by Derrick Lord
Faith is a difficult and complicated thing. If you understand that much you likely also realize that even the strongest faith is doomed to eventually be tested by hard times. When those tests come, questions follow: Have you learned from your challenges? Have you grown? Have you come to accept your limitations? Are you still capable of enjoying your successes despite your setbacks and failures? Have you kept your faith that good times are just around the corner? Can you get back home?
How these hard times make us feel is only the details — and the devil is definitely in the details. It should be no great surprise to any student of American music that many of the roots run directly South. Likely no single group has been tested as harshly as our Southern folk. Poverty, war, heartbreak, lack of opportunity and just plain old bad luck is something the South has learned to deal with. Music, cooking and culture have long been the salve we use to heal our souls.
Late August of 2005 was yet another test of our will to keep going in the face of apparently insurmountable odds as Hurricane Katrina stuck us a catastrophic blow. Yet the heartbeat of New Orleans musicians was still beating strong on Burgundy Records’ Sing Me Back Home, from a hastily assembled group of locals who dubbed themselves the New Orleans Social Club. It’s something worth returning to around this sixth anniversary of the storm.
There are few American cities with native talent enough to be capable of putting together a band the magnitude of the New Orleans Social Club and certainly few cities have been asked to persevere under circumstances quite like these. Much like Bruce Springsteen’s post-9/11 The Rising, Sing Me Back Home is a musical attempt at trying to understand what happened, why and how it makes us feel.
Many of the artists involved were about as close as you can get to a situation, themselves being displaced from home, living in a strange city and unsure of what the future might hold. This is a special album. Not only do you get great music, you get a piece of American and New Orleans history. With a roster that includes names such as Irma Thomas, Henry Butler, John Boutte, Dr. John, Marcia Ball and Cyril, Ivan and Charles Neville, it would have been difficult to go wrong with this project, but fortunately they not only met expectations they often exceeded them.
The majority of songs here were covers, but Katrina added a new relevancy and frequently a sense of urgency that is unmistakable both for the longing of things loved and lost and an undeniable anger at those slow to respond. Make no mistake: There was a political undercurrent to many of these songs that those of us outside the damage zone would do well to think about.
One of the amazing things about the musical culture of New Orleans and Louisiana is the variety of styles that are evident on this collection. Remembering the back-story, it might be particularly surprising that Sing Me Back Home is at times the joyful, upbeat and romantic recording that it is — but that tells much of the story of what I have observed about the people of Louisiana.
I think it unlikely that anyone not chained to a particular style of music would fail to enjoy this album. Any fan of New Orleans’ unique mix of funk and soul would do well to add this CD to their collection, since it is the equivalent of a Big Easy Musical All-Star Game. This is what New Orleans sounds like in the best of times — and the worst of times: That is to say, pretty damn good.
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