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As Mardi Gras Rages, New Orleans' Music Scene Struggles to Recover

Diminishing gigs, rising costs still threaten city's signature sounds

February 24, 2009 8:16 AM ET

In February 2006, just six months after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans, Mardi Gras marched on. The storm and its devastating aftermath crippled but didn't kill off the city's rich culture: musicians trickled back in, Krewes — the groups that put on lavish parades — threw slightly smaller roving parties. Right now, the fourth Carnival since the storm is in full swing (check out the sights from this year's event), but the music scene — so central to New Orleans' history and identity — is far from fully recovered.

Anxiety about what will become of New Orleans is still a part of the city's discussion. With zoning law enforcement limiting live music venues, grudging police support for second lines and Mardi Gras Indian parades as well as dispersed neighborhoods, the street-based culture that shapes the city's music is in danger. Fortunately, some people are working to keep musicians at home and employed.

In December, "Musicians Bringing Musicians Home IV," a benefit for the non-profit Sweet Home New Orleans (SHNO) brought Will Oldham, Nicole Atkins, Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Hank Shocklee of the Bomb Squad and Fleet Foxes' J. Tillman, among others, to famed venue Tipitina's; prior to the gig, they toured the city to talk to local rockers and gain perspective. "Enjoy the evening, and enjoy rebuilding this mightiest of mighty cities," Oldham said at the start of a short set that ended with Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make it Through the Night." Participants in previous activism retreats include Tom Morello, Kimya Dawson, My Morning Jacket's Patrick Hallahan and Jim James, who found a similar experience in New Orleans moving. "I gained a greater understanding of the gospel truth: living beings are all the same at the end of the day, regardless of race, creed, location, or economic standing," he says. "Everyone needs to be loved and taken care of, and to have the means to take care of themselves."

The history of musicians dealing with the storm's aftermath has been a mixed one. In the year after Katrina, benefits around the country helped musicians get home, get instruments, and get back to work. Then again, at Voodoo 2006, Duran Duran's Simon LeBon fretted from the stage over the devastation he saw on the drive from the airport — a corridor that looked more or less as it had pre-storm — and Wayne Coyne stopped the Flaming Lips' set to instruct New Orleanians on the importance of helping each other, perhaps mowing each others' lawns. Then and now, unmown lawns have been the least of the city's worries.

One of the great anxieties in New Orleans is that the world doesn't know what's going on there, a fear that Hank Shocklee appreciates. "I didn't understand the severity of things," he says. "We have flooding, but nothing like that. When I went down there, I saw how devastated it was." Alec Ounsworth has been coming to New Orleans since he was 10, and had visited twice since the storm. "I didn't realize that the rebuilding process takes so long," he says. "Somehow, from an outsider's perspective, you don't realize that the devastation was so great that it may take my lifetime before things return back to normal."

But conditions have improved. The city is back to almost 74 percent of its pre-Katrina population. There are few blue tarps still on roofs, and many of the devastated houses have been demolished or renovated. But, due to a number of factors including the cost and bureaucratic nightmare posed by the Road Home Recovery Program, many homeowners are still unable to rebuild or repair their houses and lives.

The city's musician population is similarly back to nearly 75 percent of its former self, and it still shows the damage of Katrina's floodwaters. The heavy metal scene has largely gone underground since its clubhouse, the Dixie Tavern in Mid-City, was flooded and lost. The Rebirth Brass Band and the Hot 8 Brass Band suffered Katrina-related tragedies. Terrell Batiste of the Hot 8 was crippled during the evacuation when his car broke down on an Atlanta freeway and he was hit while trying to change the flat. Drummer Dinerral Shavers was killed by a bullet intended for someone else. Rebirth's Kerwin James suffered a stroke that friends and family attributed to the stress of evacuation, and he passed away earlier this year. In a sign of creeping gentrification, neighbors new to the traditionally music-friendly Treme neighborhood called in a noise complaint and had Glen David Andrews and Derrick Tabb arrested when they led an impromptu second line to memorialize James on the night of his death.

Still, progress has been made for musicians as well. Habitat for Humanity's Musicians' Village now houses many displaced musicians. ATC (Air Traffic Control, an organization that exists to connect the music community to social action opportunities) spearheaded efforts to raise money for Al "Carnival Time" Johnson to get a home in the Musicians' Village, and after it raised $60,000 for the project, Johnson was able to take possession of his home this month. He had spent much of the last three years in Houston because his home in the Lower Ninth Ward was irreparably damaged when the Industrial Canal wall breached just three blocks away.

A number of relief efforts emerged to help New Orleans musicians after the storm, while some refocused their missions to deal with the crisis. The New Orleans Musicians' Clinic started a gig fund to help create gigs and get musicians back to work, and the Tipitina's Foundation initially helped musicians get instruments and get home. As the immediate crisis passed, it refocused its efforts on getting musical instruments to schools for the next generation of musicians.

Sweet Home New Orleans is a needs-based organization that helps musicians and "culture bearers" such as Mardi Gras Indians and members of social aid and pleasure clubs with housing and work-related issues. It was founded as the New Orleans Hurricane Relief Fund in the days after Katrina, and it has given more than $2 million to more than 2,000 musicians. So far, benefits organized by ATC and national non-profit Future of Music Coalition have raised more than $50,000 for SHNO.

According to executive director Jordan Hirsch, the challenge in New Orleans is simple: "The cost of living is going up and opportunities to earn income are going down." The agency conducted a study of its clients, many of whom are the city's jazz, brass band and R&B players, and found that musicians played an average of 10.5 gigs a month before the storm, but they only play 5.7 dates a month now. Not only have the occasions to play decreased, but so has the per-gig take, down from $131 a night to $108. That represents a loss of nearly $750 a month, which is tough to absorb in a city where the cost of apartment rentals has gone up 46 percent and the amount of low income housing has gone down.

The housing shortage is partly the result of the Road Home's regulations, which make it difficult to rehabilitate rental properties, and partly the result of the decision to raze four housing projects, regardless of their condition after the storm. HUD and the city's housing authority decided that mixed income housing developments are preferable, even though such developments will mean an 82 percent reduction in low income housing units when they're eventually completed. When Morello was in New Orleans last year on the Axis of Justice tour, he visited the Lafitte Projects which were slated for demolition even though Katrina's floodwaters never entered many units. "There's a conscious effort to write off the poorest and blackest neighborhoods in New Orleans, and it's not an accident that this happened," he said in an interview before Bush left office. "It's a crime that this happened, and those criminals are loose and they're wandering around the White House."

For the working musician in New Orleans, making a living has become harder than ever. Ellis Joseph plays bass drum with the Free Agents Brass Band, a brass band that he formed after Katrina with other then-unaffiliated brass musicians. He works three jobs and takes care of his 17-year-old cousin. "I'm trying to make sure he doesn't go to waste," Joseph says. He used to play almost daily, never less than three times a week. These days he plays once a weekend, trying to get $400 for a gig so everybody can put $50 in their pockets. That can be tough money to get, though. "A lot of people are undercutting because they want to get the gig," he says.

Convention gigs were once a staple of the working jazz and brass musician's income. "If you get one, you could guarantee yourself $100 per man," he says. According to Jordan Hirsch, some dates playing for conventioneers were so lucrative that a musician could make his or her rent at one show, but the reduction in the number of conventions and the slowdown in the economy means those gigs aren't as numerous or profitable as they once were.

According to Hirsch, "the reduced size of the audience is the biggest issue we're facing." That's affecting everybody, not just jazz musicians. Susan Cowsill of the family band the Cowsills has established a career as a roots-rock artist in New Orleans, but she has had to tour more than ever before to make ends meet, which is tough for someone raising two kids. "We play out of town for the majority of our income," Cowsill says. "Right after the storm, things were going pretty well. People were so happy to be back and out and to see each other again, but that has waned. I don't see people coming out to see local music these days. I couldn't make a living playing here alone. Before the storm, it was a place where you could conceivably get three gigs in a month and do fairly well financially."

She has been trying to put money together to record a follow-up album to her solo debut, Just Believe It, but as a renter, most of her income goes to basic living expenses. Fortunately, she has connected to Threadhead Records, an organization of New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival fans from around the country who met online in the festival's forums. Threadhead loans musicians money to record, and is responsible for three albums last year and six that are scheduled for 2009. She has finished basic tracking for a second album, which Cowsill hopes to release later this summer. This weekend, though, she is singing on a rolling bandstand in Mardi Gras parades with the all-woman punk rock band, Pink Slip. Rose Royce never imagined their version of "Car Wash."

The city has never been a particularly good market for indie rock, though, so life after Katrina hasn't changed that much for Big Blue Marble. Lead singer and songwriter Dave Fera worked to support the band before and after Katrina, and like so many indie rock bands based in other cities, Big Blue Marble is a money-losing proposition. "It's a tax write-off," he says, but he saw cause for hope in the development of the New Orleans Indie Rock Coalition. The collection of bands, club bookers and supporters emerge from Loyola University's music program, and it organized a three-night festival of local indie bands and put out a compilation of New Orleans indie rock, Rock Beats Paper.

There are people around the country helping New Orleans musicians, whether it's the group behind Threadhead Records, or 2006's "Philly to New Orleans" effort, when Philadelphia jam bands played benefits and sent the money to the Tipitina's Foundation. Some of the musicians who took part in the FMC/ATC benefits have made significant contributions since visiting. OK Go and Bonerama cut an iTunes-only benefit EP for Al "Carnival Time" Johnson's house, and the Indigo Girls auctioned off an opportunity for a fan to sing with them onstage, with the money and proceeds from a sold-out show at Tipitina's going to SHNO. Matt Nathanson wrote about his experience in New Orleans on his blog, and a fan donated $10,000 to SHNO. Morello's experience in New Orleans prompted him to route the Axis of Justice tour through New Orleans last spring. As they helped one family reclaim its backyard, Morello was attacked by red ants, and a member of the crew was bitten by a brown recluse spider and had to be hospitalized in Boston days later.

Many musicians who've come to help New Orleans found causes for optimism, despite the city's condition. For J. Tillman, "The care and pride that the people of New Orleans tend to their traditions and culture with made me reevaluate how I can make more of an effort to preserve and embrace the things that make up my own community." Ounsworth was impressed by Brad Pitt's "Make it Right" project in the Lower Ninth Ward, where the devastation created the opportunity for greener, storm-resistant housing. Almost to a person, those on the recent retreat found the spirit of the city inspirational. Hank Shocklee recalls Leah Chase, the aging chef at Dooky Chase's talking about rebuilding as if it's no big deal. "If she can have that kind of attitude, there's nothing we can't do," he says. "Hope is the new currency." Ounsworth agreed. "I felt they were breaking new ground in such a way that other people would do well around the country to take as an example for how things can move forward."

One development that stayed with them was the Roots of Music, a grass roots after-school music education program. The Soul Rebels' Derrick Tabb was teaching a drum line in someone's living room one afternoon during the recent retreat. "The teacher was making kids who messed up run laps around the block," Ounsworth says, laughing. "This was a perpetuation of that mystery and brilliance of the city of New Orleans. People find a way to do it." The Roots of Music students have come far enough to parade twice this Carnival Season, once with the Krewe of Pontchartrain and once with the irreverent, all-women Krewe of Muses. The program inspired Nicole Atkins, who sees parallels between New Orleans and her home of Asbury Park, New Jersey, which has never fully recovered from race riots during the 1960s. "I'm going to get a lot more involved in my own community," she says. "It would be cool to start an after-school music mentoring process."

Ellis Joseph is one of the organizers of the Roots of Music, which is working with 75 to 100 middle school-aged children. For him, it's about more than just the music. "Nine to 14 is the most impressionable age; either the drug dealer's going to get them or we're going to get them."

As for New Orleans, opinions differ as to what needs to happen next. J. Tillman sees the need for a more nuanced approach to financial support. "They need individuals, responsible corporate interests, and government agencies to funnel funds to programs that are working to restore and preserve programs that instill in the people there a pride and to desire to stay and invest in their communities," he says. As a New Orleanian, Craig Klein's concerns are pragmatic. "People need to know that the coast needs to be taken care of," he says. "They need to know that the levees need to be strengthened. I think there's a fraction of people who realize how vulnerable we really are."

Those who have visited agree that it requires constant attention. "Just because you don't see it on the TV anymore doesn't mean that all the problems have gone away," Jim James says. "Far from it. There is still much work to be done." And they need to know the truth, not a sanitized, chamber of commerce version, Hank Shocklee says. "I think the truth is a bigger light than we give it credit for. We equate the truth with what we're not going to get as opposed to the possibility of what we could get. I think if more people know, more people will come."

"It's still broken," Tom Morello says. "And it's clearly a natural disaster that became a man-made disaster."

For Ellis Joseph, what needs to happen next isn't quite so clear.

"I don't know if it's the violence stopping people from coming down here, or if our city and community leaders don't give a fuck about us, but something needs to shake."

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