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Paranoia Self Destroyer

A New Birth Brass Band set at the Volcano makes Racket long for a new and improved tinfoil hat

Even as the freakishly named Tropical Storm Gamma lumbered through the Caribbean far to the south, the arrival of our first proper norther last week finally put Houston's long, unnatural Indian summer to an end. Things have been downright surreal in this city ever since September 1. First we watched the Big Easy drown and then empty into Houston, and the very day I got somewhat over that, there commenced the first rumblings of the Great Rita Runaway Texodus, followed immediately by the Astros' alternately elating and agonizing road to the wrong end of a World Series sweep. And along the way, once-invincible-seeming politicians like Tom DeLay and Dubya crashed and burned Hindenburg-style. And the heat just dragged on and on…

No doubt Art Bell and George Noory would say the End was nigh, and all of it was enough to make me consider investing in a tinfoil hat. By the way, did you see MIT's recent study on the efficacy of three models -- the Fez, the Classical and the Centurion -- of tinfoil headgear? They discovered that the hats do block out most radio waves, but in fact amplify the frequencies associated with federal government use, and thus they posit that the whole craze was concocted by, you guessed it, the government, in order to better control some of our society's more "independent" thinkers. "We hope this report will encourage the paranoid community to develop improved helmet designs to avoid falling prey to these shortcomings," they conclude. (They're kidding, we think. Anyway, the study is here: people.csail.mit.edu/rahimi/helmet.)

At any rate, with 2005's catastrophic hurricane season finally safely past, it seemed as good a time as ever to check in on some of those most affected: the evacuees in the temporarily Houston-based New Birth Brass Band.

Outwardly, they are doing great. Every Wednesday evening, they play to a marvelously enthusiastic midweek crowd at Under the Volcano, and they also have standing Friday- and Sunday-night gigs at St. Pete's Dancing Marlin and a Sunday-afternoon affair at Dan Electro's. At the Volcano gig last week, despite the absence of their trombone player, they were simply smokin'. Trumpet and sax interwove over tuba boo-yahs amid the polyrhythmic rumble and clatter of bass drums, snare drums and hissing tiny cymbals -- this stuff is a syringe full of pure China white heroin for you beat junkies out there.

And like Volcano owner Pete Mitchell says, nobody can sit still at these shows. Sure, half the room (there were about 100 people in there on a midweek night) might not be dancing outright, but they're either tapping their feet or nodding their heads. And dancing is what this band is all about. The New Birth feeds off the crowd, and the crowd feeds off the New Birth. People holler encouragement and sing along. Guys dance with girls, girls dance in packs, guys dance alone, blacks and whites and evacuees and locals dance together -- and the people who sit boogie on the way to the bathroom when they go take a leak. I'm a pretty inhibited guy and no kinda dancer, but at one point I found myself cutting a rug with a girl I had just met when all I intended to do was go get a beer. The vibe is terrifically hellafied: Where there is the New Birth Brass Band, there is also the infectious joy of New Orleans.

I talked to three twentysomething women -- Volcano regulars who had never heard of the band before stumbling into one of their sets a month or so ago -- who have become staunch converts to the New Birth cause. "There should be more people here," says account executive Laurie Chidlow. "There are lots of Houstonians who love New Orleans, and if they knew this was going on, I think they would be here."

"Laurie told us about it, and this is our first time here, and we are very impressed," adds financial analyst Susie Hale. "We are gonna be here every Wednesday from now on, definitely."

"They are so New Orleans!" says Chidlow. "And not the creepy New Orleans -- not the 'Let's go to Pat O'Brien's and pay $9 for a drink' New Orleans," adds their friend Katie Edwards. "This is like you're on the street and a band plays and you're dancing in the street."

And Edwards, Hale and Chidlow all hope the New Birth is here to stay. Hell, all of us would love that; right now New Orleans is a culture without a city, and in many ways Houston is still a city without a culture.

All of us, that is, except for the members of the New Birth and the New Orleans natives at the show. I caught up with New Birth bass drummer and bandleader Tanio Hingle between sets and asked him what he missed the most about his hometown. "I just miss it -- just the whole nine yards, just bein' in our neighborhood playin' music -- bein' able to step out the door and just start playin' music…Seein' everybody -- family. I miss my family -- I got some people who ended up in Atlanta. My mother, grandmother and a bunch of others are up there. That's one of the hardest parts: not bein' around my family, because I am a family man."

Native New Orleanian Hassan says the New Birth shows "feel like home." The son-in-law of New Birth saxophonist Darryl Adams, Hassan goes to most of the band's shows. And where Hingle expresses only sadness (and also a little irritation over Houston's sprawl and freeways), Hassan is angry. "You should be doing a story on Katrina and know the truth about it," he says, in a calm voice that belies his rage. "It wasn't the storm. I was on a roof for two nights with my four kids, my wife and my mom -- they blew the levees up on us. This is why we are here now. After the storm the water wasn't that high, but then you heard boom, boom and the water came rushing in."

Whoa, whoa, whoa -- wait a minute. This man said "they" -- the City of New Orleans, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, whoever -- dynamited the levees and sacrificed the Lower Ninth Ward to save the Garden District and the French Quarter. And Hassan is not alone. Many of the evacuees in the Astrodome and the Terrordome (er, Superdome) said the same thing. Louis Farrakhan and Spike Lee have signed on, too.

And for those who believe that Lee and Farrakhan are loons and that such a prospect is stark raving bonkers, I submit to you the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers did in fact blow up the levees during the Mississippi River floods of 1927. (In that case, rural, impoverished St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes were sacrificed to save the city of New Orleans, as referenced in the chorus of a certain much-played but little-analyzed Randy Newman song: "They're trying to wash us away," indeed.)

And most scientists and engineers who study this sort of thing say that the storm surge was not sufficient to breach the levees.

And that ten-term Louisiana representative did gloat that "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans." And the story -- printed in the London Guardian but now long gone from its Web site-- of the five Army Corps of Engineers contractors en route to repairing the levee who were shot and killed by the New Orleans police.

And why did Ray Nagin twice tell reporters that he feared the CIA would take him out?

And so when and if a viable replacement for my tinfoil Centurion helmet is invented, sign me up. In the meantime, I'll be boogying with the New Birth as long as they remain in our town.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Well, we may have lost out on the Sugar Bowl and the Voodoo Music Experience, but two formerly New Orleans-based events will be coming to Reliant Stadium temporarily. This Friday at 8 p.m., Grambling State University's Tiger Band will square off against Southern University's Human Jukeboxin mortal marching-band combat, and the next day the two schools' gridiron squads will duke it out in the Bayou Classic, the most famous rivalry in black college football. And next year, Reliant will also host the Essence Music Fest -- America's first and foremost soul, R&B and conscious hip-hop shindig, which long had called the Superdome home. No word yet on next year's lineup, but this year's included Alicia Keys, John Legend, Aretha Franklin, Tina Marie, Kanye West, Destiny's Child, Kem, the Roots, Floetry and Lyfe Jennings. And Frankie Beverly and Maze have played each and every one of the event's ten years of existence. Further info is coming soon, and tickets go on sale December 1…And speaking of New Orleans, Sippiana Hericane, the latest CD from Dr. John, has Racket wondering: Either great minds think alike, or yours truly and assistant music editor Scott Faingold deserve co-producing credit. In the pre-Rita edition of Wack, we came up with an idea for a hurricane mixtape that was broken down into four movements titled "Storm's Approach," "First Wave of Storm," "The Passage of the Eye" and "The Aftermath." Sippiana Hericane's centerpiece is called "Wade: Hurricane Suite" and also features four movements: "Storm Warning," "Storm Surge," "Calm in the Storm" and "Aftermath." We're not saying we, um, inspired ol' Mac, but like C+C Music Factory used to say, it is one of those things that make you go "hmmm."

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