A detailed, angry look at the Crescent City’s imperiled players and traditions in Hurricane Katrina’s wake.
Veteran music journalist Swenson (The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide, 1999, etc.), a New Orleans resident since 1999, surveys the havoc wreaked on his adopted hometown’s music scene after the so-called “federal flood” of August 2005. Already threatened by the erosion of southern Louisiana’s coastal wetlands, the city was flattened by the massive storm, which scattered its musicians around the country. Swenson details the natives’ taxing attempts to reinstate the indigenous musical culture, one of the country’s national treasures, within a shattered civic infrastructure. He interviews dozens of locals, ranging from vets like Dr. John, Dr. Michael White and Cyril Neville of the Neville Brothers to young lions like Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews and his troubled cousin Glen David Andrews. The author excoriates the city fathers, whose thinly veiled racism led to post-Katrina opposition to the Mardi Gras Indian tribes and practitioners of funeral “second lining” (parading). Despite chaos and escalating violence, the music community courageously restored itself. However, after a description of the celebration of the New Orleans Saints’ uplifting 2010 Super Bowl victory, the book ends on a downbeat note with a rushed look at the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon pipeline disaster, which wracked the region anew. Readers won’t fault Swenson’s journalism, comprising on-the-ground observation and interviews, and he is at home with every pertinent musical genre, from jazz and funk to rock, gospel and hip-hop. But the lax organization and editing of the book often slow the narrative’s momentum and lose the thread of the tale. Chapters stutter to a halt with lengthy explications of artists’ careers, replete with unsifted quotes, or with endless descriptions of performances in clubs or on festival stages. These notebook-clearing exercises too frequently swamp Swenson’s powerfully affecting story of New Orleans’ monumental cultural tragedy and gutsy rebirth.
A solid, rewarding book that could have been great with some judicious pruning.