Big Easy music, too, displaced by Katrina
By JAKE COYLE
By JAKE COYLE
AUSTIN, Texas — The music of New Orleans was conjured in an old Austin recording studio.
Just six weeks after Hurricane Katrina, some of the Crescent City's best-known musicians came to this Texas city, where they cut an album dedicated to their ravaged hometown.
At that recording session, names synonymous with New Orleans — Neville, Porter, Nocentelli, Rebennack — gathered to channel their raw emotions into the bittersweet new tribute CD, "Sing Me Back Home."
"The music lives on in those players, no matter where they are," said George Porter Jr., the bassist and band leader of the New Orleans Social Club, as the collective called itself.
Some of the best-known talents of the New Orleans music scene had been accustomed to living minutes away from each other in the Ninth Ward, but Katrina scattered them across Texas, Colorado and elsewhere.
"I think I live in South Austin," said Cyril Neville, still trying to get his bearings. On the album, released last week, he sings Curtis Mayfield's "This Is My Country."
In the weeks after Katrina, producer Leo Sacks assembled the New Orleans Social Club — a five-piece band led by Porter, best known as one of the founding members of the Meters.
Fellow Meter Leo Nocentelli joined on guitar, as well as Ivan Neville on organ, Henry Butler on piano and Raymond Weber on drums.
Many guests were brought in.
Dr. John (Mac Rebennack) plays "Walking to New Orleans"; John Boutte covers Annie Lennox's "Why"; and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux sings the specially composed "Chase."
"I knew as soon as you got New Orleans cats together, you were going to have the spirit and sound of the city," said Sacks. "We could address all the emotions of the moment."
Between songs, many of the musicians were busy tracking the damage to their homes, looking at old photos or speaking to family members dispersed by the storm.
"It helped me to be with these guys and be busy, take my mind off of it," said Weber, who has migrated to Austin with his family. "It was like being back home."
Since portions of the proceeds from "Sing Me Back Home" will benefit the Salvation Army, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Music Cares, Weber said he's in the odd position of raising money for his own cause — to rebuild his home.
"I'm part of the project as well, because we did it for Katrina victims who want to come on back home," he said, laughing heartily. "I want to go back home!"
Ivan Neville is the son of New Orleans icon Aaron Neville, whose house was ruined in the Katrina floodwaters. Like countless New Orleans residents, Ivan feels the government has let down his city and his people, and he expressed that by covering Creedence Clearwater's "Fortunate Son."
"A song like 'Fortunate Son' was pertinent when it was out during the Vietnam War," said Neville, who is living in Austin.
"And the fact that that's still relevant now is ridiculous."
Like "Fortunate Son" (which Rolling Stone called "outraged funk"), much of "Sing Me Back Home" is imbued with political protest.
"Too many have died protecting my pride for me to go second class," Cyril Neville (brother to Aaron) sings on "This Is My Country."
Much of the album, though, is also full of toe-tapping optimism. The Mighty Chariots of Fire perform "99 1/2 Won't Do" and Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball sing "Look Up."
"Music always takes the place of anything that's negative," said Nocentelli, who lost an office space to the hurricane, and whose mother and sister lost everything.
"The music heals," said Cyril Neville.
Everyone in the band was concerned that the culture of New Orleans might never come back, even if the city does.
Some 250,000 residents — more than half of the pre-hurricane population, many of them black — remain scattered all over the country.
"It's never going to be the same, because a lot of the poorest people who had to leave are not going to be able to make it back," said Ivan Neville.
"To me, that's a major part of the heart and soul of the city: the people."
Cyril Neville expected to stay in Austin. He suggested others will also remain in their new communities, because "we've been treated how human beings are supposed to be treated."
Added Porter: "At this point, New Orleans music will start living in Austin or Denver, wherever the group of players are living that created what is known as New Orleans music. It will be New Orleans music, by way of Austin."