It's Wednesday night in The Howlin' Wolf. The venue's Main Room is an ersatz New Orleans inside the city itself, lit by floodlights that orbit from purple to blue to green and back. This is the 97th show put on by the Funky Uncle.
The polished evening is a far cry from the shot-on-iPhone idea they stemmed from. Each event is run by a team of pros, all working for a cut of their worth. At Funky Uncle shows, even the staff are donating their time and skills to bring free funk to fans while raising money for the funk fund—grants for NOLA musicians and gig workers.
On stage tonight are the Squirrel Nut Zippers. Couples swing dance. The refrain of the evening is: "Wash your hands and stomp your feet." When the music pauses, host Leslie Cooper takes the mic to say, "Live music never stopped, just the live audience."
It began with a simple concept: a weekly webcast broadcasting New Orleans Musicians. According to Producer Cristian Duque, Chris Beary saw the guys playing outside Cafe Du Monde, not making any money, and "couldn't help but help." The webcast put on slamming shows and raised money for local artists who were hard hit by the sudden halt on the performances they made their livelihoods on.
As the pandemic dragged on, the Funky Uncle persevered. By the time NOLA held its return of Mardi Gras celebrations, the Funky Uncle had hit its 100th show. An impressive streak considering they didn't miss a single week, not even during Hurricane Ida, when the show went on at St. Peter's By-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Gulfport, Mississippi. So far, the Funk Fund has raised almost $650,000 and helped over 852 different people.
With each weekly broadcast, the count went up and was reflected on the website. Through that same space, musicians and other gig workers could apply for relief. Producer Cristian Duque is excited to talk about the folks he's interviewed for the grants. Having been part of the Frenchmen Street scene for 21 years, Duque knew everybody. He could see who was hard hit and who needed support, ASAP. But Duque sees shows themselves, as much as the money given to artists, as a lifeline. It was important to him to make sure people still heard the music. "The goal was always to give the music to the people," Duque says. "Music is still here and it's not going to go away."
The Funky Uncle drives revenue through donations, ticket sales, merch, and live paintings. The latter are critical to their fundraising, with 40% of their revenue generated by the work of New Orleans live painter, Frenchy.
Frenchy describes his painting style in two words: New Orleans. In New Orleans, the humid air molecules vibrate with the sound of brass bands. The city's color palette is more vibrant than a bead tree in full bloom after Mardi Gras. All these sensory details are notably present in Frenchy's aesthetic.
"Live painting is about capturing the energy and the image of the bands all in one," Frenchy explains. He got started in the early '90s, just as visual performance art was taking root in cities across America. Heavy Metal Horns, the Boston-based brass band asked Frenchy to come out after seeing the paintings he'd been doing. "I used to paint copious amounts of jazz musicians from photographs," French says of his start. "So I went for it. Showed up with a full palette of oils," he laughs. "Which wasn't the smartest thing to do, but got it done. The moment I put brush to canvas, it was like love at first sight."
Moving to New Orleans was so momentous in Frenchy's life that he remembers his arrival down to the minute. Fast forward to now, and, Frenchy's paintings are on display around the city: the Howling Wolf, Harrah's hotel, his gallery on Oak Street. Frenchy and his work have become an integral part of the fabric of NOLA's entertainment scene. So much so that, one evening at Maple Leaf, a man approached Frenchy to tell him he remembered going to Saints games with his grandmother, where they always made a point to watch Frenchy work. Frenchy working on the sidelines is as much of a New Orleans staple as the city's signature events.
Wednesday night Funky Uncle shows at The Howlin' Wolf became one of those signature events. Spring in New Orleans saw clubs coming back and bands finding themselves working more regularly. With that return to normal, requests for relief began to slow. Now as festivals, afterparties, and live music makes their full return, the Funky Uncle will put on occasional special shows, but the organizers are excited to pivot towards realizing a new dream—a New Orleans Music Museum.
On Saturday May 7, FunkyUncle Live will present a Jazz Fest Funk-a-Thon featuring The Funky Uncle All-Stars, Boukou Groove, and the Rumble with Honey Island Swamp Band closing out the show. The show will be live painted by Frenchy.