It’s another Mardi Gras season, down in New Orleans. Several weeks of parties and parades will culminate in the big blowout 21 February. Thousands will crowd the streets that day and night, tossing beads, carrying go-cups with their favorite (probably alcoholic) beverage, and chanting “Who dat?” Dress will range from the barely-there to the wildly extravagant, and there will be music everywhere. In short, nothing much out of the typical fare.
At least, not on the surface. New Orleans now divides its recent history into two distinct periods, pre-Katrina and post-Katrina. The 2005 hurricane ripped the city apart, exposing deficiencies in everything from the infrastructure that was supposed to prevent the devastation to the city’s gaping racial and class disparities. But New Orleans’ distinctive culture didn’t get completely washed away by the storm. Its people simply refused to let that happen.
Central to this resilience, as it is to everything about the city, is New Orleans music, a genre onto itself even as its influences reside throughout everything from folk to hip-hop. But the musicians themselves had their worlds rocked by Katrina. Homes were subsumed in the flooding, equipment and mementos were destroyed. Quietly, away from the immediate post-Katrina spotlight of worldwide news coverage, they coped with the aftermath just as their friends and neighbors did, rebuilt their lives, and found both new songs to sing and new meaning in many of the old songs.
As music reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Keith Spera has had a much better view of these post-Katrina journeys than just about anyone. Groove Interrupted, his collection of profiles of some of the leading figures in New Orleans music, captures the strength and faith they summoned to keep the music going.
In some cases, it took an awful lot of that strength and faith. Fats Domino was widely rumoured to have perished in the flood, but in fact was rescued by helicopter from the balcony of his house. Aaron Neville contended with concerns about not just his own health, but also his wife’s; he did not return to New Orleans until January 2007, to bury her after she succumbed to cancer. The irrepressible Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, already in bad health, evacuated the city just before the storm, and died a few days later in Texas (in an especially cruel twist of fate, Hurricane Ike’s ravages dislodged his casket from its resting place three years later).
There are also stories of New Orleans musicians who survived different kinds of storms. Former Pantera lead singer Phil Anselmo underwent spinal surgery a few weeks after Katrina – but had to get drug-free first (this, after the late 2004 murder of former bandmate Darrell “Dimebag” Abbott by a crazed fan). Rapper Mystikal rode out Katrina in jail, in the middle of a six-year sentence for sexual battery. Rebirth Brass Band leader Phil Frazier suffered a stroke in 2008 – and walked out of the hospital one month later.
Aside from Brown, the musicians in Groove Interrupted came out of their Katrina experiences stronger in spirit and with their muses newly inspired. Trumpeter/composer Terence Blanchard wrote the music for Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke, and refashioned some of those pieces into his suite A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). Allen Toussaint, a New Orleans R&B standard-bearer since the ‘60s, gained new prominence through his post-Katrina collaboration with Elvis Costello (The River in Reverse, 2006), and ended up recording his first solo album in years (The Bright Mississippi, 2009). The annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Jazz Fest for short, is a recurring character throughout the profiles, but that might not have been the case had festival producer Quint Davis not felt that staging a Jazz Fest in 2006, with even the festival site itself still in massive disrepair, was essential to the city’s psyche.
Lots of cities have diverse music scenes, but Spera’s plainspoken profiles, in which he stays out of the way and lets his subjects’ personalities emerge, capture the inter-connectedness unique to New Orleans’. Groove Interrupted is as much a primer on early ’00s New Orleans music as it is a testament to grit overcoming long odds. The Big Easy is one of the few cities, and this is one of the few books, where it’s not especially jarring to imagine cult rock hero Alex Chilton breathing the same air as rapper Juvenile and Dixieland revivalist Pete Fountain. What they all have in common is that if home really is where the heart is, then New Orleans, with all its pre-Katrina charms and post-Katrina struggles, will always be home.