And the band played on.
Of course it did: In distressing and dispiriting times, rocking out can soothe the soul.
The Iguanas know this, and the Iguanas need this.
There's something both comforting and cathartic about being onstage, especially before a crowd in Tommy Bahama shirts that's swapping Mardi Gras beads, swing-dancing and singing along boozily as you blast through "Nuevo Boogaloo" and "Para Donde Vas."
And so the Iguanas are at the Birchmere in Alexandria, having driven from Texas, by way of Richmond, in a white Chevy van with Louisiana plates. The boys in the New Orleans band are here because they're committed to their touring calendar, set long before their beloved city became an urban swamp: All five members of the group lived in New Orleans and are uncertain what's become of their homes.
They're also here because there's something to that old music-as-salvation cliche. Bassist Rene Coman calls the post-disaster shows a release. Drummer Doug Garrison says: "If we didn't have music to play right now, we'd be really miserable."
It's Friday night, and the band with the national cult following is performing its born-on-the-bayou brand of honky-tonked, Tex-Mexed, jazz-and-R&B-infused swamp rock in the Birchmere band shell. (The music is distinctly New Orleans, and it has been embraced thus: The Times-Picayune newspaper anointed the Iguanas' "Plastic Silver 9-Volt Heart" as album of the year in 2003.)
The band is casting something of a festive spell over the room -- never mind all the recent depressive developments, of which there are many. First Katrina et al., and now this: The father of Iguanas singer-guitarist Rod Hodges passed away in Sebastopol, Calif., the day before the Birchmere booking.
Hodges has flown to California to be with family. The band plays on.
"Is everybody having a good time out there?" singer-saxophonist Joe Cabral asks the audience.
Yes! is the answer from several hundred satisfied customers. (Actually, they say "WOOOOOH!" But same difference.)
Now Cabral is charged with singing almost every Iguanas lyric, including those normally handled by Hodges. He sings in Spanish, and he sings in English, and he's spirited and superlative in both tongues.
You'd hardly know anything was amiss, save for a bit of banter: At one point, Cabral asks the audience to pray for Hodges, and he later suggests that ticket-holders support the relief effort, noting the Red Cross donation bucket at the back of the room.
"I'm sure," he says, "that anything will help."
Cabral, though, is much less certain of what he'll find in New Orleans when he pulls on a pair of shrimping boots today and returns to the city to inspect his property.
The Iguanas were touring in New England when Katrina hit, and nobody's been home since -- save for Coman's quick mission to fetch his dog, Dindi, whom somebody had been feeding through a mail slot. The band has temporarily relocated to Austin, and Cabral, for one, thinks he may be there for quite some time, given the information that he's pieced together about his house: The satellite image online that showed a guy rowing down Cabral's street in a boat; the TV video of a submerged shopping center two blocks from his home; a report from a friend who'd been by Cabral's property.
"He said, 'Joe, wow, I'm really sorry.' I guess it looked pretty bad. I took in a lot of water."
Garrison, too, has studied satellite images, and he's seen a water-depth survey that showed his place under five feet of water. But, he says, his home is on three-foot piers, and there's a bit of elevation in the yard and, well: "It could be okay," he says. "But it could also be totaled. I won't know until I see it."
Coman isn't sure what he'll find. But as a New Orleans native -- a guy who went to high school with Wynton Marsalis and studied music under the jazzman's father, Ellis -- he vows to move back no matter what. "I've never had a mailing address outside of New Orleans; it's an essential part of my identity," he says. "I don't know that I can sustain myself long-term if I'm not there."
Says Cabral, a Nebraska native who moved to New Orleans in the 1980s: "I know that I definitely want to return. There's no place like it."
For now, the band will play on in Austin. Sort of. Because the full group won't be together (saxophonist Derek Huston has relocated to a town near Lafayette, La.), the New Orleans exiles are adopting a temporary name for gigs in their adopted city. Introducing . . . the Texiles!