FROM: SYNC Weekly
101 Runners play Mardi Gras celebration at Dreamland.
By Shea Stewart
“We’re going to bring a little New Orleans up your way.”
This is how Chris “BTO” Jones begins the interview. The percussionist — more specifically conga player — for 101 Runners is speaking via telephone from the Crescent City. His statement is not a boast. Just fact.
At the time of the call, Fat Tuesday is still three weeks off, and Jones is tying up loose ends. The 101 Runners are leaving the city shortly for a touring jaunt before returning to New Orleans and the maddening carnival season leading up to March 8: the actual Mardi Gras day. But Jones is “trying to get it all together” because he knows he’ll return to New Orleans “smack dab in the middle of Mardi Gras,” he says.
“What you don’t get done now you pretty much put off until after Mardi Gras.”
101 Runners is a band that sounds like it’s been around for ages but in reality was only formed in early 2006. It’s a mix of sounds: Heavy on the titanic punch of New Orleans funk but combined with mesmeric Mardi Gras Indian chants. It’s a group of musicians led by Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, a former member of the Wild Magnolias tribe.
“I’ve known Monk forever,” Jones says. “He’s kind of a one-shot guy that does a lot of other stuff with a lot of other people. … But he’s never had a steady band to work with. He’s been with us since day one. He’s been fully committed to helping us out. He’s like a thousand-year-old man who’s younger than anyone else.
“He’s like a shaman. The man’s really a spiritual leader in a lot of ways.”
Beyond Boudreaux, the group also includes such New Orleans music luminaries as Lionel Batiste Jr. (the original drummer for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band) and AJ Mallory of the Rebirth Brass Band.
Jones calls 101 Runners’ music “Mardi Gras Indian funk.”
“That’s enough for people to hear it in New Orleans and understand what it is, and enough for people from out of town to hear and wonder what the hell are we talking about,” he says.
The band’s tunes are Indian classics such as “Injuns Here Dey Come” and “Let’s Go Get ‘Em,” Boudreaux signatures such as “Shotgun Joe” and “Shallow Water,” and other New Orleans traditional tunes. The music possesses a spiritual rhythm to it, sounds moving the soul and feet. Jones says 101 Runners’ music is “chant-and-response music with funk undercurrents.” “Dance-and-trance folk” and “really groove oriented.”
“We take a song, and we bring it full term. A lot of the Indian songs are very linear. You can really get the hypnotic effect of the music if you hold on to it for 10 or 15 minutes.”
101 Runners’ current stretch of dates is three late-February dates in Arkansas before two weekend-before-Fat-Tuesday dates, including a Friday before Mardi Gras day date at the legendary Maple Leaf. (Technically, one of the shows is a Thursday night show, but the weekend starts on Thursday in New Orleans, if it ever ends.)
A return to Maple Leaf is a true visit back home for 101 Runners. The fabled, Oak Street music venue in the Carrollton neighborhood of Uptown New Orleans was where the 101 Runners started. The band first played Maple Leaf in January 2006.
The club owner wanted Jones to form a band to play the Krewe of Oak ball at Maple Leaf for the neighborhood New Orleans Mardi Gras krewe. Jones, who had returned to New Orleans in 2005 following Hurricane Katrina, agreed, but he wanted a little more. He wanted the band’s first gig to be for Twelfth Night before playing the ball.
“I wanted them to realize it was more than just a one-off gig,” he says.
Naming the group the 101 Runners after the unaffiliated Indians who form an ad hoc group for Mardi Gras celebrations, the group played that first gig. Then things exploded.
“I didn’t realize what I was doing at the time as far as putting a band together; I was just putting a band together for a party,” he says. “What I did was put together the best band I could.
“It was only by the second show where I looked around and said, ‘Geez, how did this happen? I just put together a band.’ By that time it was a 14-piece band. How the hell did I put together this band? I suckered myself into it without even knowing it. It’s like I played a trick on myself.”
The band played the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and Jones and the rest of the Runners knew they had stumbled onto something special.
“We played Jazz Fest, and it was really combustible,” Jones says. “The music was really hot right from the beginning. It was really amazing.”
Five years gone, 101 Runners is a fixture of the New Orleans music scene. And in the past few months, the band has slowly started to branch out. A European tour was undertaken in 2010, and now the band is playing Arkansas for the first time.
“I think five years later we are starting to realize what we did was what we were supposed to do at the time,” Jones says. “We realized that this was born from the storm in a strange way. It is uniquely different than what was going on beforehand. It kind of happened by accident.”
SEE THE SHOW:
Arkansas Convention & Events Marketing presents a Mardi Gras Celebration with the music of 101 Runners at the Dreamland Ballroom on Saturday with the show starting at 7 p.m. Tickets are $35 with $5 from every ticket going to the Friends of Dreamland. Costume attire is encouraged — but not required — with the most decorated contest winner receiving a 101 Runners gift assortment and an opportunity to dance onstage.