It's an unseasonably warm Saturday night in a parking lot on the outskirts of Baton Rouge. Ross Hoppe's face is framed by the glow of a cell phone as he checks his messages. Hoppe is halfway through a solo jazz piano set at Le Creolé and getting started on a long night of music. Before the week is out he will have performed all over town in what must be one of the busiest working schedules of any musician in the city. This twenty-something's wild ride includes changing bands, venues and musical genres, but wherever he goes, one thing is certain: His talent steals the show.
Saturday, 8 p.m. The first time Le Creolé manager Clark Ellis heard Hoppe play was in a parking lot. He was impressed with the jazz duo that also features Hoppe's long-time friend and bass player Bob Kling. “They were doing this party, and I asked one of my waiters if we should get them to play in the restaurant,” Ellis says. “I remember thinking, 'You can't afford them; they're too good.'” Hoppe and Kling now regularly play weekends at Le Creolé. Hoppe pushes the keys through a set of traditional piano bar classics, but he defies the cheesy lounge act clichés. Underneath his rendition of “Sunny Side of the Street,” you can sense a wild energy as he skips through the notes. Maybe it's just Hoppe shifting gears.
Saturday, 11 p.m. Chelsea's Café is packed. Hoppe settles in behind a stack of electric keyboards higher than his head. He's on his home turf. “There's something about the Chelsea's fans,” he says. “They are good to us there, and we love the food!” On this night, he is playing with The Stage Coach Bandits in a fairly straightforward rock format twisted with a little Phish-style jamming. Hoppe, who has been performing since his debut gig playing a Mardi Gras party for debutantes, knows this band well. “You have to spend a lot of time practicing with people if you want to be good,” he says. The Bandits are tight and professional. The song “Shoe” drops perfectly and leaves those listening waiting for more.
Sunday, 12:30 a.m. Captain Green, a down-and-dirty instrumental funk band, is up next at Chelsea's. This is Hoppe's main project, a six-piece combo featuring two saxophones, a trumpet, drums, Kling on bass and Hoppe directing it all from the keys. The crowd loves this band. “You can tell when people are into it,” Hoppe says. “You literally move them, it's so honest. There are a lot of people in Baton Rouge who appreciate music.” He cites the influence of great local music teachers like Don Gros, J.R. Miller and Ed Winston as the reason the city is so blessed with talent and fans who appreciate it when they see it. Hoppe has a lot of class when it comes to giving props, but right now all that matters is that he has the energy to play three sets at two venues on the same night. He does. At the end of the night, he is exhausted, but his soul is filled to the brim. When asked if he is ever forgets who he is playing with, his response is emphatic: “No way! I'm in that totally.”?
Wednesday, 9 p.m. Captain Green again. The band just released its new album, Everywhere Is Where It's At, on iTunes, and the members are huddled in a small recording studio in a house off Perkins Road. Inside they lay down a live recording bound for the airwaves on local station 96.9 FM WHYR. Things are going well. It's only a matter of picking the best songs to play. Kling says that in the early years, Hoppe brought most of the songs. “But he is a good leader,” the bassist says. “And now we're all contributing more.” Hoppe adds, “I look at Miles Davis as a role model. Sure, he was a great player, but he surrounded himself with talent and let them do their thing. Together they all got somewhere they never could have gone alone.”?
Friday, midnight. Hoppe is eager to play, laying down a Hammond B3 sound to the Jackson Five tracks played by the DJ. There is an ocean of people lapping against the big green wall of the patio behind Happy's Irish Pub. Captain Green starts and stirs them into a surging tide. The only time the sea of bodies parts is when two dancers with glowing hula-hoops begin to move through the crowd. When Hoppe finally stands up to look out over the keyboards, the show reaches a zenith. The energy is inescapable; the vibe is funky and eclectic. When a guest vocalist gets up and sings The Temptations' “Standing on Shaky Ground,” it seems like the understatement of the year.
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Bad Guys, Good Eats! Pop-Up Dinner at Restaurant IPO
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