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The Dirty Dozen Brass Band

What's Going On?

Marvin Gaye's awed and fearful three-word question is perhaps the most natural reaction to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As we watched a city drown and empty out and now perhaps wither and die, we couldn't nor can we help but ask, as Gaye did when confronted with all the injustice, hate and strife on the Vietnam-era home front: What, indeed, is going on? Or -- as those who were and are involved in it more deeply than that might put it -- what the fuck is going on?

New Orleans's most accomplished brass band here poses that question with a song-by-song remake of Gaye's 1971 gem, and it works best with the less familiar stuff. "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" is the best remake of the original album's three smash singles -- rapper Guru (of Gang Starr fame) has a jazzy flow that is simpatico to both the Dirty Dozen's groove and Gaye's caramel style. On the other hand, Chuck D.'s gruff rhymes on the title track, while righteous, feel clumsily stitched to the song. And whoever greenlighted bringing G. Love aboard for "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" should be sentenced to a month's hard labor sandbagging the levees.

Remaking Marvin Gaye's classic, song by song.
Remaking Marvin Gaye's classic, song by song.

Luckily, there are much better renditions among the album tracks. One is Bettye LaVette's witchy wildcat vocals on her complete reinterpretation of "What's Happening Brother?" Another is the sanctified church organ on the Southern-fried Ivan Neville-led "God Is Love." Best of all is the near-instrumental "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)," which stays low-key for a few minutes before erupting into a classic New Orleans-style second-line street party, all while the Dirty Dozen chants "Help Me Somebody!" in unison. No, they never do get around to providing an answer to Gaye's question, but music like that is yet more proof that you can't kill New Orleans merely by dumping Lake Pontchartrain into it.

 
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