In the first days after Katrina hit, like most New Orleanians, I sat on multiple hotel beds obsessively watching CNN -- looking at a parallel universe, it seemed, in which my adopted home of 10 years was not only devolving into an evermore frightening state of otherworldly chaos but was also suddenly populated by an all-star cast. There was Oprah Winfrey. There was Sean Penn. There (briefly) was the president. Out of all the famous faces eager to get camera time while helping out in the wrecked city, the only one who didn't seem out of place was Harry Connick Jr., who stood in the middle of Canal Street talking to reporters looking as if he were about to cry.
Back in his hometown during that first week of September 2005, Connick -- like anyone unlucky enough to be in town -- had terrible things burned into his brain. One of the original songs on his new album, Oh My NOLA, which has just been released, had its genesis as he stood outside the Convention Center watching his fellow New Orleanians wait for help that looked like it would never come. The resulting chilling gospel-funk number, "All These People," leaps out of the album like a wrenching sob.
"I saw people dying, I saw dead people, people having seizures because of lack of medication, people who were there for days," he remembered in an interview last month. "It was demeaning. It was gross. And when I sing it, I'm reminded of what I saw. It's not our fault, but new headlines and new disasters come up and we move on. But this was such a huge disaster, and it shouldn't be forgotten."
Oh My NOLA, as conceived by Connick's label, was released on the same day as his other 2007 album, Chanson Du Vieux Carre. The two stand in unintentional counterpoint to each other as a twofold love song to the Crescent City, although most of the writing and recording for both was done well before Katrina (almost all of his previous releases have included at least one New Orleans classic, and until recently, his Big Band included two die-hard New Orleanians, trombonists Craig Klein and Mark Mullins.) Chanson Du Vieux Carre is an intricate masterwork of big band jazz that showcases his talent as a bandleader and arranger, from reworked versions of classic Louis Armstrong tunes to complex, textured originals like "Ash Wednesday." And if that album is a thoughtful meditation on the many moods of the city, the second, Oh My NOLA, is a feet-first leap into the visceral joy of New Orleans music, dipping into indigenous Crescent City sounds from hot traditional jazz to sexy, sloppy, '60s-style R&B. Oh My NOLA seems especially loving, though, as he dips into different styles and sounds that pay homage to musical greats like the late gospel star Raymond Myles ("Elijah Rock") or the piano wizard James Booker -- Connick's stripped-down arrangement of his "Let Them Talk," sounds juke-joint authentic. "Just about all of those songs are songs that stay in your consciousness, or your subconscious," he says. "The composing of Allen Toussaint, the piano of Fess or James Booker. They bring back memories, man."
The native New Orleanian has been away from home for some time now; between recording and touring, he also starred last year in the Broadway revival of The Pajama Game and is currently working on a feature film opposite Hilary Swank. His loyalty and affection for the city was always apparent through his conception of the Krewe of Orpheus. This year, he's put his money where his mouth is even more with the Habitat for Humanity Musicians' Village, his high-concept, well-intentioned project with Branford Marsalis. But now he's showing his love in the language the Crescent City understands maybe best of all -- with the music.
Record Store Opening Party
Traditionally, independent record stores in New Orleans have had hard luck. The past decade has seen at least three indie vinyl shops go the way of Krauss and K&B. This Saturday, though, one new shop is adding to the signs of life sparking up in Mid-City. The Domino Record Shack (2557 Bayou Road), the baby of local dub reggae DJ Prince Pauper, aka Matt Knowles, opens up selling new and used platters on the corner of Bayou Road and Broad Street. The grand opening party, featuring DJ sets by Brice Nice, Soul Sister and Dub Insurgent, takes place from noon to 8 p.m. Saturday.
- Harry Connick Jr. releases two albums about New Orleans this week.