Thursday November 30, 2023 Los Angeles, CA By Andy J. Gordon

A line up of New Orleans-centric all-stars launched their four show West Coast tour at the Venice West nightclub in Los Angeles, CA on November 30, 2023. Ivan Neville, Eric Lindell, Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio are in bands that tour regularly, but have some downtime when the yearend holidays roll around. They re-form Dragon Smoke annually to briefly hit the West Coast and a few other select locations. The packed house of NOLA music lovers at Venice West gave their wholehearted approval, howling their enjoyment during the group’s virtuoso performance.

This quartet is often referred to as a “supergroup,” which may be an overused term, but in this case the cliché fits. Dragon Smoke began over twenty years ago, as the musicians came together for a Jazz Fest gig at the Dragon’s Den in New Orleans, organized by a promoter called Superfly Presents. That promoter was instrumental in putting together musicians from different groups for one-time only nightclub show collaborations during the festival. That one-time gig went so well that the quartet decided to keep it going, but only when their schedules permitted. They make the brief West Coast tour an annual reunion. Their journey this year to Los Angeles brought them to the intimate Venice West where Neville has fond memories of past shows (Ivan Neville and his Phunky Friends played there in August 2022 and Dumpstaphunk did a show at the club this past July).

Each Dragon Smoke band member has a loyal following and a busy schedule with highly successful, separate bands. Neville is the leader on keys and vocals for funk powerhouse Dumpstaphunk. Lindell is a productive songwriter who leads his own blues-rock, soul and R&B band while playing guitar and singing his tunes. Moore is the hyperactive, prolific drummer and Mercurio the creative bassist that form the killer rhythm section of Galactic. Lindell and Neville share lead vocal duties with Dragon Smoke, mostly singing songs from their individual band catalogs. The guys seem to savor the freedom of the short-lived reformation as they cherry pick each other’s songs and classic covers that they reshape as their own.

Highlights from the Venice West show included the Neville led treat “Let a Woman Be a Woman,” the hit by 60s funk band Dyke & The Blazers. “Hercules,” also sung by Neville, is a song originally recorded by his father, Aaron Neville. Ivan’s version has a ton of passion. Lindell was particularly on point, both with his vocals and on guitar. His raspy, soulful voice and electrifying axe work were showcased on his songs “Two Bit Town” and “Take Me Back.” Moore and Mercurio have an essential role in this lineup. Their playing sets the rhythmic foundation for each song, while both picked their moments to capture the spotlight. Moore unloaded some machine-gun-like flourishes while remaining perfectly in rhythm. Mercurio’s heavy bass lines filled the room and his facial interplay with the other musicians provided cues for the song transitions.

The second part of the set included great Neville vocals and solos during Bobby Womack’s “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out” and Alan Toussaint’s “Yes We Can.” Neville called the Toussaint composition one of the greatest songs ever written. Trumpeter John Michael Bradford, a frequent Dumpstaphunk collaborator, sat in for that song and delivered a blazing solo. Lindell took over on vocals for a sweet cover of Atlantic Rhythm Section’s “So Into You.” The long set ended with Neville on his Nord keyboard set up to sound like a grand piano. His robust intro eventually rolled into “Padlock,” a deep Neville track from 1995. Neville’s vocals and keys were complemented by Lindell’s intense guitar notes. Moore delivered an explosive drum solo before the set ended.

The guys chose not to leave the stage prior to their encore. After just a few minutes of stage banter with the audience, who were begging for more, Neville began talking about his crazy, memorable time living in Los Angeles in the 1980s and 90s. He reintroduced Bradford who helped the band on Neville’s “Not Just Another Girl,” a R&B ballad that was the single from his first solo album that he recorded in LA in 1988. Bradford, Neville and Lindell each played wonderful solos. For the finale, Bradford departed and Lindell sang a catchy cover of Joe Bonamassa’s “Man of Many Words.” He played an intricate guitar solo and Neville showed off his magic fingers on the organ to close out the show. The band called it a night and then mingled with fans at the front of the stage.

Dragon Smoke is a special live-music luxury. The four exceptional musicians have busy careers touring and recording – their jam-packed schedules allow them to get together just a few times a year. They were so in sync at Venice West that it is hard to believe how rarely it occurs. The fans in attendance were able to share the magical moment which was an early gift to kick off the holiday season.

Dragon Smoke’s limited West Coast tour also includes Santa Cruz, San Francisco and Sebastopol. They will be back in New Orleans for a show on December 8 at Tipitina’s before ending their short tour at Cervantes Masterpiece Ballroom in Denver, CO on March 15, 2024.

Photos courtesy of Andy J Gordon ©2023

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