Music in 'Treme' takes you to another place

Last season in previewing HBO's "Treme," I said that in 30 years of writing about television, I had never heard music used as organically, wisely and powerfully as it was in the New Orleans-based series created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer. I also said I never expected to hear it done better on TV.

I was wrong. Sunday night's opening of Season 2 takes it to another level. And the use of music just keeps getting stronger and stronger through each of the episodes made available by HBO.

In the Season 2 opener, titled "Accentuate the Positive," there is one knockout musical production after another. In fact, there are so many splendid musical moments in the episodes I previewed that I started to wonder if "Treme" wasn't evolving into a new kind of American musical for television.

Whereas Fox's "Glee" alternately mimics and postmodernly mocks the traditional Broadway stage musical in all its excess and artifice, "Treme" seamlessly integrates in-club and staged-for-TV musical performances as a core element in the look, feel, sound and sense of the show — what the film critics would call mise-en-scene.

Maybe that's obvious — or necessary — for any competent TV drama that in part follows the lives of musicians in a city as steeped in music as New Orleans. But there is nothing obvious, necessary or merely competent about the kind of transcendence much of the music in "Treme" provides. If this were a stage musical, "showstopper" would be the term to describe at least three numbers in this episode. And their range reflects the rich diversity of the series itself.

The first features Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli) and her melancholy-sweet-sad fiddle solo on "Carved in Stone" during a nightclub performance with the subdudes. Her solo on the song arrives about 13 minutes into the episode, and it absolutely transported me to another place — a place only a few artists like Van Morrison can take me.

If it wasn't an aesthetic experience, according to the definition laid down by the ancient Greeks, it was close enough for this new-millennium man sitting in front of his HDTV. After the episode ended, I was online like a shot trying to find out everything I could about the subdudes. I have a new favorite group — though I'd like them even better if Tee/Micarelli really did play with them and served up those kinds of solos.

With Tee appearing in four musical numbers in the first episode, it seems as if the producers are rightfully and righteously showcasing Micarelli and her character a little more. I hope that turns out to be the case across the full season — Micarelli, the actress, and the character Annie Tee are two of the best things happening anywhere on weekly series television.

One of Tee's other musical moments comes with her joining the sublime John Boutte in singing the chorus of the Johnny Mercer/Harold Arlen tune "Accentuate the Positive," again in a nightclub setting. While not nearly as intense as her work with the subdudes, the performance is a delight in its own lighter and brighter way.

And I will say very little about this number so as not to spoil it, but wait until you see and hear Galactic, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Juvenile doing "From the Corner to the Block." If it feels as if your TV is actually throbbing and swaying from side to side, it probably is. That's how strong this song grinds its groove into the soundtrack.

Everyone in the media world is looking for new revenue streams these days, and in following that mandate, HBO is offering one music video performance from each episode on iTunes. "From the Corner to the Block" is the music video performance that will be available this week. It will be the entire, uncut performance, as opposed to just the portion used in the episode.

And wait until you see Antoine Batiste and his Soul Apostles with Wanda Rouzan performing "Got to Get You Off My Mind" in the third episode. You'll be ordering it from iTunes before the final credits on the episode roll. I've worn my DVD version out already.

Antoine Batiste, as followers of the series know, is the fictional trombonist played so engagingly by Wendell Pierce. One of the storylines this season has him forming an old-school R&B band that plays "music that don't get played no more, but people wish it did, because you can shake your ass to it," in the words of Batiste.

Speaking of shaking it, the big narrative development in the season opener involves a character named Nelson Hildago, played by Jon Seda, formerly of NBC's "Homicide: Life on the Street," arriving in New Orleans. His character has the look of someone on the make hoping to exploit the misery of others. And yet, there's a highly attractive energy and sense of vitality about him as well. I like the initial ambiguity of this character, and the producers once again use music to perfectly articulate it.

Near the end of the episode, Nelson stops at the corner bar owned by LaDonna (Khandi Alexander). LaDonna isn't much impressed with the newcomer's smooth talk and smiley-face patter. But when he punches up a tune with a hot Latin beat on her jukebox and then starts to move onto the dance floor, LaDonna takes notice — and then some.

Even LaDonna, who seems to have seen it all and learned every lesson the hard way, looks like she wants to dance with this guy — even though he just might be the devil.

Music will do that to you. And "Treme" has music that gets to you — like no other show on television.


The second-season premiere of "Treme" airs at 10 p.m. Sunday on HBO.