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Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans

by Keith Spera

Pub Date: Aug. 2nd, 2011
ISBN: 978-0-312-55225-1
Publisher: St. Martin's

Uneven, intermittently compelling series of portraits of New Orleans musicians.

As the veteran music critic for the Times-Picayune (and a writer for a New Orleans music monthly before that), Spera would seem to be in a great position to provide a comprehensive narrative concerning the effects of the devastating hurricane on a city with such a musical lifeblood. Yet these 13 profiles, many of which have been expanded from newspaper pieces, might better serve as source material for a more ambitious book. The author plainly has access to subjects who trust him and an appreciation for younger styles of music (metal, hip-hop) that figure more strongly in contemporary New Orleans music than in most books about the city’s musical legacy. But some of the profiles are only tangentially related to Katrina and its aftermath, while too many others fall into a formulaic rhythm: opening anecdote, extended biographical chronology, effects on the subject of the devastation and destruction of Katrina. The chapters on Aaron Neville, Fats Domino, Jazz Fest director Quint Davis and formerly incarcerated rapper Mystikal are particularly pointed and revelatory. The chapter on the late cult icon Alex Chilton, however, is a missed opportunity, in which the author writes about how rare such an interview was and how articulate and intelligent the subject was, but then offers few quotes from that interview. The chapter on a recording session with Jeremy Davenport, a jazz lounge singer and trumpeter who may be well known in New Orleans but little known beyond it, does a fine job capturing the studio interplay but seems out of place given the book’s supposed focus on Katrina. “Katrina changed everyone, at least temporarily,” writes Spera, but his reporting barely scratches the surface of those profound changes.

Six years after Katrina, too many of these pieces have a warmed-over feel.