Last winter, I got an email from a close friend in Texas, Matt Sonzala, a well-known events producer, music journalist, radio host and former music programmer at South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival in Austin, who told me he’d been contracted to lead The Wanton Bishops on a tour of the South in March, 2014.
It was exciting news. The year earlier I had floated a similar idea to The Wanton’s lead singer Nader Mansour right after the release of their debut LP Sleep with the Lights On. At that point early in 2013, the Bishops had only played three concerts locally, and despite a significant Lebanese following, as Nader says, “We weren’t ready financially, musically or organisationally at that point.”
By 2014 they had put some mileage under their belts and with Red Bull stepping up to partner with the Bishops, a film project was born – tentatively titled – “From the Mediterranean to Mississippi” which, according to The Bishops, was meant to be “an examination of the linkages between East and West” and an informal means of attempting to explain why Nader and Eddy were so taken by the blues, given they hailed from Lebanon, a place with no obvious linkages to this Black-American art form, born out of the vestiges of Southern slavery.
They got a good warm up for the tour, with their first live show following the release of their new single “Come to Me,” playing to a 1,000 strong crowd in Beirut, a “milestone [gig],” Eddy says, “because we knew that if we disappointed our home crowd – we were no good anywhere!”
Four days later, after a gruelling 20-plus hours of travel, they arrived in Texas Hill Country, with their rhythm section of Anthony Abi Nader on drums and Faisal Itani on bass, for the first leg of their tour.
“Waking up in Austin was not that much of a culture shock, actually,” Nader tells me. “Despite the fact that this was our first time there for most of us, we somehow knew how to handle everything.”
What was a shock was the broken guitar that Nader displayed to the group in the lobby of the hotel on the first morning after arrival, its neck snapped from the plane flight, prompting a run to the fabled music shop South Austin Music which – as Nader and Eddy tell the tale – was like being in a “vintage candy shop.” Two hours, two guitars and a bunch of effects pedals later, Matt was literally dragging the Bishops out of the door.
As the week progressed, what the guys quickly found out about South by Southwest was its propensity to disappoint. Every year, 2,000 musical artists descend on Austin for a five-day period in which every conceivable bar and performance space in the downtown area becomes an event staging ground.
“It was too chaotic and too big for anybody to get noticed by anyone,” Eddy says. “Too many bands. Too many stages. So little time. For us it was – ‘Fuck it! Let’s play.’”
It was the same maxim that the Paris-based Chicago trumpeter Boney Fields had told Nader early on in his career.
For the Bishops, Austin became more about what was happening for them on the margins of the festival. Antone’s Record Shop was one of those highlights. “The people who introduced me to blues – the older Lebanese bluesmen here – were always talking about Antone’s,” Eddy says, “I knew about it through them. So when I went there, it was like a revelation.”
Antone Records was founded by Lebanese-American Clifford Antone in 1987. Prior to setting up the store, Clifford had established a live venue of the same name in 1975 in what became one of the first live music venues on 6th Street – a place that nurtured the talented Stevie Ray Vaughan and welcomed a who’s who of blues talent, the likes of Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker, Delbert McClinton, Pinetop Perkins, Albert Collins, Jimmy Reed, and Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown.
While the venue has long since passed hands to different owners and the original address has changed several times, the record store is still owned by the family. “We did an impromptu set that got filmed by a local magazine out in front of Antone’s,” Nader says. “We placed some of our records there, and walked out with some vinyl gems you just can’t find in Lebanon. It was beautiful man!”
On Saturday morning, March 15, the boys packed up their gear and made their way southeast down highway 290 and then due east on Interstate 10 to their next destination: New Orleans.
NOLA and The Bayou
When they woke up in their hotel room the next day, after a hellish nine-hour drive the night before, they began their tour of New Orleans in the historic African-American neighbourhood of Treme, popularized in the last four years by the HBO series of the same name.
It was a Sunday, and the Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church was their first stop. The sermon began innocently enough, with church leader Pastor Joshua going through his regular motions. But when he noticed the strangers in the back, he decided to call up Nader and Eddy to “testify” in front of a thinned out congregation of parishioners who braved the day’s tornado warning to make it to church. Pastor Joshua then asked Nader and Eddy to play for the assembled churchgoers.
The generally alcohol swigging areligious characters had a heartwarming church experience. “Religion combined with music as means of bringing people together versus dividing people,” Eddy recalls.
“It was the first indicator of the acceptance we were looking for on the trip – the acceptance we were all nervous about, being from Lebanon and all,” Nader says.
Of course, as any bluesman would tell you, churchgoing is only a way to make sure you’ve got divine cover for your sins, and by the afternoon, the boys and crew were sipping Miller High Life (“the Champagne of Beers”) and sucking the heads out of crawfish, about 50 km northeast of New Orleans across the brackish estuary called Lake Pontchartrain.
They met the local weatherman – Mr. Roosevelt – who “predicted the weather more accurately than any high-paid meteorologist,” and Mr. Green, the town’s “fish whisperer,” who took the Bishops on a boat ride along the bayou – film crew in tow.
Later that night, sauced up with the energy from their bayou experience they played their first live gig in New Orleans at “live indie music institution” the Hi-Ho Lounge to a highly supportive crowd of about 60 people gathered for the weekly Sunday night stand-up comedy routines. “Fucking Macaulay Culkin,” Nader laments, recalling the fact that The Bishops had been bumped off their Monday night gig by Culkin’s Velvet Underground tribute band the Pizza Underground.
No matter, because on Monday night The Bishops found themselves at the the d.b.a. Lounge on Frenchman Street in the Marigny district of New Orleans on stage with Glen David Andrews – one of the city’s brass band fixtures and a self-styled son of Treme – a gospel shouting, soul crooning powerhouse, who spent his formative years playing trombone at Jackson Square in the heart of the the French Quarter with “Tuba Fats” Lacen. Eddy called Glen, “the coolest American I’d ever met.”
“They say he’s the Treme Prince,” Nader says, “And like so many other musicians we met in the South, he came from a dynasty of musicians. His cousin – Troy “Trombone” Shorty – introduced him to music. And you know…Glen took us around Treme introducing us to the locals – showing us where the Black music legends would come when they were in Treme.”
As they walked around Treme, Glen described second line marches and explained how important funerals were in the Black neighbourhoods of New Orleans, something that seemed more poignant when Glen told the boys how the crack cocaine epidemic ravaged Treme, like so many other inner-city settings in the US in the 1980s.
Glen himself was a recovering addict himself and had had numerous run-ins with the law until he decided to enter a rehabilitation program in 2012. He’s been sober ever since, and according to the Bishops, it was on-stage that the wild man was allowed to come out. “He was a loose cannon on stage. Like a fucking electric power plant,” Eddy says.
After a three-hour show that Nader likened to a scene from the movie Idlewild (“minus the costumes”), Glenn called Eddy and Nader on the stage for what was their last appearance in New Orleans before heading north on Interstate 55 to visit Vasti Jackson in Jackson, Mississippi.
JACKSON, CLARKSDALE AND MEMPHIS
They got in to Jackson on a Tuesday afternoon and headed straight to the house of one of Mississippi’s most celebrated young writers and poets – Charlie Braxton – who lived on a street called, of all things, The Cedars of Lebanon.
It was at Braxton’s house that the Bishops met Vasti Jackson, a song-writer, producer and guitarist with few peers, whose 35-year career had connected himself with innumerable musical greats that grew out of his session work with Malaco Records (Mississippi) and Alligator Record (Chicago) in the 1980s and early 1990s.
“Vasti and Charlie were like encyclopedias of blues knowledge,” Nader says, and after an impromptu backyard session with Vasti in which they played Oriental-tinged melodies and discussed the influence of the Lebanese immigrants who made their way to Mississippi, the Bishops sauntered over to Bully’s Restaurant for some soul food before taking the stage with Vasti at the CrossRoads Bar & Lounge, where they played a full set to a nearly empty club that happened to include Mississippi State Senator Sally Doty and Danny Seraphine, the original drummer and co-founder of the band Chicago.
Their education on the blues train continued at their next stop – Clarksdale, Mississippi – the self-styled “home of the blues,” a place that birthed the infamous career of Robert Johnson – whose death at the age of 27 in 1938 led to the Faustian myth of Johnson selling his soul to the devil to be a bluesman at the “crossroads.” While the story might be myth, in 1932 Clarksdale was where Johnson ended up abandoning his sick wife and embarking on a career as an itinerant musician.
The crew stayed at the Shack Up Inn where on their first night they got the Hill Country Mississippi blues sound they had been craving. This was music of the kind showcased on Fat Possum Records from men like R.L. Burnside, Junior Kimbrough and, on this evening, from an impromptu performance by Lightnin’ Malcolm – a member of The North Mississippi All-Stars.
“I’d never seen that played live before. Only on recordings,” Eddy says of the one-man band with bass drum, hi-hat, snare and guitar.
“That was a slap in the face to see this great bluesman struggling,” Nader told me. “We’d just came from a show of 1,000 plus people in Beirut and then you see this legend of a musician – an amazing human being – who deserves huge crowds, playing to a nearly empty house for gas money to go see his daughter in hospital!”
Three days later, after the boys had played behind 82-year-old Fat Possum mainstay Leo Welch and the young gun bluesman Al “Big A” Sherrod at the Shack Up, they found themselves in Royal Studios in Memphis where just a few months earlier Lightnin’ Malcolm had laid down guitar tracks for an upcoming record with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant.
According to the boys, they’d past their ultimate test of acceptance in Clarksdale, playing to a group of “non-hipster types” as Nader put it – real blues lovers who met them with love and praise after their set was finished.
That energy carried over during a 12-hour recording session at Royal Studios, which was guided by Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, the son of the seminal blues recording figure Willie Mitchell. Boo had long since taken over the day-to-day operations from his now deceased father, who started Royal in Memphis in 1956. It was sacred ground for The Bishops and they tried to rise to the challenge.
“When you’re in the place where Keith Richards is recording his album, and Robert Plant was at the same studio the month before, not to mention all of the other folks – Al Green for example – you have to come up with something. And we did. Maybe we divined all of the things we’d seen in the last week, but I think we came up with something special,” Eddy said.
Perhaps the most telling story of the whole was the fact that The Bishops kept trying to find Robert Johnson’s crossroads when they were in Clarksdale. Twice they drove past the intersection at the highway of 49 and 61.
“I think it was a sign – we shouldn’t be on the crossroads, or better, that we weren’t meant to be paying attention to the idea of the crossroads for success,” Eddy says.
Why employ the devil to showcase your talents when they’re clearly there for everyone to see?