Dr. John, Preservation Hall + others: Music framed initial journey past Hurricane Katrina

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This site’s ties to Louisiana have provided a rich vein of musical delights over the years, but also a moment of staggering loss when Hurricane Katrina led to massive levee failures beginning 10 years ago today in New Orleans. Once again, however, songs helped lead the way.

A legacy of recovery for the city, and the wider Gulf Coast, almost immediately began finding voice in songs from across the spectrum. They helped many sort through the jumble of emotions that remained for a community drowned first by the storm and then by bureaucracy. Here are thoughts on some of our favorite recordings from early on in that redemptive journey. Click through the titles to read more …

ANDREW LAMB TRIO – NEW ORLEANS SUITE (2006): Recorded a scant three weeks after a wrecked levee system inundated the city, New Orleans Suite is music that literally lives in the moment, in the immediate, confused and heartbreaking aftermath of the storm. Dr. John is the only other artist that we know of who put together a Katrina-inspired session so soon, but Andrew Lamb and company didn’t dwell at all on nostalgia. This is all about the despair and fury that pervaded the immediate weeks following America’s largest natural disaster. Likewise, the improvised music used as a conduit for these emotions have little on common with NOLA icons like Louis Armstrong, Allen Toussaint, Professor Longhair, Mac Rebennack or scores of other Crescent City influences, but if jazz is “the sound of surprise,” then its cousin free jazz could be considered “the sound of raw emotion.” Using this method of expression, the frayed nerves and sorrow that prevailed in a decade ago were clearly presented by Lamb and company.

U2/GREEN DAY, “THE SAINTS ARE COMING” (2006): ONE TRACK MIND: They opened up the Superdome and we streamed through the turnstiles, tickets and hats and signs in hand. We bought Dome Foam, personal pizzas, and peanuts. So much of that was similar to other days in this place, as the New orleans Saints played their first home game of the 2006 NFL season. But, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, nothing — of course — was the same. And so I sat in this darkening cathedral, thinking not of football — those days, and weeks and months and years of downs and distance — but what had happened to this city, and in this site. A song, this song, seemed like a step forward, a long-awaited path out of that misery.

BRYAN LEE – KATRINA WAS HER NAME (2007): Whether it’s Delta acoustic blues, jump blues, dirty electric blues, or creole-styled R&B, Bryan Lee gives it all the same dedication and mastery. As producer Duke Robillard plainly stated at the beginning of the liner notes he provided for this record, “if you’re not familiar with Bryan Lee by now, you should be.” Katrina Was Her Name” provided a sparse, acoustic guitar/dobro ode to the despair that the storm left behind to the Crescent City. In it, he sang of the devastation in plain terms so that no one listening years later would forget what happened and when it happened.

THE PRESERVATION HALL JAZZ BAND – MADE IN NEW ORLEANS: THE HURRICANE SESSIONS (2007): An album that was at once tender, funny and sad. Capturing all of that was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s towering achievement. In a way, they put out the perfect Mardi Gras record for the post-Hurricane Katrina era. It acknowledges everything that came before, even while leading the way into happier times. This was a delicate balance, and hard to do well. Like the curious commingling of smells in the French Quarter, The Hurricane Sessions could have been as inviting as au jus but then just as quickly smack of something left out too long. In a time when almost nothing else was, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — a group of savvy vets given a boost here by brilliant sequencing — made it look easy.

THE SUBDUDES, “POOR MAN’S PARADISE” (2007): ONE TRACK MIND: The Subdudes’ straightforward lyrics here are character sketches into people who find refuge in the simple pleasures of life after their lives were torn part by Hurricane Katrina. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more uplifting song derived from that tragedy. For us, “Poor Man’s Paradise” has three simple but powerful messages: 1.) The triumph of the human spirit over even the violent wrath of Mother Nature; 2.) taking enjoyment from the simple pleasures of life, and 3.) the healing power of music.

JAMES BLOOD ULMER – BAD BLOOD IN THE CITY: THE PIETY STREET SESSIONS (2007): Like many other musicians affected by tragedy of seeing a great city and many of its residents left festering underwater for days, James Blood Ulmer put pencil to paper and immediately came up with several songs to express his sadness, anger and frustration at the calamity. But it wasn’t until December 2006 when he laid down these tracks in a marathon, three-day session. As explained by second guitarist and producer Vernon Reid (of Living Colour fame), waiting almost two years after a flood broke through the New Orleans levees made more sense — because as media and government attention subside over time, this record could serve to keep people from forgetting about the victims.

DR. JOHN AND THE LOWER 911 – THE CITY THAT CARE FORGOT (2008): By this point, sorrow and hope had turned to rage. Dr. John’s blunt message was directed squarely at the Washington politicians: We’re still suffering and in your greed, you’ve forgotten about us. The good thing about the anger is that angry artists tend to be more invested in their work. There’s a certain grittiness that’s been missing from most of Mac Rebbenack’s work for a couple of decades and it’s great to see him return to the sound of his Allen Toussaint days when the Meters and the Bonnaroo Horns backed him up.

TED HEARNE – KATRINA BALLADS (2010): Ted Hearne brought back all of the tragedy and all of the surrealism inherent in such an epic event. Written for an ensemble of 11 musicians (piano, horns, woodwinds, strings, electric guitar, bass, and drums) and five voices, Katrina Ballads used as source material many of the words we came to identify with Hurricane Katrina. With quotes from Dennis Hastert, Anderson Cooper, Mary Landrieu, Barbara Bush, George Bush, and Kanye West, the unhinged nature of the event is brought back into full relief. Yes, it was not easy to forget things like “Brownie, you’re doin’ a heck of a job” (President Bush) and “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” (Kanye West). We tried to forget them, but they wouldn’t go away. And maybe they shouldn’t.

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The Something Else! webzine, an accredited Google News affiliate, has been featured in The New York Times and NPR.com's A Blog Supreme, while our writers have also been published by USA Today, Jazz.com and UltimateClassicRock.com, among others. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
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