REVIEW: Big Easy Benefits From Big Apple's Polish
Having only been able to read about this concert, I eagerly agreed to review the new two DVD set from Rhino Entertainment. The promo man’s e-mail said that the original New York City show(s) raised over $9 million for long-term Hurricane Katrina relief efforts in the New Orleans area, and 100% of the of the funds from net DVD sales will also go toward that cause. So, if you buy it, you are still contributing to the ongoing efforts – that could mean more substantial drops in da bucket down the line. Fortunately, this concert has plenty of memorable performances that will make your support seem that much more worthwhile.
Released on August 22nd, it took a while for the set to get here; but I got to watch it this past weekend and will cut right to the chase. My number one reason why you should own this concert film? Irma Thomas singing “Time Is On My Side”, backed by Allen Toussaint and his band. In a word – transcendent. She appears about halfway into the first DVD, one of many vocalists (not all of them from the Big Easy) who come on to do an individual number (many of them Toussaint-penned) with the master himself. On a night when there were many fine, memorable performances, Irma's can't be topped. When she started singing, I immediately teared-up. Her voice is so strong, full of conviction, and utterly soulful. I’ve heard her sing this Jerry Ragavoy tune many, many times – but never have I heard it mean more to Irma, her audience, and her hometown. It says all that needs to be said about why New Orleans and its people are important and why they will endure. Everything Irma sings at this show is magic (a frequently reached state for her – as those who saw her at the re-opening of the Superdome can attest); but after hearing “Time Is On My Side”, her other efforts and the rest of the show are just good soppin’ gravy. My wife agrees with me on this, so I must be right!
That said, let’s talk some gravy, then, about what else awaits you as your digital decoder processes the over three hours of performances from Madison Square Gardens on September 20, 2005, just about three weeks after the floodwalls and levees failed, and much of New Orleans and environs was still aquatic.
Toussaint and band are awesome accompaniment for much of Disc 1. Everything they play on is worth hearing, from his own upbeat take on “Southern Nights” to the strangest turn of this night, a duet with Cyndi Lauper (!?- well, the girl can sing, and is a New Yorker)) on a fusion of his “Last Train” with Barbara George’s “I Know” that defies all common sense by not becoming a train wreck. Of other highlights, Art Neville, beset by back problems, hobbles out on-stage and nails Toussaint’s “All these Things” – best version he’s ever done of it – perfectly touching and understated. Brother Cyril Neville’s powerful “Big Chief” also rings true – it’s a Professor Longhair song he’s done so much, he just about owns it now. Aaron Neville’s vocals with Toussaint and elsewhere over the two discs are, as always, amazing to hear and behold, even if his lung capacity isn’t quite what it used to be. On “Hercules”, Lenny Kravitz sounds a bit out of his depth (Aaron’s original version casts a big shadow), but redeems himself later in the “Blues Band” segment. Elvis Costello’s reading of two Toussaint classics is heartfelt; and I think it spawned their later CD collaboration. Also, I have to give props to Bette Midler for pulling Randy Newman’s moody classic, “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today” out of left field. It was one of the more satisfying surprises of the show.
The “Blues Band” segment ends the first DVD with Kravitz, Ry Cooder (who dressed this man?) and Buckwheat Zydeco jamming together on a few tunes, including Lenny’s great version of “When The Levee Breaks”. And then, they back Irma on “Backwater Blues”, another excellent turn for her, where you catch a few tears rolling down her cheeks.
The second DVD is much more of a hodgepodge of bands and styles that don’t really mesh all that well – not that anybody had much time to plan this monster concert.
If you look at the listings I am sure the question will arise, as it did to me watching: why do Jimmy Buffett and the Coral Reefer Band (with Sonny Landreth sitting in) get 6 out of the 18 tunes? From what I hear, there was much more show than made it to DVD. So, Disc 2 is inexplicably Reefer heavy. Why not more Rebirth Brass Band, say? Well, if you’re a Parrot Head , no problem, you’ll be satified; but, if you’re not, you can just skip those and maybe John Fogerty, too, whose voice just flat fails him on his two energetic classics. That will get you to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and friends’ three tunes; two of which should not be missed. On one, the legendary Dave Bartholomew comes on for his proto-rap, “The Monkey, with Costello shouting out those telling verses. Dave is still so cool it’s scary, and ,well into his 80’s, plays a mean trumpet. That’s evident on the three horn showdown between Bartholomew, Troy Andrews (trombone), and Kermit Ruffins (trumpet and vocal) on “St. James Infirmary” with the Dozen that is truly a workshop in the living New Orleans jazz spirit.
On their short set, New Yorkers Simon and Garfunkel invite Aaron Neville in to take a verse on “Bridge Over Troubled Waters” (how could they not do that one?), and, of course, he steals it. Then, the remainder of the show is rightly given over to New Orleans acts. Out comes the current Neville Brothers Band, who summon up some righteous funk on their own before joining with the Meters to strut on “Hey Pocky Way”. Seeing and hearing ‘Mean’ Willie Green and Zig Modeliste pumping up the groove together - priceless. Then, Aaron , backed only by brother Art on organ, takes “Amazing Grace” into deep goosebump territory, as only he can do. And, finally, all the Big (Un)Easy krewe join in on “Saints”, just so you know it’s a wrap.
Along the way you also get to hear just a bit of the Rebirth, who parade in to start the show, Sir Elton, Frogman Henry, the Dixie Cups, plus Paul Shaffer (I think it’s a union rule that he has to be on all music shows) and Diana Krall sitting in here and there on keyboards, among other stars and notables hanging and introducing. On a big benefit concert like this, you don’t begrudge at all any big names stepping up to respect and help New Orleans. It’s amazing how well-done this show is considering it’s sheer size and the speed in which it came together, under the executive production of Quint (Jazzfest) Davis with the assistance of so many others. It is well-shot; the sound quality is excellent; and the New Orleans performers rise to the occasion, overcoming shock, heartbreak and loss to make a unified musical statement that cannot be denied:
New Orleans - the birthplace of jazz, one of the vital nexus points in the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll, a seemingly inexhaustible font of R&B, and the full-blown foundation of funk – must and shall rise again. Enjoy the show.