On stage, standing front and center, Tommy Malone exudes a laid-back, down-to-earth style that epitomizes the subdudes. But his self-assured exterior masks a songwriter who mines heartache and elation, the surreal and the everyday, and who crafts the experiences into instantly memorable tunes. As the subdudes lead guitarist, he punctuates soulful, heart-felt vocals with playing that is at turns joyful, incendiary, melancholic.
He's been writing and playing music for more than three decades 15 years off and on with the subdudes, and another decade and half before that with many of the same guys.
"He was always the way he is now, says fellow subdude Steve Amedée, who would know he's been playing music with Malone since Tommy was a sophomore in high school.
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Tommy Malone was born in the tiny river community of Edgard, La., about an hour west of New Orleans, where he was the youngest of four brothers: Bill was the eldest, John played bass and guitar and wrote songs, David played guitar and Tommy, of course, played guitar.
With 10 years separating the brothers, there was an incredible variety of music playing in the house over the years from the New Christy Minstrels to the Buffalo Springfield, from Crosby, Stills and Nash to Johnny Cash, from Dylan to the Beatles.
Surrounded by aspiring musicians, perhaps it was only natural for Tommy to pick up a guitar and join a band. The band was Elroy a typical high-school rock band. It featured 14-year-old Tommy on lead guitar, plus on drums a slightly older neighbor from down the road: Amedée.
We were the cover band Creedence, Steely Dan, Beatles, anything we could scrounge up. Chuck Berry tunes. Rock. Some R&B stuff, maybe some Fats Domino, Malone said. Elroy lasted a few years, until the guys finished school and started moving away.
I got out of high school in 75 and moved immediately to New Orleans to hang out with the hippies, Malone says with a laugh.
Before hed even turned 18, Tommy was on Bourbon Street, playing with Dustwoofie, a country-rock band that featured two of his brothers.
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After a detour to Wyoming and Austin, Texas, for a few years, Malone returned to New Orleans around 1978 and helped form the Cartoons with future subdudes Amedée and Johnny Ray Allen. Former Rhapsodizers vocalist and bass player Becky Kury was the bands lead singer. I think she was the finest white R&B blues singer in the city, Malone says.
Then one night he got a call: The Percolators were looking for a guitar player. John Magnie, who was the leader of the Percolators Leigh Lil Queenie Harris backup band told Tommy to come out to the Dream Palace to play with them.
Malone got the job and ended up in the Percolators for about three years.
It was a great gig. The money was better, it was a much more popular act at the time (than the Cartoons). At times, it was really happening, Malone says.
The band, which in the late-70s and early 80s was as big as the Radiators and the Neville Brothers maybe bigger, never managed to break through to the big time.
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The Percolators disbanded when core members Malone, Magnie and drummer Kenneth Blevins decided to form the Continental Drifters in 1984. The band had something of a cult following but still struggled to find gigs. Yet with the Drifters as with the Percolators the seeds for the subdudes were being sown. Magnie was beginning to incorporate the accordion into some songs, and Malone was gaining confidence in front of the mic slowly assuming the role of frontman.
When we got burned out on the Drifters, thats when we did this jam one night in Tipitinas on one of Johns piano nights.
After one of the Drifters' shows at Jimmys an Uptown music venue the pair started talking about music, about the shortcomings of the Drifters. The music was too loud, it needed to be more subdued, they agreed.
I dont remember if it was him or me that said it, but we looked at one another and said, Thats the name! If we could just be a little more subdued!
After the (first subdudes) gig, we went over to Steve and Johnny Rays and listened to the (tape of the) entire set and said, Goddamn, its rough but its got a real cool kind of chemistry going on. It was different than anything wed heard. At this point, we decided, This is cool. This is it.
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Within a few months, members of the fledgling band decided they needed to leave New Orleans if they were going to make it. So they headed for Fort Collins, a college town near Magnies hometown of Denver. They landed in the fall of 87 and never looked back. A contract with Atlantic led to their first two albums, in 89 and 91. East-West released Annunciation in the spring of 1994, followed by Primitive Streak in 96. All the while, they toured heavily, winning fans and drawing near unanimous praise from the critics.
But by early 96, the band was starting to fracture. That summer, in mid-tour, the subdudes announced the fall shows would be their last.
The subdudes had been on the road for 10 years, wed made a bunch of records, we were separated from each other geography-wise, we werent writing together, the moods within the band were getting funky, Malone told Offbeat, a New Orleans music magazine, in 1998.
Malone, who had moved back to New Orleans after about five years in Colorado, and Johnny Ray Allen had started working with Nashville singer-songwriter Pat McLaughlin and former Continental Drifters bandmate Kenneth Blevins on a new project they dubbed Tiny Town. The band had a brash, hard-rocking edge that gave Malone a chance to stretch out. Tambourine, accordion and acoustic guitar were nowhere to be heard.
When Tiny Town formed, I made a conscious decision that I was not going to touch (an acoustic guitar) I wanted to play everything on electric guitars, Malone told Offbeat.
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The guys eventually signed with Pioneer Records, but shortly after the bands self-titled debut was released in the summer of 1998, Pioneer went belly up. Within a year, Tiny Town called it quits.
I had about a year-and-a-half of figuring out whats next, Malone told the Baton Rouge Advocate in April 2001. I pretty much knew I wanted to do it on my own. I just knew it was gonna take a lot of time and energy.
Malone emerged that spring with Soul Heavy his first solo CD. It fused elements of R&B, soul, jazz and other forms of American music. At times it was reminiscent of the subdudes, at others it rocked like Tiny Town. In the end, it was purely Tommy Malone.
Malone and his trio hit the road in earnest that spring and summer. By the fall, a personnel crisis resulted in Malone calling up former Continental Drifters bandmate Jimmy Messa, who brought along drummer Sammy Neal. In October, a casual reunion on stage with John Magnie sparked conversations about what once seemed impossible a permanent reunion of the subdudes.
Prior to the show, the pair had spoken by phone, and Malone invited Magnie to bring his acccordion and come down to the Soiled Dove in Denver.
It was just a matter-of-fact thing he got up and played. There were some old fans in the front row they were going apeshit, Malone says with a laugh. It reminded them of the old thing. Of course, I was loving it. Jimmy looked like he was loving it and Sammy, too. We just thought, this is crazy we just started talking about (regrouping) more and more on the phone. We decided wed put the two bands together, Malone says.
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The merger resulted in The Dudes. The six-piece band toured for a year before scaling down to five members. Drummer Sammy Neal left on good terms as part of a conscientious decision to get back to the stripped down sound of the subdudes. Perhaps the most symbolic shift was reverting to the original name, subdudes.
That was March 2003, and the band spent much of the rest of the year touring and working up new songs for their first new studio album in eight years. With the release of Miracle Mule in April 2004, the band is back on the road, touring wider and harder than it has in nearly a decade.
We enjoy making music together again were enjoying writing together. Its fun as hell to me, Malone says.
To me, and I really believe this, its better than its ever been.
Q: What was it like growing up in River Parishes out in the country?
A: It was kind of isolated, but it made us use our imagination. We spent a lot of time outside, a lot of time on the levee building fires and roasting sausages, drinking cheap wine. For us, that seemed normal, for 14- and 15-year-olds to be drinking wine on the levee we did a lot of that. Our house was sort of party central in Edgard. We would set up on the porch every weekend, set up musical equipment, and people would just stop by, and we would play music.
Q: Tell us about when the subdudes decided to move from New Orleans to Fort Collins.
A: We all packed it up, Beverly Hillbilly-style. I bought a Ford LTD from Steve's girlfriend at the time for $200, hooked a U-Haul trailer to it, and we all took out together. John had gone on a month earlier to find some apartments. And we all just showed up I think we all lived on the same block. We painted our name on the side of this Ford LTD, and drove around town, advertising, and played Sunday nights regularly for a year. We finally got some attention. … It was an exciting time.
Q: Some of your songs chronicle very personal experiences. Lines such as, "she sent my ring back Fedex without a note." Is it tough, reliving those experiences every time you sing a song?
A: It's still real every time, it's not as painful now, obviously. But it's still a heavy time of my life. I try convey the emotion of that experience every time, whether or not people are into that… It's a tricky thing, sometimes you can get too personal, or you can get into cheeseworld. But if it feels truthful and honest enough, it'll survive. I feel good about doing those. Although I've definitely written some things that I'd rather not ever do again.
Q: How are things different today in the subdudes, compared to, say, 1996?
A: There's less tension. There's a genuine spirit of creativity. It's fun, it's exciting - it's truly fun. Being clean, for one thing, is different. I'm a lot more focused, I'm a lot more committed to the vision of the band the desire to make it as good as it could possibly be. It feels like, really, a blessing like a second chance. …
Q: Who has the best po-boys? Or do you have a favorite eatery in New Orleans these days?
A: Used to be Weaver's in New Orleans. … But Liuzza's by the Track is kicking ass. They've got great gumbo and great barbecue shrimp po-boys. I like that place a lot.
Article by Richard Russell; © 2004 Richard E. Russell
Malone portrait by Yiannis Samaras, courtesy of Back Porch Records. Archival photos are courtesy of Tommy Malone.
Photo credits listed above when known.
The L'il Queenie live recording is courtesy of Tommy Stevenson and Ben Windham.
The Malones recording is courtesy of Rich Rothenberg and, indirectly, Tim Clary.
The Malone solo recording is courtesy of Richard Russell.