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|July 31-August 6, 2008 email@example.com
Dudes with ’tudes
Everyone agrees that more people should know the subdudes: why don’t you?
by Elliott Johnston I’ve never looked out over 40,000 people. At least I don’t think I have. If I have surveyed such an exaggerated number of humans, it was likely from the viewing deck of some sort of national landmark — the St. Louis Arch, the Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument. Those instances are not comparable to this. Then, small-looking people were participating in the disorderly organization of everyday life, rotating their attention 360 degrees, hailing cabs, doing thousands of individual, tiny things. Here, ostensibly at least, there is one focus.
My gaze is perched above a railing on the right side-stage section of the Acura Stage on the second to last day of the 2008 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. I am veiled from the mass of sunglassed eyes and sunscreened foreheads to my right by black netting that hangs from high beams; directly in front of me, the rear and side profiles of the subdudes are visible.
The Acura Stage is the most prestigious bandstand at Jazz Fest. There are nine other stages and tents spread out over the Fair Grounds Race Course, which is shaped like a gigantic Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie. The Times-Picayune reports that approximately 400,000 ticket-holders have passed through the Jazz Fest gates this year, the most since Hurricane Katrina. Over the past week, the fairgrounds have been first loosened by frequent and fat droplets of Gulf of Mexico rain, then baked by the bold Louisiana sun. At this point, navigating from one stage to another, one food vendor to another, is as challenging and foul as slogging through stinky cookie dough.
The Acura Stage is where the big headliners play, the supernova stars, the kind of diamond-encrusted names that make Jazz Fest newcomers ask: Why the hell are they here? What have they to do with the jazz-inventing, gumbo-thick musical story of New Orleans? This year, along with hometown heroes like The Neville Brothers and Dr. John, less-logical giants Sheryl Crow, Billy Joel and Robert Plant have played this stage. After the subdudes pack up their gear, Mr. Margaritaville Jimmy Buffet is set to finish the evening.
The subdudes got their start in New Orleans. Their first gig was on March 16, 1987, at the historic Tipitina’s club. Their name derives from the mellowed feel of that evening; heretofore, several subdudes members had been damaging ears with their previous New Orleans band, the Continental Drifters, a more rock-based outfit. The subdudes’ aesthetic was built into the name: an easygoing, soulful Americana that gives sonic space for unique instrumentation, like the lone tambourine and funky accordion, along with tight vocal harmonies. Just months after the Tipitina’s gig, the subdudes, at the suggestion of Colorado native Magnie, moved to Fort Collins.
This year, the subdudes’ status in New Orleans is impressive. Besides playing the star-studded Acura stage before Buffet at JazzFest, they give generous sets to packed houses at the New Southport Hall and the House of Blues on the weekend’s bookends. And while the subdudes are seasoned veterans who are arguably playing the best music of their career, the group is actively pondering ways to find a larger audience before the clock runs out.
During their first two years in Fort Collins, the subdudes played every Sunday night at a now-defunct Old Town bar called the Sports Page. From there, they signed a record contract and spent most of the ’90s recording, touring and building a fan base.
“They are our favorite band,” says Larry Whittington, speaking for himself and his traveling buddy, Bob, of Santa Cruz, Calif. We are seated on barstools, awaiting the subdudes performance at the New Southport Hall in Jefferson Parish on Friday night. Larry and Bob have the kind of complexions you would expect from middle-aged Caucasian Californians — almost leathery, olive-red skin, and smiles that put wrinkles into gear.
The two say they have been following the subdudes for years, and they catch them at Jazz Fest annually. At his home in Santa Cruz, Larry has a poster of the ’90s-era subdudes. He reports that all the signatures have faded, except for Steve Amedée’s, who must have signed with a thicker pen than the others.
Down the hill from the New Southport Hall, it’s crawfish night at a bar called Station 8810. A group of six lively 20-somethings is seated outside under a tin roof that loudly bears the brunt of the evening’s persistent precipitation. The ladies look cool, with short hair, tattoos and work shirts, and the lanky guys don unkempt mop tops. A few of them are working for an Episcopalian organization to help rebuild houses destroyed by Katrina.
Just as you aren’t likely to drum up a heap of enthusiasm for the subdudes in Boulders’ hip hangouts, I’m not expecting it from these philanthropic spring chickens.
“Yeah! The subdudes! They gave us a lagniappe [pronounced ‘lan-yap’],” says one of the women after I explain my New Orleans mission, fumbling amateurishly with my first boiled crawfish.
“Lan-yap?” I ask.
“It’s, like, more than a baker’s dozen,” the purple-shirted gentleman to my right says.
Apparently, “lagniappe” is New Orleans-speak for a surprise bonus. The subdudes must have given these folks a mighty satisfying encore.
Eye on the prize
Since their debut album in 1989, through their breakup in 1996 and their reformation in 2003, the subdudes have been one of those groups that garners solid and consistent acclaim from critics, fellow musicians and a core of zealous fans. About the subdudes, it has long been said, “More people should know about them.”
“They are recognized within the music industry as being talents,” says Big Steve — DJ and host of “The Golden Age of Rock and Roll,” which airs Mondays from 10 a.m. to noon on Fort Collins’ public radio station KRFC, 88.9 FM, “but that hasn’t translated into a wider audience.”
Indeed, over the years, guests on their albums have included Bonnie Raitt and The Rebirth Brass Band. Keb’ Mo’ produced their 2006 album, Behind the Levee. A favorite story in 21st-century subdudes lore took place a handful of Jazz Fests ago. Crosby, Stills and Nash got so excited about the subdudes set — on the very same Acura Stage — that they bowed to the dudes, Wayne’s World-style, from the sidelines.
If the crumbling music industry is inspiring mega-bands like Radiohead to pull free online shenanigans, you better believe it affects the subdudes. Cook, who is acting as manager at the moment, says the band is having to handle more and more of their own business. The “indie” moniker, he implies, is becoming less a stylistic descriptor than a way of existence, even for veterans like the subdudes.
Cook says I’ve caught them in a transition period. They are debating how to tour and promote themselves in this new musical marketplace. Adding to the complexity, the group has reached an age when their shows are still top-notch, but they “can’t play 280 to 300 gigs a year anymore.”
“We’ve reached that level where, I mean, we work hard to do it. We do have a success, and we do have a fan base all over the country. I’m proud of where we are as a band. But I think there is a way that we can reach out to a bigger fan base. And I’m not sure how that is going to happen yet, but that’s our goal. And to try to play at Bonnaroo would be good. Or hook up with somebody like Dixie Chicks or John Mayer, or anybody. It wouldn’t matter; I just know that we would do good. And I think we could win a new audience over.”
Still, there is that familiar grimace that comes when long-term fans consider the prospects of their band hitting it big. Larry Whittington, hanging at New Southport Hall, a barn-like roadhouse that has a capacity of roughly 500, considers my statement.
“The subdudes are definitely one of those bands about which critics and fans say, ‘They need to be known by more people.’”
“But I don’t want to see them in a stadium.”
On the Bill
The subdudes will perform at 6 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 8, at the Louisville Street Faire, Main Street, Louisville,
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