To call the subdudes (lower case intentional) a blues band would be a mistake. It would also be a mistake to call them a rock ‘n’ roll band, a jazz band, or even a New Orleans music band. Rather, the subdudes specialize in blending blues, folk music, rock, Cajun, zydeco, and new country, or what is now called Americana music. The subdudes serve up a stew of American roots music, or as Marcia Ball likes to call it, “American vernacular music.”
The five-piece group will bring their unique brand of American roots music to the Philadelphia Folk Festival on Sunday, August 22. Others performing at the four-night, three-day-and-night marathon of traditional and contemporary folk, blues, and roots music include Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Annie and the Beekeepers [Friday night] Taj Mahal, Jeff Tweedy, and Chris Smither with the Motivators, his first-ever band in a 45-year musical career, (all on Saturday, August 21) and Iain Matthews and Richard Thompson (on Sunday, August 22.)
Part of what makes the subdudes unique is their choice of instruments, says Jimmy Messa, a bassist and guitarist with the group. They have no conventional drummer, but rather, a multi-instrumental percussionist, Steve Amedee. Aside from Messa and Amedee, the group includes founder Tommy Malone on guitar and vocals, John Magnie on accordion, and Tim Cook on bass.
“We go around to festivals, and they look at our stage plot twice,” Messa says in a phone interview from his home in Slidell, Louisiana, just north of New Orleans. (A stage plot is a stage setup map that most bands give to the sound crew so they know where to place amplifiers and how to set up microphones to accommodate a group when one band finishes their set and the next one takes the stage.) “It’s a unique thing, we travel around, and you give the sound man your stage plot; we have no drummer, two bass players, and a tambourine player and percussionist who stand out front,” Messa says.
All five current members of the subdudes are crusty veterans of the New Orleans music scene, and most got their start on Bourbon Street, in cover bands, where they had to know how to play everything. In Messa’s case, that included several instruments, though all of the other subdudes are multi-instrumentalists, just like the members of the 1960s and ‘70s group, the Band.
Messa was raised in Chalmette, Louisiana, about eight miles south of New Orleans. (Contrary to popular thinking among some people up this way, New Orleans does not sit on the Gulf of Mexico, but is in fact about 90 miles north of it. Looking at most maps of the U.S., it appears that New Orleans sits on the gulf, but in fact it sits next to the massive Lake Pontchartrain and alongside a very wide Mississippi River.)
“I’ve been living in New Orleans all of my life,” Messa says, “and I played my first gig on Bourbon Street in 1972. There are still a lot of great musicians on Bourbon Street, and many of them have gone on to play with some really famous people.”
The son of a policeman and a housewife, Messa played clarinet first, then switched to drums as an 11-year-old, and took up bass for a garage band as a 14-year-old. His mother played a little piano when he was growing up, he recalls, but says he wasn’t raised in a particularly musical family. Like a lot of longtime bass players, Messa later taught himself guitar, part of the process of prospering as a musician in the Crescent City.
‘When I’m in New Orleans and not on the road with the subdudes, I can get a call to play on Bourbon Street,” he says, noting that despite the street’s reputation for excessive drinking and go-go bars, there is still tremendous money to be made — sometimes $1,000 a night — for musicians playing in cover bands at bars on Bourbon Street.
The subdudes were formed in 1985, and they’ve had a variety of major label record deals through the years, beginning in 1989. Currently, they record for 429 Records, also home to New Orleans keyboard and songwriting master Dr. John. Their current release, “Flower Petals,” and their discography is quite extensive, including the albums “Annunciation” and “Primitive Streak” for Capitol Records, and 1990s releases for Backporch Records, a division of EMI.
“What we’ve always done,” Messa continues, “is kind of record our records ourselves, and then let the labels distribute and market them. They put up the money, and we find the producer we want and the studio we want to record in. In this day and age, a record company is kind of superfluous anyway, because there are no physical records anymore, hardly,” he adds, noting the Internet has changed everything.
Messa says that as touring musicians with rents or mortgages to pay back home in New Orleans, most of the subdudes like the traditional idea of a record company that will give them advance money, typically money that is paid back to the record company through sales of albums.
As far as what people unfamiliar with the subdudes can expect at Philly Folk Festival, Messa says simply, “we all have deep feelings for, and knowledge of, country and roots and blues stuff, stuff you can play with wooden instruments that you don’t really need to amplify. So we take a little blues and a little country and a little New Orleans music and put it all together at our live shows.”
In spite of their extensive discography and generally high fidelity recordings from the studio and live shows, the subdudes —like the Band — remain primarily a group of live performers, or as the Band drummer Levon Helm likes to call himself, “a player.” “We bring a lot of enthusiasm to every live show we play,” Messa says, “and if we’re playing a festival with thousands of people loving what we’re doing, and they get excited, then we get excited too, and it makes the music that much more powerful.”
49th Annual Philadelphia Folk Festival, Old Pool Farm, Schwenksville, PA. Thursday through Sunday, August 19 to 22. Performers include Taj Mahal, Chris Smither and the Motivators, Mike Cross, Iain Matthews, Jeff Tweedy, Richard Thompson, Harlem Blues and Jazz Band, Annie and the Beekeepers, Gandalph Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams, Erin McKeown, Susan Werner, Jah Levi, Sweetback Sisters, Mike Cross, and others. $44 to $145. 800-556-FOLK or www.folkfest.org.