One recent benefit album, Our New Orleans 2005 (Nonesuch) presents musicians such as Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and Dr. Michael White at their elegant, stately best. Davell Crawford's churchy "Gather by the River" is restrained, while Dr. John's "World I Never Made" is quiet and introspective. The CD, which benefits Habitat for Humanity, is unquestionably beautiful, presenting almost everybody on the disc in the best light. That's not, however, the way these artists usually sound, and an orderly, tasteful presentation of New Orleans music seems at odds with the reality of the city, even before the storm. These recordings reflect a beautiful place, but it's a mythical, museum-sanctioned space that doesn't really represent our past or present.
New Orleans Will Rise Again (Night Train) isn't as artful as Our New Orleans, but it feels truer. The collection of obscure soul, funk and R&B from the 1960s and '70s benefiting the New Orleans Musicians Clinic demonstrates how entertaining music by the rank and file of New Orleans' musicians can be. "Black Blood (in the Mississippi Mud)" by Black Blood and the Chocolate Pickles is a remarkable track of soul dread, and Ernie K-Doe's "My Mother-in-Law" and Jessie Hill's "Dedicated to Professor Longhair" are inspired novelty songs.
The city's musical possibilities may be defined by the likes of Thomas, Toussaint and Dr. John, but less distinctive artists with less developed musical fingerprints represent its day-to-day reality. As often as not, genius manifests itself unpredictably and unequally. "Mardi Gras Party" by Carl Marshall and Sound Dimension, for example, is really funky, but it is also as generic as its title. None of the tracks on New Orleans Will Rise Again speak to listeners as clearly and powerfully as Irma Thomas' classic "I Wish Someone Would Care," but there's mystery in them that will draw listeners back.
New Orleans Underground: Sounds Below Sea Level (independent) is no more uniform or stellar than New Orleans Will Rise Again, but like the latter album, this CD benefiting Habitat for Humanity and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic shows how different musical trends manifested themselves in New Orleans. While little of the music is distinctive enough to warrant a national audience, everyone represented here certainly deserves an audience of some kind. It's tempting to say that underground rock 'n' roll here has gotten better because the songs by Morning 40 Federation, Zydepunks and Rotary Downs are among the best on this comp, but it may simply be a function of improvements in recording technology. Tracks from 1980 by the Cold, the Normals and Wayward Youth are dated by their productions and jittery, New Wave styles, but as a compilation designed to show outsiders another side of the musical culture that Hurricane Katrina put at risk, it's excellent.
Perhaps it's no surprise that the CD that best represents the city's musical culture as it actually is comes from New Orleans' signature musical event. Jazz Fest Live 2005 Compilation is a three-disc set of highlights from the 2005 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival now available online (www.munckmusic.com), with proceeds going to MusiCares Hurricane Relief Fund. The set is dominated by current New Orleans headliners -- Ivan Neville, Anders Osborne, Theresa Andersson, Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes, and Galactic, to name a few -- though the Campbell Brothers and Toots & the Maytals are among the handful of international acts presented. The disc includes Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown from his final Jazz Fest appearance, and Phil Philips' haunting "Sea of Love" from this year's Swamp Pop Summit.
The albums are sufficiently sprawling that it's hard to make blanket pronouncements about them, other than that they present a pretty accurate picture of the current state of New Orleans funk, blues and R&B. The set opens and closes with the Meters' reunion, which is appropriate considering the degree to which that band defined contemporary New Orleans music. Their emphasis on the groove and spontaneity casts a long shadow over the city, though perhaps it explains why New Orleans' musicians don't have the sort of national sales we wish they'd have. It's hard to capture those ephemeral qualities on tape, particularly in structured songs. That's not to say everything on Jazz Fest Live 2005 Compilation jams, but jam values are usually present in greater or lesser degrees.
Just as the post-Katrina moment has given New Orleanians cause to reconsider their homes, their lives and their city, it provides an occasion to contemplate the music as well. As we think about how it returns, what returns and what role it plays in the city's future, it's useful to try to come to grips with what it is. That means thinking about its past and its future, and letting its legendary nature block critical thought. It would be nice if Our New Orleans defined the city's dominant aesthetics, but it's hard to hear these other collections and not suspect that they're closer to the truth.
- New Orleans Will Rise Again demonstrates how genius manifests itself unpredictably and unevenly in New Orleans music.