The Wire vs. Treme

David Simon hosts a battle of the bands between Baltimore and New Orleans.

Omar Little from The Wire.
Omar Little from The Wire

Photograph by Paul Shiraldi / HBO.

New Orleans—Last month, in an interview with the New York Times’ Arts Beat blog, David Simon lashed out at some of his most ardent fans. The cable auteur expressed annoyance with a tournament to determine the greatest character from The Wire. If the discussion you’re having after watching his series is about which character was the coolest, Simon thinks you’ve missed the point. “People ask me who I loved writing for the most and I always tell them, the city of Baltimore [and] they’re just disappointed. They want to be affirmed in all the things that television usually affirms: being larger than life, the action, the adventure, the nonsense.”

On Friday night, however, Simon hosted a star-studded competition of his own: A battle of the bands between acts hailing from Baltimore and groups from New Orleans, where his current series, Treme, is set.  Proceeds from the event went to a pair of charities that reach underprivileged youth through music, and attendants were promised cameos from some of their favorite actors from both of Simon’s series. For a good cause, apparently, Simon is happy to give his fans all the “nonsense” they want.

The event was held at Tipitina’s, the storied New Orleans music club. The New Orleans team, which paired Galactic’s hip-hop- and klezmer-inflected funk with the Ninth Ward’s musically omnivorous Stooges Brass Band, was represented onstage by Wendell Pierce. Wire fans know Pierce as detective “Bunk” Moreland, but he’s a native New Orleanian and plays trombonist Antoine Batiste on Treme.

“What’s the best thing about Baltimore?” Pierce taunted his opponents on stage. “D.C. And D.C.’s not even that good.” As it happens, Pierce had just been in the District that morning, discussing post-Katrina recovery at a breakfast meeting with Vice President Joe Biden. When I spoke to him backstage, Pierce complained that he’d been so bored by the capital’s nightlife, he’d gone to bed at 9 p.m. the night before his meeting.

Up against the hometown favorites was Team Baltimore, which was really more like a mid-Atlantic musical all-star team. It paired Lafayette Gilchrist, the virtuoso jazz pianist, and Anwan “Big G” Glover, the frontman of the D.C. go-go Backyard Band, and perhaps better known to HBO subscribers for playing Barksdale enforcer Slim Charles in The Wire and prison inmate Keevon White in Treme. Baltimore’s secret weapon was a ringer from Brooklyn, Michael K. Williams, who played Omar Little on The Wire. Williams repped the Charm City team on stage and even showed off a few of the moves that had launched his career, as a backup dancer for Tupac Shakur and Madonna.

Omar had enjoyed a top seeding in the who’s-the-greatest-Wire-character tournament that had been hosted by Grantland, and he was clearly the top draw on Friday as well. During a smoke break outside the club, a line of women came up one after another to have their picture snapped with the actor, who wore an impeccably tailored suit and bowtie. They invariably referred to him as “Omar.”  Among the ladies begging to be photographed with Williams was Laura Hurt, who drove 60 miles from the Mississippi Gulf Coast where she runs a coffee shop. “I don’t do the whole celebrity thing,” she said, “but for him …” She trailed off. Brett Dupre had also been lured by the opportunity to see Omar in the flesh. “He’s a very queer character asserting a particular kind of agency in a neighborhood where people don’t have a lot of agency,” Dupre explained, before disclosing that he had just written his master’s thesis in English at the University of New Orleans on The Wire. (As has been previously noted on Slate, nowhere is The Wire more beloved than in the ivory tower.)

Even Williams himself conceded that despite his current work on Boardwalk Empire and on Broadway, “I’ll probably always be known for Omar. And I’m grateful for that. I mean, I could’ve been known for Urkel, no offense to the brother.”

For all the rowdiness of the Williams-led East Coast fans, whose noise belied their meager numbers, it was hardly a fair fight. Gilchrist’s stunning finger work and Glover’s mellow grooves prompted approving chin-stroking more than uninhibited booty-shaking. The Yankee bands were indisputably impressive, just not that much fun. Even Williams’ dance work—sweat-drenched, bowtie undone, tambourine in hand—on the Backyward Band’s version of The Wire theme, “Down in the Hole,” couldn’t quite top the music made by the pride of the Crescent City. When the funked-up local acts took the stage, they had the audience moving nonstop, hollering, and backing them up in call-and-response chants. As the Stooges led the audience in the spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” they transformed the raucous club into a midnight mission. Even Galactic, which as Simon noted in his introduction, includes a pair of middle-aged white guys who’d gone to his high school in Bethesda, Md. (“real effete, suburban shit,” he explained), had clearly overcome their Beltway inhibitions.

At the conclusion of the evening, Pierce announced the winners to be (“drum roll, please”) neither Baltimore nor New Orleans but the charities themselves—The Roots of Music and the Tipitina’s Foundation—which would share $30,500 thanks to the event. The Roots of Music uses its Marching Crusaders band to woo low-income New Orleans kids aged 9 to 14 into a program of music instruction, nutritious hot meals, and academic tutoring. The Tipitina’s Foundation is best known for its Sunday Youth Music Workshops during which the shuttered club’s stage is opened up for local children to learn from some of the city’s finest musicians.

Alisson Reinhardt, the program director for The Roots of Music, had learned earlier in the day that the father of two of her band members had just been incarcerated. The boys’ dad was a New Orleans police officer who had fatally shot a man at the Convention Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, then lied about it under oath, resulting in a 20-month sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice. Through the necessary work of combating police brutality and corruption, two innocent children had been rendered fatherless. It was just the kind of tragic story you can imagine firing David Simon’s imagination.