Looking at the images that came out of New Orleans in the weeks and months following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, combined with reading about government policy of deliberate neglect when it came to rebuilding the city, I have to admit to feeling pessimistic about its chances for recovery. What was especially worrisome was reading about the losses suffered by the city’s musical community. Not only were many of the bars they relied on for their livings destroyed, but their homes and musical instruments were washed away as well. Further compounding the loss was the destruction of local recording studios and their precious stores of master tapes representing the musical legacy of so many gifted talents.
Concentrated efforts by musicians and organizations dedicated to the welfare of musicians to raise funds for everything from replacing lost sound systems for clubs whose insurance didn’t cover so-called “acts of God” to helping struggling musicians pay the rent and put food on their tables was a sign that some recognized how important New Orleans is to the musical soul of America. Yet, would these band-aids be enough? Could the people come back from both the destruction of their homes and the antipathy their government was displaying towards them? Hearing elected officials call the destruction of your home “an opportunity” to revitalize an area is bad enough. But then to watch as they proceeded to tear down public housing that wasn’t even damaged by the hurricane in order to make way for expensive convention centres and condominiums would be enough to destroy anyone’s spirit.
However, two conversations I had with musicians who had both lived in New Orleans during their careers went a long way to reassuring me that no matter how bleak things might look, the people and the music would be back. Grayson Capps came home from being on tour to find his home gone after Katrina and was forced to relocate after living there since his University days, while the late Willy DeVille had lived and recorded in New Orleans for most of the 1990s. When I talked to both of them about the city’s chances for recovery, while naturally saddened by what had happened, they were both positive the spirit of the city could weather even this. In his song “And The Band Played On”, on his final album Pistola, DeVille calls out as the music fades, “New Orleans will rise again”. So firm was he in his belief in the city’s resilience.
Any last doubts that may have lingered in my mind after talking to them have now been completely dispelled after listening to the new release from the New Orleans traditional Rebirth Brass Band. The aptly titled Rebirth Of New Orleans, which is being released on April 12 2011 by Basin Street Records, gives proof to the truth that the band still plays on. And this ain’t no band playing while the Titanic sinks around it either. This is a band playing in celebration of life lived and being lived to its fullest as only those who have come close to losing it all seem to be able to do.
The first time I saw the Rebirth Brass Band play was on a DVD (From The Big Apple To The Big Easy) of a benefit concert given to raise money, and awareness of the plight facing them, for the musicians of New Orleans. Musicians from all over the world converged to honour the debt they felt to the music of the city. The event in New York City opened with the Rebirth marching in through the audience, playing a funeral dirge that segued into a celebratory stomp when it reached the stage. Most of them had been made homeless—or as fellow performer Aaron Neville’s baseball cap so eloquently put it, “evacuees”—by the Hurricane and had lost most of their belongings. So instead of what the band might normally wear in concert, the musicians dressed in whatever street clothes they were able to scrounge up. That included white T-shirts with individual messages of hope, and in some cases anger, printed on them, though none quite matched the message on Cyril Neville’s shirt: “Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans”.
Even then, at a concert only a few months removed from the hurricane, it was impossible not to be impressed by the power of their music and the strength of spirit it revealed in the individual musicians. Now here we are five years later and these guys are not only going strong, they’re blowing the doors off the world to let us know that New Orleans is alive and well and just as wild and unpredictable as ever.
The disc kicks off with a bang as the opening track, “Exactly Like You” opens with a snare drum solo, letting you know the Rebirth Brass Band are revving its engines. When the horns kick in full flight, you can see them in your mind’s eye marching down Bourbon Street pulling bystanders from the sidewalks to dance in their wake as they parade by.
These guys are a street party celebrating New Orleans waiting to happen in every song. Saucy and reverential by turn, their lyrics range from the fairly blatantly sexual on “I Like It Like That”, introspective on “The Dilemma” to the just plain fun of “Why Your Feet Hurt”, where they question why somebody’s feet should hurt if he or she hasn’t got any moves.
Musically, the group moves effortlessly from Dixieland, jazz-laced funk and hip hop to its own version of a horn-driven Afro-Cuban sound. Sometimes its music sounds like it’s seeped out of an old soundtrack from a movie like Shaft, with the horns lashing out the urgent clarion call of a big city. At other times the musicians pull back from their all out assault and let each instrument speak its piece. Yet, unlike other bands where sometimes solos seem to have nothing to do with each other, here it sounds like they are having a conversation with each other about the song’s content.
When dealing with a brass band, it would be easy to lose certain instruments in the mix, but that’s not the case with Rebirth. For not only can you hear each individual horn distinctly when they are playing en masse, even the percussion comes through loud and clear. Not only does that help contribute to the fullness of Rebirth’s sound, it helps prevent the multiple horns from becoming too overwhelming. Horns and nothing but horns can occasionally be harsh on the ears, so to have the earthier sound of congas and other percussion permeating the sound makes sure this isn’t the case with this disc.
You hear a lot about how some bands are better in concert than they are in a recording because of the energy they create when on stage with their performance. Somehow or other, a fair number of bands just don’t seem capable of recreating it in the studio. Well, you don’t need to worry about Rebirth Brass Band’s recordings lacking anything when it comes to energy or exuberance. Heck, you should worry about whether or not your stereo system or music player will be able to contain the energy it is producing, I don’t know if I’ve worried about whether or not the CD I was listening to could actually manage to contain the band’s sound before, but so potent and alive is the Rebirth Brass Band, you can’t believe it can stay trapped forever in that small disc. Sooner or later, you’re going to end up with the group hanging out in your living room.
If you can’t get to New Orleans in the near future and you have any doubts about whether or not the spirit of the place is still alive and well in spite of what’s happened down there over the past six years, one playing of Rebirth Of New Orleans and you’ll doubt no longer. Neither “acts of God”, oil companies or idiot government officials can stamp out the spirit of this city that easily, and we all should be eternally grateful for that fact. The world is getting more and more homogenized as it is, and we need as many unique places as we can get. The Rebirth Brass Band are one of the reasons why New Orleans is what it is, and this disc lets you bring that into your home.