BY JEFF ELBEL | FOR THE SUN-TIMES
The diverse histories of its members are impressive, but the infectious sound of the New Orleans Suspects exceeds the sum of its notable parts. “It’s an odd combination of backgrounds,” says veteran James Brown saxophonist Jeff Watkins. “But we’ve honed it into our own voice.”
“We reflect every place we’ve been,” says bassist Reggie Scanlan, whose résumé includes work with Crescent City staples like Professor Longhair, James Booker and Earl King. “Jeff had twelve years with James. You can’t leave that behind.”
NEW ORLEANS SUSPECTS
When: 8 p.m. Feb. 5
Where: SPACE, 1245 Chicago Ave., Evanston
Info: (847) 492-8860; evanstonspace.com
As its name might imply, the band sometimes nods to hometown heroes, including Dr. John and the Meters. Equally important are soul giants like Wilson Pickett, James Brown, and Sam & Dave, as well as roots-based rockers Little Feat and The Band.
Scanlan also anchored the Radiators lineup for 33 years. The dissolution of New Orleans’ longest-running rock band meant that he could pursue the Suspects as a full-time endeavor. Scanlan has relished reshaping his repertoire. “With the Rads, I played ‘Like Dreamers Do‘ for 30 years.
Everything we’re doing now is like new material for me. I’m loving it all. It’s like being at a banquet with all this great food, and you just shovel it in.”
Keyboardist CR Gruver has earned respect as sideman for original Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli. That experience informs the percolating “Pocketful of Grits” from the band’s latest studio album, “Ouroboros.” Gruver composed the instrumental as a cross between New Orleans’ brass band sounds and the fiery Latin rock of early Carlos Santana. Drummer “Mean” Willie Green dazzles and hypnotizes throughout the song, never letting the beat drop. “Willie eats that stuff for breakfast,” says Scanlan.
Story-songs like “Magdalena” have a timeless feeling, built from observations by guitarist and Dirty Dozen Brass Band veteran Jake Eckert. Consider it New Orleans’ answer to “Eleanor Rigby.” “There’s a little church near Jake’s house,” says Watkins. “He used to see this old lady going to church every day. Then one day, he realized she wasn’t coming by anymore.”
Alongside original music, the Suspects often pepper sets with New Orleans standards like “Tipitina.” “I’m proud to represent our city that way,” says Watkins.
“Carnivale” recalls drummer Green’s soulful and intricate work with the Neville Brothers, while raising the spirit of New Orleans’ most famous party. If you can’t travel south for Mardi Gras, the Suspects’ live show at SPACE should set the mood nicely.