‘Treme’ taps genuine New Orleans vibe

HBO show sparks musical revival

New Orleans trumpeter Kermit Ruffins will release his next album, “Happy Talk,” a collection of midtempo numbers and ballads, in October, just as the second season of HBO’s “Treme” begins shooting. It will be a step away from the party music Ruffins has played in New Orleans clubs, earning himself a position as one of the city’s most popular musicians.

It was no acting stretch in an early episode when he said he was content to play music in New Orleans, cook barbecue to sell at his shows and get high. “Nobody really wants to pay,” Ruffins says of touring, “so I stay home.”

At the same time, Ruffins is one of several musicians for whom “Treme” has opened doors. He has seen spikes in the sales of his music, and the four or five nights per week he plays in town “are a lot more crowded. We’re getting new customers — and I can tell they’re new customers. People are paying attention.”

“Treme,” whose title refers to the neighborhood where Ruffins has lived since his later teen years, is set in the months after Hurricane Katrina, reaching beyond the first post-storm Mardi Gras in 2006. Attention to detail has been a hallmark of the show, especially with music supervisor Blake Leyh, whose work went beyond capturing the sounds that would be heard on radio and in clubs at the time. On top of that, the club and street scenes were re-creations of actual events, with creative license in the retelling.

“We made sure the musicians were standing where they would have stood at a session or in a second-line parade,” Leyh says. “It’s a fictional story, but we’ve got to tell what normally happens. If we’re at (the French Quarter club) Donna’s, it’s got to be a band that would normally be at Donna’s.”

The first season of “Treme” emphasized the city’s traditional music, the jazz and brass bands, plus the legendary soul, funk and blues.

While a soundtrack is being finalized for release by Geffen Records in the fall — it’s likely to include the Emmy-nominated “This Town” from Steve Earle — others have joined the “Treme” parade. In July, as the first season was ending, Smithsonian/Folkways issued the compilation “Classic Sounds of New Orleans,” which touches on original versions of the type of music featured in the show, and Apple’s iTunes started offering a “New Orleans Essentials” bundle of 25 songs.

Next season, which begins shooting in November, Leyh is looking to shake up the second-line hit parade. More contemporary New Orleans music will be featured, including music from the city’s hip-hop, indie rock, Cajun and zydeco acts. He’d also like to increase the number of female performers.

“I was hanging in there all season saying, ‘We have to have Irma Thomas,’ ” Leyh says, extremely pleased that she was featured in the finale as a singer and a ruthless poker player.

Thomas, Ruffins, the Rebirth Brass Band, Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty and others have all been captured performing live on the show, a bit of a risky move on the part of the showrunners. Many of the musicians were unaccustomed to working that way — they essentially pretend to perform to a set recording — which Leyh says bolsters the integrity of the show.

“By the middle of the season they were finishing scripts only a week before shooting, so the writers and I would collaborate on what live music would be included,” Leyh explains. “A lot of the work in New Orleans was about building relationships with the music community. On the set I was always trying to be an advocate for the music, and one thing that was recognized was that we needed to pay everyone the same amount.

“We established ground rules — day rates for musicians — and tried to do the same with licensing so that everyone felt they were getting a fair shake. That way we didn’t have to restart negotiations with every scene. And on the street, word got out that ‘Treme’ is paying this (amount). … Once the show aired, we really turned a corner. Everyone in the New Orleans jazz community embraced us, the labels were supportive and, as the season went on, it became easier to do the work.”

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