If you haven’t heard of the Iceman Special by now, you’ve probably been living under a rock for the last two years. This futuristic, acid-washed, funky, prog-rock outfit has exploded out of New Orleans onto the national festival scene with a “go big or go home” mentality. They are making a name for themselves as a band that is rooted in the Louisiana music tradition, yet sounds like nothing that’s ever come out of New Orleans before. They’ve recorded two studio albums, played Jazz Fest, and consistently packed local venues including Tipitina’s, the Maple Leaf, One Eyed Jacks, the House of Blues, and the Joy Theatre. In March 2020 they were featured on the cover of OffBeat Magazine, and they have even started their own music festival. After 35 days off the road with no gigs due to the epidemic, they emerged Friday night via the internet with a live, full-on concert from a secret location in Mid-City. To no one’s surprise, the show did not disappoint.
Friday night’s performance was part of the Fridays from the Funky Uncle livestream series, created by Bougainvillea Productions and Soul Project Nola. Virtual donations from the event go directly to “thefunkfund,” from which they are then distributed to musicians and entertainment workers impacted by COVID-19. Acme Films and New Orleans Video Productions collaborated to create a professional, VEVO-worthy production that very much replicates the feel of being at a live show. Multiple cameras pan and zoom across the front of the stage as well as behind the drums. The audio is impeccable, the transmission is solid, and flashing lights dance above the stage. Emcee Soul Stu presides from atop a Mardi Gras float, and on stage right, artist Frenchy paints the event as it is happening. The band takes several breaks for the host to address the audience, and after the show, everyone sits down for an onstage interview. The virtual rockfest concludes with the debut of Part One of a documentary series about the band, titled Organized Chaos and Illusory.
A live Iceman show is a visceral affair. It’s music to dance to, a sonic blanket to get lost in. The songs are not heavy on lyrics, and the grooves within each song often morph from one genre to the next—rock, funk, reggae, ska, metal, disco and zydeco. Yeah, that’s right, zydeco. It’s one of the secrets of the band’s unique sound, and it’s driven by the drummer, Hunter Romero. Like his band mates, Hunter comes from a musical family, and he grew up playing in zydeco bands in southwest Louisiana. According to lead guitarist Steve Staples, those swamp grooves are often buried beneath the Iceman Special’s musical collages. “If you listen closely to what we do, there’s a zydeco feel hidden in there. I’m way more aware of that than I was before. I just knew that I liked it. But there’s a lot of that in what we do.” That beat is most obvious and consistent in the song “Zydeco Radio,” from the band’s first studio album. Lead singer Will Murry delivers a simple, repetitive melody with his distinctive voice, which like the music, is genre-defying.
Luvvvah luvvah luvvah, can’t you, can’t you see/
What you’ve done to me, well, you’ll fin’lly set me free.
Will’s trancelike vocals often lay the hooks of the songs, while the guitars employ lots of whammy, wah-wah, and reverb to paint spacey minor-key soundscapes. Charlie Murry’s relentless bass grooves lay the foundation for many of the songs, for which he is also the primary lyricist. The rhythm section powers this band, but it’s a bus they all take turns driving. Much of the songwriting comes out of the time they spend jamming together, and this is a full collaboration, both on and offstage. Staples is a full generation older than the Murry boys, but, like them, he grew up in Oakdale, Louisiana. He was good friends with their parents and grandparents long before meeting the brothers at his Central City music shop several years ago. In fact, the Staples and the Murry family have been close friends since 1915. These roots run deep.
Friday’s livestream begins with a live check-in with legendary New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich (recipient of OffBeat’s Lifetime Achievement in Music Best of The Beat Award). Vidacovich was the first recipient of funds raised by the Funky Uncle Livestream Series, which started on April 3. Prior to the COVID crisis, Johnny had already been stuck at home for a month recuperating from surgery. “I’m going into my third month of house arrest,” Johnny bemoans lightheartedly. “The last time I went a month without playin’ drums, I was twelve years old.”
Like Vidacovich, the boys in the Iceman Special have been itching to get back onstage, and they deliver a two-hour performance that includes new music as well as songs from their EP Deux, their self-titled studio debut album, and their most recent album, Dr. Dude’s Masquerade Parade. They ease into the show with the instrumental “Juizza,” and then kick into “Method of Madness,” a single they released in 2019 that has a heavy prog-rock feel and vocals that evoke Black Sabbath. Next up is “Dr. Chameleon,” a foreboding tune with the guitar and bass playing in unison what sounds like a mystical mountain march.
After a short break, the band begins the second set with “Zydeco Radio,” and then flows into “Masquerade,” a Zappa-esque song that starts with some spoken-word:
That hill was a helluva lot bigger than he thought/
That pill was extra hard to swallow/
That thought across his mind so many times/
Made his heart grow harder.
Staples delivers an ethereal David-Gilmour-influenced guitar solo, and the vibe very much feels like a rock opera. The band kicks it up a notch on the next song “Kraut Ruckus.” Romero pounds on the drums while the guitars comp ferocious funk licks. The groove is James Brown on steroids. Will implores the audience, “Take my hand…come dance with the crazy man.” The camera pans to Frenchy, dancing feverishly while he slings paint. We then see a close-up of Will smiling calmly, absorbing the energy around him. It’s a moment where you can feel the band taking everything in stride, confident yet appreciative of the opportunities they have been given and created for themselves. In the comment thread on social media, a viewer writes, “I got my house lights on low and cleaning my house while I jam out to this.” At the end of the second set, you hear one person clapping. It’s a sudden reminder that the band is playing to an empty warehouse. It’s hard to believe, because thanks to the intensity of the performance and the ingenious, up-close camera work, it really feels like you are part of an enthusiastic crowd participating in the revelry.
The band opens their third set with the first three songs off their newest album. “Dr. Dude” is the first mid-tempo song we’ve heard yet, and it features a Latin groove. “Smokin’ Nurses,” a fast rocker, showcases Hunter’s zydeco chops as well as some spectacular drum fills. “FOMO” features a counter-melody that almost sounds like a TV theme song from a 1960’s spy show. Several tunes later, the band wraps up the set with a short version of “Expectations,” probably their most-radio friendly composition. Soul Stu addresses the online crowd: “This ain’t no wedding band, ya’ll. But they throw great apocalypse parties.”
The final set starts with “Lyla Grace,” “The Serpent,” and ends with “Parade,” from Dr. Dude’s Masquerade Parade. It features an infectious reggae groove and three-part harmony, and it’s the perfect way to tie a ribbon on the evening. After an extended break, Stu interviews the band, and the documentary segment follows. It reveals the band in a number of live settings, and shows them in Oakdale preparing for their next FETE DU VOID Festival. The video starts with a voiceover from a fan: “They’re just a super-talented group of visionary artists who create this magnificent experience for people to fly. It’s that simple.” VOID stands for Vision of Infinite Dimensions. For the Iceman Special, the possibilities are truly limitless.