Life in a Hurricane
Take it from a local (okay, a transplant): The Morning 40 Federation's scraggly rock tunes represent the true feeling of living in new-millennium New Orleans better than most of the city's more famous musical acts. Essentially a funky, six-piece grunge band with a horn section and a "getting wasted in the Ninth Ward" theme, the 40s are quintessential New Orleans, without being mired in tradition. Named for their love of malt beverages at sunrise, the band has been together since 1998. Their song, "(Walking In The) Ninth Ward," existed for eight years before Hurricane Katrina put the neighborhood's name (momentarily, at least) on the nation's lips.
New Orleans's jukeboxes still force locals to memorize lyrics to schticky Morning 40 screamers like "Gotta Nickel": "You gotta nickel? / I'm looking to get pickled / gonna buy a fifth of liquor and a Snickers bar-er-ar!" But things are a little different now.
Saxophonist Josh Cohen and trombonist Space Rickshaw began at a crappy Ninth Ward dive, The Hi-Ho Lounge, testing how drunk they could get and still maintain a grip on their minimal musical powers. The Morning 40 Federation was, supposedly, awesome fun though. Fun being all New Orleans wants or needs -- the party does get a little shallow sometimes. But the 40s' skills finally caught up to their popularity when the band added guitarist Ryan Scully as secondary frontman and hired the tougher, tighter rhythm section of Mike Andrepont and Steve Calandra.
I always assumed that, in New Orleans's small pond of carbon-copy jazz, blues and funk, the 40s were probably being given more credit than they deserved. I boycotted them for years before breaking down and attending a Decatur Street gig, coincidentally during my annual, self-imposed 30 days of sobriety following Mardi Gras (not Lent exactly, more like just a good idea). And I did, as if on purpose, have less fun.
But the band was undeniably hot. Lead guitarist Bailey Smith had obviously absorbed fuzzbox dependents Dinosaur Jr., Mudhoney and Afghan Whigs (head Whig Greg Dulli even wrote the liner notes for the 40s' new Ticonderoga album). All six scruffy men screamed together wildly, with drunken camaraderie. The trombone and saxophone did indeed lend the 40s more originality, punch and New Orleans energy. Tattooed girls bouncing on the bar fell out of their tank tops, and everyone but me shared a wild dance party, screw Lent.
Outside of the Crescent City, though, the 40s are usually seen as just another touring band. "We've had some really crappy tours," Smith admits. Almost a year after Katrina, however, with only two weeks' notice, the 40s' M80 record label was able to book the band a three-week West Coast tour with guarantees at The Viper Room, The Boom Boom Room and every other California hole in which any band would love to play. While M80 and the 40s' PR company don't mention Katrina in the same breath as their band, it seems that, for once maybe, being from the Ninth Ward might be helping someone.
"We've made a conscious effort not to exploit the situation to our gain," asserts Smith. Wise, considering their insane luck: All six members lived on the small, undamaged slice of New Orleans -- what some locals call "The Isle of Denial" -- in the Nine's last few inhabitable blocks. Their particular neighborhood, The Bywater, hasn't seen flood water in over 200 years. Property owners Scully and Cohen suffered relatively minor wind damage. Incredible odds in a city where most residents lost something, if not everything.
"Before Katrina, this album was going to be called God Help Us," Scully claims, aware that his band's long-held thematic fixation may now draw criticism from the uneducated. "But, after all this shit, God Help Us would've just sounded too..." Scully shakes his head with confused sobriety. "We changed the name to Ticonderoga on a linguistic lark, we just liked it phonetically. But then it turns out, 'ticonderoga's' an Iroquois word meaning 'a body of land between two bodies of water.'" When asked about Ticonderoga's cover art, which combines what have become Hurricane Katrina's two major symbols -- a dead refrigerator, painted with the National Guard's cryptic X -- Bailey shrugs and says, "If this shit is all around you all the time, though, you can't just ignore it." Produced by Mark Bingham (sometime arranger for R.E.M.) at his Piety Street studios, Ticonderoga features perfectly ragged, interwoven guitars, Bingham's found-sound wizardry and not one flood anthem.
Scully also recently produced four new songs, with the 40s backing 70-year-old, X-rated R&B singer and legendary producer Andre "Mr. Rhythm" Williams. "Andre opened for us in the Quarter on New Year's Eve," Scully recalls. "At the end of our set, he sang four songs of his that we'd learned. Then, later we were up partying in the neighborhood till like four in the morning, and Andre and I were just going back and forth, fucking around, and I had this little tape recorder -- I might have even gone home and gotten it, actually -- I filled up an hour's worth of tape. There were like four pieces of actual tunes on there. So, I built riffs around Andre's words. When I played them for Andre, he, of course didn't remember the songs." Songs that have nothing to do with New Orleans, such as "Don't Take 'Em Off, Just Pull 'Em Down." Enough said.
The 40s have contributed to their city's recovery simply by staying in town and giving locals a catharsis, helping them momentarily forget the decimated world just outside the door. With over half of New Orleans still absent, the 40s bolster the local economy by continuing to pack clubs and hawk drinks. It'll be fascinating to see what fans think of them post-Katrina, when The Morning 40 Federation bring the new sound of the Isle of Denial to Texas.
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