Livin' The Big Easy

6 March 2014 | 5:09 pm | Michael Smith

"It’s very hard to put a label on what the music is. I like rhythm and blues because it covers a multitude of sins"

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It's been three years since expat Englishman now 20-plus years resident of New Orleans, singer, songwriter and pianist Jon Cleary last toured Australia. That time was with his trio, The Philthy Phew, featuring bassist Cornell Williams and drummer Doug Belote, the former a member of Cleary's other band, The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, who haven't visited with him in six years. An invitation to play WOMADelaide and Port Fairy 2014 has given Cleary an opportunity to bring the Gentlemen back Down Under for another quick spin up the Australian east coast. “We play a weekly Monday night gig here in New Orleans,” Cleary, on the line from his home, says of The Absolute Monster Gentlemen, which also features guitarist Derwin “Big D” Perkins and drummer Eddie Christmas, “and occasionally other things – we're playing a famous club here called Tipatina's on Saturday night. New Orleans is full of musicians who play in a variety of different bands in a variety of different styles, so we all do freelance stuff and play in other bands too, but we come together to do the Monster Gentleman thing 'cause it's so much fun. It's great for me as a songwriter; I get to hear all my songs being played so nicely, and all the fellas in the band sing – they all come from the gospel tradition.”
Born in Kent in 1962, in his teens Cleary, unlike his schoolmates who were getting into punk, was completely captivated by the music of New Orleans and particularly the piano players Professor Longhair, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint. So in his 20s, he headed for that city and was lucky enough to be embraced by it, eventually performing and recording with, among others, Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, BB King and guitarist John Scofield, as well as establishing himself as a solo artist.
“It's very, very fertile soil to be setting down roots in,” he suggests. “It's a very eccentric city. But I was very lucky, as I did as a young musician, getting to play with all the musicians, the guys that were responsible for so many great records in the '50s who really invented a style of music – New Orleans rhythm and blues – that went on to become better known as rock'n'roll, which changed the way popular music was played around the world. They were good friends of mine, people like [guitarist] Earl King and [singer] Ernie K-Doe – real characters. So I was very lucky, getting to learn firsthand, playing in their bands.”
Jon Cleary has been spending more time at home in New Orleans the past few months concentrating on recording a new album, which was at the mixing stage at the beginning of February. “It's very hard to put a label on what the music is. I like rhythm and blues because it covers a multitude of sins,” he chuckles. “But it's very soulful. I've got a killer band, new songs of mine.”