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Treme: "At The Foot Of Canal Street"

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Well hello. This is Keith Phipps filling in for Scott Tobias, who has a gig in another town. We’re four episodes into Treme now, and following Scott’s coverage, your comments, and coverage elsewhere it seems like some key themes and concerns are starting to emerge, both within the program and among those watching. For one there’s the issue of how outsiders should treat the city. Scott raised an interesting point last week in regarding the final scene, which he felt went too far over the line in its defensive, no-outsiders-allowed-no-matter-how-good-their-intentions attitude. Which got me thinking: Is the show—an outside production headed by a guy from Baltimore no matter how many native New Orleanians are involved—overcompensating? Is the safest move to take the hardest line?


I’ve also noticed that some strong likes, and even stronger dislikes, have started to emerge when it comes to the shows characters. Most often in the “dislike” column: Sonny (Michael Huisman) and Davis (Steve Zahn), two, to put it mildly, difficult men. (Though men each difficult in their own way.) Similarly, some storylines grip some of you more than others, which is probably to be expected. I mention all this because they’re the kind of concerns that come up when getting settled into a series, not the sort that come up when one’s watching casually or planning to check out after an episode or two. If, three episodes in, you’re worried about whether or not Davis is going to drive you nuts, you’re planning on living in this world for a while.

Perhaps appropriately, this is an episode about settling in. We’re inching up on Christmas now, and the immediately problems of the recovery have given way to the problems of what it means to live in New Orleans after Katrina. A city that had problems maintaining itself—as all cities do, some more than others—before the catastrophe now sees those problems multiplied. Restaurants can’t cook food. Cars disappear into the “Cave Of Mystery.” Trombone players brutalized by the police sit and improvise new words to “St. James Infirmary.” Meanwhile, the outside world—not long ago so worried about New Orleans—has let its attention drift elsewhere. When New Orleans comes up at all in the national conversation, it’s to talk about whether or not it’s appropriate to hold Mardi Gras, when the people living there know that’s no question anyone from New Orleans would even think to ask. Of course there will be Mardi Gras. There’s always Mardi Gras. (And now I wonder if the season finale will revolve around Mardi Gras, though that seems a little obvious.)


Still, Mardi Gras will be a bummer for Antoine if he can’t play the trombone. While, by episode’s end, he seems to be on his way to making a full dental recovery, he still seems like a man not sure of his place in the world. His boys clearly miss him, but they’re in Baton Rouge, and and he’s in New Orleans and seldom will the twain meet. When he talks to Ladonna at her bar, he has the tone of a man who’s grown used to watching things slip away, be they ex-wives or chances at breakout stardom, thanks in part—he might argue—to the demands of the city and her music. He sees himself as on his way to being one of those “deep-fried musicians. Forgotten or about to be.” He’s a man in a rut, but he leaves “At The Foot Of Canal Street” appreciative of that rut having sampled Baton Rouge and its strip-mall cuisine. It’s home. And it’s “always a pleasure.”

Ultimately, it’s affection for their home that drives these characters more than a distrust of thus who can’t claim it as their home. It’s why, when he learns his Wild Man’s son plans to leaving the city, Albert responds with a “Why?” that sounds straight from the soul. It’s also why Creighton, always emboldened when he has the attention of a camera or a journalist on the other end of the phone, takes to YouTube to deliver rants against the rest of the world. While that scene’s sure to make uncomfortable those who feel get whiffs of a New Orleans über alles attitude from Treme, it struck me as too over the top and misguided—particularly the “fuck New York” lines—to take as the voice of the show. Creighton’s going through something only glimpsed in his rants. He’s staying at home more, puttering around in his pajamas, not writing his novel and not talking to anyone in the outside world. And when the camera’s off, he’s a different man.

Still, that one of the show’s least sympathetic characters is a New Orleans by choice and not by birth might not put those fears to rest. Sonny, we learn this week, comes from Amsterdam but “got to New Orleans as fast as [he] could.” (I have to confess I didn’t even know he was supposed to be from Europe. Am I alone in that?) He spends the episode traveling to Texas to play in a New Orleans-themed night with singer John Boutte—who also sings the theme song each week—and trombonist Glen David Andrews, both of whom I now realize I need to check out. He joins them for one number then gets displaced by veteran pianist Joe Krown, longtime sideman to Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. The next song goes on for a while, longer than it would seem to need to, but I don’t think the show’s simply indulging its great music. The crowd, who must be at least partly transplanted New Oreanians, really gets into it, but Sonny sulks and moves outside, not feeling the groove now that he’s lost the spotlight. Would a real New Orleanian do that? He’s definitely passionate about the city, however, advising the Texas bar’s tiny bouncer to take the time to see the place then bringing him with him upon his return.

Of course, not all those born in New Orleanians think of it the same way. Albert’s son Delmond, after playing a game of “Monogamy With Exceptions” with his girlfriend, must decide whether or not to join a New Orleans-themed tour now that New Orleans is “hot” again. It’s a tough call. “I’m from New Orleans,” he says, “but I don’t play New Orleans,” using breakout stars like the Marsalis family and Terence Blanchard as examples. The question of what musicians should play versus what they want to play versus what they’re expected to play keeps coming up. Delmond’s expected to know, and surely does know, all the New Oreans standards the rest of the world associates with the city, but that’s not what his heart wants to play. On the other hand, with such a vibrant musical culture, isn’t it distasteful to leave the tradition in pursuit of glory elsewhere? (Kermit Ruffins certainly made the options of getting high, playing jazz, and eating barbecue look appealing.) Is music ever pure? Wouldn’t, beckoned by Steve and Justin Townes Earle, Annie do just fine playing Cajun fiddle for a band that clearly isn’t all that steeped in Cajun music? She’s certainly learned some tricks they never taught her in the conservatory already. The city’s crept in between the notes. It has a way of doing that if you stick around long enough.


Stray observations:

• Much more to talk about, but I had to stop somewhere. The David Brooks plot advances a little, but not that much, for one.


• Cameos, cameos, cameos: In addition to the Earles, we get jazz greats Ron Carter and McCoy Tyner (the latter’s appearance supplying the punchline to the “Monogamy With Exceptions” scene.) Then there’s a who’s who of New York’s African-American intellectual and athletic elite, from Stanley Crouch and Nelson George to… well, I don’t follow basketball. But I’m sure they’re impressive as well.

• Are they really going somewhere with the Davis-enters-politics plot? That could be interesting. Will we get another drug legalization sub-plot ala the third season of The Wire.


• Speaking of Davis, I loved Janette’s “what am I doing with this guy?” look when he started flirting with Annie. But I have a feeling she’ll be back. He’s so very much unlike everything else in her life and he’s never boring.

• I barely even mentioned Albert’s budding friendship with his young charge’s mother. She seems really interested in having those cracks in her bedroom patched over, doesn’t she? Both here and on The Wire, Clarke Peters plays men whose insistent, mature self-assurance easily translates into sexual appeal. His are the sort of characters women turn to when they’re done with boys and want to spend time with a man.


• Speaking of: “How do you get to sleep at night, man.” “I drink.”

• Tonight’s episode comes from George Pelecanos, another Wire holdover and a fine novelist. Glad to see him still in the fold.


• Prez! Slim Charles!

• Lagnianppe, by way of the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

Pronunciation: \ˈlan-ˌyap, lan-ˈ\

Function: noun

Etymology: American French, from American Spanish la ñapa the lagniappe, from la + ñapa, yapa, from Quechua yapa something added


Date: 1844

: a small gift given a customer by a merchant at the time of a purchase; broadly : something given or obtained gratuitously or by way of good measure