Far too many times special benefit concerts for people in need feel like nobody, save for those who organized the event, has any idea of why the concert is even taking place. The performers come out and play their asked for song, maybe mouth some platitude, and the massed audience, both live and at home watching the simulcast "live" feed in the comfort of their living room, are sitting back enjoying the show.
Every so often somebody will get up and address the crowd, but their ears have been so shell-shocked by the concert noise they can't make out a word of what's being said to them even if they cared to listen. But once in a long while there comes along one of these concerts where, through a combination of circumstances and organizational savvy, the audience can't help but be aware of the reasons for the event.
Judging by the double DVD release of the event, From The Big Apple To The Big Easy, such was the case with a benefit concert performed in New York City for the city of New Orleans just weeks after Hurricane Katrina had left the city in ruins and displaced thousands upon thousands of people from their homes and loved ones.
It was one of those rare events where those on the stage and in the audience were equally cognizant about what they were all doing there.
To begin with nearly three quarters of the musicians who performed that night had lost everything they owned when the floodwaters hit, as they were residents of New Orleans. If nothing else it proved the indiscriminate nature of a hurricane as both the renowned and the barely known were equally bereft. From the Neville Brothers of international fame to the Rebirth Brass Band of far less acclaim they were all, as Aaron Neville's baseball cap so eloquently spelled out, evacuees.
The mood of the evening was set with the opening, as the Rebirth Brass Band and horn player Troy Andrews walked through the audience playing a traditional funeral dirge that leads mourners to the graveyards of New Orleans. "Dirge/Celebrate" started with the band playing their mournful air out among the high rollers on the floor of Madison Square Garden, and saw them climb to the stage to switch gears to lead us back to the living with the dance music associated with after the burial service is over and done with.
Death is a time to mourn a loss and rejoice in the potential for a new life, hence the name Rebirth Brass Band, and the purpose of this concert. By opening the evening with this act, the organizers made it clear what their intent was; a mourning for what had happened, a celebration of what was, and a way to help New Orleans begin again.
Disc one of From The Big Apple To The Big Easy features primarily the music of New Orleans being played by her people. After the Rebirth Brass Band, Bill Bradley, the host for the evening, told the audience about the circumstances of most of the musicians they were going to see that night, and then got down to the serious business at hand of introducing the music.
Predominant for most of disc one is the Allen Toussaint Band, who play a wonderful New Orleans Jazz/Blues style of music. Throughout the disc they are joined by a variety of singers doing a variety of musical styles. Appropriately, and wonderfully, Clarence "Frogman" Henry performed his classic "I Ain't Got No Home". In spite of having to hold on to the microphone stand for support, and being helped on and off stage while leaning heavily on a cane, he proved he could still do the vocal tricks that gave him his nickname.
I don't know about the rest of the audience, but it was watching him that brought home to me the reality of the situation of Hurricane Katrina. As he was being helped from the stage I was wondering how did he manage to escape the floodwaters to safety? What about others who are old and infirm with less fame then him, where were they staying during this time?
It was the same for each of the older musicians from New Orleans. Looking at them and watching them perform it was hard to believe that these were people who had just lost their homes and a lifetime's worth of mementos. Or maybe that's what helped them lose themselves in the music so effectively. The music was one thing the hurricane hadn't been able to take away from them and to perform with such vitality was an act of defiance and affirmation.
Disc one closed with four songs by the blues band for the night – Ry Cooder, Buckwheat Zydeco, and Lenny Kravitz. While each of them on their own were quite incredible, it was the final song of the disc when they were joined by Irma Thomas in a performance of "Backwater Blues" that was most emotional. Backwater Blues was written about the flood of 1927 when a great many poor blacks lost their lives in the Mississippi coastal towns because the levees of Louisiana turned the water "back" and flooded them out.
For Ms. Thomas it must have been doubly emotional singing that song, not just because of the history, but her own circumstances. Not only had she lost her home, but her club had been completely submerged. At the time, only a month after the storm, nobody knew what the process would be like for reclamation so she must have felt in limbo at the time.
For me the only low part of the two-disc set were chunks of the second disc where it turns a little too much into "celebrity turns" at times. Although John Fogarty tears up the place with "Born On The Bayou" and "Proud Mary", and Elton John does a rendition of "Levon" with the most fire in his belly than I've heard in years, the extended Jimmy Buffet set was tedious, and Simon and Garfunkel just seemed tired.
Thankfully The Dirty Dozen Brass Band was there to inject a whole bunch of life into the proceedings. Along with guests Dave Bartholomew and Elvis Costello on "The Monkey", Diana Krall and Troy Andrews on the Fats Domino classic "I'm Walkin'", and Kermit Ruffins for "St. James Infirmary" they brought the spirit of New Orleans back to the stage again.
It was only fitting that the final songs of the concert featured New Orleans' most famous brother act – The Neville Brothers. (They also featured the only overtly political statement with Cyril Neville wearing a hand scrawled message on a white t-shirt stating "Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans) The first song they performed, "Carry The Torch", was by themselves, and then they were joined by The Meters for "Hey Pocky Way" and "Amazing Grace".
As a grand finale what could be more fitting than "When The Saints Go Marching In"? Started by The Neville Brothers and The Meters, they were joined on stage by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Rebirth Brass Band plus all the other guests of the night. It was a fitting send off to a night celebrating the people and the music of New Orleans.
From The Big Apple To The Big Easy is a wonderful record of a quite amazing event (100% of net profits from the sale of the DVD will be used to benefit victims of the hurricane). Not only was it a collection of some amazing music, but it serves as a reminder to the rest of the world, specifically the rest of America, of the spirit and grace of the people who live in New Orleans.
The music of New Orleans is the lifeblood of a great deal of the music of North America. From Jazz to Soul to Blues, and Rock and Roll it has been the primordial pool where the music has evolved into what we know today. When you buy this disc you are not just helping people whose lives are devastated by disaster, you are putting money into preserving a piece of the genuine cultural heritage of the New World. If we have our own distinct sound it comes from that city and those people.
The folks at Rhino Records have put together some video samples for you to watch, so you're not buying sight unseen, and they've even provided a multitude of formats for you. There's Irma Thomas with the Allen Toussaint band – singing, "Time is on My Side" (which she wrote) in three speeds of Windows format: 56.wvx, 100.wvx, and 450.wvx and in Real audio and Quicktime. Lenny Kravitz with Allen Toussaint Band – "Hercules”: 56.wvx, 100.wvx, 450.wvx, Real Audio, and Quicktime. The Neville Brothers &The Meters – "Amazing Grace": 56.wvx, 100.wvx, 450.wvx, Real audio, and Quicktime.
For those of you who want to send someone an E-Card about the discs they have that too.
From The Big Apple To The Big Easy does the remarkable; it captures the spirit of New Orleans. Even if the money weren't going somewhere where it's desperately needed, it would be worth what ever is being asked as the price for this disc for that reason alone.