Upstate Beat: NoLaNauts blast spirit of New Orleans to Frog Alley for Mardi Gras

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Although the members of the NoLaNauts are based here in the Capital Region – including five from Schenectady County – the 10-piece funk band has a second city at heart: New Orleans.

Guitarist and vocalist Tom O’Connor of Albany, a frequent visitor to the Big Easy since the early 1980s, hatched the plan for the high-energy funk band while sitting in the bleachers at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 2019 during a set by the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, a New Orleans supergroup.

O’Connor was at the festival with longtime friend and musician Brian Lawlor, now the NoLaNauts drummer, who resides in Niskayuna but also lives in New Orleans for half the year.

“There were probably 30,000 people in front of us,” O’Connor said. “We were sitting there, and I was looking at the crowd, this massive crowd. And I just saw everybody dancing, from little girls and boys at 8 years old up to grandmothers and great-grandmothers in their 80s. Everybody was dancing even though nobody knew the songs. I looked at Brian and said, ‘I like this music too much. I’m starting a band to play New Orleans music. You want to be in it?’ ”

Lawlor immediately agreed.

“It’s too good a music just to leave it down here,” said Lawlor from his home in New Orleans last weekend, where a Mardi Gras parade was about to pass by.

The NoLaNauts blast the New Orleans vibe back to upstate New York on Friday for a Mardi Gras dance party at Frog Alley Brewing starting at 8:30 p.m. Expect funky horns, swampy keyboards, original tunes such as “Early Warning” and a repertoire of New Orleans classics going back decades. Costumes and beads are encouraged.

“They talk about the great American songbook. Well, there’s the great New Orleans songbook, which has spread into America, because New Orleans is a melting pot of styles,” said O’Connor, who when forming the NoLaNauts put out a call for local musicians interested in playing New Orleans music and received an overwhelming response.

In addition to O’Connor and Lawlor, the current lineup includes Peter Andriakos on percussion; Matt Girtler on bass; David Macejka on percussion; Brian Brancato on trumpet; Bill Ringwood on saxophone; Ben Moss on guitar; Rick Rothermel on keyboards; Joe Sorbero on drums; and Victor Murdoch as “indispensable man about town.”

“We decided we wanted to call [the group] a collective, starting with that shared understanding of the musical heritage of New Orleans, all the way from Bounce music to Dixieland. If you know, you know. Basically, we have a repertoire that pretty much any of these players and a bunch more could pop into a show and play with us the covers that we do,” O’Connor said.

The NoLaNauts also write and record original music, including “Early Warning,” an energetic tune that harkens back to the chaos of Hurricane Katrina; a song called “Neutral Ground” about the historically “neutral” grassy area where people in New Orleans watch parades; and more singles slated for release later this year.

O’Connor is a self-described “recovering Deadhead” who owns Jive Hive Live in Albany, a private space that hosts area bands for professional live recording and video livestream productions. Run out of a carriage house at O’Connor’s residence, Jive Hive Live serves as a hub of sorts for the NoLaNauts.

“I was always into the [Grateful Dead] and a little more of the jammy stuff. I’ve been in country bands. I’ve been in rock bands,” said O’Connor. “But the one thing that I always loved the most was the rhythmic stuff that gets people moving. If I can’t dance while I’m playing or don’t dance when I’m playing, then I’m not playing the right thing.”

With such a large band, the NoLaNauts must choose their gigs wisely, opting to play out of their home base of Jive Hive Live and then occasionally larger shows, such as the Frog Alley party and a Feb. 16 performance at Lark Hall in Albany opening for celebrated New Orleans artist the Glen David Andrews Band. The Lark Hall show will be preceded by a pre-show traditional second line parade along Lark Street.

“We have a massive sound,” said O’Connor. “When you get everybody hitting in harmony, it will melt people’s faces and inhibitions. We’re really excited about playing Frog Alley. They’ve been a major force in the ongoing revitalization of downtown Schenectady, number one. Number two, they’re committed to bringing fun and good times to people from the area. So this is a perfect blast off for us.”

The Week Ahead
New Zealand-born musician Dion Lunadon, previously the bass player in fuzz-rock outfit A Place to Bury Strangers, brings manic energy, an unpredictable stage presence and a new solo album to No Fun in Troy tonight. Inch and Nite Office open. 7 p.m.

What’s next for raconteur, jingle writer and music impresario Ritz Carlton? Apparently it’s a lip-sync contest. Prepare for fun when Ritz Carlton brings his crazy antics and leisure-suit attire to Rare Form Brewing in Troy on Friday at 7 p.m.

Cure the winter blues Saturday at Caffe Lena with Mark & Jill, led by New York Blues Hall of Fame guitarist Mark Tolstrup and sultry singer Jill Burnham, who perform along with the Boston-based Erin Harpe Country Blues Duo. 8 p.m.

Israeli guitarist and composer Yonatan Gat, now based in New York City, has been hailed for melding punk, improvisation, world music and avant-garde. He returns with his band to No Fun on Saturday with opening sets by 100 Psychic Dreams, Ben Caulkins and Apostrophebeats. 7 p.m.

Underground rocker Jon Spencer, who executed sweaty knee bends and monstrous guitar riffs during a performance last winter at Lark Hall, comes to No Fun on Sunday to lure the Super Bowl crowd away from their televisions. Schenectady’s The Abyssmals open. 7 p.m.

Tony Levin and Pat Mastelotto, the powerhouse bass and drums of the group King Crimson for a few decades, lead their Stick Men project to The Linda — WAMC’s Performing Arts Studio on Wednesday. Levin plays the Chapman Stick, an instrument with bass and guitar strings from which the band takes its name. 8 p.m.

No Fun kicks off the musical portion of its week-long tribute to beloved former Albany club Valentine’s Music Hall with a show by the long-running local Grateful Dead tribute band the Deadbeats. 7 p.m.
Reach Kirsten Ferguson at [email protected].

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