“We've got to do something... and why not do it in a fun, funky, meaningful, New Orleans-driven way?”
A LABOR OF LOVE, ACTIVISM AND MUSIC
The old saying has it that everyone likes to talk about the weather but no one ever does anything about it. Much the same thing could be said about the chaos currently engulfing America. It is the topic on the tip of every citizen's tongue but figuring out just what any of us can do to make things better is tough, tough, tough.
Then there are Brian D'Arcy and Matt Dillon. Brian is a longtime labor organizer -- and music lover -- based in Los Angeles. Matt is a longtime music promoter -- and political activist -- based in New Orleans. Dissatisfied with the state of our union and disinclined to do nothing but grouse about it, the two old friends teamed up recently to produce a project they call NOLA Resistance, which doubles as the name of their band and the title of the album they recorded. The inspiration for the project began to germinate not very long after the election of Donald Trump. The concept was to resist the president's reactionary and divisive politics. The music is pure New Orleans jazz and funk, while many of the songs are high-energy updates of some of the greatest and most impactful rock and R&B hits of the Sixties and the Seventies -- a period of political unrest not unlike our own.
One of the album's most urgent tracks is "The Resistance Will Not Be Televised," which ushers Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised," a landmark recording from 1971, into the 21st Century. An unsigned review on Skope.com asserts that the new version "feels like a shot of pure oxygen. It lets the listener know where she won’t find comrades (mass media, corporate-controlled social networks) and where she will (the streets)." These sentiments also apply to the album as a whole.
NOLA Resistance is the flower of a friendship that dates back to 2015. Then, as now, Brian D'Arcy was the business manager of the Los Angeles chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He is also the founder of a non-profit organization called Working Californians, allied with the IBEW Local 18, that is devoted to the creation of good-paying union jobs for communities of color. WCA advocates for all working people and is dedicated to the principle that the “Green New Deal” should work for everyone, including under-served communities and the previously incarcerated.
A benefit concert for Working Californians in 2015 featured trumpeter Irvin Mayfield leading the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Brian had booked NOJO in the first place because of his enduring love of New Orleans, its culture, and its people. He'd been introduced to it all by a gent named Ben Hudnall, who ran the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association (M.E.B.A) in San Francisco, where Brian was working in the Eighties. A jazz disc jockey out of Baton Rouge in his early life, Ben not only taught Brian about New Orleans, but "pretty much all I know about being a labor negotiator." (He adds that Hudnall, who died in June of 2006, "looked exactly like James Carville -- the original Ragin' Cajun.") After moving to Los Angeles in 1990, Brian began visiting New Orleans at every opportunity. "I just fell in love with it," he says. "There wasn't a labor conference I'd miss if it happened to be in New Orleans." This isn't to say that Brian hadn't been a music lover when he was younger. "I went to Woodstock when I was 19 years old," he says. "I saw all the great rock bands and lost a decade smoking pot every day." But then Brian met Ben Hudnall and his tastes became jazzier.
NOJO's road manager at the time of the Working Californians gig was Matt Dillon. He and Brian began hanging out together -- Brian booked NOJO for several additional benefit concerts -- and soon became fast friends. And why not? Matt was not only a missionary in the service of New Orleans and its music, he'd compiled a sterling political resumé. In 1984 he was a 20-year old student at Southern University in New Orleans (a historically black college) when his older brother Henry and Henry's pals -- including a young lawyer named Marc Morial -- founded the Young Adults Political Association. Its purpose, Matt says, was "to deal with the apathy of the young adults in the community, getting them more acclimated to the political process, and showing them that their voices make a difference." Eventually, Matt became YAPA's chairman, a position he's held for 15 years. Matt also worked for years on behalf of the Louisiana Voter Education and Registration Crusade. And in 1997 he joined the staff of U.S Senator Mary Landrieu as an aide, a two-year stint that posted him to New Orleans and Baton Rouge.
The merging of Matt's musical and political interests commenced in 1986, when he invited Wynton Marsalis to perform at a YAPA event. The pair had been friends since 1974, when Matt's brother Larry played trumpet alongside Wynton under the direction of Ellis Marsalis, Wynton's dad, at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. The YAPA gig was the first musical event Matt had ever produced and he discovered he really enjoyed the work. A few years later, in 1989, when he was about to start law school, Matt decided instead to give Wynton a ring. "Man," he told the trumpeter, "I wanna work with you." Wynton obligingly hired Matt as his road manager, a gig he held for ten years. Matt was still working for Wynton when he enlisted New Orleans master drummer Herlin Riley to teach him how to play drums and to give him his first drum set. Eventually he started singing, too, and in 2006 he began working as Tour Manager with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. In recent years the tireless hustler has also begun producing films.
Matt notes that from the beginning of his friendship with Brian, "our conversations always led back to politics." In the wake of the election of Donald Trump, Brian said, "We've got to do something...and why not do it in a fun, funky, meaningful, New Orleans-driven way?" The result is NOLA Resistance, a 21st Century "record of protest." A pair of the album's original compositions -- "How It Used to Be" written by Matt and Darrell Lavigne and "Put That Hammer Down" written by Matt and Roderick Paulin -- can be seen as two sides of the same coin. The former is a fond reminiscence of the New Orleans of Matt's youth, a more hopeful time when "people seemed to care more for one another." The latter decries the plague of gun violence that is over-running present-day New Orleans and too many other urban centers.
The album also revives and rejuvenates half-a-dozen of the great songs that defined the protest era of the Sixties and Seventies, a selection that reflects the brainstorming and tastes of its co-producers -- and their belief that those songs continue to resonate in today's political climate. It spans the decade starting in 1966 with Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth" and concludes with Johnny "Guitar" Watson's "Ain't That a Bitch" and Bob Marley's "War," both of which first saw the light of day in 1976. It also includes Joni Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi," The Beatles' "Come Together," and Marvin Gaye's "You're the Man" (1972), an obscure but potent item from the soul singer's deep catalog that shares some distinctive musical DNA with Gaye's "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."
The producers' guiding star, though, was Gil Scott Heron's "The Revolution Will Not Be Televised." Cowritten by Matt and Kevin ‘Unscripted’ Joseph, the updated lyrics assert, "There will be no pictures of cops shooting down unarmed brothers in the instant replay" and concludes, "The resistance will not be televised, will not be online, will not be tweeted/The resistance will be live." This new version was played during the memorial service for George Floyd in Houston in June, part of a program that also included a number of gospel staples and Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come."
NOLA Resistance is an entirely independent project, funded by Working Californians and performed by a deep roster of eminent Crescent City musicians, the core of them trace their roots back to groups like the New Orleans Big Band, the New Orleans All-Stars, and before that, Throwback, a band dedicated to preserving and extending the legacy of classic New Orleans funk: drummer Herlin Riley, bassist Chris Severin, keyboardist Darrell Lavigne, percussionist Bill Summers, and trumpeter Nicholas Payton. They were augmented on this project by Case, who sings "You're the Man"; Casme Barnes, who sings the samba-powered remake of "Big Yellow Taxi"; Ernesto Blanco, the Cuban hitmaker who sings "Come Together"; Kenny Neal, who sings "Ain't That a Bitch"; Christian Bold, who sings Sly Stone's "Family Affair"; James Lee Ambush Jr, who sings "War;" and actor Gralen Banks, who provides the vocals for "The Resistance Will Not Be Televised."
Ideally, this powerhouse of talent would be on the road right now, touring and performing to promote the message embodied by NOLA Resistance. But of course, the pandemic has temporarily stopped that kind of work in its tracks. Then again, it hasn't stopped Matt Dillon, a die-hard optimist if ever there was one, from continuing to look on the bright side: "All of our songs are timeless," he says. "We can be playing these songs four or five years from now and they'll still be relevant because the world is still going to be going through things."
For his part, Brian says, "We're looking forward to making a new record next year."
Maybe by then there'll be some reason for all of us to feel a little more hopeful, with less need to protest and more need to celebrate. Maybe there'll be ample reason for next album to be called NOLA Triumphant. Waddaya think?