This jazz duo and their musical guests filled a hidden upstairs bar on Decatur Street with laughter and jazz - and an excellent vibe, even in the thick of summer.
- by Christopher Louis Romaguera
Nowadays, the bassist I follow around from bar to bar is my good friend Twerk Thomson. Thomson and I have worked together on Frenchmen Street - he on stage, me behind the bar - for six years. The past three years, we've been covering the evening shift at The Spotted Cat Music Club (623 Frenchmen Street) where he plays with the Shotgun Jazz Band from 6-10.
Recently, I follow Thomson to his late-night Wednesday gig with Swamp Moves (11pm - 2am, upstairs at Santos, 1135 Decatur Street). The duo was started by guitarist Russell Welch, who plays with everyone from The Little Big Horns to the Hot Club of New Orleans. He, like Thomson, makes his way up and down Frenchmen Street.
Santos looks like any dive on Lower Decatur. The bar is empty and the blue glow of a cellphone illuminates the bartender's face and toothy smile. But Swamp Moves is not downstairs.
The environment is different upstairs. The ceilings high. The floors wood. The lighting chill. People sprinkled throughout the bar. I feel like a child in elementary school, all the faces look familiar but I can't immediately place them. Thomson puts his bass down and orders a gin. The bartender knows what he wants and dresses it up for him.
Out on the balcony is Welch. He smiles when we come outside. The breeze is better up here, by the river, above sea level. The small talk ends when he looks at Thomson and says “ready to play some weird shit?”
Often times, Swamp Moves has a third member. The third is not there on this night and neither is his replacement. “So it goes," says Welch.
As Thomson and Welch walk over to the stage, I post up at the front of the bar. Welch briefly introduces the music. From the strike of the first chord, Thomson bobs his head to the beat. Welch's whole body moves with each strum. These guys had their rent-paying gigs earlier.
This is for fun.
Welch and Thomson have played at Santos for over a year. Thomson says it was hard to call it a show back then. Welch and him mostly just jammed out on the first floor after their other gigs.
It was kind of the accidental heir to Molly’s at the Market, where musicians used to go to the backroom and play until the end of the night. Once that was ended, Welch and Twerk went to Santos. After a while, they ended up making it a more “official” show, with them using the room upstairs.
Twerk Thomson came to New Orleans six years ago. He was born and raised in Toronto, Canada, where his mother ran a music school. He can’t remember when he first started playing, just that he played piano first. Eventually he learned to play the bass.
When I asked Thomson why he came to New Orleans, he responded, “Why not? It’s the greatest fucking place ever.” Based on stories he had heard of New Orleans, he always knew he wanted to come here, but knew it to a certainty after coming down here and catching a Preservation Hall Jazz Band show.
Russell Welch was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. Welch learned how to play music from his father, who was also a guitarist. The younger Welch used to sneak into clubs with his old man in order to play music. That is where he learned how to play the blues.
Welch came to New Orleans ten years ago. His uncle lived here, and he’d stay with him a bunch while growing up. But when Welch came to New Orleans about ten years ago, he came to play music.
Welch said he started Swamp Moves because he wanted to “have a neighborhood thing that wasn’t for making money, similar to the gigs we used to have at Mimi’s and the jams we would do late night at Molly’s.”
The bar program upstairs is run by Katie du Bois. She picks a guest woman bartender for every week, who will make up a specialty cocktail list for the night. Swamp Moves is for service industry and everyone is there to do what they love.
In the middle of the first song, guitarist Chris Christy taps me on the shoulder and asks how I'm doing. It is rare for me to be out at night during my semester. Christy is from Los Angeles and has been playing the opening Wednesday shift at The Spotted Cat with me for the last few years. Christy is a finger picking guitarist who gets a different sound out of his guitar than a lot of the Frenchmen Street mafia.
Christy left my bar and his set at six in the afternoon, yet he is here, ten hours after his first set had begun. By the second song, he is sitting in and singing a staple of his sets. But instead of the five-minute version where he passes the tip bucket amongst tourists, this is a ten-minute version, voice gravelly.
Before the song ends, Bryce Eastwood, a clarinetist, sits in with the band. This reminds me of when I first moved to New Orleans, following musicians as they went from bar to bar. Eastwood gives an extra bit of life to the song, notes fluttering off his fingers.
I use my steel straw to stir the drink as I listen to each song bleed into the next. The hour drips away. We all go back out on the balcony during the set break. All of us shake our drinks as if a little more liquid could be squeezed out of them.
We talk about life, rent, and love. We watch as drunk tourists try to serpentine down the road and around potholes. We shuffle back inside, trying to squeeze a little more out of the night.
The bar slowly empties out during the second set. It is two in the morning. The crowd is small enough that everyone seems two degrees away from each other. I recognize a work “neighbor.” Her mom starts to sing along with the band. Welch strums chords as he tries to find the key she sings in.
As the night progresses, people ask for happier songs, and the band and crowd banter. At one point, the mom walks up and sings next to the band, then returns to her stool and sings next to her daughter.
The night ends with Welch leading everyone in a rendition of “Oh, Darling” from The Beatles. We all sing hoarse together. We all are tired, from workdays of being in bars like this, being paid to share this with the world.
But for this one moment, we are only sharing it with each other, quietly, happily, singing with the few dollars we have to our name. For sometimes you have to stay awake a little longer to remember what the dream was like.
In September, the Swamp Moves event resumes after an August hiatus. Check with Santos for time and details.
Christopher Louis Romaguera is a Cuban-American writer born in Hialeah, Florida. He has been published in The Daily Beast, Peauxdunque Review, Curbed National, Cuba Trade Magazine and other publications. He has a monthly column at The Ploughshares Blog and is currently an MFA candidate in Fiction at the University of New Orleans.