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Published: 2006/08/19
by Glenn Alexander

What’s Going On – The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
What’s Going On
Shout Factory #826663-10178

The gospel that is the music of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band has reached
a tipping point with the release of their tribute to What’s Going On, the
politically charged classic that Marvin Gaye released in the early
70's. The reinterpretation of such a colossal work (and let's face it,
piece of American history) is not something one usually attempts just
for the sheer thrill of trying. From the original album's very
essential and basic sound, to its powerful resonance — both
cultural and personal, both then and now — it shimmers with the kind
of originality and conviction few artists are achieving today. So, was
the world crying out for someone else to do it? Probably not. But
that's not the point here. For New Orleans's Dirty Dozen, to embark on this musical journey now, in the wake of
Hurricane Katrina and the devastation she left behind, is an attempt
at sincere reinvention; both in terms of the decimated fabric of a
city and a people scattered, and a classic album brimming with
relevance in today's society. The front cover of this release captures
a man trudging onward through a decimated scene of toxic floodwaters
that Hurricane Katrina left behind. It is a depressing, yet
forward-looking picture.

Choosing to cover any classic album from such a distinct
era of American history requires not only conviction, but a
need to do it. Katrina gave the Dirty Dozen the wherewithal to attempt
this. For a band to pull this off, they not only need to have the
chops and the feel of the music (which they certainly do), they have
to possess the earnestness and honesty so powerfully portrayed on the
original. The DDBB pull this off, mostly. Alternating between
instrumental tracks and tunes with guest vocalists, it manages to
stay fresh. When it clicks, the effect is utterly engaging, moving, and
funky, and when it misses (which is rare), well — it isn't for a lack
of trying.

The title track kicks things off darkly and urgently, featuring perhaps
the most freely interpretive example of Gaye's material. It is here
where we learn that this experiment of musically mingling with the
past is not a rehashing of past sounds, but the convergence of new and
old. New Orleans' Mayor Ray Nagin's voice emerges emphatically behind
a drum kit, proclaiming, "Get off your asses and let's do somethin',
and let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this
country." A crunchy and fluid guitar pattern surfaces with the horns
and soon someone quite accustomed to emphatic, resounding statements —
Public Enemy's Chuck D — is rhyming over the pulsating horns and rhythms, distilling
the song into an expression of anger, hope, dissolution and power. D's
lyrics are from the now, and detail the urgency and hypocrisy of
today's lack of attention to those people and issues too often
ignored. The words march steadily over the world-famous melody — the
horns at once brooding and sharp, smooth and engaging — jolting us
into the past (only for a minute), while attempting to urgently
characterize the present. While the melody almost automatically brings
up the sound of Marvin's ultra-smooth voice, Chuck D takes the
opportunity to engage us forcefully with his own distinct cadence,
while the DDBB brandish the song with elements of bebop, funk, and
hip-hop, tackling the song in a new and strange way yet emerging
through the gates with some steam. Listening for the first few times
seemed jarring, almost. But once one lets go of the pretenses garnered
from hearing a classic so many times, it sinks in as a worthy
interpretation, and perhaps even a success.

Ivan Neville steals the show, so to speak, singing so cool, so
possessed with soul on "God Is Love" it seems he had written the lines
himself. An encouraging, affirmative sentiment, "God Is Love"
represents the pinnacle of the album's smooth, clamoring affirmations. Call and respond vocal calls, lilting and pounding drums, and the
complex whistle of the organ keys create an atmosphere most like that
of the original album, while maintaining DDBB's sound. Neville, along
with the DDBB, were uprooted from the Crescent City last year, and the
longing and devotion that fills this track (and all the others, for
that matter) seems in direct correlation to the loss and pain they
have endured.

Hip-hop stylist Guru emerges positively for the finale on "Inner City
Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)", with DDBB employing the only
hip-hop/New Orleans-shuffle drumbeat I've ever heard. Guru says, "If
you don't stand for something you will fall for anything/Let's see
what this new day brings." The band comes off here as enigmatic and
absorbing, taking us into some deep places of darkness, where a little
light manages to shine in. The brass just dance a slow circle around
the drums, surrounding the vocals in a round room of soft brass walls,
aged with time.

The horns — that lung-powered engine of the DDBB — are used to their
absolute full effect. The recording captures just about every tone,
octave, pitch, mood, cadence, and volume imaginable — all within the
constructs of a well though-out execution of a classic soul album.
They shimmer, dance, cry, pounce, pull, jolt, rumble, bounce, lull,
tumble, and fly through the speakers. The band's interpretation of
Gaye's songs are indeed their own, which will either interest you or
frustrate you. The production lends itself to the arrangements quite
well, operating as a mood filter for the sentiments portrayed through
the band's interpretations.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band are pushing a
very large rock up a long and steep hill on this album (although this
effort is not a futile and hopeless labor, like that of Sisyphus),
emoting a correlation between their own emotions of Katrina and the
human spirit with that of a spirit long gone, but never forgotten.
They are attempting to tip things in the right direction, both
artistically and culturally, and perhaps, personally. This is indeed
an artistic triumph for the DDBB. They have largely succeeded on
What’s Going On and have done it with purpose and conviction.
They keep things interesting. They have tackled a mammoth of a record,
and by holding fast to their own New Orleans' characteristics, they
have given a classic a truly unique spin. They didn't reinvent the
wheel here; they just spun it in a new direction hopefully towards a
broader reinvention that we can all applaud.

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