It was called The Pleasure Lounge, a sophisticated name for a 19th century barn behind a house off North Ferry Road. The venue was better suited to house livestock or store lima beans — two of its past uses — than host private and not-so-private parties fueled by gut bucket New Orleans boogie, friendship, communal spirit and other accelerants.
Joe Lauro stopped in STARs Cafe one morning last week on his daily commute across the Island from home in Sag Harbor to his business, Historic Films, in Greenport, and recalled those barn-burning, raising-the-roof sessions as a time gone by for more than 15 years. He and his wife Karen Edwards lived in a house next to the barn, and would host the soirees, with Joe slapping his stand-up bass and fronting his band, The Who Dat Loungers — later dubbed The HooDoo Loungers.
“We did it for fun, to play for ourselves and friends, and eventually we ran benefits in The Pleasure Lounge,” Joe said.
When they went pro, they gigged all over the East End and beyond, and still do to this day.
His connections to the Island, where he and Karen and their family lived for years, have remained solid, even while living away. His daily commute keeps him in touch, and he often “stops in to see my mother-in-law” while traveling through.
After playing for years in the barn, they had their first “official” gig in Patchogue in January 2009, and on Saturday, February 2, The HooDoo Loungers will have a 10th anniversary celebration blowout at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor.
First, that name change. Joe is not the first northern boy — his roots are Brooklyn and Massapequa — to fall head over heels with Crescent City culture and forever strive to keep Laissez les bons temps rouler as one of life’s imperatives.
Walking down a New Orleans street sometime in the 1980s, he saw a sign for The Who Dat Lounge. “It was a perfect New Orleans colloquialism, immediately making you smile,” he said, “so we named the group that. Then some yahoo lawyer saw our name and threatened to sue us for copyright infringement. He had no case, but it would have cost me $5,000, so we switched to The HooDoo Loungers.”
Not so long ago there were lots of places, on the Island and regionally, to play, Joe said, “little honkytonks and bigger places.” But many venues featuring live bands are history now.
“The only thing that hasn’t changed is the money is still bad,” he added, with a smile. He’s still on bandstands though, because the rewards are “passing on to people something you love, and seeing them accept your art.”
He learned early on that the particulars of a professional musician’s lifestyle weren’t for him. “When I was 24-years old I was in a bluegrass band, staying three guys to a room in crummy motels, and that was it for me,” he said. “I realized I could continue to play music, but I didn’t want to make the sacrifice of living the life.”
He went to NYU’s legendary graduate film school — fellow students included Spike Lee and the Coen brothers — and started a business archiving films, records and tapes for TV and radio stations and print media. He’s also one of the finest American documentary filmmakers, best known for his valentine to one of New Orleans’ most brilliant musicians: “The Big Beat: Fats Domino and the Birth of Rock ’n’ Roll,” which had its broadcast premiere in February 2016 on the PBS series, “American Masters.”
He’s happy playing with the band for “50 people or 1,200. It doesn’t matter.” The point of live music, witnessed with others is “to give people a chance to get out of themselves,” he said.
This happened most recently on New Year’s Eve, when The HooDoo Loungers played at a Sag Harbor Main Street restaurant. Before midnight, the diners were enjoying the music, but were a bit reserved, and the band was playing a little softer than usual. That was until after midnight, when a young crowd arrived, “and we really touched them. It got a little rowdier” and New Year’s Eve on Main Street became Bourbon Street until the wee hours.
One of his latest documentaries is “Peter, Paul and Mary at Newport 1963-65.”
Performances are chronicled, Joe said, but the film also reveals a time when music was not just about “self-indulgence,” but connected to a passion for “change, justice and freedom.”
Hearing someone speak like that makes you want to hang out with more musicians. The absence of souped-up snark is refreshing, reminding you to always question, along with the Rick Lowe lyric:
“Where are the strong?
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
To answer that — and to hear the joyful noise of New Orleans — head to the Bay Street Theater on Saturday, February 2, and celebrate 10 years of The HooDoo Loungers, and wish them many more.