Various Artists

Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast

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Several benefit albums have been released in the wake of Hurricane Katrina's landfall in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, and most -- if not all -- of them have been fine and well-intentioned affairs, full of the spirited and lively music that has long made the Crescent City special. Each of these collections has merit, but if you can only afford to pick up one, then this is it. Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast features New Orleans-linked musicians, several of whom were among the four-hundred-thousand people displaced when the levees failed, on new recordings made within a month of the disaster, and that immediacy gives these performances uncommon resonance. The full weight of the region's loss permeates every track here, as well as the power of music to confront, diffuse, overcome, define, absorb and transcend. Allen Toussaint, the pianist, singer, songwriter and producer, lost everything but the clothes on his back to the flood waters, yet his funky, hopeful "Yes We Can Can," which opens this amazing set, reveals the boundless hope inherent in the human spirit, and the song is reshaped by Toussaint into a powerful belief in the future of New Orleans, soaring against the long odds with defiant joy. Soul singer Irma Thomas' stunning version of Bessie Smith's "Backwater Blues," which was recorded by Smith shortly after the failure of the levees in 1927, is as raw as a shocked nerve, held together by the singer's subtle, angry resignation. The Wild Magnolia's ramshackle and insistent "Brother John Is Gone/Herc-Jolly-John" reminds us of the wild, uplifting, and chaotic energy that has always been at the heart of the region's music. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now" seems particularly apt given the current refugee status of so many of the coast's residents, yet the classic second-line arrangement is likewise powerfully reassuring. Buckwheat Zydeco's "Cryin' in the Streets" is a powerfully emotional gospel shout that draws on its own desperation until a kind of redemption is reached, the musical equivalent of the old saying "we laughed/we cried." Randy Newman's gorgeous "Louisiana 1927" is also here, re-recorded with the combined Louisiana and New York Philharmonic Orchestras, and the song's chorus, "Louisiana/They're tryin' to wash us away," has never sounded so poignant and terrifyingly true. Song after song on Our New Orleans exhibits an elegiac awareness of what has been lost and the difficult decisions and tasks that are yet to come. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band's version of "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans," a song that was written for the 1947 film New Orleans and had since become a kind of cheesy tourist staple, reclaims the heart of the tune and returns it to its status as a gloriously beautiful love song for an amazing city, a city that not only has to be rescued and rebuilt, it must also be remade, for what is lost, if it comes back again, comes back inevitably changed. Pianist Eddie Bo tackles the hoary "When the Saints Go Marching In" like it's a song he's singing for the first time ever in his life, and the world-weary joy and exhausted determination inherent in the lyrics gives "Saints" a renewed substance and weight. The old song, perhaps half forgotten even by the people who sing it and hear it daily, is here stripped of all its tired moss and revealed for the glorious parade hymn it always was, the best tune ever for marching joyously into the future. But the future for New Orleans is uncertain. Many who were forced to leave when the levees were breached may not return, either because they can't or won't. The city will have to be remade, hopefully in its old image, but it won't be easy, it it's possible at all. The ghosts of Katrina and its aftermath will always be there. But the musicians on this stunning album trust the music of New Orleans to give solace, hope and direction in the massive recovery that lies ahead, and as Eddie Bo ends his revisionist, stripped down, sparkling rendition of "Saints" here with a quiet, softly spoken "I wanna be in that number," it's obvious the music already has. Get this.

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