PLAYING HARD IN THE BIG EASY

After racking up hits on the radio and miles on the road opening shows for Shania Twain, the bandmates of Emerson Drive take a day off in New Orleans.

It's a drizzly day in New Orleans, but the members of Emerson Drive couldn't be happier. Tomorrow night they'll open for Shania Twain at the Superdome - their biggest show ever.

But today they're free to take on the sights and flavors of this exotic city.

The aroma of strong coffee and beignets - sugar-dusted pastries - drifts through the air as the wail of a saxophone from a street-corner musician and the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages blend near fabled Jackson Square. Singer Brad Mates, guitarist Danick Dupelle, keyboardist Dale Wallace, fiddler David Pichette, bass player Patrick Bourque and drummer Mike Melancon are relaxing at Caf&233; DuMonde, the original French Market coffee stand.

"Every time we come to New Orleans, we're sore for a couple of weeks," confesses Patrick. "It's like Vegas. You have to party!"

"I was trying to stay in bed last night," says Danick with a grin. "But some of the crew called and said, 'What are you doing? You've gotta come down!' And I fought and fought and did all I could to resist. But I eventually gave in."

Well, after all, it is New Orleans - the Big Easy.

With a demanding schedule that includes 300 shows a year, the band cherishes every day off.

"We make the best of it," declares Brad. "You have to find different things to do in each city. Sometimes there's not a lot to do, but in New Orleans, that's never a problem!

"This is our third time here, and we've been known to hit Bourbon Street pretty hard."

They've also been hitting the stage pretty hard - opening shows for fellow Canadian Shania this year and during the beginning leg of her tour back in 2003. And they're more than appreciative of the opportunity she's given them.

"I think I speak for all of us when I say it's a dream come true," beams Dale. "Playing before large crowds, winning the people over at every show, getting a standing ovation every night from 20,000 people!

"We're all Canadian and grew up playing in hockey rinks - and now we're playing in sold-out arenas. And Shania has treated us all great."

"It's been one of the biggest points in our career," agrees Brad. "And we'll be headlining our own university and college tour right up through the end of the year. It's good to know that we have that busy schedule ahead of us. We're very fortunate."

They've also been fortunate to achieve success on the radio. The group had Top 5 hits with "Fall Into Me" and "I Should Be Sleeping" from their self-titled debut album, was named Billboard's Top Country Artist of the Year for 2002 and won the ACM's Top New Vocal Group/Duo award in 2003. "Last One Standing," from their second CD, What If?, was a Top 40 hit in 2004.

But it hasn't been all good news for the guys.

"November," the second single from What If?, didn't fare as well as hoped on the charts, and the band and their record company parted ways. But they consider it just a temporary bump in the road - and they still believe in the album, which also contains a new, rocking version of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic "Fishin' in the Dark."

"Growin' up, the Dirt Band was a huge influence on this group," explains Brad. "We played that song in clubs before we signed a record deal. So when the label asked if we wanted to cut an old song that we thought was an influence, that was the first one that came up."

They band also has their sights on their next album with a new song, "I'm a Lucky Man." It's getting raves during live shows, including a recent appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.

But right now they're staying focused on a more immediate issue - lunch at the historic Acme Oyster House in the French Quarter. Brad and Dale, in particular, put on quite an eating display! They keep piles of boiled crawfish coming by the pound for well over an hour, sucking them out of their shells like Shop-Vacs on steroids. By the time the shells stop flying and the damage is done, Dale and Brad have consumed a total of five pounds of crawfish - and three dozen oysters!

But not all the guys are fans of Louisiana's crawfish delicacy. "Any food where they tell you to suck the head out is not a food I want to try!" exclaims Patrick with a laugh.

The camaraderie among the guys is obvious. Good thing, too, considering they spend nearly every waking moment together. Patrick, Dale and David joined the group a couple of years ago and they've fit in perfectly - personally and musically.

"We've gone to a new level musically since they joined," proclaims Mike.

"The guys who left were good players, but they were at a point in their lives where they wanted to have a family and move on. It's understandable. But you have to know that when you get into this music business, you have to sacrifice a lot of things."

Mike understands all too well what it means to be separated from a loved one.

"I have a girlfriend," he reveals. "I'm in love, and it's working great so far. I see her every three weeks - but it's hard. I want to be with her all the time. But I love my life, I love my job."

Meanwhile, the French signs and French-speaking locals remind the band that they share a common heritage with people of New Orleans. But can French Canadians understand New Orleans Cajuns?

"I was downtown yesterday and heard some people speaking Cajun French," smiles David. "I can understand it, but it's really different. The accent is different and different words. I was on the sidewalk and had to slow down a little to pay close attention, but I could follow along pretty well."

As the guys pose for one more photo, their manager leads them in the cheer that's a backstage ritual before each performance they give.

"One, two, three ... EMERSON DRIVE!" they shout in unison.

Yep, these guys should fit right in on Bourbon Street.

- David Scarlett

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