Sunday, April 25, 2010

Why Treme matters

When the highly-anticipated series Treme debuted on HBO three Sundays ago, it quickly became apparent to me why the show matters.

Series creator and chief writer David Simon (The Wire) cares about nuance in his characters and in his stories. His attention to detail is exacting and he wants to get everything just right, especially when it pertains to music.

One of these nuances is the show's soundtrack. Music plays an important role in Treme (pronounced "Truh-MAY") and several of its main characters are musicians. Much of the 80-minute pilot consisted of watching musicians practice their craft. There's the fictitious Antoine Batiste (brilliantly portrayed by Wendell Pierce, who also played Det. Bunk Moreland in The Wire), a trombone player hustling from gig to gig and trying to make ends meet. There's trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, a real life local music legend, who understands his sense of community even when its in a state of recovery. Finally, there's Steve Zahn as a chatty, hipster local radio DJ named Davis McAlary (based on local musician/DJ Davis Rogan) who is passionate about New Orleans' musical heritage and would like nothing better than for Kermit Ruffins to be recognized by an audience beyond New Orleans.

Davis, who envisions Kermit opening for Elvis Costello on a national tour, confronts the trumpeter after a gig about his lack of seeking greater attention.

Davis: "All you want to do is get high, play some trumpet and barbeque in New Orleans your whole damn life?"

Kermit: "That'll work."

In Episode 2, we see Elvis Costello and Alvin Toussaint recreate the recording session for "Tears, Tears and More Tears" from their album The River In Reverse ~ one of the first albums recorded after the storm at the Piety Street Recording Studio. Costello was one of the first globally-known musicians to visit New Orleans post-Katrina and now performs annually at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

If the first two episodes are any indication, we're in for an abundance of great, inspiring music that is part of the Crescent City ~ jazz, funk, zydeco, rhythm and blues ~ from many who have contributed to the New Orleans soundtrack over time: Johnny Boutte', Rebirth Brass Band, Dr. John, Elvis Costello, Allen Toussaint, Beau Jocque and the Zydeco Hi-Rollers, Louis Armstrong, the Radiators and the Meters.

Some of this music is plainly seen and heard. The Rebirth Brass Band's "Feel Like Funkin' It Up" is played in the first second-line parade after the storm. Kermit Ruffins plays "Skoiaan" at a gig at Vaughan's, a popular night spot. At other times, the music pops up subtly, like Louis Prima's "Buona Sera" during a New Orleans night montage or Lee Dorsey's "Ya Ya" playing in the background during an interior scene at Antoine's home.

Fortunately, the HBO Treme website,, posts the music featured in each episode as well as how it appears, and much of it is available on iTunes.

Perhaps, one of the enduring legacies of Treme will be that of a great primer for those who want to learn more about why the New Orleans soundtrack matters. And it matters.

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