With roots in blues, folk music and Baptist church singing, Wyoming-born, New Orleans-residing singer-songwriter Spencer Bohren is often on the road in the U.S., U.K. and Europe.
Bohren returns to Europe next month for tours of Germany and France. Prior to his next trip across the sea, he’ll play what’s become his annual January show at the Red Dragon Listening Room in Baton Rouge.
As usual, it’ll be the solo Bohren and his guitar and whatever songs he wants to sing and stories he wants to tell.
“That’s what I do all over the world,” he said this week from a short vacation in Apalachicola, Fla. “I love the freedom of being a soloist, mostly because I can do whatever comes into my mind. I’ve never had a set list.”
Bohren has been a gigging musician for 47 years. He’s not one, however, to play the same material year after year, decade after decade.
“Sometimes I go see some of my old heroes and they’re still playing the same songs they were playing when I used to open shows for them,” he said. “I feel sorry for them.”
Bohren probably knows thousands of songs.
“I played an old Merle Haggard song the other day in Wyoming,” he said. “I was shocked that it was there on the tip of my tongue. My wife told one of our friends, ‘I haven’t heard him sing this song in 30 years.’ But there it was. Whatever comes through the channel is what we all get. That keeps it fresh for me.”
Viewers of HBO’s Treme recently saw Bohren performing his post-Hurricane Katrina song, “The Long Black Line,” in a scene shot at Chickie Wah Wah on Canal Street. The music venue, bar and restaurant is named after a classic Huey “Piano” Smith song recorded by one of New Orleans’ great characters, the late Bobby Marchan.
“The people who do Treme— Eric Overmyer, the executive producer, and Blake Leyh, the music supervisor — I really like those guys,” Bohren said. “Yeah, there’s a lot of hurry up and wait, but that’s always the way it is with filming.”
Between takes on the Treme set at Chickie Wah Wah, Bohren had a good time talking with Overmyer.
“Eric said, ‘Well, it’s all about the lights. When the lights are ready, we’ll do it. But then they’ll have to set up the lights again.’ So it took a long time, but Eric is just this nice guy who wants to talk about jazz and recipes and traveling. I had a ball.”
When the episode featuring him aired, Bohren added, “my Facebook, my website, my email box, they all lit up. People loved it.”
Bohren and one of the bands he works with, rockabilly group Rory Danger and Danger Dangers, shot another performance for Treme for the series’ fourth and final season.
In Rory Danger and Danger Dangers, Bohren admitted, “I’m the old guy, but playing with these young musicians is nothing but fun. That’s the reason we do it. But I get home so late!”
Since last summer, Bohren has also been working with another young band, the Whippersnappers. Featuring musicians half his age, the group is playing multiple Thursdays in January at Chickie Wah Wah. Its members include Bohren’s multitalented son, Andre.
“With Andre orchestrating from the drum chair, everybody knows what’s happening,” Bohren said.
Whippersnapper Dave Pomerleau, Bohren said, “he’s playing upright acoustic bass, which adds oodles of atmosphere.”
And Casey McAllister, a guitarist from Baton Rouge, “he’s a sonic painter. He doesn’t play lead like Eric Clapton, he sets an atmosphere that is really special. A lot of my songs have natural atmosphere, but that has to be implied when I play solo. When we’ve got this band, I’m free to let the cat out of the bag and let them add the atmosphere.”
The creative freedom at Chickie Wah Wah, Bohren said, reminds him of Tipitina’s in the late 1970s.
“A lot of experimental stuff happened then,” he said. “You kind of drew your own audience to whatever you were doing. New Orleans hasn’t had a place like that in a long time.”