New Orleans is waterlogged, wet and steamy, washed in humidity that hangs suspended in the air. It's a Friday afternoon after two weeks of drenching rains from back-to-back 'canes; the city's nonstop party, which has been on hold, has resumed with a vengeance.
Keri the bartender is slinging margaritas at Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville on Decatur Street. No come-hither suds bimbo, she's a sleek, efficient drink slinger behind the bar, dressed down in t-shirt and jeans and primed for action, a dynamo with the hands of a card sharp, giving each tumbler a signature triple flip before she fills it with a crisp thwack, all the while watching the customers clustered around the bandstand with dark, steely eyes.
Six drunken tourists beat a hasty retreat during the applause for Washboard Chaz as he finishes a set, but even though she's got a trio of salt-rimmed glasses about to be filled Keri catches the action and is around the bar and out the door in a flash, escorting the sheepish tourist back to settle up.
Chaz takes his spot at the bar for a quick break and nods appreciatively.
"I like playing these Margaritaville gigs," he says. "The crowds are easy to get going."
After a quick libation, Chaz is back on the bandstand supported by a trio which includes "my right hand man," harmonica virtuoso Ben Maygarden, and an acoustic guitarist sitting in for the regular third hand in the trio, Roberto Luti. Chaz plays the washboard in the old style popularized by small acoustic blues and jug band combos from the 1930s. He plays the music of Tommy and Robert Johnson, Big Bill Broonzy, Big Black, Washboard Sam, Bukka White, Henry Thomas and Sonny Boy Williamson, music about being destitute, broken, ruined by natural disaster, about love, violence, sex and betrayal.
The themes of songs like "Big Road Blues," "32-20," "Fixing To Die Blues" and "Come On In My Kitchen," themes of love lost, homelessness and terminal illness, resonate eerily in our uncertain times. The margarita-fueled tourists howl and clap in approval as Chaz sings anthems from the Great Depression that he feels speak wisely about our New Millennium blues.
"The hard times are coming back," Chaz says. "They're definitely coming back."
Chaz even has his own updates of these blues themes. One song in particular, "Caller ID," does a great job of marrying 1930s style with 21st century technology. The song is about a guy who gets busted for cheating on his girlfriend when he calls her from his other girlfriend's house, not realizing she has Caller ID.
Chaz is a youthful 53. "Playin' that washboard keeps me young," he says with a laugh. With his rail thin physique, porkpie hat, antique wood-framed washboard outfitted with tin cans and a buttontop bell and high, reedy voice, Chaz sounds uncannily as if he stepped right out of a blues or old timey recording session from the 1930s.
He is much in demand as one of the few practitioners of this archaic style on the planet. "I'm on about 65 recordings," he says. "I was on John Hammond's Grammy nominated "If I Only Had You" and "Fattening Frogs for Snakes." I've done a couple of albums with an Americana guy, Tim O'Brien, an old friend of mine. I had a band in the mid 1970s called the Ophelia String Band, a real popular band in Boulder, Colorado, where I lived back then. I did two albums with them, I've been on a couple of compilation CDs from the Telluride Blues Festival, other projects from folk singers to children's CDs.
Chaz has a new album, "Courtyard Blues," which sounds like a newly discovered work from the '30s. He says he was trying to get that sound, recording the album live to tape without overdubs. It has a raw, ratcheting trajectory, every bit as riveting as his live shows. Though some local New Orleans record stores carry it, the record doesn't have national distribution, so if you don't buy one from Chaz at one of his gigs, you'll have to check out his Web site: washboardchaz.com on the Internet.