On a freezing Lake Tahoe Sunday night, Dragon Smoke filled the Crystal Bay Casino with fiery funk sparked by Ivan Neville’s playful, often-repeated yelp, “Who dat?”
It is a quintessential New Orleans band, not because it is of the horn-driven jazz funeral variety but due to its melting pot DNA. It’s a quartet which coalesced in the Marigny neighborhood in an intimate joint called the Dragon’s Den in what it members call a super jam, a serendipitous gathering of seasoned musicians with different origins. Everyone knew the gumbo would be good, but Super Dragon is exquisite.
Neville comes from NOLA royalty and the generation that followed the Meters. The keyboardist looks just like his father, Aaron, minus the facial tattoo and massive deltoids.
The guitarist is Eric Lindell who is from Northern California. He was drawn to Louisiana a decade ago, not by music but by “love.”
Bassist Robert Mercurio came from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans to attend Loyola University and fell into the city’s funk scene and never stepped out of it.
Drummer Stanton Moore, like so many from his city, learned to play from a legend, Johnny Vidacovich, and now is an instructor himself, a master of many styles, especially funk, R&B and jazz.
Moore and Mercurio are best known as the rhythm section for the dynamic jazz-rock band Galactic. Neville is the band leader for the funk and soul group Dumpstaphunk. Lindell is mostly associated with blues. The fortuitous Dragon’s Den get-together occurred in 2003, and Dragon Smoke has played every New Orleans Jazz Fest since. However, because its members have other bands to lead, Dragon Smoke rarely plays. In recent years, beyond Jazz Fest it merely has played a weeklong West Coast swing (it played a handful of shows on the East Coast last June) including the Crystal Bay Casino Crown Room, which on Sunday sounded as good as it ever has. Engineer Blake Beeman sat behind the control panel most of the night, hardly touching a knob. He smiled and listened to the show, cognizant his audio was perfect.
The show opened with Lindell’s country rock version of Billy Preston’s “Sunday Morning.” From the first notes on his low-tuned guitar it was clear the night would be special. He bought his vintage Fender Jaguar a decade-and-a-half ago for about $400, and his sound and style is distinct, something every musician wants but few can attain. He used no picks or pedals on this night.
Lindell and Neville traded off on the vocals, doing some of their songs and covers of Bill Withers, the Temptations, Prince, Bruce Springsteen and Amy Winehouse.
While his father is known for the famous tenor first heard nationwide with the song “Tell It Like It Is,” Ivan’s voice is deeper but also very soulful. For a while Sunday, it was as if Marvin Gaye was singing.
With the banty rooster Moore bouncing behind the drum set and the charismatic Mercurio smiling with his bass, Dragon Smoke seems to have the happiest rhythm section in music.
When the show began with an outstanding set from Reno’s Jelly Bread it was minus-4 degrees outside. So when the NOLA group walked off the stage, it was clear they would not continue through the side door, as is customary, to wait for the crowd to call for an encore.
It returned to the stage to play three more songs, including Neville’s “Padlock,” which he recorded with his X-Pensive Winos band mate Keith Richards. Super groups are not new to Neville, nor are they to Crystal Bay. Let’s hope Dragon Smoke returns again next year.