New Libation Orchestra: a who’s who of who’s in town

Chris Arenas is back in New Orleans, and is reviving the New Libation Orchestra, which performs Thursday night, July 19, at dba.

Chris Arenas of New Libation Orchestra with his bass

Chris Arenas of the New Libation Orchestra in New Orleans. “I hear birds chirping outside, not sirens and people screaming,” he says of his move from San Francisco.

New Libation got its start during Arenas’ first run-in with New Orleans, a three-year sojourn that ended, coincidentally, the day before Hurricane Katrina. His departure date had been scheduled well in advance, and “we ended up driving out with everyone else,” he said.

His destination: San Francisco, where he DJed and performed with Myron & E, Pamela Parker and Raw Deluxe.

In 2009 and 2010, Arenas performed with Eric Lindell, whom he had met in 2002 when Lindell was playing regular Monday night gigs at the Circle Bar. With Lindell, he toured in support of the “Gulf Coast Highway” CD and contributed to the “Between Motion and Rest” and 2010 “Jazzfest Live” CDs.

Working with Lindell brought Arenas back to New Orleans after a three-year drought.  “It was amazing to see the transformation of the city during that time,” he said. “Frenchmen Street was as busy as ever, the music scene thriving once again. There were new bars and venues to check out. You would see more familiar faces who had moved back to town as well as meeting some new folks who had come down to help rebuild, fell in love with the city and decided to stay.”

His indefinite plans to return to New Orleans to live became more compelling, and this year, around Jazzfest time, the perfect Uptown rental opened up and he seized the opportunity.

The New Libation lineup for Thursday includes Jeff Raines, guitar; Rich Vogel, keys; Chris Davis, drums, and Quickie Mart, turntables and effects. If you saw New Libation in 2005 at the Maple Leaf, dba or Shiloh, the lineup was probably quite different. Kevin O’Day and Steve Reichlen have drummed with the collective, Brian Coogan has played keys, and Ben Ellman and Brent Rose have played saxophone.

If you notice a strong Galactic influence, you’re not mistaken. Arenas, Raines and Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio have been friends since they were music-obsessed teenagers in the Maryland suburbs of Washington. D.C.

Their musical explorations began with funk, after Raines’ older brother “gave him some Sly Stone and Parliment/Funkadelic records that we listened to incessantly.” Record store runs for more funk led to discovering the jazz section, “finding the greats like Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, then coming across more rare records with artists like Grant Green, Boogaloo Joe Jones and  Lou Donaldson. We would even make trips up to Philadelphia to look for new music,” Arenas said.

After high school, Raines and Mercurio left for college in New Orleans, and Arenas left for San Francisco, by way of New Orleans.

Even when the friends were apart, music drew them together. Mercurio would send Arenas cassette tapes of his early performances in New Orleans, and Arenas would send packages of blank cassettes to be loaded with Meters bootlegs. “I’ve shed a lot of things over time, but not those cassettes,” Arenas said.

The New Libation Orchestra puts a New Orleans spin on soul-jazz classics, much as Good Enough for Good Times does. Good Enough for Good Times keeps a narrower focus, however, while New Libation is more likely to cast its net into schools of electronic and brass band sounds.

Just weeks after Arenas’ return to New Orleans, summer set in with full force, and the city’s musicians started fleeing this swampy sauna for festival performances and tours in more temperate climates. Arenas has been accepting opportunities to play around town, recently with Dave Jordan and with Derrick Freeman’s Smoker’s World. And, on Thursday, with New Libation Orchestra, a “who’s who of who’s in town.”