By Ben Collins
The fourth episode of David Simon's "Treme," titled "At the Foot of Canal Street," plays a game of entrapment with its characters: We know you love this city, and we know you love the lifestyle we advertise it can provide, but at what cost? And what if what New Orleans advertises isn't, for the moment, what New Orleans is at all? The episode's music asks those same questions, but with a bluesy hook.
Wendell Pierce, "Antoine's Improv"
The show opens with Antoine, who is sitting in one of New Orleans' two functioning emergency rooms waiting for someone to tend to his busted lip, coiling back into a stiff chair after a nurse tells him his turn isn't coming any time soon. After a brief, resigned silence, Antoine quietly begins to croon. Outside of the constant chimes of hospital phones and shuffling equipment, Antoine sings sans an instrument for the first time. "If I die — that's if I die — please bury me with my mouthpiece and my 'bone. I have roamed this whole wide world over but New Orleans is still my home," he sings.
This message is affirmed repeatedly. A man in the corner, waiting just as helplessly-but-impatiently, adds a beat, his palms banging on his nebulizer. Antoine's voice broadens a little, finally gaining a little reassurance for himself. Antoine is fraught with confidence issues all episode, anyway. He leaves the hospital and relents to his ex-wife Lucinda's wishes that he see her new husband Larry, a dentist in Baton Rouge. Larry is an older man, plying a trade in constant need, and he's much further up the social ladder than Antoine and his club-to-club trombone work. Antoine needs Larry to carefully stitch up his palette on the cheap in order to be able to afford a new trombone and get back to work quickly. Antoine concedes all power to Lucinda's current husband: Larry towers over Antoine in the dentist chair, he offers his work at a steep discount to contrast the class difference, and — most painfully of all — Antoine has relinquished all of his role as a fatherly figure for his two sons to Larry.
But Antoine's message is confirmed all throughout the episode by every other Treme-based character. Riding on a bus back to New Orleans, for better or for worse, he knows the Treme is the only place that can be his home.
Sonny (Michael Huisman) climbs on a stage in Texas as a guest pianist to bust out the classic "Go to the Mardi Gras." Everything is going as planned: Sonny is here to export his authentic New Orleans jazz feel to an audience desperately seeking a genuine import. And it all goes down swimmingly until Sonny is forced off the stage for someone more famous. "We've got to spread it around a little bit," says a trombonist. All of the old, good-timey sentiments embedded in "Go to the Mardi Gras" — the lyrics include the line, "When you see the Mardi Gras/ Somebody will tell you what Carnival is for," when Carnival might not even take place this year — aren't authentic anymore. Just like Sonny in Texas, it's all a novelty.
John Boutte (also the man behind the "Treme” theme song) arrives on-stage to boot Sonny off. The singer pines the words of the episode's title track "At the Foot of Canal Street." "Don't waste your time being angry when a moment's better with a smile," he sings. But Sonny can't believe it.
Fifth Ward Weebie, "F--k Katrina"
On the way back from Sonny's trip to Texas, "F--k Katrina" (from New Orleans' own Fifth Ward Weebie) blares in the car's speakers. Sonny has dragged a local from Texas who has always wanted to see New Orleans. But it's not the same New Orleans Sonny fell in love with. Just like the car ride with the local, it's entirely uncomfortable to an outsider, forged insular by the shared trauma of a disaster that (at least temporarily) swept away an entire culture and left its people.
Before Sonny had left, he had told Annie (who we've learned is a long-time, multinational fling) not to play with any pianists. "It'd be like cheating," he says. Of course, this opens a massive reverse-karmic can of worms: Annie is offered to play fiddle on a track for a record, and piano legend Tom McDermott offers Annie to play as a member of his band for another gig. Sonny returns and sees Annie in a window playing fiddle with McDermott, breaking his only rule. The expression on Sonny’s face? It matches Fifth Ward Weebie's description of the Treme's Sixth Ward: "Sixth Ward? Empty."
Lucia Micarelli (Annie), "Gold Watch and Chain" (Made most famous by Emmylou Harris)
Want proof that the timing of these songs are all part of David Simon's master plan? Here's a verse from the folk traditional "Gold Watch and Chain," which is busted out — along with Annie's extended fiddle solo — in a Treme bar. "I'll pawn you my gold watch and chain/ And I'll pawn you my gold wedding ring/ I will pawn you this heart in my bosom/ Only say that you'll love me again."
In that same bar, Janette is swearing off any hint of opulence to Davis, saying her house is practically untenable, and that he can't sleep with her that night (in part) because of it. "If I had the money to fix it, I'd throw that into the restaurant, too, like every other penny I ever had," she says. "And for what? The city will never be the same." Janette is swearing off any chance at a semblance of wealth just to live the dream of a city that may not be able to provide those dreams anymore.
Well, almost every character is doing just that. Janette — and "Gold Watch and Chain" — were the only ones to say it.