Billy Iuso: Dead Inspired Funk
Journeyman guitarist Billy Iuso is hitting his groove in the live-music scene by awakening the Dead.
“I’m a hippie,” Billy Iuso says in describing himself, his musical influences, and inspirations during a recent phone interview, as he speaks through a cold during the depths of winter.
Iuso’s Restless Natives opened the previous Saturday’s Anders Osborne’s Holiday Spectacular at Tipitina’s in New Orleans before Iuso supplied guitar-shredding support to Osborne’s set. The following Sunday, Iuso would perform downtown at The Maison with the Iko Iko All-Stars, a group of New Orleans-based, like-minded Deadheads in which he and former Restless Native C.R. Gruver (Outformation) slick the Grateful Dead’s wheels with a bit of Nola grease. From his home in Uptown New Orleans, Iuso, 44, explained he was looking forward to spending the holidays at home with this wife and family before taking off in January with Osborne to gig at Gov’t Mule’s Island Exodus IV in Jamaica in January.
While his serene summation of “feeling blessed” at this point in his life and career is the stuff of sage hippie wisdom, Iuso, a Port Chester, New York native of Italian heritage, applies the hippie label when discussing music. Iuso’s ascent in stature and gigs (such as being named Bear Creek Festival artist-in-residence in 2011) within groovy circles is obvious in the few last few years, particularly in his recently discovered kinship with the beastly, divine rock-and-soul stew that is Osborne’s sound. This ascent comes after decades of toil, triumphs and tribulations in various musical adventures, most notably to many in the Brides of Jesus, which Iuso formed just out of high school, earning fans and buzz in the early 1990s in New York City via weekly gigs at the Wetlands before moving to Athens, Georgia, where he moved the band to soak up “the hip little Southern music scene”.
Engagingly equal parts jaded musician and enthusiastic fan, buoyant boy and old soul, Iuso, a tattoo of Jerry Garcia’s famously four-fingered hand emblazoned on his right forearm, talks after sound-check/shrimp boil for the Holiday Spectacular on the sidewalk outside Tipitina’s.
He’s asked about the magic created last Jazz Fest, which found him in a late-night jam at an Osborne show that reached full-tilt guitar frenzy in a “Third Stone from the Sun” jam during the encore that featured Luther Dickinson, Warren Haynes, Osborne and himself. “In this genre, we have a respect that makes things easy,” Iuso says of how the aforementioned players worked harmoniously together, “because it’s really not work. Anders and I just click. Those others guys, they know when to play and when not to play. It’s a respect thing.”
Iuso’s opening set with the Restless Natives — Thomas McDonald (bass), Michael Burkhart (keys), Eddie Christmas (drums), Jimmy Carpenter (saxophone) and the debut of vocalist Ginger Matthews — grooves with originals and covers including Jimmy Cliff’s “Sitting Here in Limbo.” Iuso is the first guest in Osborne’s set, locking in for an extended “Black Eyed Galaxy,” the title track off Osborne’s acclaimed album from last year that announced the Swedish-born, now-sober guitarist/singer was a Dead Head and proud of it. Along with rock songstress Shannon McNally, Iuso sang and soared in “Sugaree,” a staple Grateful Dead cover.
“I’m kind of a closeted Deadhead,” Osborne said in a Relix magazine interview following his Holiday Spectacular and in advance of his latest EP, Three Free Amigos, of which Iuso played an integral role. “Lately, it’s just popped up more and more. One of my closest friends right now, Billy Iuso, is a huge, huge fan of the Grateful Dead and he keeps sending me a bunch of stuff.”
Iuso moved to his adopted home of New Orleans from Georgia in 1997 at a point when the Brides of Jesus “started falling apart,” he recalls, and after the guidance of Meters bassist George Porter, Jr., whom Iuso began working for as road manager. Iuso credits Porter and Russell Batiste for indoctrinating an Italian hippie from New York into New Orleans, immersing him in its culture, musical traditions and community. In addition to solo albums (such as 2011’s Trippin’ over Dragons) and works with the Restless Natives, Iuso played guitar for five years with the Wild Magnolias, the Mardi Gras Indian band initiated by Big Chief Bo Dollis, Sr., who received the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA)’s National Heritage Fellowship in 2011. Countless miles, studio hours, sit-ins, and small-crowds at no-cover shows have schooled Iuso in the cruel realities of music as business. But those same lessons, amazingly, have not diminished his energy, a palpable draw to his infectious handling of the Fender Stratocaster driven with passion and intensity through his Mesa Boogie amp.
Reflecting on the attributes brought by band mates Iuso, Carl Dufrene (bass) and Eric Bolivar (drums) on Three Free Amigos in the aforementioned Relix interview, Osborne says: “Well, usually they bring who they are, which is why we play together. There is not a lot of pre-thinking on my part. I just throw it out there and then we design it together. The reason that we are a band is because we like to see how things turn out. They add a tremendous amount by just being themselves and playing the way they do.”
Playing his way — a trippy-licks, white-boy guitarist in a funky, soulful city — has landed Iuso new audiences among familiar faces via uncompromised virtues of vibe and tone in a town he now calls home. “When I first got here with the buzz from Brides of Jesus still out there, I came across some haters,” Iuso remembers. “They thought I was a tool, like ‘Who’s this guy coming to our town?’ But I’ve been here long enough, played enough, that I’ve gained respect. And once you’re in this community, you’re in it for good.”