Every once in a while, an opening band strikes a nerve in you more so than the band you were actually there to see. Recently, that magic hit me when I discovered the six-piece up-and-coming Marina Orchestra during their opening slot for the very strange Peelander Z. When you first see the band as they were that night (there are officially eight people in the band), you notice quickly the bright, vibrant shirts and tropical themes they are focusing on, and it's a surprise. It's not a bad thing, but perhaps just not what you were expecting. You also notice the female horn/vocal section in the very front of the stage, while band leader Justin stays cool behind all the attention. It's an easy sound to envelop yourself in, and ultimately, that's what draws you in. I've seen them twice now, and both times, they were spectacular. As a unit, they have this synergy (visually and musically) that manages to engage whatever crowd they're tasked with entertaining for that moment in time.
For Marina Orchestra, it didn't start recently, but rather 10 years ago in 2009, when creator and leader Justin Powers began the project in Knoxville. Justin explains that the early years were healthy and positive for the band (having released three records while in Tennessee), but he wanted something different, and like many others, those dreams eventually found their way to New Orleans. They're described as a "Caribbean-flavored surf-rock" band, and it's somewhat of a surprise that they had as much good fortune as they did in Knoxville. Obviously, the Volunteer State is known for music, but surf rock wouldn't be at the top of the list of answers you'd give when asked what prominent music comes from the area.
However, it seems that moving to the Crescent City has paid off, with the band becoming more of what was envisioned initially. But let's jump back a little, because while this began as Justin's journey, soon he found amazing collaborators locally who would make the ensemble even more engaging and thrilling to watch.
Ashley Shabankareh was once part of local favorites the Local Skank, who presented an all-lady front that was almost like you'd imagine by the name. That is where it all began to take shape. Following the end of the Skank, Ashley and Justin found each other, and gradually the pieces began to fit. Horns were introduced, more members joined-such as Gia Monteleone on percussion and vocals, Hannah Kreiger-Benson on trumpet and keys, Leo Fraser on guitar, Kelley Smith on bass, Chris Owen on drums, and Chad Toups on percussion-and sounds began to become something cohesive and enjoyable. If you ask Justin, Marina Orchestra was destined to be "a reservoir for [his] work to live and breathe." When you hear this line and then think about the style of the band, it's clear he was going for a unique but not off-putting style. All of that makes them perfect for our city.
In NOLA, bands vary by size, genre, quality, and style, but Marina Orchestra rises above and makes something truly remarkable. They're able to engage old "Latin styles" with a new, fresh take that comes off as novel, but thoroughly enjoyable. Novel can be tricky, but if you find a new groove in something, then you've succeeded. This band has accomplished that. They're steadily booming shows all over our state, and if you want something you can bring a partner to and dance the night away, look no further than Marina Orchestra. They might just be what you need on order to explore and branch out. It's adventurous, full of life, and most importantly, original.
Photo Credit: Howard Lambert