The New Orleans Suspects: A Band of Rebirth
By Phil Reser
Story by Phil Reser
Photos courtesy of New Orleans Suspects
Funk music has been recognized as a heavily syncopated, groove-centered style of African-American music.
The New Orleans Suspects are comprised of musicians with experience and versatility that rival any other funk band that the city has ever produced.
“Mean” Willie Green was drummer for the Neville Brothers for more than 30 years, and has played on Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan records.
Reggie Scanlan, bass player for The Radiators for more than three decades, has played with James Booker and Professor Longhair.
Jake Eckert, lead guitarist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, has jammed with Warren Haynes and Dave Matthews.
CR Gruver is a classically trained pianist who has tickled the ivories with the national band Outformation and singer/songwriter Angie Aparo.
And finally, Jeff Watkins on sax spent 12 years leading the James Brown Band.
Says Scanlan, “Willy and I are the only two in the band born and raised in New Orleans, and even the two of us come from completely different backgrounds. Even so, for some funny reason, our styles just seem to fit together when we start playing,” he says. “I don’t know how, but it all falls into place.
“People kind of blew us off and thought this band was a side project kind of thing. It took a long time for people to get that this was our priority, but once they did, it started a nice progression for the band.”
On tour with the New Orleans Suspects’ third album, “Ouroboros,” Scanlan says the Suspects didn’t really begin so much as they happened.
One evening, six years ago, the owner of the popular New Orleans music venue The Maple Leaf Bar called and wanted them to gig on a day’s notice when the club’s scheduled act had canceled.
“It went well and we said if another band doesn’t show up, give us a call,” says Scanlan. The Maple Leaf called a few more times as the five musicians’ individual bands were winding down, and before long, the New Orleans Suspects were born.
As the would-be Suspects returned to the Maple Leaf stage for repeated performances, their bands of origin began to look increasingly uncertain.
Recalls Scanlan, “Ed Volker (Radiators bandleader) was retiring, and the Nevilles were falling apart. Others were having problems with their bands, too. So finally I said to the guys, we spend half our time complaining about the bands we’re in. Why don’t we just put this new thing together?
“We had three guys who could read charts like they can read a book,” he says. “Then you had me and Willie, guys who came off the streets and learned the hard way, playing in clubs we weren’t old enough to get into yet. It doesn’t look like it would work on paper. But it’s that ‘X’ factor that makes it happen. It’s one of those quirky things where we just seem to fit in together. And we knew it from that first note.”
“Ouroboros” is the band’s third release and the follow up to their 2012 live CD, “Caught Live At The Maple Leaf.”
The album defines the band’s sound, which puts its own twist on the traditions of New Orleans music, fever-inducing funk, irresistible R&B rhythms, Professor Longhair rumbas, dancing-in-the-street second lines, jazzy soul-drenched horns and mind-melting swamp hoodoo that takes the listener on a wild ride through the city’s musical history.
The title of the recording was carefully chosen by the band: The Ouroboros is a mythically powerful symbol, an ancient circular icon of a serpent eating its own tail, symbolizing things that begin anew as soon as they end. This idea perfectly describes New Orleans Suspects, a band that represents a second chance, or rebirth, for its veteran members.
“A lot of bands these days are doing the next generation sound,” Scanlan points out. “But we’re a little more into the earlier traditions. We sound more old school. We’re not a super group. We’re a band of musicians who share a common vision. It’s a working, organic band and our main focus.”
New Orleans Suspects
Jan. 27, Sierra Nevada Big Room in Chico