The Congregation of Rhythm
The Congregation of Rhythm
A Q&A with Noah Adams
Of The Dirty Bourbon River Show
By Geoff Gehman
Anyone who writes “Somebody get this man a tissue because he needs to blow his soul out” has an open-tuned mind, body and, yes, soul. Noah Adams slipped that transcendental thought into a practical ditty called “Ode to Sophia Loren,” which he wrote for the Dirty Bourbon River Show, his first and only band. Launched in New Orleans in 2009, when Adams was studying at Loyola University, the brassy, sassy quintet performs an invigorating, infectious blend of everything from second-line rock to circus cabaret to klezmer-cum-cumbia.
Adams is the trumpeter, organist, accordionist, chief composer, videographer and wolfman-bearded, wolfman-growling ringleader of the Dirty Bourboneers, who on Jan. 22 will turn the Mauch Chunk Opera House into a Mardi Gras vaudeville venue. Expect to hear tracks from their ninth and latest studio album, “Important Things Humans Should Know,” which includes “Ezmerelda,” an alley-cat creeper about a banshee-crazy, canine-killing girlfriend. Expect to see instruments switched during songs, whiskey shots poured and downed, balls of fire unimagined by even Jerry Lee Lewis. Expect to stroll the sonic corridors of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Inventions, Peter Gabriel’s Genesis and hell, why not, the Chicago Art Ensemble.
Below, in a phone conversation somewhere from Connecticut, Adams discusses his admiration for Hunter S. Thompson, fans with Dirty Bourbon tattoos, sound guys who actually make musicians sound better and the syncopated compassion of New Orleans.
Q: What was the first song you couldn’t forget, that absolutely, positively knocked off your socks?
A: Chopin’s Polonaise in A Flat Major. That’s a killer. I first heard it when I was 20 years old.
Q: You began absorbing, processing and making music in your 20s, which is a pretty late date for a professional musician. What rang your bell before music did?
A: Traveling. I spent about six years visiting the whole world. Thailand. China. Europe. Africa. I was a professional hooligan.
Q: What was the first New Orleans number that wormed its way into your system?
A: I’d say the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s whole 1984 album “My Feet Can’t Fail Me Now.” I love the heavy rhythm, the dirty syncopation. The horns are just a blast and have it all together. “Blackbird Special” is a phenomenally quick, driving tune. It’s just a really tight record.
Q: Dirty Bourbon’s latest record, “Important Things That Humans Should Know,” is the band’s first made with an outside producer. Where did Craig Schumacher [Neko Case, Calexico] take you that you had never gone?
A: Craig was like a good shaman: A good producer, a good shaman, just amplifies your existing sound. His extra ear gave us extra perspective on tunes like “One Legged One Armed One Eyed Unicycle Man.” It began as a basic funk piece; he helped us make it much funkier.
Q: Sandra Love joined the band last year as an extra lead vocalist. How has she changed the mix? She certainly helps you sass up “Ezmerelda.”
A: There’s a really nice vocal range between the two of us. It’s also really nice to have a girl around because we’re four stinky boys.
Q: “Ezmerelda” was inspired by a crazy ex-girlfriend of yours. What does the ex think of the Ez?
A: We don’t talk much anymore. I never told her the song was about her, and there are no specific allusions to her. But I would imagine she’s heard it, or heard of it, because she’s very much plugged into social media.
Every single song I write is a kind of autobiographical gonzo experience. Everything, if you will, comes from something.
Q: Hunter S. Thompson, the original gonzo writer-adventurer, must be one of your heroes.
A: He’s a phenomenal writer. You know, I thought I was going to be a journalist, which was a stupid idea. I was a free-lance writer once upon a time but it’s a sad life when you’re just a character and everybody else isn’t exactly a part of your team–you’re just kind of watching them. I have buddies who were free-lance writers: they didn’t go out much; they don’t have much pigment in their faces. So I kind of brought journalistic strains to writing songs.
Q: Your singing is a real gonzo gumbo. I hear ironic, slightly satirical melodrama that would suit a Brecht-Weill cabaret and Louis Armstrong “Satchmo” growling and Frank Zappa cool-kidding-while-the-house-is-on-fire. Who the hell are your vocal role models?
A: All that’s very correct. Satchmo is one of the best growlers ever. I love [Brecht-Weill’s] “Threepenny Opera”; we should do a modern version. I like pretty much everything from Whitney Houston to Pakistani traditional singers. I like to sing non-traditionally because I was not taught how to sing. Because I don’t do traditional technical things, I am able to access the parts and styles of my voice that most people may not have considered doing. That wolfman voice on “Wolfman”—that came out real, real naturally,
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you’ve released them into the wide world. Can you put your finger on one of your tunes with the strangest, wildest journey?
A: I’d say “Ruffian Since Birth.” When it disappears from the song bank, people scream and yell for it to reappear. It’s one of the first songs I wrote with this band: I wrote it before I had decided to play music full time. I think people sympathize, empathize, with its personal, local content. They may have a similar situation of being from the lower income tiers of society; they may have passions sacrificed for the daily grind. It can be really rough for really smart, creative people to get ahead. But it can’t keep us down.
Q: What was your toughest time in the music trade, when you seriously second guessed your decision to play professionally?
A: Every day. We create the songs, yet every single person in the industry makes more than us, the people who really birth the entire industry. That happens every day. We play music because we’re obsessional creatures. That’s what drives us; if we couldn’t create, there would be no reason to live. I’ll tell you straight, outright, that my biggest problem with the music industry is people living off our creations, our livelihoods, our lives.
Q: What was your happiest time in the trade, when you felt on top of the mountain, on top of your game?
A: Also, every single day. There are crappy elements in this business but we still get to bring joy. We’ve had people laugh, cry and shed tears of joy to our music. We’ve had people get sent to the ambulance to our music. We’ve had people get tattoos of us because of our music. We liked one tattoo so much, we ended up doing a time-lapse version of it in one of our music videos. Let me tell you, it’s crazy when you see yourselves in a tattoo.
We don’t get much [financial] reward but we do get so much reward intangibly. And that makes you feel really, really satisfied, and justified, about choosing this calling for a living.
Q: What tops your Bucket List?
A: I’ve lived in many countries. I’ve jumped out of airplanes. I’ve participated in adventurous threesomes. But the top of my Bucket List is to create a sustainable economy for my band. I did not get to see Mr. David Bowie live in this lifetime, so I’ll have to do that in another ultimate reality.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List?
A: Sound people who don’t know their jobs and think they do and end up destroying your ears. I just wish those guys would go to school or get on the Internet and autodidactically educate themselves. Luckily for us, there are also sound guys who make you sound better than you really sound. They’re unsung heroes and amazing human beings. God bless them.
Q: You specialize in what you call New Orleans Big Brass Circus Rock. Ah, but what do you think of the real circus?
A: We have none of the negatives associated with the circus, like the empirical mistreatment of animals. What we do is use the elements of the circus to create a neo-performance art platform—the visuals, the explosions, the celebrations. We like to get people jumping and whooping and hollering all over the place. We may shock you. We may enlighten you. We may excite and incite you. We may even scare you.
Q: What’s the most important way that New Orleans has changed you as a musician and a person?
A: It makes you syncopate. When you’re not there, you’re a bit more heavy on the downbeat. The city really opens you up. There’s lots of violence and contention and messed-up stuff, but there’s also a lot of community. Racially, people tend to get along better because we have a common goal in maintaining our music and culture and surviving. New Orleans brings out your humility. It makes you feel so beautiful and blessed to be part of such an awesome community with so many gifted people, so many unsung geniuses.
You know, a monk once said a genius is someone most like us. New Orleans is full of people who are like that—unsung monks. It’s where I want to die; for me, it’s the end-all place.
Noah Adams: The Scoop
His New Orleans piano heroes include Dr. John, Fats Waller and Huey Smith.
His fellow band members rejected his proposals to call themselves The Beekeepers, wear bee outfits and release live bees.
He supervised the Dirty Bourbon River Show’s six-month residency in a burlesque bar.
His crazy-titled compositions range from “Jewish Girls Who Went to Art School Know All the Angles” to “One Legged One Armed One Eyed Unicycle Man,” surely the most multi-singular track of all time.
He received the Most Authentic Mustache award in 2012 at Café DaVinci in Deland, Fla. “I won by accident. We didn’t know there was a competition; we were just that evening’s entertainment.”
He’s not crazy about journalists who make him ask his own questions. “I do enough of that at 3 in the morning.”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He’s particularly partial to “Jewish Girls Who Went to Art School Know All the Angles.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.