“I know as a musician that traveling, being away from home, your memory and longing to return is really conducive to writing and making music,” guitarist C.C. Adcock told No Depression Magazine in 2005 after Hurricane Katrina. “I think after this you’re going to hear some killer songs and performances.”
The destruction and forced exile of the storm inspired its share of great music: Terence Blanchard’s “A Tale of God’s Will” and the Dirty Dozen’s “What’s Going On” come to mind.
But the story in the music community, as with other aspects of life in New Orleans, has been how it has dealth with change. Here’s a look at some of the strongest currents that have emerged from that time.
Frenchmen Street grows up
For more than 20 years, music lovers have pointed to Frenchmen Street as the place to hear “real” New Orleans music. Since the storm, Frenchmen Street has hit critical mass.
HBO’s “Treme” helped popularize Frenchmen, but the crowds were trending upward before Katrina. That growth came from tourists and others looking for nightlife first, New Orleans second, and the brass bands on the street, art market, and general hubbub on the street have prompted many to dub it another Bourbon Street, built on music but no longer about it.
Culture to go?
A similar question — Is there a place for New Orleans’ laissez-faire in post-Katrina New Orleans? — is wired into questions about zoning, permitting and noise.
The City Council has yet to enact new noise ordinances, but enforcement efforts for existing zoning and noise ordinances and the encouragement of good-neighbor agreements to facilitate a liquor license has given people reason to fear that something quintessentially New Orleans is facing a bureaucratic death.
One positive byproduct of this anxiety is that it brought the music community together in the way that the musicians union hasn’t. The Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans emerged as a response to the concern that moneyed interests are changing the nature of New Orleans culture one go-cup at a time.
R&B generation hit hard
It doesn’t help that the music community itself has changed since the storm. Post-Katrina flooding forced Neville Brothers Aaron and Cyril to take up residence in New York City and Austin, respectively. Age and ill health have reduced the number of active representatives of the generation of R&B artists still performing. Fats Domino became a symbol for New Orleans’ rebirth as his Lower Ninth Ward house was prematurely graffiti’ed with an “R.I.P.” tag, but most efforts to coax him back on stage failed as the years have affected his ability to perform.
One of the architects of New Orleans music, Dave Bartholomew, is 93. We lost Eddie Bo, Snooks Eaglin and Benny Spellman, to name a few. Earlier this year at Jazz Fest, only Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas, The Dixie Cups, Wanda Rouzan, Jean Knight, Robert Parker and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson were on hand to represent that era.
A post-K success story
Trombone Shorty, on the other hand, has emerged in the city’s post-Katrina landscape as the one artist big enough to close one of the main stages at Jazz Fest. He has been on the scene since he earned his name by being the youngest, smallest trombone player on the streets, but 2010’s “Backatown” album presented him and his Orleans Avenue band as part of New Orleans’ funk and R&B lineage — made for the world we live in today, with rock and hip-hop woven into the sound. He has become New Orleans’ most in-demand guest musician, and joined Prince onstage during his show at the Essence Music Festival.
Other important artists have emerged, including Americana band Hurray for the Riff Raff, which like Shorty existed pre-K but found its voice afterward. Singer/songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra made Appalachian folk song traditions speak sympathetically to life in the Bywater on this year’s “Small Town Heroes,” just as The Soul Rebels merged their college marching band experiences into their brass band funk on 2012’s “Free Your Mind” and this year’s mixtape “Power = Power” to produce some of the most compelling and heavy brass music being made in the city these days.
The resurgence of bounce has been one of the most interesting post-Katrina success stories. The first generation of bounce started in 1990, but by the mid-‘90s No Limit and Cash Money Records had become the sound of New Orleans hip-hop, and bounce was only present in its DNA.
Katey Red, Sissy Nobby and Big Freedia never quit, and they became the sound and face of bounce in 2008, so much so that nationally it was often wrongly assumed to be a gay phenomenon. Their hyperactive clatter boils down the first generation of bounce to its percussion and catch phrase essentials.
Freedia has been its breakout star, touring with dance-rock bands Matt & Kim and The Postal Service, releasing an EP nationally sponsored by the Scion car company, and starring in her own Fuse TV series.
It’s fair to observe that these artists are unlikely to replicate the long-term musical impact of New Orleans’ greatest generations, but that has as much to do with changes to the culture and the market as their talent. It’s hard to imagine that a Spotify world would be any kinder to a young Allen Toussaint or Dr. John today than it is to anyone emerging.
And a Preservation Hall …
Preservation Hall has worked to bridge that gap between the glory days of New Orleans jazz and today — a project that started in 2004 when Hall artistic director Ben Jaffe began to bring New Orleans Bingo! Show vocalist Clint Maedgen in to sing The Kinks’ “Complicated Life” with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
After Katrina, Jaffe arranged for Philadelphia DJ King Britt to remix the band’s version of “St. James Infirmary,” accompanied by an animated video to bring the band into the YouTube era.
Preservation Hall sponsored tents at Voodoo to introduce younger, rock-oriented audiences to traditional New Orleans music, and did the same when it performed at Bonnaroo and toured as the opening band for My Morning Jacket.
Recently, Foo Fighters recorded a song and played a secret show at Preservation Hall, which underlined a basic post-Katrina truth about the New Orleans’ music scene: It’ll never be what it was, but it’s part of the national conversation in a way that it hasn’t been for a long time.