Music on TV: “Treme”

Wendell Pierce in “Treme” as trombonist Antoine Batiste (Photos courtesy of HBO)

If you care anything about the history and deep roots of American music, you owe it to yourself to seek out the HBO series “Treme,” which just had its season 3 premiere this past weekend.

“Treme” is an ensemble drama created by David Simon (“The Wire”) and Eric Overmyer (“Homicide” and “Law & Order”). The series is set in post-Katrina New Orleans, and it tells the story of a diverse group of residents as they rebuild their lives and their city. “Treme,” pronounced Truh-may, takes its title from the name of one of the city’s oldest neighborhoods, an historically important source of African-American music and culture.

Season 1 begins in the fall of 2005, three months after Hurricane Katrina. Season 2 picks up 14 months after the federal levees failed. While many of the old challenges persist, much has changed. The profiteers have arrived, though the insurance checks haven’t. Crime is on the rise, but the ability of the police department to keep pace with the criminals is questionable. Life in New Orleans is getting better, but it’s not happening fast enough to keep residents from wondering whether things would be easier, better, elsewhere.

Lucia Micarelli, who plays Annie in “Treme,” has played with the Trans Siberian Orchestra and Jethro Tull.

What keeps the city afloat through all of this is its culture. “Treme” is rich with music and food, the two things for which New Orleans is best known. Actors like Wendell Pierce (Bunk Moreland in “The Wire”), Rob Brown (who plays trumpeter Delmond Lambreaux) and Michiel Huisman (who plays street busker Sonny) mix fluidly with musician/actors Lucia Micarelli (as Annie Tee), a violinist, and the great singer/songwriter Steve Earle, who plays street busker Harley. And each episode is rich with cameos from even more musicians playing themselves: Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Coco Robicheaux, Kermit Ruffins, George Porter Jr.,  Spider Stacy (of the Pogues!) and many, many more.

The food comes in by way of Janette Desautel (played by Kim Dickens), a New Orleans chef who owns a restaurant and fights to keep it going as the series opens. Her struggles and her odyssey take her at one point far away from the place she loves, all while we sample (as best we can, on TV) some of the coolest looking food ever. As they say (and you are gonna have to watch the show for context): “Drizzle something on it, baby!”

The show immerses itself deep in the culture of a great American city, veering from the rich musical heritage (including the Mardi Gras Indians) to include some very modern touches, like the bloggers whose rage after Katrina kept the city’s hope alive and the inevitable carpetbaggers who swept in to make a buck as the city began to rebuild itself.

The show also features actors Steve Zahn (Happy, Texas), Clarke Peters (“The Wire”), John Goodman (The Big Lebowski) and Melissa Leo, an Oscar winner for The Fighter. As with any show with a rich cast of characters, some may come and go – and some go away for good. Tune in to find out who.

Like many of these HBO series, “Treme” is acclaimed but viewed by very few people. In fact, it’s already been announced that next season, Season 4, will be its last. But you even if you don’t subscribe to HBO, there is no excuse not to catch this incredible – and incredibly musical – show. The first two seasons are readily available on DVD (try Amazon), and surely the last two will be available in the next year or so.

MP3: “The Treme Song” by John Boutte

YouTube: Trailer for Season 1 of “Treme”

“Treme” home page (via HBO)

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