Four days in New Orleans to attend a conference, hear some great music, and see the city for the first time since Katrina. My impression? It's a theme park in the middle of apocalypse. They're using music more than ever to sell the place and it seems to be working, even as the Lower Ninth Ward continues to rot. America apparently loves the music these days and it makes you wonder: If we love the flowers so much, how can we watch the garden die?
I'll write more about the conference on risk and insurance, which was dominated by issues of global warming, terrorism, and environmental threats. But I also had the chance to attend the Ponderosa Stomp, a one-night roots music event on three stages that used to take place at the Crescent City's legendary Rock 'n' Bowl but has been relocated to the House of Blues.
In terms of live music, the New Orleans scene is still vibrant. If I had stayed one night longer I could have seen reggae great Toots Hibbert with the Maytals, or seen a free concert by Cajun music legends Tommy McLain, Rod Bernard, and Warren Storm. But many of the musicians are living in other cities now, and others are struggling to survive.
The Ponderosa Stomp featured some out-of-state legends, especially Texans like guitarist/singer Barbara Lynn, Vox organ master Augie Meyers from the Sir Douglas Quintet, and psychedelic rocker Roky Erickson from the 13th Floor Elevators. Master soul songwriter Dan Penn was there from Alabama, too (even some fans of his songwriting don't realize how well he sings).
But Louisiana's spirit was all over the House of Blues' three stages. Rockabilly pioneer Jay Chevalier sang his 1959 hit, "The Ballad of Earl K. Long," a tribute to Lousiana's governor after his incarceration in a mental hospital following his adventures with Bourbon Street ecdysiast Blaze Starr. Trumpeter/arranger Dave Bartholemew, who was instrumental in recording Fats Domino, led a generous set. So did arranger/bandleader Wardell Quezerque. Composer/producer/performer Allen Toussaint, who's become one of the city's informal ambassadors, sat in on piano (and led the crowd in a chant of "home/home/everybody come home").
Pianist/arranger/singer Willie Tee tore the house up in an intimate setting, playing regional hits like "Walking Up a One Way Street" and his best-known song, "Teasin' You" (where a drunk flirting with the singer's girlfriend is a "sucker john," "nothin' but a popcorn," and "the island man/just raisin' sand.") Singer Tami Lynn ("Mojo Hannah"), who should have been world famous, was riveting on "Mojo Hannah" and other tunes.
Lynn's records are hard to find but will give you a glimpse of her greatness. "Ship of Love" is her multi-tracked take on the Crescent City's "shoorah" street chant, and it's one of my favorite tracks of all time. It's extremely rare, and she recorded it as "Tamiya Lynn." You're far more likely to have heard her voice on older Dr. John recordings, since she was a long-time Rebennack backup singer.
Dan Penn was another highlight of the evening, backed by keyboardist Bobby Emmons. The many great songs Penn's co-written came across terrifically in a stripped-down setting, especially when he moved to the better acoustics of the main stage. He gave a songwriter's emotional depth to songs that included "Dark End of the Street," "Do Right Woman," "A Woman Left Lonely," and "Out of Left Field."
I also had the pleasure of sitting with Dan's friend singer Rattlesnake Annie, who delivered a powerful version of "House of the Rising Sun" with rockabilly artist Matt Lucas, and with Dan's warm and friendly wife and mother-in-law. The batteries in my camera were dead, or I'd have asked them to take my picture with Dan. (It's funny. I've met presidents, senators, and world leaders, and the first person I've wanted to have my picture taken with was Dan Penn - I've loved his songs since I was first learning to play music.)
Barbara Lynn delivered a great set for her host city, too, including another one of my all-time favorite records - "If You Should Lose Me) You'll Lose a Good Thing." Her singing and playing were first-rate, and she may well have the brightest smile in rhythm and blues.
I was leaning against the bar as Barbara Lynn was playing, and a woman kept rubbing up against me. I assume she just needed to place her order, but a charismatic Cajun standing behind her kept gesturing and laughing. He looked familiar, and when he took the stage I realized why. Roy Head is one of the great white soul singers, a Louisiana institution, and he rocked the house with a set that included his biggest hit "Treat Her Right."
Here's the disorienting part of the trip. You can spend your entire visit in the French Quarter and downtown, and never know there had ever been a hurricane. The shopping mall is upscale enough for Beverly Hills, with an Aveda spa and a sprawling Saks Fifth Avenue. Harrah's Casino, the Riverwalk, and the Doubletree Hotel hover over the older buildings of the city and bathe them in the glow of fresh neon.
They give lower Canal Street the feel of those old science-fiction novels where aliens have colonized Earth, and their flying saucers and spaceports dominate a ruined landscape.
You need to search for the real story of this damaged city when you're inside the tourist bubble. You need to talk to people, get out of the central city, and keep a sharp eye. Or you can even take a three-hour Katrina bus tour, an idea that horrified me at first but I realized it made some sense. At least it reminds people of the damage we still do far too little to repair. The real city is dying, and it's been replaced by a synthetic version of itself.
I looked for signs of damage on the drive in from the airport. Those telephone poles leaning crazily on the side roads off I10: Were they always like that? That fractured sign, those broken windows, that torn-off roof - is that just wear and tear?
The only sign of Katrina downtown was in the IMAX Theater at the Aquarium, where Dr. John music lures tourists to the waterfront. Once in the theater, child fiddle prodigy Amanda Shaw and Cajun bluesman Tab Benoit are featured in a documentary on the eroded wetlands and their role in permitting the devastation of Katrina. I felt tears in my eyes when they cut to the ruins of the Ninth Ward. I wasn't the only one.
But then the show was over, the lights came up, and dried our eyes and we filed out. It was early in the afternoon, after all, and the shops would still be open for hours.