Mother Nature is on a wild escapade," Cinnamon the Alligator says.
Cinnamon is a character in Electric Swamp, a puppet-show DVD by New Orleans' Miss Pussycat. It's included in Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycat's new album, Swamp Tech, and her words now seem particularly apropos.
In Electric Swamp, the problem is termites out of control, not Hurricane Katrina, but the DVD, which was made before Katrina, is an artifact from New Orleans' Bywater neighborhood, one whose future is now up in the air. Many of the voices come from people who worked in the Bywater, including a neighborhood mechanic and a cashier from a nearby hardware store. "I wanted to go for a lot of good New Orleans accents," Miss Pussycat says by phone from Houma, Louisiana, where the couple went after the storm. "It's like the city it's about is not in New Orleans anymore," she says.
While the city's Treme neighborhood has been thought of as the home of R&B and jazz and Valence Street in Uptown as the home of the Neville Brothers, Quintron and Miss Pussycat are as associated with their neighborhood as any musicians in New Orleans. (They've gone so far as to turn part of their St. Claude Avenue house into the Spellcaster Lounge, a part-time concert venue.) The Bywater has traditionally been a mixed-race, working-class neighborhood just upriver from the French Quarter, and in recent years, its affordable rents and just-near-enough proximity to the French Quarter have made it a home for the young and bohemian. That combination has also made it the breeding ground for some of New Orleans' more theatrical, eccentric musicians, including the drunken rock/funk of the Morning 40 Federation and Quintron's Rhinestone Records labelmate MC Trachiotomy.
Quintron's idiosyncratic blend of one-man-band R&B and techno, filtered through a punk sensibility, is the most fully realized and successful in the neighborhood. There's more than a hint of "B"-movie horror soundtrack in his organ playing, but the songs themselves are cartoonishly loopy, catchy, and danceable. Swamp Tech's "Witch in the Club," for example, has a running-in-place rhythm over which Quinton's roller-rink organ bounces through the verse then surges from chord to chord in the chorus. In the bridge, Miss Pussycat sings, "You've got your black magic/You've got your white magic/You've got your pink magic/And your photo ID." Played on an organ with a car's grill and headlights, it's oddly logical and beautifully inexplicable.
While their neighborhood didn't suffer the sort of catastrophic damage as the neighboring Lower Ninth Ward, Quintron and Pussycat's house got two feet of water and suffered roof damage. While New Orleans was not letting residents back, Quintron snuck in dressed in military fatigues to patch up his roof the best he could since he doesn't have house insurance. "People thought I was in the National Guard," he says. He also fears the party/showroom will have to be torn out and redone, and he and Miss Pussycat lost many of the tools of their art. Quintron lost a 1937 Hammond Model D organ as well as a number of other keyboards he was in the process of modifying. Miss Pussycat's early paintings were ruined; supplies for future puppets were destroyed, and it's unlikely older puppets will survive the onset of mold.
Their greatest loss, though, was Quintron's mother, who died in Virginia the Monday the hurricane hit. He was with his ailing mother in her hospital room that weekend. "I was watching the big orange blob on CNN get closer and closer to New Orleans [while] sitting in a hospital room watching her go steadily downhill," he says. "It's like everything happened at once." When he realized Katrina would hit New Orleans, he called Miss Pussycat to tell her to get out, but she had already evacuated with their touring gear, including his homemade Drum Buddy rhythm machine.
He's also saddened by the state of the Bywater.
"St. Claude [Avenue] is pretty destroyed," he says. "Everything's looted. The Universal Furniture sign is upside down. St. Roch Market got looted and looks totally destroyed." In one store near his house, looters couldn't get in the front door, so they broke a hole in the side wall to get in and ripped out plumbing that got in their way. "It's pretty bad," he continues. "I guess it was the [craziest] anarchy party you could want."
In light of all that's happened, going on a tour Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycatt had scheduled before Katrina has turned out to be a mixed blessing.
"I'm torn between wanting to be back to help rebuild and wanting to leave and get away from it," Quintron says. "We're lucky. Our 'office' didn't burn down. Our office is every bar in the world, and they're still standing, so we can do what we always have done and it'll be okay."
Mr. Quintron and Miss Pussycat
The Hi-Tone Café
Saturday, October 29th
Doors open at 8 p.m.; tickets $10