Ed. Note: Today is the sixth anniversary of the day the levees broke.
Groove Interrupted: Loss, Renewal, and the Music of New Orleans By Keith Spera St. Martin's Press, 272 pp., $26.
Among the migrants to Houston in the harried days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans in the summer of 2005 were several of the city's musicians. Needing gigs and perhaps some semblance of normalcy while chaos and destruction reigned back home, they began to appear on local stages, thrilling both locals and displaced N'awlinians craving a taste of home, or something normal again, if only for a few hours.
That music - and not religion, politics, social customs or anything else - truly captures the essence of New Orleans is not something Keith Spera would probably argue against. And as the music writer for New Orleans daily The Times-Picayune, he's in a better position than almost anyone to meditate on the power of the city's music and the performers who provide it.
With incredibly lyrical and elegiac prose - much of it more novelistic than music journalism - Spera profiles 13 New Orleans-based musicians and scene players in mini-chapters which detail a career summary, how Katrina affected them, and what happened afterwards.
What's impressive to start with is the sheer breadth of musical genres Spera's subjects hail from: from early Dixieland (Pete Fountain), blues (Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown), R&B (Aaron Neville, Allen Toussaint), and early rock (a quirkier- than-expected Fats Domino) to power pop (Alex Chilton), jazz (Terence Blanchard), metal (Phil Anselmo of Pantera and Down) and rap (Mystikal, Juvenile).
But it's Katrina herself who emerges as the book's overlording, never-interviewed main character. She touched many of these musicians directly, with a number (Domino, Fountain, Neville, Brown) losing not only their homes to the storm, but a lifetime of career memorabilia.
The reader sees a lot of lows in these profiles, including Brown, Domino, and Fountain's declining health, Mystikal's imprisonment, Anselmo's harrowing addictions, and Neville's emotional wreckage at the loss of his wife.
Their tragedies have little to do with music (though some incorporated that pain into it), but makes these men we're used to seeing on posters and CD covers all the more human. That Spera did not include at least one female subject, country, or zydeco player, though, are somewhat missed opportunities.
Houston crops up several times in the narrative - Kermit Ruffins onstage at the now-defunct Sammy's 10 days after the storm, and Anselmo using an extended stay at the city's Comfort Inn to help kick hard drugs.
"The music, in all its manifestations, is very much a reflection of the city itself," Spera writes in the introduction. "Its history, neighborhoods, street culture, schools, Mardi Gras, and a pursuit of happiness that doesn't entirely erase the sadness and frustration that result from New Orleans' unwillingness or inability to rid itself of incompetence, corruption, and crime."
And while that is absolutely true, perhaps a visitor from England - in this case Robert Plant - best sums up the attraction of the Crescent City's music.
"I was intoxicated by the sound of New Orleans," Plant says. "When I came here in Led Zeppelin, I realized that the culture was just so radically different than anything else in the whole of the United States."
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Spera notes that he reflected on a post-Katrina visit to the city in 2007. "I could feel something that was still alive, that hadn't been Americanized and too messed with. I found it exotic, frightening, and a little bit intimidating."
So while Douglas Brinkley's The Great Deluge is so far the best news/journalistic account of Hurricane Katrina, Groove Interrupted deserves a place on the shelf right next to it. Spera has really done something special here with this collection of tales, and it's required reading for anyone who loves the incredible sounds of the city.