For the Iguanas, seductive grooves plus category-defying music equal longevity. Despite the internet-driven shipwrecks that rocked the recording and songwriting businesses, the band’s deep dive into blues, New Orleans rhythm-and-blues and Mexican and Colombian folk music has kept the group afloat for 30 years.
New Orleans’ Iguanas will make their third appearance at Baton Rouge’s Dyson House Listening Room on Thursday, Dec. 5.
Iguanas co-founders Rod Hodges and Joe Cabral were already fans of Louisiana’s indigenous music styles when they moved to New Orleans in 1989. Their other inspirations included Doug Sham’s Tex-Mex sound and the Mexican folk music that’s part of their cultural heritage.
Before he joined the Iguanas, bassist René Coman — the only New Orleans native in the band — heard the natural connection between his hometown’s music and Cabral’s and Hodges’ Latin American-influenced songs.
“Latin music, sambas, bossa nova, Caribbean music, have always been a part of the jazz repertoire,” Coman said. “Mambo is a cornerstone of Professor Longhair’s music.”
The variety of musical interests shared by Coman, Hodges, Cabral and Iguanas drummer Doug Garrison allows them to easily coalesce whenever they undertake new material.
“We’re all on board already,” Coman said.
The origins of the Iguanas date to Hodges’ and Cabral’s friendship during the late 1980s in Fort Collins, Colorado. Their friends in the subdudes — a New Orleans band then based in Fort Collins — told Cabral and Hodges that they’d enjoy living in New Orleans.
Following their move to the Crescent City, the Iguanas began playing a weekly gig there at the Rock ’N’ Bowl. Coman, then playing bass in society bands that performed parties and Mardi Gras balls, dropped by after his gigs to hear the Iguanas.
“I liked the way Joe and Rod sang together,” he said. “And Joe has great rock ’n’ roll tenor saxophone tone. Rod seems like a 2,000-year-old soul who’s incapable of playing or singing a musical idea I disagree with.”
In 1993, Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Records, a subsidiary of major label MCA, released the Iguanas’ self-titled album debut. The band hoped the label would help it create a niche similar to the one the very successful Buffett enjoyed. Despite tours with Buffett and Dave Matthews, success in the record business didn’t come. Ultimately, the Iguanas’ major label experiences echo those of thousands of other recording artists, whether they released hits or not.
“The classic thing is everybody is enthusiastic and they say all the right things before you sign with them,” Coman said. “So, you sign, but six weeks later the guy at the label who believed in you has been fired or he left under less than amicable circumstances. Now you’re an orphan. You’re associated with this previous regime and the people who came after that don’t care about you.”
After their disappointing stay at Margaritaville, the Iguanas simply kept working and seeking that next opportunity. Albums with Koch, Yep Roc and, most recently, New Orleans’ Piety Street label, followed.
Until about 2005, the Iguanas featured two saxophonists plus the occasional third horn player. After Hurricane Katrina, the band happily settled into a four-piece configuration.
“We have this kind of telepathic, long-standing connection,” Coman said. “The Iguanas has always been a band that thrives on space. The guitar parts that Rod plays, the sax parts that I’m playing, even though they’re active, there’s space between notes. In fact, the more succinct things are, the bigger each one of those elements becomes on the canvas.”
Circa 2019, the Iguanas’ set lists span early rock ’n’ roll and classic country as well as their Latin and R&B music.
“We played Merle Haggard’s ‘Working Man Blues’ the other night,” Coman said. “We haven’t played it in more than a year, but it sounded like we play it every night. The band has that kind of rapport."
7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 5
Dyson House Listening Room, Zeeland Street Market Wine & Deli, 2031 Perkins Road