A lazy, sun-dappled August breeze rustled the broad leaves of the maple tree shading Song Café on Chartres Street. It was a quiet Sunday at midday and only two people sat in the silent coffeehouse as Shannon McNally strode through the door, her shoulder-length black hair pulled up offhandedly in a bun. After a warm greeting from a familiar face behind the counter, she ordered an iced coffee and a small cake and sat down with a broad smile. Shannon McNally, raised in Long Island and battle-hardened in Los Angeles, was home.
Home to her bougainvilleas, the Cyprus tree she planted last year, her sage and wildflowers, her two cats and a dog, the crepe myrtle split in two by Hurricane Cindy leaving her backyard a riot of pink. But most of all home to an artist's life she's nurtured with her husband and the drummer in her band, Wallace Lester, in the stimulating cultural environs of America's most creative city.
Song Café, nestled at the far edge of Fauborg Marigny by the railroad tracks that divide it from the Bywater district, is one of the more dramatic examples of the transformation this area has undergone in recent years following an influx of artists, musicians, and students. Piety Street Studios, run by New York expatriate Mark Bingham, is a few blocks away, and McNally is one of many musicians from other parts of the world who've moved into the neighborhood in recent years, including Jon Cleary, Washboard Chaz, Jason Mingeldorff, and Andy J. Forest.
McNally returned to her New Orleans home after a six-week tour in support of her outstanding new record, Geronimo, a record that has topped airplay charts and won her critical raves in New York, Nashville, Austin, and elsewhere. Her touring band, featuring the ever-astonishing Dave Easley on pedal steel and electric guitar, finished off the tour with a triumphant gig at Tipitina's during which McNally commanded the stage, moving with an animal grace as she played guitar and sang her songs about defiant heroes, women who won't accept tragedy as inevitable, and her own quest for spiritual meaning in a world dominated by empty consumer values. But the following afternoon during a promotional in-store at the Louisiana Music Factory, McNally demonstrated how deeply nuanced her songs can be. The same material, with the same band, had a completely different edge. The well-rehearsed concert set was carefully paced and packed with dramatic gestures as McNally proved herself as a big-stage rock and roll figure capable of the interactive intelligence only the greats possess, always giving off the sense that she was aware of everything that was going on in the room around her.
On the cramped, lo-fi, record store stage, singing through a creaky PA that couldn't do her voice justice, and left without Easley's pedal steel to handle the solo chores, McNally cranked up her electric guitar and played fiercely throughout the set, often turning to lock in with Lester as she directed the pulse of the beat with her strumming. The songs took on a slightly harder edge, and her cocoa eyes appeared to make contact with every person in the room at various times during the set. Even the words, and her phrasing, changed for the occasion. Where she tossed away the line "How does it feel?" from the hard-rocking "Miracle Mile" the night before, this time she nailed it with an exclamation point. In the same song she changed a key line from "what they call quality" to "what they call pop music" and when she followed it with the cry "It sounds like bullshit to me!" the audience whooped like partisans at a political rally.
The scene was mighty different than the last time McNally had been on that stage at Louisiana Music Factory, right after Jazzfest, when she sat in the back playing behind John Sinclair, whose ever-evolving Blues Scholars band that day was McNally's group. Sinclair said at the end of the gig that one of the requirements of being a member of the Blues Scholars was that you had to have a criminal record.
"He gave me a pass on that," laughed McNally. "I had never played guitar in a blues band before that. I played just before him that day and that was my band. There was no rehearsal. He just told us to play, we picked a groove and he went with it. John lived with us for about a year right before he left town, so I've had a lot of time with him."
That kind of rapport between musicians is part of what made McNally choose New Orleans as her home. She met Lester five years ago at a time when she was struggling with her life as a renegade ingénue on Capitol records in Hollywood. Exposure to Mardi Gras Indians practice sessions, Sunday second lines and meals at the legendary Bywater eatery Elizabeth's were enough to convince her to make New Orleans her permanent home four years ago. In the interim she has found more than she bargained for, a place where she could fully realize her musical dreams on her own terms, surrounded by a support group of like-minded people.
"It's very specific to the ground that the city's built on," she explained. "The energy that gets trapped here, that lives here, is very unique and it's very powerful. And I think that's what we all feel. It's transmitted in a million ways, that's why the music is like it is. I believe music comes out of the ground. I don't think it comes out of the sky or your head, it comes out of the ground and it has something to do with the vibrations of the earth wherever you are. The earth here, this plot of ground, it's a combination of elements: the fact that it's below sea level, the heat, its history as a port town and a porthole into the whole western hemisphere for Europeans and Africans, and then the millions and millions of people who lived here already. It's like the Constantinople of the New World. Everything is exaggerated here, the beauty is exaggerated, the poverty in exaggerated, the brutality, the music, the food. If you're a person whose senses are acute, there's no way of getting around it. You just feel it."
McNally definitely heard the reaction to the "pop music" line at the Music Factory. "That's the first time that happened," she said. "It just hit me. At Tipitina's the night before during 'Sweet Forgiveness,' I changed the line 'Cause I don't want a life that's soft and high if it means that others must suffer and die for my country.' At Tips that turned into '...if it means that 25,000 Iraqis gotta die for my country.' continue