Honey Island Swamp Band, a quintet that flavors rock and funk with blues and country, is one example of lemonade made from the lemons that Hurricane Katrina and the accompanying flood dropped on New Orleans.
In September 2005, singer-guitarist Chris Mulé, singer-mandolin player Aaron Wilkinson, bassist Sam Price and drummer Garland Paul were among the New Orleans musicians in exile in San Francisco.
Their displacement turned out to be relatively benign. San Francisco has long been exceptionally appreciative of the music and musicians from New Orleans.
Mulé and Wilkinson, then members of Eric Lindell’s band, were on the West Coast performing with Lindell when Katrina arrived. Stuck there after the storm, they wrote songs together and spent time at John Lee Hooker’s Boom Boom Room, a San Francisco music club named after the late blues man and his song, “Boom Boom.”
New Orleans music aficionado Alex Andreas owns the Boom Boom Room.
“When a band from New Orleans decides to come to San Francisco for the first time,” Wilkinson said, “the Boom Boom Room is usually where they play. So it was natural that we congregated there. If you’re lost in San Francisco and you’re from New Orleans, that’s where you go.”
Mulé and Wilkinson were hanging out in the Boom Boom Room when Price and Paul walked in. Mulé had been in many bands with both of them through the years. It occurred to him that combining his and Wilkinson’s songwriting, guitar and mandolin with Price and Paul’s bass and drums could be a new musical project for them all.
“Several drinks,” Wilkinson recalled, “and pitchers of beer later, we decided, ‘Yeah, we’re gonna start this band.’ ”
Excited, the musicians knocked on the Boom Boom Room owner’s office door.
“We told Alex,” Mulé remembered, “ ‘Hey, we’ve got a band from New Orleans here.’ He said, ‘Y’all can play here every Sunday.’ ”
“Before we had a name or a rehearsal or anything,” Wilkinson said, “we had a weekly gig.”
Mulé instantly named the group after the Honey Island Swamp marshland in St. Tammany Parish. “The music we’re playing rings true with that name,” he said.
The Honey Island Swamp Band got busy in San Francisco right away, playing multiple nights a week and even afternoons at the Boom Boom Room and Pier 23. Mulé also worked with another New Orleans musician in exile, Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, in the sousaphonist’s band, Backyard Groove.
“I had 10 gigs a week in San Francisco,” he said. “I’m like, ‘This is more work than I’ve ever had!’ ”
In due course, the touring members of the Honey Island Swamp Band and their uprooted musician peers were treated with kindness and sympathy throughout the United States, Wilkinson recalled.
“People all over the country were in the mood of doing anything they could to help New Orleans people out, specifically New Orleans musicians,” he said. “We really benefited from that generosity.”
By 2007, Mulé, Wilkinson, Price and Paul had all trickled home.
“We decided,” Mulé said, “because we already had a tightened-up band-machine, we’d keep playing together.”
The Honey Island Swamp Band now plays about 200 shows a year, half of them beyond New Orleans.
At home, the band appears at the Maple Leaf Bar, the Frenchmen Street venues Blue Nile and d.b.a., Tipitina’s, One Eyed Jacks and at the French Quarter Festival and New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
For the Honey Island Swamp Band, hurricane storm clouds had a silver lining, Wilkinson said.
“It ended up being a blessing in disguise. We put this band together, which has sustained us and inspired us since then.”
John Wirt is music writer. He can be reached at email@example.com.