The Maple Leaf Bar was steamy and dense, and as the blue haze of cigarette smoke lingered in the air, Johnny Vidacovich stayed cool and contained behind his drum set, which sat sideways at the foot of the stage. His bucket hat signified his unfazed tranquility, and with his sticks dangling in the air, hovering over the cymbals, he looked ready to cast off into a small pond. In a way he did, because the audience was reeled in.
As one of New Orleans’s premier drummers, he has earned a weekly gig at the Maple Leaf on Thursday nights with his group The Trio. With the group’s usual bassist, George Porter Jr., absent from the evening’s performance, Vidacovich had a special line-up in guitarist Grant Green Jr., and B3 organist Ike Stubblefield.
Green sat on a bar stool with his lefty guitar in his lap and a cigarette burning in his mouth, while Stubblefield smirked behind his organ, his eyes hidden by sunglasses and the shady rim of a fading baseball cap. The group grooved together as Johnny V. kept a swift beat, with Green adding sparse comping underneath Stubblefield’s organ solo. It was typical music for typical licks, but the interaction between the players made the music fresh and interesting. Green took control of the impromptu jam with his syncopated accompaniments, emphasizing unusual beats, which Johnny V. would pick up on and incorporate into his own playing, tastefully dribbling on a cowbell, or splashing on a cymbal. Audience members were astounded by Johnny V.’s technique, drunkenly attempting to imitate the way he kept time on the cymbals and emphasized the beat on the snare.
When there’s a groove going down in New Orleans, dancing is a primal instinct, and the crowd grew lively and boisterous once Green slid in with the memorable guitar lick from Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightning.” Johnny V. followed with a standard drum beat, as Stubblefield worked the bass pedals of his organ while lighting a cigarette. The eerie sound of the B3 then signaled for Green to begin singing in his low, raspy voice. They would play other crowd pleasers such as “Just My Imagination” and “Green Onions,” then later jam with a special guest, trombonist Ed Numeister.
But the culmination of the night was when Johnny V. played his catchy chant, “I Don’t Know.” It was one of the only songs that featured the drummer’s vocals, and he sang some deep lyrics to a funky beat. “Is it ice/Or is it water?” he belted out, followed by similar questions and observations. He summed up his thoughts by exclaiming, “Too many questions/but too many answers to be found,” then, following the swell of the cymbals, went back into the chorus.
The song ended and Johnny V. grabbed the microphone, pulling it so close that it buzzed as he spoke. “You are beautiful,” he said to the audience. “When you came, it sounded much better. Without you, this would be impossible.”
For some groups, having a weekly gig could become repetitive, but Johnny V. is not that way. He thrives on interaction, and with different players and different audiences each week he doesn’t get stale. Of all the things he may not know, what he does know is what to play and when to play it.