'Treme' is back, delving into a city's essence

Wendell Pierce, right, plays Antoine Batiste, an under-earning trombone player who forms his own band despite his wife's insistence that it's time to get "a job job." "Treme," beginning its second season on HBO, is saturated with live music.
Wendell Pierce, right, plays Antoine Batiste, an under-earning trombone player who forms his own band despite his wife's insistence that it's time to get "a job job." "Treme," beginning its second season on HBO, is saturated with live music.

Focus is New Orleans, a home that can hurt.

Posted: April 25, 2011

Toward the end of the third episode in the second season of Treme - the David Simon-created drama about post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans that resumes Sunday night on HBO - Harley, a street singer played by Steve Earle, performs a song "with apologies to Thomas Wolfe and Doc Watson."

The name of the song is "Hometown Blues." That deceptively jaunty Earle-penned tune tosses out a warm and fuzzy platitude ("Home is where the heart is, that's what they always say") before succinctly shooting it out of the sky - "Won't nothing bring you down like your hometown."

Ain't that the truth. And the wonder is that it took this long, in what is certainly the most live-music-saturated drama in the history of television, for Simon to find a way to work Earle's pithy observation into the script.

Because what Treme is about, more than anything else, is all the ways that a place you love - whether it's where you were born or where you've chosen to live your life - can break your heart. And how such a betrayal still won't keep you from loving it all the more.

What makes Treme special, of course, is that it takes place in New Orleans, where the sense of place is more palpable than anywhere else - that I can think of, anyway - in America.

As the second season opens in the fall of 2006, a year after Katrina, many principal characters are displaced.

Annie, the fiddle player played by Lucia Micarelli, is in Connecticut, on tour with the Subdudes. Modern jazz trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux (Rob Brown) is squaring off with Wynton Marsalis-dissing intellectuals at a Manhattan cocktail party. And Janette Desautel (Kim Dickens) is also in New York, cooking haute cuisine for a fascistic chef who, in an episode cowritten by bad-boy food star Anthony Bourdain, advises her to "listen to your fish."

None of them, however, can go anywhere without taking New Orleans with them. The food, the people, the sound of Lee Dorsey singing "Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky" (the title of Season 2's second episode), all have a way of sticking with you.

Treme is pronounced "tre-MAY" and named after the rich-in-musical-history neighborhood north of the French Quarter. Last spring, after I saw the first couple of episodes, I was compelled to book a ticket to the 2010 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. (This year's version of Jazz Fest starts Friday.)

While there, I went to a panel discussion on Treme that featured several of the show's creators, plus Wendell Pierce, a New Orleans native and veteran of Simon's revered Baltimore crime drama The Wire.

In Treme, Pierce plays Antoine Batiste, an under-earning trombone player. In Season 2 Batiste does his best to ignore his wife's insistence that it's time to get a "a job job" and instead forms his own band, called Antoine Batiste & His Soul Apostles.

The band, Batiste says, will play "music that would make Johnny Taylor proud, and make Solomon Burke give praise."

By episode three, the group - with Rebirth Brass Band's Stafford Agee playing Pierce's parts - is swinging into Burke's "Got To Get You Off My Mind" with vocalist Wanda Rouzan, another New Orleans treasure getting long-deserved attention. (The full performance of the song will be released as a video on iTunes the day after the show is telecast, which will happen with one song each week.)

At last year's Jazz Festival discussion on Treme, writer Tom Piazza talked about how the show is not about Katrina. "It's about the resilience of the human spirit," Piazza said, and the "grace and style and defiant wit" with which New Orleanians deal with hardship.

In this year's story line, there will be much need for those virtues, as trouble and strife come to the Crescent City in many forms. There's the lingering hangover of post-storm depression, of course, plus brutally violent crime. And as Simon broadens his scope, as in The Wire, to take on the school system and political corruption, carpetbagging capitalist opportunism joins the mix.

That story line is embodied by Nelson Hidalgo, a Dallas wheeler-dealer played by Jon Seda. Nelson is a new character with the potential to be refreshingly complicated as he comes to appreciate the city's hedonistic allure even as he focuses on taking advantage of natural and humanly made disasters for his own economic gain.

Nothing that happens in Treme happens fast. No plot development is so important that it can't be interrupted by a performance of "From the Corner to the Block" by the funk band Galactic, fronted by gold-toothed rapper Juvenile with an assist from the swaggering Dirty Dozen Brass Band that moves the still smugly annoying DJ played by Steve Zahn to explain the polyglot New Orleans cultural stew thus: "Gumbo ya-ya: It means everyone talks at once."

When Melissa Leo's widowed, bleeding-heart lawyer commiserates about parenthood with David Morse's similarly lonely police lieutenant, it seems that romantic sparks are sure to fly. And perhaps they will. But not on the cut-to-the-chase timetable familiar on other prime-time TV dramas. On Treme, there are too many Dickensian (or are they Altmanesque?) multiple-character plotlines to develop.

Each will bubble up in its own good time.

At the Treme panel discussion at last year's Jazz Festival, Pierce mused on the what makes his hometown unique, and what Simon and cocreator Eric Overmyer's show takes such great pains to capture. "Culture is the intersection of people and life," he said. "And what thoughts are to the individual, culture is to the community as a whole."

All the heartbreak of Katrina and its aftermath hasn't succeeded in washing that culture away. And what makes Treme so satisfying is the way it conveniently brings the richness of New Orleans culture to life on screen each week, so we all can remember what all the fuss is about, even if we can't make it to Jazz Fest this year.

Contact music critic Dan DeLuca at 215-854-5628 or ddeluca@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "In the Mix," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/inthemix.

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