The Call of Katrina

Dirty Dozen Brass Band gives sonic insight into New Orleans' stormy history

Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall more than 21 months ago and decimated New Orleans, that city's music community has been almost solely focused on chronicling the psychological and physical fallout of the storm. Rapper Lil Wayne released his acerbic polemic "Georgia....Bush," which tackled everything from media bias and right of return to police brutality and institutional racism. Wayne's former Hot Boyz collaborator Juvenile cut the equally caustic "Get Your Hustle On," declaring "fuck Fox News" and providing the morally thorny suggestion that Katrina refugees use their FEMA checks to fund drug operations. Legendary New Orleans R&B figure Allen Toussaint, meanwhile, came out of retirement to collaborate with Elvis Costello on The River in Reverse— which offered mournful and angry meditations on loss and redemption.

But perhaps the most fitting tribute to the hurricane victims was a suite of songs written 35 years ago, performed by some of the city's most cherished native sons. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's track-by-track redux of Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic What's Going Onis alternately brooding and invigorating. The disc, released last year, channels the elegiac, Vietnam-era Marvin Gaye classic into bloodshot catharsis. The songs are given radical face lifts so that many of the songs are nearly unrecognizable.

While this album is arguably the artistic apex of the popular New Orleans group, it's hardly a fluke. When Tornado Brass Band teamed up with Benny Jones in 1977 and created the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, they instantly became one of New Orleans' most recognizable musical exports. The band was celebrated because it broke all the rules of what a brass band was supposed to sound like. The group took a music form that, while still vital to the local community, had largely stagnated, and they infused it with the funk of the Meters as well as hints of New Orleans R&B and blues. This new vitality helped spark a brass band renaissance, and soon other outfits such as the Rebirth Brass Band, the Soul Rebels Brass Band, and Youngblood Brass Band formed and began cutting records.

Dirty Dozen Brass Band: channeling Marvin Gaye and Ray Nagin.
Dirty Dozen Brass Band: channeling Marvin Gaye and Ray Nagin.

What's Going Onopens with the now- infamous radio broadcast of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleading, "Get off your ass and do something, and let's fix the biggest crisis in this country." Soon, the mayor's words give way to the swell of horns that uneasily reconstruct the title song's perfectly uneasy melody. Later, Bettye Levette drops by for a guest turn on "What's Happening Brother." She captures the sad nostalgia of that song, asking, "Are things really getting better?" and "Do they still get down where we used to dance?"

The lyrics for "Save the Children," meanwhile, have been shaved down to the simple couplet, "I just want to ask a question / who really cares?" The words serve as an addendum of sorts to Kanye West's famous declaration that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." This isn't the album's only nod to hip hop. Public Enemy rapper Chuck D delivers a guest verse on "What's Going On" that reminds us that there's a war happening "on my front lawn." Gang Starr rapper Guru handles vocal duties on the excellent "Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)." Given the Dirty Dozen's penchant for incorporating new sounds into the mix, the rappers' inclusion is fitting and adds yet another dimension to the group's sound. And perhaps the album's greatest asset is its ability to not only capture a snapshot of New Orleans' post-Katrina psyche, but also to suggest new directions for one of the city's most prized musical traditions. Though they are dwelling on a dark chapter in the city's history, the Dirty Dozen are also looking to a brighter tomorrow.

 
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