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C.J. Chenier

The Desperate Kingdom of Love

(World Village Music/Harmonia Mundi)

Considering the inspiration behind C.J. Chenier's first album in five years and only his second over the past decade, The Desperate Kingdom of Love has a most curious title (and opening) track: covering the P.J. Harvey tune, almost unrecognizable, from her last release, Uh Huh Her. Chenier took a break from Alligator Records as well as the band he inherited from his late father, Clifton -- the Red Hot Louisiana Band. The goal, as stated, was to draw inspiration from Bob Dylan's work with The Band and come up with something fresh and on the spot.

For Kingdom, Chenier hooked up with the Boston-based alt-blues band the Tarbox Ramblers, and, recording in Boston, sought to capture an acoustic sound in one take with few overdubs. The album was recorded last November, after Katrina, and while there is a bit of melancholy in the air the CD stands on its own merit.

So why the P.J. Harvey tune to start off an album that otherwise features three of his father's originals (including "Rosemary"), a Van Morrison cover (the closer, "Comfort You"), an instrumental homage to the late Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown ("Bogalusa Boogie"), a Hank Williams Sr. jewel ("Lost on the River") and four collaborations between C.J. and Denise Labrie? Maybe it's because of the opening line: "Oh, love, you were a sickly child / And how the wind knocked you down / Put on your spurs, swagger around / In the desperate kingdom of love."

Chenier has often been credited, along with contemporary Buckwheat Zydeco, with being part of the first generation to try to modernize zydeco and make it more relevant to a younger audience by tapping into the upbeat R&B possibilities of the genre. And, like Buckwheat, Chenier's a great showman, and he knows how to use his accordion to whip a crowd into a frenzy. Yet here everything is about as stripped-down as one might imagine a more blues-inspired acoustic set to be; even Chenier's throaty baritone becomes more subdued, if a bit flat at times. Having been taught to play by his father, Chenier over the years has developed into one of the best piano-key accordion players in zydeco, and here his solos come off as seamless and without being showy.

It's unfortunate Chenier's not the Tarbox Ramblers for his Jazz Fest set, but there's a feeling he'll be able to channel that acoustic spirit wherever he plays, and whomever with. -- Simmons

C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band perform at 5:45 p.m. Saturday, April 29, at the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage.


Reality Check

(Atlantic Records/UTP)

It wasn't so long ago that the faces gracing the billboards at Rampart and Canal streets were not those of aspiring political candidates but a different kind of local leader, New Orleans' rap royalty. Even as artists from the Cash Money and No Limit rosters evoked the city's absurdly brutal side, for plenty of people living in the projects they represented real promise. And with half of his eight albums enjoying platinum status and an Atlantic records buyout of his homegrown UTP (UpTown Projects) label, former Hot Boy Terius "Juvenile" Gray represents one of the local rap scene's greatest success stories.

Juve's growling style is a uniquely Southern hybrid -- not quite as acrid as Mystikal, or as smooth as Ludacris, with whom he shares a certain sing-songy cadence -- and the guest list on the recently released Reality Check reads like a who's who in Southern rap: Ludacris, Fat Joe, Lil Jon, Houston rappers Mike Jones and Paul Wall, Eightball, and Juve's own UTP sidekicks Skip and Wacko. Even Mannie Fresh appears here as producer of the sometimes-hilariously effects-heavy '"Animal" despite the bitter split with Cash Money Records.

But Juvenile's lyrics and delivery are strictly 504: "F--k Fox News, I don't listen to y'all ass! / Couldn't get a nigger off the roof when the storm pass" he spits on "Get Ya Hustle On," the much-hyped track whose accompanying video was shot in the Lower Ninth Ward. As effectively haunting as this song may be, Juve's best efforts are reserved for celebrating booty, that staple of his prior hit parade. "Rodeo," a sexy ode to a stripper laid over a sped-up sample of R. Kelly's "Bump and Grind, is a deserving sequel to "Slow Motion," his 2004 constant-rotation collaboration with the late Soulja Slim.

The absence of rap music being blasted from cars, the bass-booster rattling tinted windows, is -- if not uniformly missed -- as least as conspicuous as the lack of residents in the now fenced-off Magnolia projects where Juve grew up. No doubt "Rodeo" and "Get Ya Hustle On" would have been on this summer's neighborhood soundtrack. -- Joyce

Juvenile performs at 6 p.m. Saturday, April 29, at the Congo Square/Louisiana Rebirth Stage.

Bruce Springsteen

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions


During the second half of the 1980s, when I was a small kid, I was lucky enough to spend summers at a small camp in Vermont run by the Seeger family -- American music royalty of a sort, although the earthy Quaker values of the camp would probably make them decry the use of that word. Pete Seeger, whose career with the Weavers alone spanned from the '30s, is the most famous; the Seeger brothers, sisters, cousins and others were also strongly involved with the history of indigenous American music, and were part of the founding of Smithsonian Folkways records, the label whose catalog of rural field recordings of folk and blues comprises an incredibly important American historical artifact. At night, at camp, I, along with maybe a hundred other 10-year-olds from New York City, learned to sing and play ancient broadside ballads, hymns, '30s labor anthems and '60s protest songs by icons whose names we didn't know: Cisco Houston, Huddie Ledbetter, Woody Guthrie.

The power and variety of those songs are formidable, for a variety of reasons. These are both traditional and public-domain tunes whose provenance is long forgotten, whose music and lyrics are constantly shifting as they get passed down from each generation, and more recent songs that chronicle triumph, tragedy and just pedestrian American life.

Bruce Springsteen, whose blue-collar sensibility and gift for crafting the rock 'n' roll American ballad drew comparisons to Bob Dylan early in his career, has long been part of that folk trajectory, particularly with ghostly, more obviously folk-influenced projects like Nebraska (1983), The Ghost of Tom Joad (1995) and last year's Devils and Dust. These works showcase what Springsteen is best at, and what lies at the core of the folk tradition: telling the greater story of the country through recounting individual lives and events. So it's easy for a Northeastern kid like myself to relate to Springsteen's interest in Pete Seeger, which includes his 1997 contribution to a Seeger tribute album: blown away by the enormity of America and the sounds of its people singing.

We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions is Springsteen's take on 13 public-domain songs associated with Seeger, recorded live in three sessions in 1997, 2005 and 2006. The energy is palpably loose, with a gang of more than 15 musicians on upright bass, banjo, washboard, violin, accordion, guitar and more -- all coming together at top volume to create an authentic cacophony topped off by the Boss' familiar rasp. Some of the song choices don't come across totally successful, mostly the more simplistic ones that audiences know as children's songs, like "Erie Canal" and "Froggie Went A-Courtin'."

The all-live production approach to a band this large and informal is kind of a crapshoot: Songs where one instrument leads, like Mark Clifford's banjo on "My Oklahoma Home," or where the sound is more cohesive -- as with the gorgeously haunting, high-energy "O Mary Don't You Weep" -- are the strongest. Springsteen is also at his best when the lyrics have a message to get behind, as with the Irish antiwar broadside "Mrs. McGrath." The Woody Guthrie-associated ballad celebrating the outlaw, "Jesse James," is also a foot-stomping romp.

The lightness and fun the band's having, though, is audible, and if the recorded versions aren't always super, it's only because this is the kind of music meant to be shared live. -- Fensterstock

Bruce Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions Band performs at 5:30 p.m. Sunday, April 28, at the Acura Stage.

The New Orleans Social Club

Sing Me Back Home

(Sony BMG)

Six weeks after Hurricane Katrina scattered New Orleanians into the diaspora that we're now all more than familiar with, several of the better-known members of the city's musical community gathered at Austin, Texas' Wire Recording. Homesick, confused, angry and far from home, the album they recorded -- under the name The New Orleans Social Club, released earlier this month -- audibly channeled those feelings into a gorgeously eclectic collage.

The 13 tracks on Sing Me Back Home, contributed by a collective that includes Irma Thomas, Marcia Ball, Troy Andrews, Henry Butler and Cyril, Ivan and Charles Neville, manage to come together, cohesively. It works both as a celebration of the New Orleans music whose future, at that time, was uncertain, as well as a vent for the anger and frustration that built up after the storm.

Producer Leo Sacks first became enamored of the Crescent City in the Gospel Tent 25 years ago and later recorded the late New Orleans gospel great Raymond Myles. "The emotions were so powerful -- all the uncertainty, trauma, anger, fear, rage, all the despair," Sacks says producing the Social Club. "The healers needed healing, and they healed themselves."

Maybe it was catharsis, and maybe it was the MCI analog tape, but the extra energy coming through in the collaboration is palpable. It's the kind of New Orleans record that will make even the most jaded local remember what it felt like the first time they heard the Crescent City sound, even if you're at that familiar point where another crawfish image or bowl of red beans will make you throw up from yeah-you-right overload.

The album kicks off with no sentimentality -- the by-now famously disgruntled Cyril Neville turns Curtis Mayfield's defiantly patriotic "My Country" into an indictment, his voice -- ferociously unbowed -- loaded with determination as well as betrayal. During a performance of the song at the Austin City Limits festival, Cyril unfurled an American flag and dedicated the song to the people of the Sixth, Seventh, Eighth and Ninth Wards.

Other standouts include Dr. John's funky, syncopated take on "Walking to New Orleans," Troy Andrews' freestyling instrumental "Hey Troy, Your Mama's Calling You" and the Mighty Chariots of Fire's flaming gospel version of "99 1/2 Just Won't Do." But the masterpiece of the album is Ivan Neville's fierce cover of John Fogerty's "Fortunate Son." Neville turns the already-powerful song of the disenfranchised into an anthem, removing the guitar line and adding a low-down New Orleans brass. The coup de grace on the track is the second-line style chant at the end -- "Take me back to New Orleans / Whatcha gonna do with the money?" -- which turns the song into possibly the best Katrina-related piece of art yet produced, incorporating defiance, hope and beauty all at once. -- Fensterstock


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