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INTERVIEW: Gal Holiday brings her Honky Tonk Revue to French Quarter Fest
Vanessa Niemann, otherwise known as Gal Holiday, has a lot to offer the New Orleans music scene, especially because her sound is such a rich and unique blend of country, honky tonk and rockabilly. Those might not be the immediate genres of music that come to mind when thinking about the Crescent City, but Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue are part of a burgeoning scene that is adding some new ingredients to NOLA’s musical gumbo.
This year promises to be an important one for the band. Besides constant gigging around New Orleans and other areas of the world, they are gearing up for a new album and special performance at French Quarter Fest. They are expected to take the Tropical Isle Hand Grenade stage at 12:30 p.m. Friday, April 7.
“We are working on a new album,” Niemann said recently in a phone interview. “We’ve had a couple of staff member shakeups recently, so we’ve been working with a new guitar player since September. And our longtime bass player has recently departed from the band, so we’re working on some new members and also working on a new album, which we’re very excited about. With shakeups and everything, there always comes great productivity as far as creativity goes, so we’re very excited about putting something new out, probably in the fall I would imagine. And we’re going to Europe this year again, for the first time in a couple of years. Yeah, we’ve got some exciting stuff coming up this spring and then just planning for the fall to revisit some places we’ve been before.”
The sound of Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue is revelatory and upbeat. On their songs, such as “The Long Black Ribbon,” “She’s a Killer” and “Last to Leave,” there’s a palpable energy and more than a few infectious dance beats. That sound is why Niemann loves live performances so much.
“I really do think that the live performance is definitely where it’s at as far as the energy that comes together on stage,” she said. “I personally love going in the recording studio. I don’t know if all performers do, but I really do enjoy that process as well. Our albums always come out sounding great. We work with top studio engineers and recording studios here in New Orleans. They always come out sounding great, but the energy is really best captured live I think. And I think our fans would agree that the recorded stuff sounds great, and … then you come see the show. And people say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know it was going to be that energetic.’ And that’s not to be said for every band. Sometimes you hear the recorded stuff, and you go to see the band live. And it can be disappointing sometimes, but I think with our band, because we do have a dance show, we have a lot of dancers that come. And we feed off that energy, and they feed off our energy.”
Niemann started the band in 2004 because the previous groups she played in never worked out perfectly. She wasn’t playing as much as she would have liked, so she decided to start her own band. And thus Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue was born.
“I just wasn’t performing as often as I would have liked, and I really wanted to start my own band and see if I could do that,” she said. “So I decided to start my own project in 2004, and at the time, I was listening to a lot of rockabilly music and older western swing. And so that was sort of the direction that the band was taking in the very beginning — not a lot of original material, mostly just covers and just going out there and trying to have a good time and seeing what we can get started.”
Of course, the plans were put on hold during hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The ensuing flood, which devastated the city, changed the band and its makeup. One guitar player decided to stay in Austin, Texas, and not move back to the Crescent City. The rest of the members were able to return fairly quickly, and they began playing and evolving their sound.
The band’s last non-live album, 2014’s Last to Leave, features original content except for one song. They still play a lot of rockabilly, but they have ventured into the honky tonk scene as well. They earn that spelling of “revue” in their name.
“Well, I grew up listening to a lot of different styles of music,” Niemann said. “My parents are both classically trained musicians, and I play the classical piano. And I listened to a lot of folk music growing up with my mom, and jazz and ragtime with my dad, and in high school, I didn’t really listen to country music so much. I veered away from that. I grew up in and out of the country at different points, and there was country music around. But I kind of shied away from it as a youth. My parents didn’t really listen to country music. Although I must say, where I come from in Maryland, that region is rife with bluegrass, so there was definitely a lot of bluegrass music in my childhood.”
It actually took moving down to New Orleans for Niemann to appreciate old-style country. Again, most people don’t immediately think country music when they think of NOLA, but they would be wrong to say the genre hasn’t gained a foothold in the city.
“Obviously, when people think about New Orleans specifically, they don’t think about country music, but the state of Louisiana is rich with country music history, including Cajun music that often gets put in its own category,” she said. “But a lot of those Cajun musicians also play a lot of old country songs, too, the old Hank Williams and things of this nature. So, yeah, it was funny that it took coming down to New Orleans for that to be a thing for me.”
This “revue”-style music is best heard in a dive bar or honky tonk dance hall, Niemann said. She mentioned the White Horse in Austin, Texas, and the Rock ‘n’ Bowl in New Orleans as two venues that seem to be perfect fits for the group’s sound.
“We play here in New Orleans at the Rock ‘n’ Bowl as well, which is big,” she said. “There’s lots of other things going on — bowling and people talking and things — but the dance floor situation for me is really where it’s at. Big stages, like at big festivals and things, [are] always great. It’s a little more difficult to translate the old country music stuff maybe because it’s not rock, but we certainly do our best to bring the audience in. We have a great time doing those big stages, and again, because I’m a storyteller as well and I love the history of the music and I love to share that with audiences as well, we also really enjoy playing listening rooms. But I do really think the best translation for our music is a room that has a great dance floor.”
By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com
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Gal Holiday performs "She's a Killer" on WGNO television's Twist Stage; 6/16/2014: http://wgno.com/2014/06/16/gal-holiday-performs-shes-a-killer-on-the-twist-stage/#axzz34pIbhXUo