Album releases often mark a creative pause for a band, but that wasn’t the case for Hurray for the Riff Raff.
It was one of the best New Orleans music stories of 2014, not only because it released the excellent “Small Town Heroes” in February, but because singer and leader Alynda Lee Segarra tailored the tools used for selling albums — television and YouTube — to her vision.
On “Small Town Heroes,” Segarra infused contemporary touches into Appalachian-sounding folk songs about the bohemian Bywater world she knows. Because of that, Hurray for the Riff Raff songs have a familiar, rural sound even when the stories it compassionately tells are as current as murders on St. Roch Avenue.
Segarra’s post-release choices said as much about who the band is as the album.
When Hurray for the Riff Raff appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman,” Segarra gambled with fame she didn’t have yet and introduced herself to America not with one of the good time songs but with “The Body Electric.”
The song is her response to the murder ballad tradition and the way violence against women is so common that it has become a lyrical trope, and the three-minute performance (available on YouTube) was as dramatic as any on late night television in 2014.
She similarly used the official video for “The Body Electric” to tell the story of Marissa Alexander, a young Florida mother who fired a warning shot to back off her abusive husband and was convicted of aggravated assault and sentenced to 20 years. The decision to connect Hurray for the Riff Raff to race, gender and class justice issues and make the band about more than music is bold in a culture that rewards Kardashians for being rich and famous.
Hurray for the Riff Raff labelmate Benjamin Booker seemed to come from nowhere to open for The Drive-By Truckers at the Civic during Jazz Fest last year, tour as Jack White’s opening act, and appear on “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Conan” to play his debut single, “Violent Shiver,” all before releasing his debut album in August.
He almost immediately sparked a low grade backlash from New Orleans music faithful ready to preserve the “Booker” name for the late piano hero James Booker, and point out that Benjamin Booker’s not really from New Orleans (he moved here from Florida in 2013).
His lottery-like rise from obscurity seemed to tweak long-standing anxieties over who deserves pop music success in New Orleans, but the album makes his case for him. Booker’s songs generate so much momentum that they threaten to fall into the next song, and he sings with a throat-peeling intensity, as if each lyric may be the last words out, so he makes them count. Whether others notice them or not, Booker traces the R&B and soul in his songs to the influence of WWOZ.
Booker’s status as a New Orleanian tangentially connects to a much larger story in 2014: the ongoing anxiety over threats to New Orleans’ musical culture. Who is a part of it paled next to concerns that noise and zoning ordinances would irreparably damage the live music culture that gives New Orleans its distinctive identity. City Council wrestled with a workable noise ordinance and was on the brink of passing one that focused on the French Quarter in April.
Then sound engineer and consultant David Woolworth demonstrated to council members that Bourbon Street’s ambient noise late in the day would violate the proposed ordinance, well before the usual nighttime crowds, bands and DJs further raised the noise levels.
That, and the election that resulted in Nadine Ramsey taking Kristin Gisleson-Palmer’s District “C” seat, seem to have moved a noise ordinance to the back burner, but in June Sidney Torres IV sued Buffa’s Lounge, claiming that its live music was responsible for noise that made it hard to sell his house next door on Esplanade Avenue.
Torres and Buffa’s reached a compromise that reduced the number of nights the club offered live music, as well as the size of bands, and required the instruments to be unamplified with the exception of vocals. As a result, concerns remain that enforced zoning ordinances hurts New Orleans’ nightlife and musicians’ livelihoods.
You wouldn’t know any of that after watching Foo Fighters’ “Sonic Highways” on HBO. The series took viewers behind the scenes as the band recorded its album of the same name, but it also examined music communities around the country, including New Orleans.
In Austin, Texas, leader Dave Grohl thought ordinances and a changing, more monied cityscape threatened the city’s live music community, but in New Orleans he found hope in second lines and musical families.
It’s not clear if he saw something music supporters didn’t or if Grohl didn’t dig hard enough. Whatever the case, the band played a prominent part of 2014. They shut down St. Peter Street in the French Quarter when they played a Facebook-announced show in Preservation Hall.
Foo Fighters returned to headline The Voodoo Music Experience on Halloween weekend and play a rare club date at the House of Blues the night the New Orleans episode aired. The confluence of events meant that New Orleanians likely spent more time thinking about about Dave Grohl and Foo Fighters than anyone here had in years, but his ambitions and the band’s efforts to promote “Sonic Highways” the album — like Hurray for the Riff Raff’s earlier in the year — gave us a rare glimpse into the workings of the pop music marketplace.