Imagine sitting in a bar in San Francisco. It’s the Boom Boom Room, a venue that hosts a good number of New Orleans acts, but still you’re a couple thousand miles from home and you can’t go back any time soon. It’s the summer of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina has ravaged your city. You watch the news coverage – see the death toll rise, see the images of streets flooded and buildings decimated – but you burn out on that fast. The phones don’t work. You’re cut off. You’ve been playing where you can to make money, sometimes taking your guitar and playing for cash out on the street. You’re having some beers with your band mate and figuring out what to do next when into the bar walk two musicians you knew from back home, who for different reasons have ended up in San Francisco after the hurricane.
This is the serendipitous situation guitarist Aaron Wilkinson found himself in. This is how the Honey Island Swamp Band was born.
He and fellow guitarist Chris Mulé were surprised to see bassist Sam Price and drummer Garland Paul in the bar. A few beers later the musicians decided that, since they’d be in San Francisco for a while, they should start a band. That night they asked the owner to book them, and they got a weekly gig on Sundays at the bar.
The roots rock band played its first show back in New Orleans in the October following the hurricane.
“It was weird, to tell you the truth,” Wilkinson said. There was a midnight curfew in the city. Humvees patrolled the streets. In the room they played, National Guardsmen stood at the back armed with machine guns. Even familiar faces were unusual. The friends who came to see them, the ones who’d stayed and bore the brunt of the storm, had “thousand-yard stares,” Wilkinson said, and they’d break down sobbing and hugging the band members, thanking them for coming back.
“Those were probably some of the most meaningful gigs we’ve ever done,” Wilkinson said. “You could tell how much it meant to people to have that one little bit of normal life back for a little while.”
The band is riding high now, having last month released its new album, Cane Sugar. The album is the band’s first with national distribution; it debuted high on iTunes’ blues charts, and was a featured album there. But the first year the band was together was at time of mixed emotions, Wilkinson said.
They were crushed by what was going on back in New Orleans, but they were receiving support in California. The nation was reaching out to help New Orleans recover, and San Francisco audiences “have a pretty well-documented love affair with New Orleans music,” Wilkinson said. They were well-received and had a regular gig at the Boom Boom Room, and occasionally played shows back in New Orleans.
“Each time we went there, it became harder and harder to leave and felt better and better to be back home. That was the goal all along, to get back home.”
It took about a year after the hurricane before the band members could get back to New Orleans, where the band is currently based. But these days they don’t stay there long. With keys player Trevor Brooks rounding out the order, the hard-touring band averages more than 150 shows a year across the nation.
“The live show is kind of everything. It’s crucial,” Wilkinson said, vowing that no two shows on the road are the same – for the sake of keeping things interesting for fans who follow the band on tour, and for the band members themselves – and that audiences will hear Honey Island Swamp Band tunes in ways they can’t be heard on the records.
They’ll be playing at The State Theatre Aug. 15, with Cris Jacobs opening and bringing the band on stage to join him before the Honey Island Swamp Band launches into its set.
Their music has been called “Bayou Americana,” and they liked the description, Wilkinson said. Country, bluegrass, funk, jazz, blues, and more are part of the Honey Island Swamp Band mix, and Wilkinson says that’s a direct reflection of New Orleans’ eclectic music scene and its impact on the musicians. But for Wilkinson, it’s simpler than that. Their music is fun. It’s danceable. It can elevate the spirit, as he saw in those early shows after the hurricane back in New Orleans. Taking in a show is a simple reprieve from the world’s worries.
“It’s just rock and roll. We’re not reinventing the wheel.”
• For more information about Honey Island Swamp Band, visit honeyislandswampband.com.