Reflections on a weekend of music in New Orleans

This month Theodicy was invited to perform at both Bethlehem Lutheran Church and Christ Church Cathedral in New Orleans. The purpose of the trip was twofold – to play a free concert and worship service at the cathedral and help raise donations for Bethlehem Lutheran Church’s affordable housing ministry. In addition to playing some good music and bringing different communities together we had a chance to experience some of the unique and vibrant culture of New Orleans.

As this is our inaugural blog post, we think it would be fitting to write a little bit about the band’s mission and purpose. Depending on who you ask In the collective, you could get many answers: to bring people from disparate backgrounds together through music, to help build community in the church, help the Episcopal church practice radical welcome through racially diverse music, or speak to social and racial justice issues through music. It’s our hope that our work in New Orleans accomplished some of these goals.

We all arrived in New Orleans late Thursday evening and after competing for cabs at the airport with Tulane alumni returning for their homecoming, we finally made it to our lodgings for some much needed shut eye. 

On Friday afternoon we spent time at Bethlehem Lutheran Church rehearsing our repertoire for the evening’s concert and got to see some of the housing their affordable housing ministry had completed building. By the time late afternoon rolled around, our usual debate over where to grab lunch had begun and after much discussion, an establishment was chosen – Tracey’s Original Irish Channel Bar. We indulged in several Miller High Life’s and an assortment of Po’ Boys. Shout out to both the oyster po’ boy! It was definitely worth the walk.

After lunch and another short rehearsal, we set up for our Friday evening concert at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. As with all our performances, much thought and discussion was put into developing a setlist. Any musician or band can tell you that it takes time to develop a new piece of music and we took this opportunity to continue developing new music we’ve written. One new piece we included on this concert was Love Always – a commission for our performance at Trinity Episcopal Cathedral in Portland, Oregon last June. The words were written by Brandt Maina, a member of the Trinity congregation and our alto saxophonist Will Cleary composed the music. It was a pleasure to perform this piece again and continue to workshop and develop its sound. Another song we included on Friday night was a song by our pianist Andy Barnett, titled Latin American Bread Prayer. Serendipitously, the song was written years ago when Andy was volunteering in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The song has primarily been used in a supporting role – played quietly behind prayers during services but recently we’ve begun experimenting with using the tune as a vehicle for modal improvisation – think along the lines of John Coltrane’s music in the mid-1960s.

Friday’s concert was well-received by the crowd at Bethlehem Lutheran. It was one of those performances where you felt the audience was an active member of the ensemble. People were cheering, clapping and singing along. And we even had an audience member – Dwayne Walker, a.k.a. The Umbrella Man, stand up in front of us during a song and balance an umbrella on his nose! We won’t forget that anytime soon.

After the show, we made a point to pack up quickly because it’s not every day you get to hang out on a Friday night in New Orleans. A bunch of the band made their way to the Bayou Bar (located in The Pontchartrain Hotel) to catch some music from YYRP – a group featuring Peter Harris, Joe Ashlar, John Maestas and John Michael Bradford. The music was grooving and the cocktails were delicious!

On Saturday we had the morning and early afternoon off so members of the group had an opportunity to explore more of New Orleans. Several of us grabbed breakfast at Cafe Porche and Snowbar and enjoyed their French toast and smothered shrimp and grits (arguably not a breakfast item, but how could you resist when in NOLA?). We then headed over to the New Orleans Jazz Museum to check out their exhibits. Some of the museum was a little underwhelming, however they had a terrific exhibit on the drum set and it’s significance to not only the music of New Orleans, but also popular American music in general. In what was news to us, the bass drum pedal was invented in 1909. This invention is what thrust the drum set as we now know it into existence. 

Saturday afternoon the band regrouped in Christ Church Cathedral to begin rehearsal with their choir and prepare for both our evening concert and Sunday morning service. We again workshopped Love Always with the choir and a notable moment during our rehearsal occurred when Will introduced the song to the choir and spoke about how the commission for the piece came about. Our performance at Trinity Episcopal Church in Portland last June was during Pride Month and the church wanted to commission music written by members of the LGBTQ+ community. One of their choir members and a member of the LGBTQ+ community, Brandt Maina was commissioned to write a poem which became the text to Love Always. In speaking about the music Will spoke about the importance of inclusion and giving voice to marginalized groups, whose texts and compositions have been under-represented in traditional Episcopal offerings. The words were particularly poignant in this space. When you looked around the church, the vast majority of the choir and congregation were white. Our trombonist Sarah also commented afterwards that being inside the church you wouldn’t necessarily realize you were in New Orleans. Compared to the crowd and energy inside Bethlehem Lutheran the night before, Christ Church Cathedral did feel like many other Episcopal Churches Theodicy has performed at – whether in Portland, Washington DC, or Atlanta. 

Performing at Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Friday, we felt as if we were invited into a community that was excited and thankful for our music. While Saturday’s show at the Cathedral was also well attended and received, you couldn’t help but feel a more formal and reserved atmosphere. 

Some notable moments from the Saturday concert included our rendition of Fix Me Jesus and movements from the Canterbury Jazz Mass. Something we’ve begun working on as an ensemble is developing our live sound. As musicians, we put so much time and energy into learning our instruments, developing our technique and workshopping new music. But another aspect of performing is having a well-balanced sound and effectively communicating that to an audience. Churches present unique acoustical challenges for live concerts. There’s always a lot of reverb and echo in a church so drums can easily drown out other instruments. Choirs’ words can often be swallowed up by the blare of the horns. To effectively produce an authentic sound, good mic placement and mixing are crucial in these types of spaces. This was one of our first times working with a live sound crew and we’re pretty pleased with the general sound we captured.