Written by Nina Griffin
Crawfish. King cakes. Kermit. These are all staples of the New Orleans experience that tourists and locals alike refer to when they talk about the city’s culture. Kermit Ruffins is a local icon and, tonight at the Blue Nile, the audience’s palpable anticipation of his arrival with his band, The Barbecue Swingers, proves just that. The show has been delayed by thirty minutes and, yet, a crowd of nearly seventy people has cemented its place as close to the stage as possible. The audience is, surprisingly, mostly young – looking to be composed, largely, of enthusiastic individuals in their twenties with some middle-aged and older parties mixed in. Ruffins’ influence is universal, and it shows.
About fifteen minutes before the show is set to begin, a group of four smartly-dressed women enter the venue together and gather near the dimly lit bar. Their presence, collectively, is quite commanding and they are clearly here with a purpose. That purpose becomes clear when, from behind them appears, Kermit; his head topped with his signature bandanna-fedora combo. He’s casually dressed in a white t-shirt and jeans. Ruffins begins to make his way through the crowd, flanked by his entourage. He goes unnoticed, for the most part, save for a few hoots from the patrons in the front as he disappears backstage. That unpretentious swagger is also a staple of New Orleans; it’s a part of the charm of many natives of The Big Easy with which they welcome its visitors with open arms.
Just when you think Kermit can’t get any cooler, he briefly pops up onstage, through the door at its rear, waves at the crowd, and retrieves an ice cold beer from an actual cooler which is parked between the drums and the seat that the bass player will soon occupy. He lifts it – first a warm salute to the crowd, and then a knowing air toast to his entourage. They are now waiting eagerly, at stage left, for the show to begin.
At last, the band takes the stage to a cheering audience, easing into classics such as “On the Sunny Side of the Street” and “Oh Marie”. The band weaves through a set packed with jazz standards and mix in some of their original tunes against the colorful, psychedelic backdrop that covers the performance space walls. Ruffins is incredibly natural on the trumpet, as is expected from his 30-plus years of experience. The founder of the Rebirth Brass Band and bar/restaurant owner (Kermit’s Treme Mother In Law Lounge) even forgoes the use of a mute for his trumpet and uses his own hand, when necessary, to the delight of the audience and himself, it seems, as he chuckles slightly when he first uses this method.
An unexpected cover was the band’s rendition of the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling”, when Kermit invited women onto the stage to dance to the pop hit. In a mostly cohesive collection of jazz standards, this stand-out record seemed out of place. Perhaps it was in an effort to appeal more to the mostly millennial crowd. Regardless, fans responded and erupted into dance, so it wasn’t for naught.
Ruffins is backed by the Barbecue Swingers – Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji (piano), Jerry Anderson (drums), and Kevin Morris (bass). The men effortlessly display their talents as seasoned musicians. What is most notable is their clear respect for each other. This production is not all about the front man; solos are peppered throughout each song with Kermit taking the time to truly savor what each artist has to offer and cheer them on, individually, and with reverence.
The audience got exactly what they came for with Kermit Ruffins and the Barbecue Swingers. While they can be caught performing around town weekly, there appears to be no threat of overexposure. The band is in high demand and there’s no sign of them slowing down. Kermit’s charm and the band’s overall mastery will certainly see to that.