11 Top New Orleans Rock Bands

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Vicki P-Drifters

Vicki Peterson, formerly of The Bangles

There’s a good argument to be made that rock ‘n’ roll was invented in New Orleans in 1947 by Roy Brown with “Good Rocking Tonight.” Then you’ve got Fats Domino, Little Richard (his first singles were recorded in New Orleans) and everything else out of Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studio. For this list, however, we define rock as anything after The Beatles.

Yet all New Orleans music exists on a continuum. So ask whether a particular New Orleans band is a rock group, the correct answer is usually “sometimes.” So… funk and jam bands with rock leanings do not qualify here. And while a lot of brass bands rock the joint, we’ll reserve their own category for them.

Since the city’s rock bands draw from a range and depth of influences, they tend to operate outside the mainstream, even for all their appeal. The Crescent City’s rockers may not be as well known as those from other cities. But they not just hold their own with anyone else but excel in delivering the goods. They are listed in no particular order other than a loose assessment on their exposure beyond the city.

11) Jello Biafra and The New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars – “Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo”

Former Dead Kennedys singer Jello Biafra is not from New Orleans, but many of rest of this one-off band are members of acts on this list that follows. Hearing Biafra lead this crew through New Orleans standards from “Mother in Law” (Ernie K-Doe) through “Land of 1,000 Dances” (written and first recorded by N.O.’s Chris Kenner, later a hit for Wilson Pickett) and “Walk on Gilded Splinters” (Dr. John), not to mention later Crescent City resident Alex Chilton’s “Bangkok,” is nothing short of life altering. Jessie Hill’s “Ooh-Poo-Pah-Doo,” recorded live at the 12 Bar in New Orleans, is the completely appropriate invocation for this act.

10) Supagroup – “Hail Hail”

The 1990s hard rock project Supagroup was the product of a pair of Tulane students from Anchorage, Alaska, the Chinese-American brothers Chris Lee on vocals and rhythm guitar and Benji Lee on lead guitar. The band’s kickass sound, best captured on their incendiary 2001 third album Rock and Roll Tried to Ruin My Life made Supagroup a local favorite and an in-demand support band for national tours. Benji has all the classic rock guitar moves from stalwart influences like The Who, James Gang and Yardbirds, while Chris was clearly a disciple of Steve Marriott. “Hail Hail” connects the band with another group heavily influenced by Marriott’s Humble Pie – Kiss.

9) Lonely Lonely Knights – “So Over the Shape I’m In”

The Lonely Lonely Knights are the band that opened the garage door in latter-day New Orleans, and a fixture at the Saturn bar in New Orleans’ upper Ninth Ward. The core two-guitar sound of Ted Matthews/D.C. Harbold is cobalt dense. Harbold is a vicious riffer and Matthews has an artisan welder’s touch on the steel strings, summoning raunch and feedback and rockabilly reverb and Music Machine crunch and a lyrical overlay that has you thinking about Roy Buchanan and Danny Gatton. Bassist D. Lefty Parker drives it thick and elastic as a crude oil spill. Though the Knights can make your ears bleed, Matthews delivers stately themes like “So Over the Shape I’m In” just as effectively.

8) Morning 40 Federation – “Gin Instead of Whiskey”

Before the Ninth Ward became hipster central, Morning 40 Federation made it cool to camp out in Markey Park and chug Pabst Blue Ribbon. After all, the band takes its name from an infamous New Orleans breakfast beverage. They are sloppy but rock fiercely and were disciplined enough to make the New Orleans version of Let It Bleed, the great album Ticonderoga. “Gin Instead of Whiskey,” as close to a statement of purpose as you’re ever likely to hear, is the album’s opening track.

7) The Palace Guards – “Gas Station Blues Downtown”

This groundbreaking New Orleans garage rock band started as a British Invasion-influenced group in 1964 and evolved into full-fledged psychedelia by the end of the ‘60s. Drummer Frank Bua, a founding member of the Guards, went on to found the #1 act on this list with songwriter Ed Volker, who co-wrote this track, originally called “Funky Funky Broadway Gas Station Blues Downtown.”

6) Dash Rip Rock – “Johnny Ace”

One the cleverest dudes to ever pick up a guitar, Dash Rip Rock founder Bill Davis was a journalist before he decided to become a full time rocker. And he never lost his ability to tell a story or deliver a musical joke with just the right panache (and also plays with Biafra’s All Stars). Watching him play AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” next to the Gospel Tent was one of my most memorable Jazz Fest experiences. A skilled player, Davis nevertheless kept his chops in service to the songs and the concept, which is as much homage to punk/blues rock as it is a vicious satire of the same. One of the few Louisiana rockers to actually exert influence outside of the region, he is often credited with “inventing” cowpunk. Certainly nobody does it better.

5) The Subdudes – “Papa Dukie and the Mud People”

Except for a brief hiatus, this band has been active for three decades with their combination of roots rock, zydeco, Louisiana blues, and more, and have never met a percussion instrument they didn’t like. One of Subdudes‘ principal songwriters is Tommy Malone, brother of the Radiators guitarist Dave Malone. While true national fame has escaped them, they’re well known among musicians’ circles, as evidenced by this live performance of their “Papa Dukie and the Mud People,” with guest Fred Tackett of Little Feat.

4) Cowboy Mouth – “Hurricane Party”

Drummer Fred LeBlanc, the extrovert’s extrovert (and a member of The New Orleans Raunch and Soul All-Stars), left Dash Rip Rock to form this Cowboy Mouth with guitarists/songwriters Paul Sanchez and John Thomas Griffith of the punk band Red Rockers. After signing a major label deal with MCA, LeBlanc wrote the single “Jenny Says” that reached the Top 50 of both the Modern and Mainstream Rock Tracks charts in Billboard. But the band’s theme song was the Sanchez composition “Hurricane Party,” an account of the pre-Katrina bravado New Orleanians exhibited when threatened by major storms. The line “lying in the gutter eating tootsie rolls” became a cue for fans of the Mouth to pepper the band with chocolate treats as they played.

3) Continental Drifters – “Na Na”

Formed in Los Angeles, the Continental Drifters moved to New Orleans, where they became one of the city’s most beloved rock bands, a songwriting supergroup that featured Susan Cowsill of The Cowsills, Vicki Peterson of The Bangles, Peter Holsapple of The dBs and Mark Walton of Dream Syndicate with local musicians Robert Mache and Russ Broussard. They combined for an unforgettable style with multiple lead vocalists, great harmonies, intricate guitar patterns and a powerful rhythm section. The full effect of Peterson and Cowsill’s unforgettable harmony is in evidence here on “Na Na.”

2) Down – “Stone the Crow”

Surprising though it may seem, New Orleans is a hotbed of metal, goth and hard rock. And Down is a perennial local award winner in the metal category. Fronted in its 1991 inception by vocalist Phil Anselmo (from Pantera) and featuring guitarist Pepper Keenan (of Corrosion of Conformity, and also a Raunch and Soul All-Star), Down is one of the Crescent City’s most exciting live bands. They got their start with a rough, privately distributed demo and were signed by an Elektra Records executive after their first local concert. “Stone the Crow,” from the band’s debut NOLA, has the blues-based rawness of the band’s early sound.

1) The Radiators – “Suck the Head”

Widely considered the most popular and successful of New Orleans rock bands, The Radiators never played the same show twice during a run 1978 to 2011 with the same five members throughout. Their mixture of blues, R&B, traditional New Orleans piano and roots rock is a potent brew that fuels the band’s legendary marathon concerts. They were the city’s go-to party band for a generation. One of the few New Orleans Rock bands to record for a major label, the Rads had a late 1980s run at Epic that produced three albums and featured the band’s only attempts at making MTV-style music videos. Here Rads keyboardist/vocalist Ed Volker describes the proper crawfish-eating technique in one of the tracks Epic turned into a music video, “Suck the Head.”

John Swenson

John Swenson

John Swenson has been writing about popular music since 1967. He has worked as an editor at Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock World and OffBeat magazine and been published in virtually every classic popular music magazine of note, and edited the award-winning website jazze.com for Knit Media. He was a syndicated music columnist for more than 20 years at United Press International and Reuters. Swenson has written 14 published books including biographies of Bill Haley, The Who, Stevie Wonder and The Eagles and co-edited the original Rolling Stone Record Guide with Dave Marsh. He is also the editor of The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide. In another role, Swenson is a veteran sports writer who covered the New York Rangers for 30 years, writing pieces for outlets from Rolling Stone to the Associated Press. Swenson is also a veteran horseracing columnist and handicapper who covered the New York racing scene as a columnist for the New York Post and the New Orleans Fair Grounds meet for The Daily Racing Form. His profile on jockey Steve Cauthen, "Rise To Stardom, Fall From Grace" in Spur magazine, was nominated for an Eclipse Award.
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  1. halfpear
    #1 halfpear 8 April, 2016, 05:56

    I would unhesitatingly add that the best rock band from New Orleans was Multiple Places; brilliant, creative stuff, less r ‘n’ b-influenced than the other bands on John’s list.

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  2. blue
    #2 blue 9 April, 2016, 05:31

    Some bands i know on this list and even love, some i don’t and going to check out but … No Subdudes?

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    • swen
      swen 9 April, 2016, 11:02

      That was one of the bands that kept getting the “sometimes” remark

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  3. The Kingfish
    #3 The Kingfish 20 April, 2016, 21:48

    Only the RADIATORS deserve a call out. The others are so mediocre…and always have been.

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