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Ron Carter (left, as himself) looks on as Albert Lambreaux (Clarke Peters) attempts to show him a thing or two on bass, in Treme. (HBO)

'Treme,' Ep. 19: Can't Get Out Alive

by Josh Jackson
Jun 20, 2011 (WBGO-FM)

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Steve Earle as Harley. Antoine Batiste (Wendell Pierce) has a moment during his band's set at the Blue Nile in Treme.

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Josh Jackson

Lately, our rundowns of musical performances in Treme have ignored some of the non-musical narratives for the sake of brevity. This week is a little lighter on music, and a bit heavier on plot twists — especially at the end of this episode. So we'll address a few of the other storylines this week too. (Spoiler alert for what follows, naturally.)

In real life, singer-songwriter Steve Earle, who plays the street troubadour/sage counsel Harley, recently released a new album and his debut novel, both titled I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive. Both are named after the posthumous Hank Williams song, and both muse heavily on mortality. As recently as late January, Earle — who also had a role on HBO's The Wire — wasn't anticipating he'd have to apply that titular maxim to his role in the series. When Billboard magazine asked him about touring, he said, "depends on whether I'm in the third season of 'Treme' or whether they kill me or something. But I feel like I've got a lot less chance of getting killed on 'Treme' than I did on 'The Wire.'" The odds did not fall his way.

Even after a relatively quiet Mardi Gras, violent crime remained a problem in New Orleans in 2007. New Orleans native Josh Jackson joins me again for more insights on this, and other elements of this week's episode.


Patrick Jarenwattananon: It seems as if Davis' protege, rapper Lil Calliope, is overshadowing his mentor. You know, I appreciate that Treme is trying to integrate hip-hop and R&B into its primary storylines. And in doing so, I think it's important the show stresses that rap in New Orleans is not primarily being made by rich white people who see themselves as political agitators and align themselves with canonical New Orleans traditions. Sometimes a good song is just a good song.

Josh Jackson: It helps to have some great horn lines too. Thank tuba player Kirk Joseph for that. Let's be honest — hip-hop culture arose from the black experience in America. That music has its own networked community in New Orleans. Davis is certainly extending the message, but he's not exactly the cultural arbiter of what's hot.

PJ: Another nice touch: inviting tin whistle specialist "Spider" Stacy from The Pogues to guest on this St. Patrick's Day episode. We meet him during the day, then see him at night busking with Harley — with Annie's violin, it feels like Celtic folk music a bit.

JJ: They perform "Come Out, Ye Black and Tans" outside the Sound Café. That's an Irish nationalist song about fighting the Black and Tans, a British loyalist force used to police the rebellion in Ireland. Later, we hear Annie join in on Steve Earle's "The Galway Girl."

There's a neighborhood in New Orleans called the Irish Channel. Immigrants moved to this area to work the shipping docks along the Mississippi. There's not much Irish anymore, but the neighborhood still has a St. Patrick's Day parade. My family typically went to the parade in Old Metairie, a New Orleans suburb. Revelers marched and passed out paper flowers in exchange for kisses, and you could also catch enough ingredients for a decent stew — whole heads of cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes, and smoked sausage if you're lucky.

PJ: Have you noticed, as I have, that the Treme team writes with real authority around law enforcement and justice system issues? It makes sense, considering the pedigree of The Wire, but Toni's investigation and LaDonna's legal case just feel appropriately "two steps forward, one step back" enervating. And Lieutenant Colson's reassignment to the homicide division — working under the man he embarrassed to his superiors — seems an appropriately dysfunctional consequence. Anyway, who's the singer that Colson and Toni see at the classy bar?

JJ: This episode in particular delves heavily into the procedural aspect of law enforcement, and that's writer George Pelecanos' bread and butter. Aside from that, Colson and Toni are checking out Ingrid Lucia. She performs "Stars Fell on Alabama," a song she also covers on her recording Almost Blue. Ingrid is also the leader and singer of The Flying Neutrinos, a really fun early swing and blues group.

PJ: Meanwhile, Antoine, still frustrated at the state of things with his own band, finds himself playing at the Blue Nile. He goes down the street to Ray's Boom Boom Room (now closed), sits in with Kermit Ruffins on "Let's Stay Together" (Al Green, of course), steals his audience, segues into Jean Knight's classic "Mr. Big Stuff" with his own band, then — of course — gets his audience stolen back by the charismatic Kermit. Pshew. Well, there are certainly enough clubs on Frenchmen Street that it's plausible!

JJ: Antoine teaches us to never underestimate the power of a go-cup. Jean Knight (nee Caliste) is a New Orleanian who recorded "Mr. Big Stuff" at Malaco Studios in Jackson, Miss. Wardell Quezergue arranged the session. Stax Records released it, and it became quite the sensation.

PJ: A few things about this Sofia storyline merit explaining, I think. One: Where is Jefferson Parish in relation to New Orleans? And two: Just how many inside jokes can they give to Oliver Thomas to deliver? "The price you pay," etc.

JJ: Jefferson Parish is adjacent to Orleans Parish. It is part of the Greater New Orleans Metropolitan Area, but it is a distinctly different place. The populace is generally more conservative than in New Orleans proper. There was a large migration of white middle class families from New Orleans to surrounding parishes. As you might imagine, there's a very complicated explanation for this. As for Oliver Thomas, I'm going to give him a commendation for rehabilitating his transgressions. He certainly is a very good sport.

PJ: We see Oliver Thomas' face appear on TV for supporting the "recovery zones" plan that would make Nelson rich. How does that work, exactly, such that it behooves him to buy up as much property in certain red-lined districts as possible?

JJ: Buying property in the red-lined districts is good business for a developer. Tax subsidies flow into these areas in the same way that cities have "Economic Empowerment Zones." As I mentioned earlier, there's plenty of money to be had from tragedy. If, say, the mayor and the state want to build an enormous medical facility in Mid-City, and you can be the rainmaker, there's plenty of money coming your way from taxpayer wallets.

PJ: As an Asian-American person, I have noticed that one of the few areas that people branded with my ethnicity are respected (without asterisks or glass ceilings) in the U.S. is in food. David Chang wows Janette with his badass experiments, and I take it, from Sonny's infatuation, that Vietnamese immigrants have left their stamp on the seafood industry in Louisiana.

JJ: Anyone who has eaten at any of the Momofuku establishments in New York has to have some serious respect for David Chang, the chef behind some pretty delicious dishes (I recommend the pork buns and virtually any noodle dish). The Vietnamese fishers of South Louisiana are a very tight-knit community, and they have developed an incredibly efficient model of how to succeed in America in the face of racism and other obstacles.

Naturally, there have been tensions with the local fishermen who have worked in the industry for generations. Shrimping is hard work. If you're going to wear the white rubber fishing boots — what my family in Terrebonne Parish calls "Dulac Reeboks" — be prepared to eek out a living and work your ass off. By the way, brown shrimp season is May. White shrimp season is in August.

PJ: Finally, Albert Lambreaux is kind of a grump sometimes, huh? I mean, he recognizes his cranky tendency — when he winks at the documentary filmmaker in the museum, for instance — but it doesn't stop him from preferring what he knows at all costs. In Delmond's project, absolute top-of-the-line New York rhythm sections aren't enough for him — he needs his own New Orleans musicians and a New Orleans studio to do it right. Prima donna much? Or perhaps an embodiment of how good music can actually be created anywhere, despite regional preferences?

JJ: Yeah, the Big Chief is a tough, contrary old man. We often give him a pass because he's earned that respect, but maybe pride gets the best of him here. Who tells Ron Carter how to play bass? Not me, for sure. Carter is very deferential to Lambreaux, but I can almost hear the interior thoughts a man who does not suffer fools lightly. ("Have you ever heard me play music? No? Well, that's your first mistake.")

In some ways, I can understand Lambreaux's sense of cultural primacy. He doesn't need anyone from New York or anywhere else to explain his own culture to him. He doesn't need a translator, or anyone who may dilute Lambreaux's own pure experience. But he can do a better job sharing it with others.

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