On a rainy Tennessee afternoon, JoJo Hermann is preparing for his four-city tour with Slim Wednesday. Along with guitarist Leo Black, bassist Greg Bryant, drummer Kevin Mabin and a horn section of Jon Jackson and Ben Clark, Herman will take his New Orleans-inspired outlet through the Northeast for a “Mardi Gras Tour,” featuring material from their 2018 debut Reptile Show as well as a nightly tribute to Professor Longhair.
“Crawfish is out of season, so there won’t be crawfish, but I’m really psyched to play up north,” the keyboardist says. “I haven’t played my hometown [New York City] in years. It feels really good.”
Similar to his work with Widespread Panic, Hermann promises “there’ll be a lot of changing it up” when it comes to setlists, and a recent addition of an opening solo set proves these gigs (scheduled between Feb. 28 and March 5) will showcase all sides of Slim Wednesday.
In the interview below, Hermann expresses his excitement for the Mardi Gras Tour as well as some future plans for Widespread Panic.
Tell me about this Slim Wednesday tour.
Well, we’re gonna eat some jambalaya and it’s Professor Longhair’s hundredth birthday celebratory year. Slim Wednesday is the band, and we got a record out, and gonna play those songs, so it ain’t nothing but a party.
Slim Wednesday kind of started as a Professor Longhair tribute band, right?
Yeah. Pretty much that’s all we did. Then we did Jam Cruise and Karl Denson was on there, and the Meters, and Lettuce, just killer bands all over the place, and it inspired everybody. So we wrote a bunch of songs and put out a little record.
You’re from New York originally. How did you get exposed to that NOLA sound?
It was a buddy of mine. I was playing in one of them reggae-ska outfits. We were called The Terrorists and we opened for The Specials. We did a record with Lee “Scratch” Perry and all that stuff.
I was like 18 and Gary the bass player said he heard me playing some Boogie Woogie. It was just boogie stuff I’d learned, and he was like “Have you heard of Professor Longhair?” He gave me his records and I just got hooked right there. I just started learning how to play it, going home after school and putting the needle back and forth and learning it all the songs.
No more ska, just boogie woogie from there on out.
Well, you know, those ska beats and the rock steady beats from the 60’s in Jamaica, a lot of that came through New Orleans. If you look at a map, Jamaica’s a pretty straight shot over water from New Orleans. They could get the same radio stations back then so a lot of that stuff has a Jamaican kind of rumba feel to it.
You’re also doing some solo sets to open these Slim Wednesday dates.
I do different arrangements of songs I’ve written over the years. They’re pretty much instrumentals, boogie things. I’ll play boogie stuff and people can eat some jambalaya before Slim Wednesday comes on and starts rocking out a little bit.
Do you ever cook jambalaya?
No, I just eat it. [Laughs.] And crawfish pie. We got some gumbo down here but it’s very hard to find crawfish pie outside New Orleans. But yeah hopefully on this tour they’ll be cooking up some gumbo or jambalaya or something. I hear there’s a lot of Mardi Gras lovers up there, up north, so we’re reaching out to them.
Your Brooklyn Bowl show falls on Fat Tuesday. Any particularly crazy stuff gonna go down for that one?
Oh you know, ain’t nothing but a party. It’s gonna be crazy all night long,
Let’s pivot to Widespread Panic. You played “The Waker” on New Year’s Eve for the first time since 2003. Was that a spur of the moment thing?
It just kind of came up as an idea and we did it. We’ve been bringing back a lot of songs, reaching into the catalog and it just feels so good. There’s a couple of songs we played last year where we hadn’t played them in ten years and I think it made everybody feel good.
“The Waker,” is closely tied to Mikey Houser and you guys hadn’t played it since he passed. Was that a heavy moment?
He’s always with us, and yeah, there’s times I get emotional on stage. Different songs at different times can bring out certain emotions, no doubt.
Everyone’s excited about Widespread Panic’s return to The Capitol Theatre. Any big plans on that one?
Everybody I know has played there and just raves about it and says what a great vibe it is and a beautiful place. I grew up in New York City, but going to Port Chester might as well have been like California. We just never got out of the city.
Are you working with any new gear?
I play a real piano now. Our keyboard maestro, Paul Agostino, he built this incredible mic system in an old spinet piano and I use that on stage now. They open the top, and I love watching the hammers and keys and stuff while I’m playing. I get a kick out of that. It kind of hypnotizes me.
Is that on Slim Wednesday and Widespread Panic tour?
Yes, both. We started using it last year. I’m really really enjoying having a real piano up there, not the plastic ones.
I bought it at a local store in the country here outside Nashville from an old church lady who was selling it off. Then Paul Agostino he mic’d it up and everything. I’m definitely bringing it to the Cap.
That’s awesome. Did that church lady have any idea who Widespread Panic was?
I doubt it. [Laughs.]