by Annette Hinkle
Music is the lifeblood of New Orleans, a city at the crossroads of the world teeming with melodic multi-cultural influences. From Cajun and Zydeco to Dixieland or rhythm and blues, music is a living and breathing entity in the Big Easy. Though it traces its roots to French and Afro-Caribbean rhythms, like all life forms, New Orleans music it is ever evolving — shifting and growing to adapt to the tastes of the next generation.
Alas, there isn’t a lot of opportunity for lovers of New Orleans music to hear the real thing on the East End (where the 17th century founding fathers imposed decidedly more puritanical leanings). But fortunately, we now have the “Who Dat Loungers,” a local band with a big sound and a lot of New Orleans inspired heart.
As bands go, the Who Dat Loungers are on the large side — nine musicians in all — and when they’re together, this group is capable of making some serious sounds. The Who Dat Loungers have strings, a horn section, accordion and several vocalists, giving the band the tools it needs to capture the full range of the New Orleans sound.
Not bad for a group of Long Island musicians who have only been playing together a little more than a year.
“We’re just starting and a lot of people don’t know who we are yet,” explains Sag Harbor’s Joe Lauro, a founding member of the group who plays stand up bass and sings. “It takes a really long time for a band to establish itself. We’re not the kind of band that can play too many clubs. We’re too big. I’ve been playing cubs since I was 15, even in The Lone Sharks, which was a lot of fun. But the idea of the Who Dats was to play concerts, blues festival or music festivals embracing roots music.”
Next Saturday, music lovers are invited to ring in 2012 with the Who Dat Loungers at a New Year’s Eve Dance Ball at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor. While December 31st is traditionally the most festive night of the year, Lauro has noticed that lately, the streets of Sag Harbor have seemed eerily quiet on New Year’s Eve. So looking to liven things up this year, he approached John Sullivan and Gary Hygom at Bay Street about the idea of creating a Mardi Gras style party at the theatre for the whole community.
“We start at 9 p.m. We’ll have two bands and great dance music in between. ‘New Dawn’ opens up and then we’ll be playing,” explains Lauro. “At midnight, we’ll go live to the countdown from New York. We’ll have an extended dance floor, great lighting, confetti and a lounge in the green room.”
Lauro, who owns Historic Films Archive, a Greenport based company with a huge collection of vintage film clips — including rare musical appearances from old variety shows — will also screen some of those clips.
“For years on New Year’s Eve, I’ve always played at someone else’s party,” says Lauro. “This is my party.”
There’s good reason for Lauro to celebrate. The band is getting some attention and recently performed with Rufus Wainwright at Sylvester Manor’s Plant and Sing Festival on Shelter Island. They’ve also just released a CD, “Who Dat Loungers Mostly Live” which was recorded for a live audience at EKO soundstage in Deer Park. Lauro notes that this is a band with a specific vision.
“We’re really a revue. We’re a tribute band in a way — not to The Beatles or Jethro Tull, but to the music of New Orleans,” he explains. “We love it, we respect it, and we want to perform as close as we can to the greatness of it. We’re convinced people will come and have a great time. It’s all about fun.”
Though music is a way of life in New Orleans, Lauro realizes that many people here are not savvy about the different styles that make up the New Orleans sound. That’s why part of the mission of the Who Dat Loungers is to bring an educational aspect to the music form.
“People think of Louis Armstrong and the old timers in straw hats. But New Orleans is the cornerstone of American music,” explains Lauro. ‘To this day it continues to innovate, and is one of the only towns in America that still has a local and regional sound.”
“We go through the history, not in a boring way, but through music, show the great variety of New Orleans jazz,” he adds. “Our concept is don’t just have a party, but have a Mardi Gras party. We bring it to every show. We have a second line and march into the audience. It’s infectious.”
Lauro notes that the music of New Orleans, while varied, is hardly static, and probably more than in any other place in this country, it is cultivated and nurtured in the young.
“Kids are given instruments and put into organized bands and the tradition continues,” he says. “They bring hip hop and current styles into it. It’s completely happening. It’s a vibrant music scene in New Orleans, but it’s still an uphill battle. Some new people who have bought houses on Bourbon Street now don’t want music in front of their houses.”
While the Who Dat Loungers have several Long Island gigs coming up in the next few months (including some town sponsored summer concerts) Lauro would love to see the band perform in the Holy Grail of music festivals — the New Orleans Jazz Festival. Despite their Northeast roots, now that they have a CD and someone handling promotion, maybe they have a shot at it.
“I think we’ll send something to jazz fest,” says Lauro. “We’re a pure New Orleans band. We’re not from there, but we play the music. And now they’re having trouble finding it there because the older guys are gone.”
The New Years Eve Dance Ball at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor begins at 9 p.m. on New Year’s Eve and goes into the wee hours of 2012. In addition to Lauro, the Who Dat Loungers include David Dietch, Dawnette Darden, Brian Sears, Michael Schiano, Dave Giacone and Sam Pruyn. Tickets are $60 (725-9500 or www.baystreet.org). Special hotel stay packages are available at Baron’s Cove (725-2100) and Sag Harbor Inn (725-2949) so revelers can ring in the New Year responsibly.