When Paul Sanchez plays Tipitina’s Instrument Repair Initiative benefit Friday night, he’ll be part of a show raising money to help Tipitina’s Foundation keep quality musical instruments in the hands of New Orleans music students, along with Sweet Crude, Social Set, and Tank and the Bangas.
He’ll perform with his new group, Minimum Rage, and it will be the next chapter in what has been a very public post-Katrina musical journey.
Sanchez came to most people’s attention as a member of rock band Cowboy Mouth in the early 1990s, but in 2006, after 15 years, he left the band feeling there was no place for his musical voice in it anymore.
That and the loss of his home in the flood waters that followed Hurricane Katrina left Sanchez questioning his identity.
He first worked to connect with the city’s music community, taking guitar lessons from John Rankin and recording albums with John Boutte and trumpet player Shamarr Allen.
He performed as Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show, a band whose rotating cast included Allen, Glen David Andrews, Susan Cowsill, Alex McMurray, Debbie Davis, and Matt Perrine among others.
His immersion in New Orleans culture culminated with his 2010 musical adaptation of Dan Baum’s book “Nine Lives,” which told the city’s story from Hurricane Betsy through Katrina’s aftermath.
Threadhead Records helped him and co-writer Colman DeKay get a grant from Pepsi to record the album.
“It’s remarkable that through the Threadheads, I got to spend that much money, record that many songs, and work with 135 musicians including two of New Orleans’ finest in Allen Toussaint and Irma Thomas,” Sanchez said. “What an experience. When I look back at the CD, I’m glad I made it, and I’m glad it stands as a document of what New Orleans was.”
“Nine Lives” came at the end of four years of compulsive writing, and seven albums. After working for more than a year and a half writing and recording the project, it all caught up with him.
“I went through a period of great depression after ‘Nine Lives,’” Sanchez said. “I was mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausted.”
To make matters worse, Sanchez’s wife, Shelly was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2011, which prompted him to put music down entirely in 2012.
“I got a job selling office supplies,” he said. “I worked for 18 months, and one day when I got home, Shelly was there with a couple of girlfriends. They opened a bottle of wine and had a musical intervention. They said, ‘You’ve got to quit this job and get back to music. It’s what you’re supposed to be doing.’”
The idea of restarting the Rolling Road Show seemed daunting, and after a friend reminded him that no one could write songs like those he was first known for, Sanchez knew what his new band should be. “It’s a return to the pop melodies and simpler chordings that I grew up with,” he said. In it, he’s joined by pop fans and former Cowboy Mouth members Sonia Tetlow and Mary Lasseigne, who had played bass in Cowboy Mouth at different times and been part of the Rolling Road Show.
“I forgot what shorthand I had with those two,” he said. “I know them both so well.”
Sanchez is in no hurry to record this band, but he has another album in the works.
Jay Weigel, former Contemporary Arts Center director, will produce a new album with him, and “there’s not a single New Orleans-sounding song on it,” Sanchez said. “It’s acoustic guitar with the string section from the New Orleans Philharmonic.”
Friday’s show will be an extension of Tipitina’s Foundation’s efforts to put instruments in the hands of New Orleans’ music students.
“We’ve built an instrument repair facility at the foundation, and we are currently working with (Rebirth Brass Band’s) Stafford Agee to repair and refurbish instruments,” Foundation Executive Director Bethany Paulsen said.
The Instrument Repair Initiative makes it possible for people around the country to ship their used instruments to the foundation at no cost, where it will clean them up and repair them before putting them back in circulation.
“Every instrument — we want to make sure it has been tuned up and cleaned and has a new mouthpiece, and if it needs a new case, it gets a new case, so when these instruments get to students, they feel like they’re getting something special.”