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New Orleans breaks its boundaries 

click to enlarge Helen Gillet - KOHJIRO KINNO
  • Kohjiro Kinno
  • Helen Gillet
Anyone who’s binged on HBO’s Treme can be forgiven for imagining that New Orleans’ music scene is the sole province of soul singers and sharp-dressed brass bands. But while the city still serves as a stage for more living legends than any other, its musical boundaries are anything but fixed. And with 75 to 100 artists playing out on any given night of the week, there are only so many R&B pioneers and traditionalist upstarts to go around.

So if, for example, your tastes run toward avant-garde, chamber-pop, post-punk jazz, you’ll find it, or something like it, in the music of Helen Gillet. An exceptionally skilled cellist, singer, composer and “surrealista,” she collaborates with a wide range of New Orleans musicians but is also known for solo performances and her score to the documentary Living with Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond. With distortion pedals, digital delays and a live looping station at her disposal, she can be found plucking and bowing her way through artsy original compositions, traditional French chansons and unpredictable covers.

Gillet’s new album Unembellished: Live at Gasa Gasa 2018, recorded this past January at the New Orleans club of the same name, includes edgy eight-minute reconstructions of X-Ray Spex’s “I Live Off You” and PJ Harvey’s “Angelene.” Other tracks more discreetly suggest the influences of Philip Glass, Laurie Anderson and Velvet Underground-era John Cale.

And then there’s the New Orleans Bounce scene’s emissary to the outside world, Big Freedia, who will hopefully be the next reality-show star to occupy the Oval Office. Her latest single “Best Beelee-vah,” which was released on Fat Tuesday, is as much Trinidad as Treme, fusing bass-heavy beats with bright steel-drum lines that would win the Mighty Sparrow’s seal of approval.

For even more twisted roots, look no further than the Lost Bayou Ramblers, whose latest album, Kalenda, won this year’s Grammy for Best Regional Roots Album. Brothers Andre and Louis Michot take, as they put it, a “perversely progressive” approach to the Cajun music they grew up playing in their father’s band. The group, whose members hail from New Orleans, Broussard and Arnaudville, incorporate elements of punk, psychedelia and electronic grooves into the sound that earned them the opening slot on an Arcade Fire tour.

Finally, there’s the enigmatic Aurora Nealand. When not playing Frenchman Street venues as lead singer and clarinetist for the trad-jazz group The Royal Roses, you’ll find her fronting the avant-rockabilly band Rory Danger & The Danger Dangers, or busking as a one-woman band with her accordion, bass drum, hi-hat and, um, gas mask.

What can we say? It’s just that kind of town.

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