I arrived at The Phoenix about ten minutes before the doors opened, and I noticed that the crowd skewed a bit older than most of the shows I normally attend. It seemed like the average demographic was 40+ and Caucasian, at a New Orleans funk show! I worried that it would make for a docile crowd, instead of a sweaty dance fest. It turned out that it didn’t make one iota of a difference, as it was more of an experience than just another show.
One of my biggest pet peeves at a show is when concertgoers completely ignore the opening acts, to the point where they complain about why they are on stage and wonder who these nobodies are! It’s frustrating because I have learned of many great bands, both local acts and other up and comers this way. An opening bands job is to firstly get your moneys worth for the price of admission. You now aren’t there for just a 90-minute set but as long as 3+ hours. Secondly they are there to pump you up. Dance, sing, and clap. Anything to get you moving so that when the headliners hit the stage you are ready to party along side with them. They feed off your energy as much (and sometimes if not more so) as you do.
Bentley Collective is a local blues/funk trio consisting of Brooke Bentley Blackburn on guitar and vocals, Collin Barrett on bass and Joe Bowden on drums. Bentley spoke about how he has unfortunately never been to New Orleans, but after visiting Memphis, and in particular B.B. King’s club, he was able to truly understand his love of blues and wrote a great acoustic song about how being from Canada doesn’t make you not know what music from the heart is. Bentley’s guitar playing was quite flashy; sometimes at the expense of understanding his vocals but he whipped the crowd into a frenzy for sure. With a voice like Tom Waits, you could feel the experience of pain and love bursting from his seams. Barrett’s bass playing was subtle and kept in the background. When tuning everything out and focusing on his lines, you can hear his groove emanating and setting the pace of your dance moves. Full disclosure here, after Bentley introduced his backing band it clicked to why I recognized Joe Bowden, he has a day job working at Humber College where I attended, so I knew him in passing. That said, Bowden’s drumming has to be at, or near the very best live drumming I have ever seen. He was distractingly excellent, to the point where I would spend whole songs staring at his playing. His solos sounded like something that Gene Krupa would play, alternating timings and styles in the same span. By the time they played their last song, a cover of Bo Diddley’s “Bo Diddley”, with audience participation, everyone was hooting and hollering. Bentley Collective did what any great opening act is supposed to do, leave them wanting more and to pump up the crowd for the main event. They accomplished both with aplomb.
Orleans Avenue, the backing band for Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews came out and started a mid-tempo funk beat that quickly rose up to a furious pace, just as Andrews walked on stage. He came out rocking a pair of black sunglasses and a white button down shirt and his sleeves rolled up. In each hand was a horn, a trombone in his left hand and a trumpet in his right, triumphantly raised above his head. Confidence is not an issue for Andrews, younger brother of James Andrews the legendary trumpeter and countless other local New Orleans musicians. His backing band was a mix of hard rock and blues. It worked perfectly to Andrew’s soulful funky playing. “Suburbia” was the second tune, which is a gypsy punk style song that was easy to shake your body recklessly too.
While Trombone Shorty was the main focus, he allowed each one of his band members to get a lengthy solo at various parts of the night. His guitarist Pete Murano played like a modern Jimi Hendrix melting faces with his killer psychedelic blues and his bassist Mike Ballard had his swagger level set to Nick Oliveri (of Queens of the Stone Age fame), flicking his wrist dramatically after slapping down the notes. As a horn player you expect Andrews to make sure his horn section, consisting of Tim McFatter and Dan Oestreicher, to be up to snuff and the two sax players, one tenor and one baritone, held their own against the young gun. At one point everyone left the stage and drummer Joey Peebles was left alone and he did his version of “Moby Dick” John Bonham’s famous drum solo song. Peebles looked like Animal from the Muppets and the crowd roared with every complex fill.
Andrews incorporated plenty of covers into his set, some more obvious than others. A full instrumental version of “American Woman” was played, while parts of “P.I.M.P” and “Get Down On It”. Troy is clearly a masterful conductor as well, something that looks easier when you have the musicians to back it up. At points when singing he would stop and start the band during very complex parts, at one point waving his hands around furiously to conduct each instrument separately.
Andrews made sure to have plenty of contact with the audience while performing, either by pointing out people that were boogieing down hard, or thrusting the microphone into their faces to get them to sing along with the chorus. During the encore they played the crowd favourite “Hurricane Season” which the audience willingly shouted along the “Hey’s” that come after the horn fills, while throwing their hands in the air. Andrews reached out and high fived most of the people in the front row before taking several bows to rapturous applause. Even though it is only January, this is already a candidate for best show of the year; it currently has a place as one of the all-time best that I have ever seen. It makes me want to jump on a plane to NOLA and have some jambalaya and celebrate Mardis Gras in the French Quarter!