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One-Night Stands: Jon Cleary on Mondays at Chickie Wah Wah

A summer series spotlighting standing gigs around New Orleans

By Molly Reid

THE GIG: Jon Cleary, Mondays at 8 p.m. $8 cover; two sets
THE VENUE: Chickie Wah Wah, 2828 Canal St.
THE SCENE: Part locals, part tourists; little chatter, a lot of listening
THE DRINKS: One step above dive bar in pricing; lots of interesting bottled beers

When my date and I roll up to Chickie Wah Wah on a Monday night to check out piano man Jon Cleary, I’m still fighting the Monday-night part of me that thinks the start of the work week is for movie-watching and leftover laundry-folding. When we step inside, though, it’s clear that this is as relaxed and quality a show as I’ll get outside my living room.

Cleary steps to the stage and announces the start of the second set, kicking it off with “When You Get Back,” an uptempo original that makes good fun out of female deception. The crowd is somewhat small — about 35 to 40 people — but everyone’s receptive and agreeable. I spot “Treme” actor David Morse, who plays Lt. Terry Colson, standing at the back of the bar nursing a beer. Some folks seem like tourists dressed up for a night out; some are obviously homegrown and well-versed in Cleary’s songbook. Overall, provenance really doesn’t matter. There’s little chatter, even at the bar. Everyone’s there to listen to Cleary and enjoy a low-key night out, which I find remarkable for a solo pianist gig.

Cleary doesn’t disappoint. Playing on a stage adorned with strings of red lights, his rollicking piano grooves and slick, honey-mustard voice (yes, I just used a salad dressing as a metaphor) bring heat to the Muscle Shoals classic “The Dark End of the Street.” Cleary stomps his feet (clad in boxy, cartoonishly ugly shoes), and thumps the bassline with his left hand during the verses, then lets it roll during the yearning-filled bridge.

By request, Cleary does King Floyd’s “Groove Me,” and I like the way he pays homage to the original recording without becoming a slave to it. He’s not in a rush; he’s loose with the meter when he wants to show off, but knows when to get strict and hard-hitting. A couple of ladies in wrap dresses get up from their table to dance. One other table of patrons starts to clap along. A waitress standing by the door to the kitchen — Chickie Wah Wah is home to Taco Loceaux, a street vendor-style taco joint — subtly boogies. Just because he can, Cleary breaks down the main figure in the left hand, taking it way down, tossing in some chromaticism and making it messy before swooping back in to clean it up.

The wall facing the piano bears a “Trombone Baptist Church” sign and a cathedral facade festooned with bottle caps. Nowhere does this church-of-music feeling come through more than when he plays “Tipitina,” the Professor Longhair ballad that is nearly synonymous with New Orleans. Full disclosure: It’s far from my favorite Fess tune. I realize that puts me in a minority among New Orleans music lovers. However, Cleary works the signature riff like it’s an old Chevy pickup, letting it rev heavily and groggily to a start and almost comically overselling its familiarity. From there, though, he plays around with unfamiliarity, taking it to an upper register for a languid, romantic interlude that astonishes me in its charm, humor and virtuosity. I’ve never enjoyed “Tipitina” more, and I’ve rarely been more pleased to be out on a Monday night.


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