits that her time spent performing the classics at Pat O’s has influenced her personal songwriting by incorporating more experimental sounds into her soulful, R&B beat.
“I’ve explored country sounds and traditional pop sounds,” she says. “So I guess my music has shifted from that original (R&B) album (2005’s Amy Trail), but my original tenets still remain soulful.”
Trail’s immediate goal is to book more festivals, play a gig in the early evening and still make it to work at Pat O’Brien’s at night.
“I’m trying to put my feet in both worlds, keeping that steady gig, but also do records on the side and continue to be a songwriter,” Trail says. “Maybe do something that I don’t know if anyone has done: Do a Bourbon Street gig and continue pursuing my personal gig.” She’ll have a CD-release party for Lonesome Man at The Maison on July 25.
“Eventually, I hope that my music will be able to connect with somebody somewhere and I’ll have that as a possible career path,” she says. “Maybe I’ll eventually get off Bourbon Street, maybe not. Who knows?”
"True Romance" profile “New Orleans Living” magazine
by T. J. Stranova
Ah, the smoky lounge… mysterious and romantic… the background of movies and memories. Here in New Orleans, we are fortunate to have many of these classic scenes. One favorite place for both tourists and locals is Pat O’Brien’s piano bar.
Walk in any afternoon or evening and you will find dueling singer-pianists knocking out classic tunes, from “American Pie” to “Sweet Caroline”. On many nights at Pat O’s you will encounter a very special musician, Amy Trail.
Trail is not your average lounge singer covering old standbys and customer requests. This month, Trail releases her fifth studio album, “Lonesome Man” which was recorded locally at Piety Street Records. The album was composed over one year and according to Trail, most of the songs follow the inception and ultimate demise of a romance. It encompasses “a phase most women go through in their life,” says Trail, “trying to connect with someone that maybe is not on the same page. Basically falling for the wrong guy.” She described the first few songs as being about the beginning of a relationship-the butterflies you feel at first and then it moves on to the middle part where you start thinking that things are not going so well. And then it goes on to the demise of the relationship.” Regarding the album title, Trail says, “That “lonesome man” is a phrase that reminds her of a person who just doesn’t feel comfortable letting another person in. It is someone who is always alone, even when they are with someone they love.” Is the album autobiographical? That is something that you have to ask Trail herself.
Despite the serious inspiration, the album is far from a collection of melancholy ballads. In fact, many of the tracks are rollicking, high energy offerings that inspire the listener to tap their toes, bob their heads or shake their bodies to the upbeat grooves and melodies. Trail’s robust, rousing vocals perfectly compliment her powerful piano playing and the talents of her outstanding band members. At various points in the album, Trail brings to mind Bonnie Raitt, Carole King, Grace Potter and even Aretha Franklin. In fact, the individual songs stand so well by themselves one can easily forget they are part of a larger narrative.
After nearly 10 years in the city, Trail intensely feel the rhythm and pull of New Orleans, and it is difficult envision her back in her native Idaho. She seems much more in tune with the beat Bourbon street then the panoramas of the Rocky mountains. Maybe it was something she was born with, as she admits New Orleans always had “this weird draw for me” and this ultimately led her to enroll in UNO’s prestigious jazz voice program. Once down here, Trail says that New Orleans “infected me with its wonderful awesomeness,” impressed her with how it is “so saturated with music” and made her feel “so it home, that it feels more like home to my actual home.” Having spent so many years as a French Quarter lounge singer, Amy Trail has probably absorbed more New Orleans wasn’t into her essence than most natives. Even so, she is not anywhere near done with the city. Trail plans on being here for a long time, and this is good news to those who want to hear her bust out some rootsy soul-pop twinged with a bit of jazz.
"Pat O'Brien's: The Songs Remain the Same" profile “Offbeat” magazine
by: John Swenson
On Halloween night, Pat O’Brien’s piano bar was packed with costumed quaffers getting wild and singing along drunkenly to everything from “Elvira” to “Rocket Man.” A guy dressed as an oil rig worker came up to the piano and handed Amy Trail a note written on a napkin. Trail read the note: “I want to hear ‘Friends in Low Places’ by Garth Brooks, and Julie, will you marry me?” Trail looked a bit askance, but the crowd roared and the guy got down on his knees to present his geisha-costumed girlfriend with a giant toy ring. Though she appeared a bit uncomfortable, Julie accepted the ring and the room shook with applause.If these people should indeed end up getting married, they would join hundreds of other couples who’ve claimed to have either met or proposed (or even gotten married) at Pat O’Brien’s.
“We have weddings and wedding parties all the time,” says O’Brien’s spokesperson Shelly Oechsner Waguespack, a third generation Pat O’s lifer whose father is the current owner. “People send us photos of themselves from 50 years ago when they first met here. They consider us family. It’s part of our history.”
No city reveres its history more than New Orleans and on December 3, the French Quarter will celebrate a particularly noteworthy moment when Pat O’Brien’s celebrates its 75th birthday. The heart of the party will collect around the flaming fountain that graces the rustic 4,000 square foot, 18th Century brick and wrought iron courtyard patio connecting the two street entrances that make up the complex. But the merriment will also spill out onto a St. Peter Street block party with live music from the Bucktown All Stars.
The indoor bars are filled with odd memorabilia meant to signify long-held traditions and forgotten secrets, like the story behind the 502 German steins hanging from the ceilings. But the most striking element of Pat O’Brien’s is the piano bar. Like so many other New Orleans institutions, this setting is imbedded in the dreamscape of this city’s consciousness, something that could not be reproduced anywhere else in the world even if it were copied down to the last detail. The room originally housed the first theater in New Orleans, built in 1791, and it still has the feel of a small playhouse. Along the far wall is a stage holding two polished brass grand pianos that face each other. At night, two piano players work the room; between them is the world’s only tray player, a percussionist who plays his instrument, a metal tray, by tapping on the bottom of the tray with thimbled fingers. The relationship between these musicians and the audience is crucial to the piano bar’s aesthetic, because the players are required to engage the patrons in the performance by any means necessary.
Ideally, every song is a request written on paper napkins and accompanied by folding money. The pianists encourage the audience to include information about themselves—where they’re from, who they’re with, likes and dislikes. This whole exchange may seem trite and repetitive, but if you watch carefully, it’s an elaborate courtship. A good Pat’s O’s pianist will get a handle on as many as a dozen groups in the room at a time, working to them, getting feedback from them, pitting one against the other or getting them in synch with each other.
Did I mention drinking? This organized mayhem is all about the alcohol, a great sea of mostly rum that ebbs and surges as the groups pour in and get hammered, then move on. Most of the people coming to the place understand the nature of this particular ritual, which is a markedly different way of getting hammered than what is going on just around the corner on Bourbon Street, something a bit more stylish.
Perhaps it’s not so odd, then, to consider that all this would not have been possible without the 18th Amendment, which prohibited Americans from drinking alcohol, and the 21st, which repealed it. Pat O’Brien’s Club Tipperary, as it was originally called, was a speakeasy that required the password “Storm’s brewing” to gain entrance. When drinking became legal again in 1933, Pat O’Brien’s at the corner of Royal and St. Peter was ready for business. By the time O’Brien and his partner Charlie Cantrell moved up the block to the current location at 718 St. Peter in 1942, drinking was not only legal, it was as popular as the American institution of cigarette smoking, and magnificently celebrated in Hollywood films.
Pat O’Brien’s became legendary at this new location, largely due to another unlikely circumstance. Wartime rationing made it difficult to obtain liquor except locally produced rum. New Orleans bartenders were at that point the world’s greatest cocktail makers, and the crew at Pat O’s came up with what would become its trademark, the hurricane cocktail of rum and fruit juice. Serving it in a stemmed glass shaped like a hurricane lamp, a white elephant of a drinking cup practical for no other use than to promote the drink, was a stroke of genius.
Like a lot of other bars in those pre-jukebox days, entertainment was provided by a piano player, and in the early days of Pat O’s, that piano player was the raven-haired, bourbon-drinking Mercedes, whose fame in the Quarter was such that she needed no last name.
“Mercedes obviously loved what she was doing; she had a great personality and she reacted to the crowd so well,” says Miss Inez, a French Quarter historian and bon vivant who’s been going to Pat O’s for over 50 years. “She was just one of those people that found her niche in life and came to love it.”
One day, a local drummer named Eddie Gabriel decided to play some improvised percussion with Mercedes and the Pat O’Brien’s position of tray player was born.
“Eddie was the original tray tapper,” says Waguespack. “He basically just jumped onstage and started doing it. Eventually he got on the payroll.”
Gabriel played the tray for over 50 years, eventually handing the job over to another Pat O’s lifer, Alvin Babineaux. Babineaux’s mother was one of the club’s pianists, and he has worked various jobs at the place since he was 18. He started in on the tray in 1973.
“Alvin is the last of the tray players,” says Amy Trail. “Mr. Eddie started it, but Alvin has perfected it. He imitates an entire drum kit with his feet and his two hands on the tray.”
Babineaux, a short, heavily muscled man, has the resolutely positive attitude of a vaudeville trouper, and when he bounces around playing the tray with a campy insouciance, the audience reacts to his energy. He is dead serious, though, when it comes to describing his tray playing.
“When I started playing the tray, the old broads would shout, ‘Hit it, Alvin! Hit it! Hit It!’ I would say, ‘I am hitting it,’ and they’d answer ‘We can’t hear you.’ So basically, the old broads taught me to really hit it. I had to work on my hands to build enough strength into my playing. You’ve got to really give something to the rhythm.”
“It was sheer fun,” recalls Miss Inez. “The piano players played requests for popular songs and a lot of fight songs from the universities. They catered to everything local back then, whereas today it’s more geared toward tourists. When you went into Pat O’Brien’s back then, you always saw somebody you knew. That’s how local it was. People dressed up to go there. Whoever was playing the Blue Room inevitably ended up at Pat O’Brien’s. Mary Martin was in there one night when I was there; Carol Channing was in there, a lot of politicians used to go there. Everybody wanted to go in because it was fun. To this day, the locals, when they come downtown just for old time’s sake, they all make a pass through Pat O’Brien’s.”
Scores of pianists have worked at Pat O’s over the years. Every one is different and some of them have put a unique stamp on the performance style, influencing everyone who’s worked with them. One who stands out is Barbara Bennett, who worked for 49 years until she retired just before Katrina. Bennett was among the most outgoing personalities on the job, a quality that counted more for her than musical ability.
“I had no idea what I was doing when I started out, but I was fearless,” she admits. Back then, she was a close friend of Jerry Lee Lewis and she must have been quite a looker. “Jerry taught me a few tricks on the piano that went a long way,” she recalls.
Bennett probably witnessed more changes than any other Pat O’s keyboardist, but one stands out for her.
“The biggest change I remember in terms of what people wanted to hear was in the ’70s, when country music became very popular,” she says. Though Hank Williams and Patsy Cline had long been in their repertoire, Waylon and Willie and the rest of them gave the piano players lots of new material for patrons to sing along to. In fact, Kenny Rogers’ “Lucille” has become a regular Pat O’s sing-along, and customers are encouraged to comment on the lines of the chorus, shouting “You Bitch!” “You Slut!” and “You Whore!” And they do. Every time.
“People like to yell out bad words when they’re drunk,” says traymeister Babineaux. “When they come in they’re quiet, they might be with their mother-in-law or their boss and his wife. But after a few hurricanes, they’re acting like idiots.”
Babineaux thinks the current lineup of pianists is the strongest group he’s ever seen. Vicki Amato and Henrietta Alves are the veterans in terms of service, and Jan Reeks will celebrate her 20th anniversary behind the keys at Pat O’s in March.
Reeks is a kind of transitional figure in that she doesn’t fit the mold of the lifer, yet she has worked her way up to become one of the veterans. A classically trained pianist, she’d never set foot in Pat O’Brien’s or played contemporary popular music on the piano before trying out for the job.
“I was playing in places like Feelings Café, mostly background music,” she says. “A friend of mine who was working there at the time told me how great the money was and what a good time everyone had. I had heard there were two old ladies working who had been there 100 years. My agent told me not to work there because all the piano players were really men with sex changes.
“The first day I worked there, I didn’t know if I could make it through the day. I only knew about 10 songs and Henrietta and Carmelita knew a million songs. It was so intimidating. I kept playing the same songs over and over and hoping no one would make a request.”
The other piano players shared their sheet music with Reeks and within a couple of weeks she had expanded her book to 50 songs. Today, she has sheet music for about 3,000 songs and is constantly adding new material.
“Everybody has their own songbook, and no two are alike,” she points out. “But there are about 100 songs that we do all the time. They call them the core songs, and everybody knows them. There are lots of people who don’t want to work at Pat O’Brien’s because they don’t want to have the play the songs we do over and over again. But it can be fun. I have already played ‘Piano Man’ more times than Billy Joel has in the 20 years I’ve been here.”
Even musicians who have career aspirations to play their own music value the experience (and money) they get playing Pat O’s. Amy Trail has already released several albums of original material and looks forward to doing more on her own.
“At first I did it for the money,” she says. “It’s one of the few music jobs in New Orleans that you can actually make a good living at. That was the initial draw. I was prejudiced at first because I had studied jazz at college and my attitude was; I wasn’t going to sell out by playing something that wasn’t meaningful to me. But there’s a deeper level I didn’t realize. People come from all over the world to hear a song that means something to them. I really started to get it after Katrina when I was away for awhile and I missed playing for that audience who was so happy you played the song they wanted to hear. It’s like a teacher teaching DNA to sophomores year after year. I’m sure it gets boring, but when you see the reaction of the students who are into it—that’s what makes it worth doing.”
Trail also points out that the experience has helped her improve as a musician.
“I’m so much of a better singer and so much of a better piano player because I spend four hours a night playing the American pop repertoire,” she says. “You learn a lot about how harmony works and what makes hit songs. It’s really helped my ability as a songwriter to have spent so much time inside other songwriters’ heads.”
Of the younger players, Kristen Cady probably comes closest to fitting the old mode. A former hairdresser, the red-headed Lake Charles native belts out her tunes with a bawdy edge and has a distinctly southern attitude, taking a delight in the lyrics of “Sweet Home Alabama” that you don’t hear in the voices of the other singers.
“I finally feel like I know what I’m doing,” she says. “I’m not the best piano player, I’m not the best singer, but I’m a good entertainer and I know what to do to get the audience to be happy, have fun and buy drinks. I’m a southern girl, so it took me a while to reconcile being bawdy and still be a lady. I had to put myself in that ‘hot mama’ role, like a kind of Mae West figure, like all these old broads like Bette Midler, that kind of thing.”
Joel Jambon, the newest piano player and the only man in the dueling pianos lineup, has added some new touches to the approach by becoming the first pianist to use a laptop computer instead of a fake book. A former accountant who wanted to have more fun with his life, Jambon also specializes in rapping as part of his act.
Tracking the ever-changing nature of popular music has become more challenging in recent years as patrons ask for songs that defy pianistic interpretation.
“People are starting to make requests for hip-hop songs,” says Trail. “Joel does a great rap on ‘Gin and Juice.’ Sometimes the general public doesn’t understand what a piano can and can’t do. We’ve been getting interesting requests like Radiohead’s ‘Karma Police,’ and various hip-hop tracks. So much of hip-hop is just looped drum tracks with very little harmonic content, so a lot of those songs are difficult to replicate. But you have to adapt. One I’ve recently had to learn is ‘Sexy Back’ by Justin Timberlake.”
No matter how unusual the request, the Pat O’s pianists will always take a stab at it if they can. As Alvin Babineaux likes to say, “Pat O’Brien’s stays the same, it’s just the people that change.”