Meschiya Lake and the Lil’ Big Horns will be splashing the rhythms, sounds and sonic sensuality of the Big Easy all over this year’s Sacramento Music Festival.
With six planned shows, this New Orleans-based band will serve up an evolving gumbo of traditional jazz, blues, swing, speakeasy struts, ragtime, torch songs and stories about love, woe and the inherent magic of music itself.
Some tunes wash over audiences as Lake’s voice slithers into smoky, seductive sorcery. Others move audiences along on crests of horn-infused shuffles and jazz rides embedded with a sousaphone bottom and crisp drums.
“I want the audience to walk away feeling affected, happy, feeling anything, feeling elation,” Lake said during a phone call from the Crescent City. “Like they had a respite from the trials and tribulations of life.”
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The Lil’ (then called Little) Big Horns were the 2012 Big Easy Music Awards Winner for best traditional jazz band, and Lake won best female performer three consecutive years starting in 2010. The band has released two albums, “Lucky Devil” (2010) and “Foolers’ Gold” (2013). Original songs constitute more than one-third of their current repertoire.
Lake said she recently submitted 21 demos to a producer in New Orleans as fodder for a solo record. The singers that really knock her out include Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Neko Case, Ella Fitzgerald, Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton. And her album will be just as varied.
“There’s going to be some country elements, some jazz, some soul. It’s going to be pretty eclectic,” she said. “But more of probably alternative country is I guess what you would call it.”
The Horns now include Ben Polcer (piano-trumpet), Russell Welch (guitar), Jason Russell (sousaphone-bass), Mike Voelker (drums), and, from Los Angeles, Jake Ketner (saxophone-clarinet).
Sporting arm, chest and face tattoos, as well as a stylishly retro wardrobe, Lake provides an evocative voice-and-stage presence as well as a screenplay-ready backstory.
Lake, 34, was born in southern Oregon and her family moved to Rapid City, S.D., when she was 8. The next year she won an adult singing contest at a local steakhouse. Her rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight” earned her a $500 prize and a weekly Saturday-night gig.
At age 13, she tired of country crooning, self-designed her first tattoo with a safety pin and India ink and embraced a punk-rock lifestyle. At age 17, she moved to Chicago with her “first fiancé,” but left for a two-year stay in Atlanta where she joined the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow and End of the World Circus.
“At our height, we had nine vehicles and 30 people caravaning across the country,” said Lake of the troupe that combined circus arts and sideshow freakiness. “I ate glass, light bulbs and worms. And I spun fire chains. It’s an ancient Hawaiian art called ‘poi.’ ”
The circus brought Lake to New Orleans in 2000, and she felt it was time for a change. She worked in kitchens and as a migrant farm hand. She started performing music again in 2003 on Big Easy streets and joined such projects as Loose Marbles and the moody Magnolia Beacon duo.
In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brought destruction, chaos and change to the city, as addressed in HBO’s dramatic series “Treme.” Lake performed a song she wrote, “Do for Myself,” in the second season.
“I think they did a really good job,” said Lake of the series. “It had to be made Hollywood a little bit. It is television, It’s HBO. It’s got to be entertaining. But they paid the musicians really well. It was great for the economy. They got every musician pretty much in New Orleans into the show. And they used actual events. There was one episode that was kind of hard to watch because it was about the murder of a friend of mine, and they kept the details very accurate.”
Lake said that despite its hardships, NOLA is the place for her.
“I felt like I had found my home,” she said of New Orleans. “I was just blown away by the sense of freedom that pervades here. It’s not all roses. There’s a high crime rate. The government is pretty corrupt. The police are not exactly reliable.
“But with all that darkness there is just as much or more light. I mean, it’s like paradise. There’s music absolutely everywhere. People have a kind of laid-back sensibility. They don’t seem to stress about the little things much. They like to enjoy themselves.
“That’s what life is for – living.”