Roxanne at The Verdict presents Dale Storr on Saturday 20th October, for his first ever Brighton performance. We spoke to Dale about his love affair with New Orleans and how audiences leave his shows surprised, uplifted and enlightened.
Dale, you grew up in Sheffield, how did New Orleans find you?
It was completely through my parents’ record collection. I was brought up on blues and early rock n roll. While my mum was singing along to Little Richard tracks and early Elvis, there were other tunes on the records that really appealed to me even when I was 5 or 6 years old. I used to play these same tracks over and over again; Lee Dorsey, Huey “Piano” Smith, Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Lloyd Price. There was something about these tunes that was standing out to me more than just straight ahead Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard, as good as that stuff is and I always loved those songs, these ones had something a little bit extra. I didn't realize at the time that all these artists were from New Orleans. It’s just a slightly different chord progression, or a slightly more uplifting feel to it. So it was my parents’ records that set me on the journey and then, when I started looking a bit deeper, it led me to piano players like Dr John, Professor Longhair, James Booker, Allen Toussaint - all these amazing New Orleans pianists.
To have unwittingly detected and been drawn to all those New Orleans artists from such a young age, it must have been your calling all along.
Well, how cosmic do you want to get? [laughs] I’ve always had a really strange connection to New Orleans. The very first time I got to go there it was almost like I knew my way around, it was the spookiest thing. I went with a girl who was from Biloxi, Mississippi and she knew New Orleans from not living that far away. But when I got there I said, “I know Decatur
Street is around the corner and if we go a couple of blocks we’ll be on Royal Street, there’s a great bar I’ve always wanted to go to there.” I’ve only managed to go a few times in my life, but it immediately felt like home to me. Not just the music; the architecture, the food - twice a week I cook gumbo or jambalaya - everything about the place it’s absolutely mesmerizing, so I do get quite passionate it.
Your show is called “The Sounds of New Orleans,” can you describe what that sound is?
People often ask me, “What’s that?” and it’s a difficult one to answer. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and blues, as a result of that it’s where funk and other things originated. One of my idols Dr. John came to Europe and promoters didn't know how to pitch it, is it jazz or is it blues? It contains elements of both in equal measure really. Not jazz enough for the jazz promoters and not blues enough for the blues promoters.
In New Orleans, you can have a tune that starts in blues, then halfway through there’s a jazz solo, and ends in funk and Latin. And also contains elements of classical, so I always say to the audience it’s like a big rich gumbo of loads of different styles and this is how it comes out. It definitely has a happy, party feel to it.
When people come to my shows, they find there’s stuff they know that they didn't realize was from New Orleans. The early rhythm and blues guys like Fats Domino went on to be known as rock n roll, so loads of people know lots of New Orleans material. My music really covers the whole spectrum so I’ll play “Sunny Side of The Street”, “Angel Eyes” or “A Taste of Honey,” “Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans” - all these jazz standards but in a New Orleans way.
You’ve been performing as a solo artist for 5 years, fully embraced by the jazz world, can you tell us more about that journey?
It’s been a surprise to me how much it’s been accepted in the jazz world. Years ago, I wasn't sure if I would be because there is a certain element of the New Orleans playing that is very bluesy and outright boogie woogie piano, more akin to what Jools Holland does. But they have embraced it because I kind of mix it in.
It was my manager Bob who said I needed to go solo, from the feedback he was getting. I was in a band, but they didn't understand the material in the way I did, so it wasn't really working and I was getting quite down about it. Before that I was a touring keyboard player for lots of bands, and because of the bands I’d been playing with, like King King, I defaulted onto the blues/R&B scene. So I’d turn up at a club or festival and they’d say, “What, you’re on your own on the piano, don't you have a guitarist?” I’d say, “No it’s not that kind of music, if anything I’d have a brass instrument with me.” As time’s gone on, Paul Jones and Cerys Matthews cottoned onto it and they played my stuff. Then about 2 or 3 years ago, the jazz festivals and clubs started saying, “Look we’ve been doing trad jazz now for so long we need to diversify.” So then I started getting booked for jazz festivals and jazz clubs and I would be mixing up jazz with blues and boogie and the audiences loved it. So the majority of my stuff has ended up being jazz. And the thing I try to get across to the audiences from my time in New Orleans is you can go to one club and you can see a musician playing in a blues band, and then you can go over the road to Snug Harbour Jazz Hall about 2 hours later and the same musician is playing in a jazz band. If you go to the Auditorium the next day you’ll see him playing in an orchestra. It doesn’t matter with those guys, they embrace it all. There’s a fabulous New Orleans pianist, Jon Cleary from Kent, he moved to New Orleans 20/30 years ago and he’s now considered one of the locals, he plays for Bonnie Raitt. He says there’s no distinction between where blues ends and jazz starts, and where jazz ends and where Latin starts, and where Latin ends and funk starts. It all merges into one in New Orleans.
You tell incredible stories about your New Orleans heroes between songs, how did story-telling become part of your shows?
It was completely by accident. There’s a club called The Cinnamon Club near Manchester, it’s a great jazz club with a lovely old Bosendorfer grand piano, and one night the audience was superb, you could hear a pin drop. They were hanging on my every note and every word, so I just sat back from the piano and started to really tell them about James Booker. It was all the stuff I’d been reading about for years and years and years that’s just soaked in and it started pouring out. It was completely by accident but at the end I realised I was onto something there so I make that a really good part of my show. Often I demonstrate their style and then I launch into a tune to go with it. A bit like a New Orleans recital. Because most of the musicians from New Orleans have had very colourful lives, and that’s being polite. Especially my idol James Booker. He was described as a genius and elements of his life were just dreadful, but it was all brought on by himself. Depending on when you caught him, you could see the happiest musician you’ve ever seen or you could see him collapse off his piano stool. I’m not going to do that by the way!
I went to see Harry Connick Jr last week at the London Palladium. He’s always been one of my favourite piano players and singers. Most people know him as a Hollywood actor or a singer akin to Frank Sinatra, but most don't realise that he’s a phenomenal New Orleans pianist. It was really interesting how much he spoke about his heroes and you could see the audience was captivated. It reenforced what I’m doing in my shows. It’s an ever-evolving journey, “Keep on keeping on,” as Dr John would say.
See Dale Storr perform on Saturday 20th October at The Verdict 159 Edward Street. 7pm doors will open for dinner service and drinks - Gumbo is on the menu! Gig at 830pm. £10. https://www.wegottickets.com/event/445519