Sing Me Back Home – New Orleans Social Club
Anger can take many forms. In our society, it often crops up in the shape of explosive reactions and rampaging violence. But anger also materializes in a subtle, quiet rage that bubbles beneath the surface and colors our actions. While the former demonstration garners the most headlines, the latter is often the most effective way to affect change. Civilized man responds more to reason than violence, and this was the theory that influenced the 1970s R&B records of Philadelphia International producers Gamble and Huff. With the country in turmoil, many artists responded with strident force, but Gamble and Huff made their records of social protest with class. They believed the public would respond to the notion of African Americans as dignified, rational individuals who were genuinely concerned about the tumultuous state of American society. They also believed it was possible to make people think while they were dancing. Gamble and Huff were right.
Thirty years later, we've witnessed the ultimate failing of the United States' government as the entire city of New Orleans was abandoned during the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina. While a nation's shame was revealed, we were inundated by images of angry citizens reacting to this tragedy with vitriol and venom. Unfortunately, in some circles, these images only tended to reinforce racial stereotypes. Middle America was not responding well to the depiction of the “angry black man,” despite that man’s understandable right to be angry. New Orleans is a city that is incredibly dependent on tourism, and if the public perception of the city was swaying in a negative and fearful direction, the results would be disastrous, especially under such desperate circumstances. Producer Leo Sacks recognized this crisis, and he and music director George Porter, Jr. decided to make an album that would present New Orleans’ anger in a more palatable light. Assembling an All-Star band of refugees, including Henry Butler, Leo Nocentelli, Ivan Neville, Raymond Weber, and Porter, along with a slew of special guests, Sacks used Gamble and Huff’s blueprint to create The New Orleans Social Club’s Sing Me Back Home.
The tone is set from the opening notes, as vocalist Cyril Neville digs in to Curtis Mayfield’s “This Is My Country.” This heady soulful number has been appropriately lifted from the 1968 civil rights struggle and transported into the post-Katrina devastation at the Louisiana Superdome. Fresh from losing his home, Neville is racked with pain as he sings “Some people think we don’t have the right to say it’s my country/Before they give in they’d rather fuss and fight/Than say it’s my country/I’ve paid three hundred years or more/Of slave-driving, sweat, and welts on my back” This pain is carried forth by Neville’s nephew Ivan, who also chose a 1960s anthem for a relevant update. Simply put, Ivan Neville tears into John Fogerty’s “Fortunate Son,” turning the rocking protest against powerful elites into a raging funk. This refugee band was born to tear up a song like this, and in the only moment of its kind on the entire album, they explode into a cathartic breakdown, trading vocals and chanting “Whatcha gonna do with the money?” The allusions are both obvious and caustic, and when set against an intense ass-shaking, fist-pumping backbeat, anyone with a pulse is moved by the song’s powerful message.
With Henry Butler ripping up the piano, Jazzfest Gospel Tent perennials Mighty Chariots of Fire unleash divine power into the exhilarating “99 Won’t Do.” Vocalist Joseph Carter, Jr. sings like a man possessed, trying to summon the almighty spirit to aid in the recovery. Irma Thomas also tries to put a positive spin on things in her uplifting rendition of “Look Up.” Returning to a song she had first recorded 46 years ago, she and kindred spirit pianist Marcia Ball use a fun boogie-woogie beat to convey their simple and upbeat message.
Although both the seething anger and positive outlook are represented on Sing Me Back Home, some of the most effective tracks are those that invoke somber empathy. Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s gentle reggae of “Chase” portrays a broken down old man asking “Why you wanna chase me away from my hometown?” There is truth in Boudreaux’s words as he sings about his grandfather helping to build New Orleans, a town he will never leave. While Boudreaux asks plenty of questions, John Bouttas one simple question: “Why?” Applying Annie Lennox’ hit song to the post-Katrina devastation, Bouttdapts a few lyrics (“Why can’t you see this bowl is sinking?”) and stretches a few others (“Let’s go down to the water’s edge and we can cast away those doubts”). Nevertheless, the sole question of why is not only relevant but immensely important, and Bouttelivers a heartfelt and moving performance.
Unfortunately, not every track on Sing Me Back Home jives with its post-Katrina message. While Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews’ “Hey Troy, Your Mama’s Calling You” is a rollicking and fun Carribean bouncer, it lacks the emotional subtext to deserve a place alongside these other gems. The same goes for the contribution from The Sixth Ward All-Star Brass Band Revue Featuring Brother Charles Neville. Their medley of “Jesus On The Main Line,” “I’m Walking,” and “When The Saints Go Marching In” (pulled together under the title of “Where Y’at?”) is enjoyable but doesn’t say much at all. Conversely, Henry Butler’s fine delivery of Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” can be stretched enough to be relevant, but stylistically, this polished musical theater torch song is horribly out of place.
One need not look any further than the subdudes’ mediocre performance of “Make a Better World” to get a more realistic notion this project’s truest intentions. When you have an All-Star R&B/funk combo sitting in your studio, why would you invite a white rock band to croon a New Orleans soul classic? The fact remains that the subdudes are part of the current New Orleans music scene, beloved by many, and either they needed work or the producers felt that their addition would help sell more albums. There is nothing wrong with either notion, but that would go a long way toward explaining the inclusion of some of the less effective, previously mentioned tracks that deviate from the post-Katrina theme. The attempt to make this record a mere postcard from New Orleans is unfortunate because Sacks and Porter had the makings of a brilliant modern protest album. But shortly after striking gold with “It’s My Country” and “Fortunate Son,” they diluted their message and couldn’t keep the fire burning for a full 60 minutes.