Down in the Treme

Billboards advertising Treme’s second season in NOLA

Have you ever wished you could just jump right into one of your favorite books or films and hang out with the characters? Many people feel that way about fantasy books, since the worlds they describe seem so different from our everyday lives. New York Times critic Lev Grossman once described  Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight world and J.K Rowling’s Harry Potter world as so real, that you feel as if you could actually buy real estate there.

But try as I might, I can’t actually travel to Hogwarts and drink a glass of butter beer. And though I can technically go to the town of Forks in Washington, where Twilight is based, I don’t have a chance of running into any of the Cullens.

But this is where HBO’s show, Treme, is so very different. First, it’s a show about a real place: New Orleans. And aside from the main characters, who are fictional, many of those featured on the show are actual people playing themselves (i.e., local musicians, famous food critics, etc.). Moreover, the show’s creators are so committed to capturing New Orleans culture in an authentic way, that many of the scenes depicted on film are scenes that play out in the city just that way all the time.

Because Treme is a show about culture, and a real one at that, you can tailor your experience just so, and literally step into that world. So I was able to travel to New Orleans and spend an evening listening to Kermit Ruffins at Vaughan’s, and it looked, sounded and felt just like I expected it to based on the show.

Kermit playing the trumpet at Vaughan’s

And it’s not just this one experience. The same thing happened with musician John Boutte. In the second episode of the current season of Treme, a scene depicts Mr. Boutte singing “Sisters” at the Spotted Cat – a jazz club on Frenchmen Street.  I relived that scene the other day. My experience took place across the street at d.b.a., with a few more people in the crowd, but I still stood not more than three feet away from John Boutte, and heard him sing a number of songs, including “Sisters.” (And then one of his actual sisters showed up to help him sell cds after the show).

Me and Mr. Boutte. I couldn’t believe how close I was able to get to him, so after we took this picture, I seized the moment and planted a kiss on this cheek!

The only fictional element of Treme are the characters – although they too are often loosely based on real people. And I even had the chance to meet some of the creators and actors from the show at a signing at the Jazz Festival!

With David Simon, the show’s co-creator

Wendell Pierce, who plays Antoine Batiste

Some lines between reality and the show were also blurred. While sipping on my strawberry Abita (a seasonal local beer that really is flavored like strawberries) at Vaughan’s,  I was wishing that Antoine Batiste – the trombone player on the show – was a real person and would just walk up into the club. And then poof! Five minutes later, during his dj set, Kermit introduced Wendell Pierce – the actor who plays Antoine Batiste – as Antoine Batiste.

And the next day, while Kermit’s band was setting up for their performance at Jazz Fest, a woman laughingly yelled over to the drummer: “Davis hates you!” To which the drummer replied with a knowing nod and a smile.  This exchange referenced a recent episode of the show, wherein the character Davis McAlary mentions that Kermit’s drummer was rude to him so he no longer liked Kermit.

My signed Treme poster

What’s even greater, New Orleanians seem to really embrace the show and how it represents the city (rather than dismiss it or be completely annoyed by it – as I do with Entourage and L.A.).  Both Kermit and Trombone Shorty’s intros at Jazz Fest included references to their participation in Treme, Wanda Rouzan mentioned during her set what an honor it was to have worked with the show for this current season (she’s been on the last two episodes as part of the new band, Antoine Batiste and the Soul Apostles), and the Cottonmouth Kings took the time in between songs at Jazz Fest to announce that they would be on that night’s episode (they’re the band playing at the Spotted Cat when Sonny goes in to ask about a gig). And John Boutte happily closed his show at d.b.a. with his now famous “Treme Song,” which is the theme song for the series.

And what’s nice is that none of this has gone to anyone’s head. For example, John Boutte and Kermit both walked into their gigs without any attitude, greeting folks along the way. And it was very easy to get up close to have a conversation and take a picture with them.

Me & Kermit

Although I had traveled to New Orleans before, I was really inspired to re-discover the city and all its cultural offerings by Treme. (I even told David Simon this while he signed my poster, and he seemed happy to hear that, thanking me for my interest.) And it’s amazing that a tv show could do that, while portraying a location accurately and without fantastical embellishments. My hats off to everyone who is a part of making Treme.

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