With so many bands to choose from, your band of choice often defines your wedding — especially in New Orleans. Locals fall in love listening to such a wide array of live music here that any band of any stripe that can make a crowd dance is welcome at a Big Easy wedding. Still, the perfect wedding band knows a few special moves to keep your guests humming long after the party ends.
Singer and multi-instrumentalist Lucas Davenport has played his share of weddings with his R&B band, the Right Reverend Soul Review, his country band, Earl Can Bird or his especially gorgeous vocal group, St. Cecelia’s Asylum Chorus. More often though, Davenport has read couples their vows as the soulful ordained minister at their ceremonies.
“I will sing if people want me too,” Davenport offers. “I was once doing a union ceremony between these two ladies about 12 years ago…and that time there were no guidelines on how to do that type of ceremony, so I wrote a little document on parchment paper, and then after they said the vows I sat down at the piano and sang some songs for them to dance to.”
Being part of so many weddings from so many different angles, Davenport has a good idea of what makes a great wedding band.
“In New Orleans you cannot go wrong with a brass band — especially for destination weddings, the brass bands kill,” he says.
The Panorama Jazz Band/Brass Band was created 20 years ago to play one wedding.
“A woman who knew I played Jewish music with the Klezmer All-Stars, she told me ‘We need a freylekh, a happy Jewish band, for the hora, which is the big dance where they lift the bride and groom up in chairs,” says Panorama’s founder and clarinet player, Ben Schenck. “For that ceremony, there’s specific music, so they asked me to get a couple of guys together — we did it as a trio: clarinet, tuba and drum set, on Nov. 19, 1995.”
Today, two different seven-piece versions of Panorama — the sit-down jazz band, and the marching brass band — tour the world and play seemingly every local festival.
“But weddings are still a huge part of our business,” says Schenck. “The club gigs feel like live rehearsals where we evolve our sound so that when we play our weddings we’re fresh.”
Weddings are about more than just good money for the ragtag band.
“It’s a sacred duty,” says Schenck. “People need us to help them celebrate. It’s meaningful work that has value.”
With the aforementioned bands, however, you’d probably have to request songs such as “The Electric Slide” long in advance to make sure they know it, day of wedding.
“People hire us for what we do,” says Vanessa Niemann, country singer in Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue “At weddings we do all the heartbreaking, cheating, drinking songs we always do.”
Heartbreak or no, Niemann and company always get the reception dancing.
“We do a lot of slow dancing, but also Western swing,” she says. “We do a lot of fun party songs, like, ‘Jackson’ by Johnny and June Carter-Cash. ‘Crazy’ by Patsy Cline always gets everyone on the dance floor.”
There also exist those tight, well-oiled cover bands that know every nuance of the wedding game by heart. The famous Bucktown AllStars and also the Boogiemen both provide more than just music to dance to.
“A wedding’s like a play that has different acts and an intermission,” says Bucktown All-Stars drummer Steve Alfonso. “Our soundman plays a big role too, monitoring the board when people get up to talk on the mic, he makes sure they don’t feed back. He’ll download requested music to play.”
Both the Boogiemen and the All-Stars have killer horn sections, and both bands pride themselves on being able to take you wherever your party needs to go.
“One word: versatile,” Scott Schmidt of the Boogiemen says, describing his band. “We can run through Frank Sinatra-era to Bruno Mars, and everything in between. You have to play music from seven different decades now — ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s, you gotta go back to the ‘50s and then also play all the brand new modern music.”
Like Panorama, Egg Yolk Jubilee and other local bands, the Boogiemen and the All-Stars can both go mobile in a pinch.
“We’ve done weddings where we’ve been playing in a tent outside and the generator shuts off — we just do 20 minutes of second line stuff until they fix it,” says Schmidt. “The most important thing is just to deliver the quality.”
Are you still looking for tunes for your honeymoon? These songs by homegrown artists are sure to get you and your newly sworn spouse in the mood for love.
• “Southern Nights,” Alan Toussaint
• “Casanova,” Rebirth Brass Band
• “Be My Lady,” Trombone Shorty
• “Do You Want it,” Pappa Grows Funk
• “Such a Night,” Dr. John
• “Extra Ordinary,” Better than Ezra
• “Tell It Like It Is,” Aaron Nevill
• “Ruler of my Heart,” Irma Thomas
• “White,” Frank Ocean
• “Drift Away,” The Neville Brothers
• “Sweet Substitute,” Jelly Roll Morton’s Hot Seven