August 29, 2009

STRANGER: Buzzy “Beano” Langford
LOCATION: Bayona, 430 Rue Dauphine, New Orleans
THEME: Meal with a musician

New Orleans isn’t one of the cities among those mentioned in Huey Lewis’ hit song “The Heart Of Rock And Roll” as keeping that particular type of music alive.

While first thoughts of the Big Easy’s soundtrack may be of jazz music, I think Mr. Lewis made an oversight because New Orleans-born and raised musician Buzzy “Beano” Langford is keeping rock and roll well and truly alive in the city. Even if it’s someone else’s songs he’s singing.

Buzzy plays guitar for the four-piece band The Topcats, a New Orleans cover band that in its current lineup has been together for more than 25 years. I was on day two of a recent holiday in the city — my first day in town I interviewed the owner of a local voodoo museum — and after exchanging a few e-mails, Buzzy agreed to have brunch with a stranger.

The restaurants, bars and other assorted attractions of the city are hard to resist for a twenty-nine year old night-owl and so it was that with a slightly foggy head from the night before I ran a few minutes late to meeting my interviewee at the restaurant Bayona. That might not seem so bad, but Bayona was exactly on the opposite side of the street from my hotel.


Thankfully Buzzy didn’t mind my tardy arrival and after a quick hello we were shown to our table. Right from the start he looked the part, with his dark clothes, heavy sunglasses, black hair with yellow tints, and an array of colorful wristbands. He looked like he’d just come from an all-night show, an appearance enhanced by his soft, low tone of voice.

Indeed he had been playing a show the night before, but the subtle way Buzzy carries himself off-stage is just how he acts when he’s not performing, I learned.

Buzzy recommended Bayona, saying that he knew the owner and eats there regularly. It’s a gorgeous little place, with a pleasant courtyard (it was too warm to sit outside) and a dining room classily decorated and with lush furnishings all around. The unassuming exterior helps add to the feeling that once inside you’ve stumbled upon something a little special on account of the warm and welcoming atmosphere generated by the place.

We placed our orders from a $25 per person light lunch menu, and then Buzzy told me all about how he got started in the world of rock and roll.

Buzzy was born in New Orleans and lived in the city most his life, minus a brief time in Tucson, Arizona, when he was a young kid. It was actually in the Grand Canyon State — and not the Big Easy — where he got started with music, taking up guitar lessons around the age of 11 or 12. His foray into music was based on a simple idea: he grew up listening to and admiring the Beatles, and wanted to live like them, so he picked up a guitar and started strumming.

His family eventually moved back to New Orleans and he kept up the guitar lessons for a while, but before long had developed enough skill to start learning on his own. In just a short time he’d come a long way from the child who would strum a broomstick and pretend to be a Beatle on stage in concert to someone who could pick up a guitar and make the music.

Soon enough Buzzy was playing in what he described as “typical animal house kind of bands,” local groups that saw him performing all over the city. He did that for some time, before taking to the road in his 20s with bands, primarily a rock and roll group named The Valiants. It was a career that took him to almost every state in the union, and meant he was only home an average of four weeks every year. “It was great when I was in my twenties, but touring all over the country gets kind of old after a while,” Buzzy said.

It was 1979 when Buzzy was done with touring the country for his work and instead he started scouting around for a full-time gig in New Orleans. Some friends of his were members of a band named T.Q. and the Topcats, at the time a 1950s-style show band. “I got in at the end of that, then the lineup started changing, and some people dropped out. So we dropped the TQ, but kept the name Topcat because people knew it.”

Side-note to fledgling bands out there: Buzzy strongly cautions that you pick a band name and stick with it, otherwise you’ll never establish your band as a brand.

Even before the starter arrived, I realized that Buzzy seems to view and talk about music through two lenses; the businessman and the rock and roll star. He’s enamored with great music and loves learning new instruments and songs. Hell, he even has a recording studio in his house. But at the same time he’s very astute about the business elements of music, and his conversation split almost evenly between the two takes on being a band member.

I was sidetracked from this train of thought by the appearance of the aforementioned starter. We both opted for a cream of garlic soup, which arrived piping hot.

Now I’m not going to lie, that picture doesn’t make the soup look very appetizing. My poor camera skills also give the shot odd lighting that casts a sinister shadow over the course. But the taste was something else. I didn’t know what to expect having never eaten garlic soup before. One word: fantastic. Light but with a mild kick to it, and not overpowering and nor did it leave a heavy aftertaste of strong garlic once we were done. A great start.

While we had our soup our conversation veered away from the interview and on to the almost-inevitable topic of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Buzzy told me that the Topcats were playing a band the night before the hurricane hit, and following the storm the four members split in various directions, with no communication between each other for several days. Still, Buzzy’s home outside of the city was not badly hit, and the band soon reformed. To start with they called in favors and played out of town concerts, but within a few months found themselves “doing more work than ever, because people were trying to put on a lot of parties” and help the city recovery, he said.

The recovery effort has been “okay” in Buzzy’s view, “but it’s not as quick as the politicians promised it would be. But I don’t put a lot of faith in politician BS anyway.” Buzzy says that the city will hopefully get back to something approaching normal, whatever that is, and it offers two important attractions to lure people in: music and food. “The food around here is one of the things that keep people coming back. The only downfall is that they make it very spicy.”

Buzzy said that as his main course arrived, a dish of shrimp with tamale.

His food looked delicious though I didn’t ask to try any. After a few bites he had to sip some water and remarked how spicy the sauce was. Apparently Buzzy doesn’t really do spicy food, though he gave a thumbs-up overall flavor of his shrimp.

I opted for a tamer main course of three-cheese ravioli with escarole, roasted pluots, pancetta, pine nuts and pecorino.

Forgive my lack of knowledge but I had to do a Google search to discover what exactly are escarole and pluots. Apparently, says the Internet, they are a type of endive and a type of plum respectively. You learn something every day. Thanks, Internet! Regardless of being unable to identify several parts of the dish, I thought it was great — a very light course with the three cheeses working great in combination and the accompaniments, all without exception, tasty.

Having visited New Orleans several times I can say that the food at Bayona is much like the food at most restaurants in the city. It’s delicious, perfectly cooked, there’s always a wide choice and you leave every meal satisfied. So I completely agree with Buzzy’s remark that the city’s culinary offerings are one reason people keep coming back. And it may also explain why he was happy to end touring and settle down here playing with the Topcats.

“Let’s make a living doing other people’s songs

The band in its current form is Buzzy, Rob Schulte on drums and vocals, Pat Campbell on bass and vocals, and David Gamble on keyboards. “This version of the band started in ’83 when the drummer joined. The fact it’s been the same four guys that long is pretty amazing,” Buzzy said. True words, because even the Beatles didn’t last that long together.

In addition to the fact that playing covers generates constant business, Buzzy said that the band would never work as an original outfit because musically they’re all in opposite directions. They made one album of their own material and while it was “good” in his view, the diverging views meant they were never going to get famous by performing their own tunes. “So we thought let’s do this for a living by making money doing other people’s songs.”

The Topcats cover as broad a selection of music as possible, including oldies, 80s rock, rap music and everything else, always ready to adapt to the event. It’s not stressful work, Buzzy said. This is despite playing a wide arrange of shows from clubs to weddings and from conventions to Mardi Gras balls. In the last 25 years they’ve averaged 250 shows per year. “There are no drawbacks, it’s a very low stress job with decent pay. But as in life, clubs are the most fun but they pay the least,” Buzzy said, adding that the band has a good local following but they play so much around the city that it’s no longer a special event when they’re headlining at a venue.

Nevertheless, the local crowds — and the tourists — turn out for the Topcats during the Mardi Gras functions, which Buzzy said are among his favorite. The band routinely plays in the Endymion parade, “one of the biggest” of the Mardi Gras parades. “It’s amazing to be on a float riding through the crowd. It’s so electric, you get a great feeling from all these people screaming and yelling” for the music, he added.

Buzzy seemed to get momentarily lost in thoughts of Mardi Gras, a grin on his face. That’s when the dessert arrived, rounding off our lunch.

He’d gone for the sorbet, which looked simple but was apparently a nice finish. Oh, and yes, that is a half-eaten scoop of sorbet. I was a little delayed taking the photo.

I opted for the chocolate tart, which was the only disappointment of the meal. The presentation was nice, but the dish was rather bland. Still, two out of three dishes of my light lunch were great so I’d easily recommend stopping by Bayona for their lunch offerings.

As we waited for the bill, I asked Buzzy what he does when he’s not performing with the Topcats. Buzzy said he likes to keep up his musical education by learning new pieces and new instruments. He recently started to learn the Emerson, Lake & Palmer song “Karn Evil 9: First Impression,” which he said is difficult. “Every now and then I’ll do a song for me because I’m always trying to please people” by taking their requests for songs, Buzzy said. He’s also experimented with the keyboard, banjos, bass and other instruments.

All of this he can do in the comfort of his own home, with a “state of the art” recording studio where he can work whenever he wants. “It’s nice to work from home. Whenever I get tired I can just walk upstairs and go to bed,” he said.

But I don’t think Buzzy is going to tire of rock and roll any time soon. While he approaches his time with the Topcats as both a career and something he genuinely loves, I believe that it’s Buzzy’s desire to just make good music that ultimately wins out, whether it’s for pay or not. As he said about playing the guitar, “I’m just going to keep on doing it for as long as I can, because that’s what I love to do.”

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