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

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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