A few years ago, after the future members of the New Orleans Suspects saw doors closing on gigs they’d held for decades, they opened a new door.
Bassist Reggie Scanlan spent 34 years with the swampy New Orleans rock band the Radiators. That group’s singer-keyboardist, Ed Volker, announced his decision to leave the Radiators in June 2011. Meanwhile, “Mean” Willie Green, longtime drummer with the Neville Brothers, noticed a slowdown in that group’s touring schedule.
Scanlan and Green had already been working together in various combinations for about 15 years. Their joint ventures included Monkey Ranch and, later, GPS, a band that had a residency at the Maple Leaf Bar after Hurricane Katrina.
“Willie and I just liked playing together,” Scanlan said recently. “We’d be like, ‘Man, we gotta get a band together.’ ”
When Volker signaled the end of the Radiators, timing was right for Green and Scanlan to launch something new. That project, the New Orleans Suspects, has already released two albums. The group’s self-titled debut appeared last spring. Its second album, Caught Live At the Maple Leaf, is hot off the presses.
Like Green and Scanlan, the other Suspects have impressive credits.
Jake Eckert is lead guitarist with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The classically schooled C.R. Gruver performed with Atlanta’s Outformation and Denver’s Polytoxic before moving to New Orleans. Saxophonist Jeff Watkins’ résumé includes James Brown and Joss Stone.
Reaction to the New Orleans Suspects in the year and a half since the band got serious, Scanlan said, has been more than encouraging.
“People have been reacting so well to it,” he said. “It’s really amazing.”
The New Orleans Suspects perform and record original music inspired by the classic funk and rhythm-and-blues of New Orleans. They also play the classics.
“We wanted to play that music because nobody’s really playing it anymore,” Scanlan said. “We want to do ‘Big Chief’ and ‘Tipitina,’ even though a million people have recorded them. Those songs really translate well live, as rave-up songs. We figured, ‘Hey, if we come up with a version that stands up, let’s do it.’ ”
Caught Live At the Maple Leaf includes the Suspects’ rendition of Professor Longhair standards “Tipitina” and “Big Chief” and the Meters’ “Look Ka Py Py.” The Meters are a particularly strong influence on the Suspects.
“You can’t get into the New Orleans thing without, at some point, going through the Meters,” Scanlan said. “They defined an era. And our band members who came into the New Orleans thing later in their careers, C.R. and Jake, they totally built into it.”
Scanlan, a bassist who worked with two of the city’s now legendary pianists, James Booker and Professor Longhair, dubbed Suspects’ pianist Gruver as the band’s secret weapon.
“As soon as C.R. got to New Orleans, he heard a James Booker thing and his light went on,” Scanlan said. “I mean, he’s a Booker nut, so he can really play that stuff, and he’s just a great piano player himself.”
Recording the latest Suspects album at the Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans was an easy choice. The Suspects will return to the venue Friday and Saturday, Dec. 28 and 29, for two nights of CD-release shows.
“First of all, the Maple Leaf is kind of where the band was born,” Scanlan said. “And we’re comfortable in there, we know the room. And Hank Staples gave us two nights to record there.”
The musically active Maple Leaf Bar is among New Orleans’ fabled venues, in part because of Booker’s residency there.
“The Maple Leaf is almost a part of folklore, as Tipitina’s is,” Scanlan said. “It’s definitely got its own character, and its own characters, who hang out there.”
Of course, the late Booker was preeminent among those characters.
Scanlan was a young musician who wasn’t all that experienced in music when he began performing with the brilliant but erratic Booker. It was a challenging gig, to say the least.
“First we had a rehearsal. Booker was totally in outer space. And then we do the show and, all of a sudden, we’re in a Mozart song. I don’t know what happened. Then we’re in Frank Sinatra song. It was kaleidoscopic.
“But playing with Booker, it was an amazing lesson in the nature of music. He really was the guy who opened my eyes to the concept that, ‘Hey, look man. This is just all music. It doesn’t matter if it’s classical or blues. It doesn’t matter. It’s the same notes.’ ”