During their weekly Wednesday night gigs at the d.b.a. on Frenchmen Street in New Orleans, the Tin Men frequently introduce themselves as “New Orleans premier guitar, washboard, and sousaphone trio.” The boast may be facetious, given that they are likely the city’s only outfit with such an instrumental lineup; however, the intro’s use of “premier” is quite accurate. The Tin Men — guitarist and vocalist Alex McMurray, washboard player and vocalist Washboard Chaz Leary, and sousaphonist Matt Perrine — are premier, one of the most uniquely creative and entertaining bands on the contemporary Crescent City music scene. Exactly what kind of band they are is elusive. An amalgam of jazz, blues, rhythm and blues, brass band, and rock and roll, the Tin Men definitely sound like a band that belongs in New Orleans— resourceful, spirited, and fun—and, with their fourth album, On The Shady Side, they pay homage to their hometown.
Seductive, percolating rhythm is essential to New Orleans roots music, and the grooves laid down by Leary’s washboard and Perrine’s sousaphone are absolutely infectious. Leary plays the washboard like a master jazz drummer, bringing to mind the swinging, polyrhythmic drive of a Papa Jo Jones or Max Roach, while Perrine sends out complex, resonant funk lines from his big horn that are a marvel both for their invention and physical fortitude, and McMurray’s driving guitar evokes a summit meeting between Son House and Wes Montgomery. And, what makes these guys special is the way they play together; whenever one is out front, singing or taking a solo, the other two are right there weaving in and out with these hip individual melodic and rhythmic lines.
While their first three albums featured a heavy dose of McMurray’s brilliant original songs, On The Shady Side concentrates on covers of swinging jazz and R&B tunes. McMurray and Leary split the lead vocal chores, the former attacking lyrics with a gruff gusto while the latter sings with a smooth, wry warmth. Leary kicks things off with a buoyant, second line street classic, Danny Barker’s adaption of a Mardi Gras Indian chant, “Chocko Mo Feendo Hey.” They serve up three Fats Waller associated pieces, “Baby Brown” and “You’re Not the Only Oyster in the Stew,” with McMurray handling lead vocals and an extended improvisation from Perrine on “Jitterbug Waltz” that is literally breathtaking. McMurray and guest fiddler/vocalist Dr. Sick channel the dirty dozens on the funky and funny “Yo Mama Can’t Dance Like This.” The Allen Toussaint songbook is represented by Leary’s heartfelt version of the Lee Dorsey hit, “Holy Cow” and a raucous duet between McMurray and guest singer/pianist John Papa Gros on “Got Me A New Love Thing.” Other New Orleans classics include Leary’s take on Fats Domino’s “I’m in Love Again” and Lovin’ Sam Theard’s “Rubbin’ On That Darned Old Thing” and McMurray’s take on James Booker’s “Papa Was a Rascal” and Eddie Bo’s “Dinky Doo.” McMurray contributes the original barrelhouse blues of “Gone So Long,” featuring Gros pounding out echoes of Professor Longhair on the piano. Leary and McMurray deliver a yin and yang performance on a medley featuring the washboard man charmingly crooning “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” while the guitarist growls his way through a devious rewrite, “On the Shady Side of the Street.”
It would be hard to imagine a trio like the Tin Men flourishing anywhere else but in the fertile, funky soil of the New Orleans music scene. With On The Shady Side, they show just why they are that city’s “premier guitar, washboard, and sousaphone trio.”