Profile: The Subdudes

New Orleans greats won't let New Orleans be forgotten.


You have to pay attention.

A casual listen to the (lowercase-loving) subdudes’ newest recording, Street Symphony, will catch the easygoing virtues the New Orleans&–rooted band is known for: the effortless grooves, the keening accordion and slicing slide guitar, the soulful vocals and tight group harmonies. But you might overlook the pain.

This is the quintet’s first release since Behind the Leveein early 2006, so it contains their first post-Katrina songs. In some cases, notably “Thorn in Her Side,” the reaction is overt and angry. But most of Street Symphony‘s lyrics are more reflective than reactive, laced with bittersweetness and carried by the subdudes’ casually assured musicality. They appear Oct. 5 at the Sebastopol Community Center.

The hurricane and its aftermath “affected us all pretty heavily,” says bass player Jimmy Messa, one of three band members who grew up in or around the Crescent City. “The band came together there, and it’s still a very special, spiritual home for us.”

A sense of lingering loss and dismay is tucked away behind the upbeat first impressions offered by key songs on Street Symphony. Messa says it was a deliberate choice to engage the body first and the intellect second.

“As times goes by, you’re angry about certain points and you’re saddened about certain points, but people don’t want to hear you moan about it or protest, so you gotta kinda veil what you want to say in a nice little sugarcoating,” he says. “It might be a little introspective lyric that’s trying to get a point across in a bouncy, peppy musical package. It has to be kinda, ‘You figure it out.’ So I’m hoping people will read between the lines, which they have so far.”

“Stranger,” “Fair Weather Friend,” the elegiac “Brother Man” and “I’m Your Town” can each be read as an oblique call for broader compassion and action for the band’s beleaguered hometown and its denizens. But that sober subtext fades alongside the warm, empathic portraits offered in “Work Clothes,” “Poor Man’s Paradise” and the title track.

Of course it helps that the CD as a whole brims with the genial intimacy that is the subdudes’ onstage calling card. Street Symphony was recorded in the Nashville studio of producer George Massenburg (Linda Ronstadt, Little Feat, Earth Wind & Fire), using an unusual approach.

“We all sat in a circle facing each other,” Messa recalls, “and normally the producer is in a booth, behind a big sheet of glass, but he was sitting right there next to us with the mixing board. And it ended up being so relaxed and nice and intuitive, it was just like playing live, live in your living room. Which yielded a real good performance.”

This is the eighth recording in the subdudes’ catalogue and the third since the band regrouped in 2002. They initially formed as a quartet in 1987, three-quarters of the members (guitarist and vocalist Tommy Malone, accordion and keyboard player John Magnie and original bassist Johnny Ray Allen) coming from another New Orleans band, the Continental Drifters, which also included Messa. Teaming up with Steve Amedeé, whose tambourine is the band’s main percussion, the band soon elected to hone their sound elsewhere, and migrated to Colorado. Messa stayed in touch, but stayed behind.

“Bad career move,” he grins. “They went on and immediately got a record contract with Atlantic, and I was hitting myself in the head: ‘Stupid, stupid, stupid.'”

Over the next 10 years and five albums, the subdudes built a sizable following, then decided to take a little break. It lasted five years.

Gradually, time and circumstances brought Malone and Magnie together again, and soon a retooled version of the band was back in action, this time with Messa aboard. Another five years in, and an older and wiser subdudes are hitting their stride.

This time, Messa says, “I don’t see us stopping. It’s too ingrained, it’s too fun, it’s pretty much what our lives are. We’ll probably continue in this pattern for quite a while, until something drastic happens down the road.

“But for the moment, it’s just too good, too good to let go.”

The subdudes play the Sebastopol Community Center on Friday, Oct. 5, at 8pm. 390 Morris St. $25; premium seating sold-out. 707.823.1511.