Catholics in countries all over the world next week mark the run up to the Lenten Fast, where the devout are encouraged to sacrifice a pleasure in symbolic representation of the sacrifice that Jesus made for them. While there are special days set aside for religious services — Ash Wednesday, for example — the week has been traditionally given over festivities.
While there are celebrations from Quebec City in Canada to Koln in the Catholic Rhineland district of Germany, two have always stood head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of renown and infamy: Carnival in Brazil and Mardi Gras in New Orleans. While neither event would let anything as trivial as hurricane damage normally stand in the way of a good time, Mardi Gras in New Orleans has surely suffered because of the continued absence from home of so many musicians who would normally have participated.
In this, the third Mardi Gras since the levees broke in 2005, literally thousands of musicians are still scattered across the American South in refugee camps awaiting word that housing is available for them. Unfortunately there is a definite lack of political support for the rebuilding that would be required to accommodate most of those left homeless. It's been left to various action committees, charitable organizations, bands, and individual performers to raise funds in an effort to either find rental units or build new housing, one musician at a time.
The latest project is a collaboration between the bands OK Go and Bonerama who are releasing a special five-song E.P., You're Not Alone, to raise funds to build a Habitat For Humanity home for Al "Carnival Time" Johnson. It's only fitting that this benefit project be launched at the onset of Mardi Gras, as 40 years ago Al Johnson wrote the song which has since become the week's unofficial theme; "Carnival Time."
Although You're Not Alone is not due to be released until February 5, the bands are joining forces this Saturday, Feb. 2, to promote the fund-raising drive with a concert at Washington D.C.'s 9:30 club. Tickets are $20.00 and will kick-off the fund-raising. You're Not Alone is only going to be available for download through i-Tunes, which has agreed to donate all the proceeds. What's really wonderful is that other companies are joining in; IODA, a major digital distribution company will service and promote the disc free of charge, and EFM Worldwide/Horizon Cargo and Music Travel Management are paying to ship all equipment to the gig Saturday and cover the bands' travel expenses. In other words, very little of the money raised will be used for anything but the purpose for which it's being raised.
Al Johnson's story is like so many other New Orleans' musicians. A resident of the Ninth Ward, when the levees broke his house was swamped and he was forced to evacuate. The house was lifted up off its foundations and moved on its lot a few feet. While Al was able to rescue a couple of items ("things that were laminated, he said") the city demolished his house without asking his permission or even letting him know. (Since we know from Naomi Klien's book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise Of Disaster Capitalism in her chapter on New Orleans, that there is a concentrated effort by politicians at the state and local level to prevent the rebuilding of housing, you have to wonder how many houses were destroyed in just this manner).
Now aside from the feeling that you're doing something intrinsically good by purchasing You're Not Alone when it goes on sale next Tuesday, you'll also receive some really good music. I wasn't familiar with either band before reviewing the material so I had no idea what to expect musically when I first listened to it. The title is taken from a line in David Bowie's classic tune from the Ziggy Stardust album "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," one of two cover tunes the bands play.
Damian Kulash, lead singer of OK Go, does a magnificent job of re-interpreting the vocal line for "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide." His inflections are such that he is reminiscent of Bowie without really sounding like him. He is able bring the proper emotional weight to the material while avoiding sliding over the edge into the melodrama. Of course Bonerama, a brass band, are right at home with the song and have expanded upon the original's use of horns. It always continues to amaze me how sultry a trombone can be made to sound in the proper hands.
I was pleasantly surprised by the three original songs from OK Go's most recent release Oh No that have been adapted for this release with "Lately It's So Quiet" standing out in particular. While both "A Million Ways" and "It's A Disaster" are good songs, well performed and interestingly arranged, there was something about the emotional quality of "Lately It's So Quiet" that held my attention more than the others. Kulash has an impressive voice, not so much in terms of power but in its expressiveness.
What served him so well in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," the ability to pull emotion from a lyric without having to "emote" all over the place, is on display in each track. It's very impressive for a young singer to learn the less is more rule so effectively and so quickly. Someone with less self assurance might have been tempted to belt out lines instead of trusting in the power of the lyric and his ability to communicate to make the song work.
The fifth song the bands do is a cover of Bob Dylan's "I Shall Be Released," and Al Johnson joins them, singing the lead vocals. I've heard quite a few versions of this song performed and I must say that this is one of the best. First of all there 's something about the song which lends itself to a horn section, and that is complimented by Bonerama's arrangement which is eerily reminiscent of the funeral marches traditionally played by New Orleans' Brass Bands.
Combined with the mournful, and extremely soulful, rendering of the lyrics by the man whom the benefit is for, you question just what release Dylan was actually talking about. Maybe it's the final release we all have to look forward to at the end of all our struggles and tribulations. Now those are pretty heavy thoughts to be putting into a disc to raise money and awareness of the situation still facing people in New Orleans, but maybe that's the point. People need to be made aware of just how serious the situation remains.
Here it is the third Mardi Gras after Katrina and thousands of people are still living in refugee camps with no sign of there ever being homes for them to return to. While there is an effort to try and find housing for displaced musicians, what about all the other people whose lives were uprooted? What release do they have from their misery?
OK Go's lead singer Damian Kulash shows he understands how important it is for the whole community to be rebuilt when in the press release he talked about how the "People get together on the weekends and parade through the streets just playing songs; 12-year-old-kids learn funk on the tuba; everyone dances. Life elsewhere in the world simply isn't as celebratory."
Without those people who make up the community that culture will die, or simply become a sham. Culture does not grow in a vacuum, it is an extension of the people in its community. It's all very well and good to bring the musicians home, but without the people from the neighbourhoods to provide the heart and soul that makes New Orleans what it is, it will just be a flimsy facsimile of what once was.
As noted, the title of the EP, You're Not Alone, is from a line in "Rock 'n' Roll Suicide," where the lead singer sings: "You're not alone – give me your hand" and the backing vocals respond with a chorus of "You're Wonderful." Yet, while that sentiment is true as far the band members of OK Go and Bonerama are concerned, I'd be willing to bet that after two plus years in refugee camps the majority of people are probably starting to feel abandoned.
There are many ways for the rest of us to show that's not the case. Buying the EP, You're Not Alone when it comes available for download on i-Tunes on Tuesday, Feb. 5, the beginning of this year's Mardi Gras, is not only a chance to enjoy some great music, but to reach out a hand and let the people of New Orleans know that you remember them.