By Joshua Jackson and Claire Salinas
Take a jazz poet and political activist, an award-winning producer and a local rock band, place them in one room and a show unlike any other is sure to follow. Such is the case as John Sinclair, Carlo Ditta and The Rakers prepare to perform at Chelsea’s Café on Friday, May 29.
Sinclair has performed his spoken word pieces since the ‘90s with his band The Blues Scholars. Before that, the Michigan-native managed proto-punk band MC5 in the late ‘60s and became a large part of the White Panther Party, a call by the Black Panthers to white people to aid their movement.
Being an advocate for the free use of marijuana and other inconvenient political causes, Sinclair was sentenced to ten years in prison for possession of two joints in 1969. This sparked multiple protests including John Lennon’s song “John Sinclair” where Lennon questioned the severe punishment.
Many of his activist beliefs, views on life and tributes to musicians can be heard among his lengthy, jazz-backed discography.
“[Sinclair] is one of my mentors,” Ditta said. “He’s a ‘60s icon and a radical in every sense of the word.”
Sinclair will not be alone as Ditta will join him at the show.
Ditta, a singer-songwriter from New Orleans, has traveled the nation producing songs for multiple genres and artists. In 1995, he returned to Louisiana to open Orleans Records and focus on lesser known performers from the state. Ditta returned to playing and writing songs, releasing albums such as “Try A Little Love” in 2009 and “What I’m Talking About” in 2014.
Between writing his own material and producing others, Ditta has often performed with longtime friend Sinclair at clubs, festivals and concerts.
“For the show, I’ll open up with some of my own songs that I’ve made in my time and then [Sinclair] will come up and do his thing while I back him up with some improvisational riffs,” Ditta said. “Not only are his poems enjoyable, but it makes you think because of the subjects.”
Ditta says Sinclair is an American legend in his own right because of MC5.
“He gave Iggy and the Stooges their first big break when he let them open forß MC5,” said Ditta. “He did time for two joints until John Lennon and several other celebrities raised some hell to get him out.”
Like many musicians, Ditta’s desire to play music began during his childhood.
“Ever since I was a kid I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to fit in and be a part of the music industry. In music you learn how to do different things. I started as a guitar player, singer-songwriter that’s what I am now, I’m just making my own records.”
His own life experiences as well as those in the music industry have helped to shape Ditta into the artist he is today.
“When I was a kid I played in garage bands, and witnessed the rebirth of New Orleans R&B, and all this comes together and creates who you are. That’s who I am. It’s all my experiences at Orleans Records, I learned a lot over 35 years there.”
Ditta explained that part of his musical motivation comes from paying tribute to a forgotten era.
“Songwriting was always the fuel in the beginning,” said Ditta. “When people told their stories it was their blues. A majority of the songs, the organic style of it and the reason it was played has been forgotten. I’m a songwriter, but I love the beautiful unsung rhythm and blues from an era that is forgotten.”
Anna Byars, drummer for The Rakers expressed the band’s excitement to play with Sinclair and Ditta at Chelsea’s. This is not the first time the band has played with Sinclair and Ditta, but it is the first time for Byars as she was not a part of the group when The Rakers last met with the duo.
The Rakers, a rock group located in Baton Rouge, has been busy recently with the release of its album “There Is a Snake!” and its shows at locations such as Red Star and Lagniappe Records. The six-member collective will bring its “thinking man’s drinking band” sound to Chelsea’s as the opener.
“It’s going to be a relatively raucous time,” Byars said. “From us it’ll be a lot of old fashioned rock n’ roll and loud electric guitars with a solid drum beat.”
The show came together with the help of The Rakers’ guitarist and vocalist Alex V. Cook who is a fan of both Sinclair and Ditta.
“Opening for people like [Sinclair] and [Ditta] is indescribable,” Byars said. “We want to honor their legacies through our own music and get the crowd ready for a great night.”
Unlike the average show, the night will be headlined by spoken word pieces backed by Ditta and other musicians Sinclair has brought along. The sounds of guitar and drums will fill the air at first, but the lyrics, as many artists intend, will be at the forefront by the end of the show thus revealing years of ideas and beliefs from one of America’s best-known free jazz poets.
Ditta is looking forward to his show in Baton Rouge.
“I love Baton Rouge, it’s always a warm, receptive crowd,” said Ditta. “I love the connection and being in the moment, there’s a certain energy that comes from playing live.”
The show will begin at 10:30 p.m. with The Rakers.