Right after Houston Katrina evacuees the New Birth Brass Band moved back to New Orleans, they returned to Houston to play a benefit at Marilyn Oshman's River Oaks mansion.
The band had a new member since I had last seen them — a twentysomething white kid who was marching around the Oshmans' backyard, playing (of all things) the guitar, an almost unheard-of instrument in this type of group. And not only that, but he also had an amp tucked in a backpack.
Fast-forward to this year's South By Southwest. That same kid is in Austin with the Lazy Six. This band backs trombonist-singer Glen David Andrews, a rising traditional jazz superstar, a guy who for me is the face of New Orleans roots music right now.
By this time the kid was switching off from guitar to banjo and back. Andrews introduced him as "Matt Clark, from Houston, Texas." After the show, I handed Clark my card. A couple of days later, he called me back, and told me just how a white kid from upper-crust Houston found his calling in New Orleans in funky joints like the Candlelight Lounge, a landmark bar in New Orleans's fabled jazz nexus, the Tremé neighborhood.
Clark, who is now 28, says that New Orleans music — the Rebirth Brass Band, the Meters, Dr. John — has been an influence ever since he picked up the guitar. After graduating from St. John's, River Oaks-bred Clark attended music school and both the University of North Texas and Berklee, and for a time played guitar in an East Coast college band called Drop. "Sort of jazz fusion with hip-hop," he says.
After that group ended, Clark returned home to Houston, just in time for Katrina. "And then Houston got transformed into New Orleans, as far as the food and the music," he recalls. "I met a bunch of these guys at the shelter and these jam sessions where we'd try to raise money for evacuees."
Among them was the New Birth Brass Band, some of the very same people Clark had years before often road-tripped to see in New Orleans. In short, some of his heroes, as down on their luck as anybody could be. And yet they still played lots of music, and Clark sat in. The New Birth guys started to take a shine to him, especially the tuba player, Kerwin "Fat" James. "He said that the way I played really fit with their sound," Clark remembers.
James asked Clark to join the band, but Clark, in spite of his love for the music, was initially too scared to jump at the chance. "In brass bands, you don't usually see a guitarist, you don't usually see an electric instrument and you certainly don't often see a white guy," he says.
James kept after him, and eventually Clark consented to audition. As is often the case with brass bands, the audition was in public, in this case at Market Square during the festivities surrounding the 2005 Big 12 Championship game.
"I didn't know the keys to the tunes, I didn't know what was coming next, which is just the ways these brass bands do it," he remembers. "They just start playing and everything falls in line where it's supposed to be."
As the brass band players put it, "you get in where you fit in." Clark passed this test, and also convinced himself that this was what he wanted to do.
"It was the first time in my life that I felt like I was just playing what came naturally — sort of a country twang with a funk influence on it. It was the stuff I was trying to do when I first picked up the guitar, and I had deviated away from it, and when I came back to it, it just felt so natural."
For the next year, Clark played with the New Birth and other evacuee brass band combos in town at places like St. Pete's Dancing Marlin and the Red Cat. Clark met Andrews in that time, as well as Corey Henry, an amazing trombonist now with the Rebirth Brass Band.
As the exodus back to New Orleans got in full swing, Clark started playing more and more shows in the Crescent City. Things got hectic. "I was playing gigs at the Maple Leaf [in New Orleans] till four in the morning, and then jumping in my car and driving straight to my day job" — he was a legal assistant at Abraham Watkins — "in Houston at nine o'clock in the morning. Just coming in and driving straight to the office."
Enter Walter Harris, a New Orleans drummer and friend of Clark's. "He told me, 'Man, if you love this music, and this culture, there's only one thing you can do — you have to move there. That's the only way you will ever know it, feel it and understand it.' So I packed all my stuff and moved to New Orleans and lived out of my van for a couple of weeks. Then Walter told me later he was kinda joking when he said that."