Those who have spent any significant amount of time in New Orleans can attest to the fact that the real musical treasures are found off the beaten path. Keith Spera and John Swenson are both savvy writers who have infiltrated the inner circle of the Crescent City’s musical culture. Each has assembled a collection of intriguing essays that reveal secrets that exist well beyond Bourbon Street.
New Orleans native Spera, a longstanding music writer for The Times-Picayune who was also part of the newspaper’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Hurricane Katrina coverage team, focuses on tales of musicians confronting the challenges of trying to continue to make music in a post-Katrina environment. He covers those displaced New Orleanians forced to seek refuge in Houston, Austin, Nashville and other points around the country in the wake of Hurricane Katrina (known around New Orleans as “the Federal flood”). His profile of the cantankerous, Slidell-based blues guitarist-singer-fiddler Gatemouth Brown, who succumbed to lung cancer shortly after Katrina hit, is particularly moving, as is his eloquent recounting of Aaron Neville’s escape from his beloved hometown in the face of Katrina, his subsequent mourning over the loss of his wife to lung cancer in 2006 and triumphant return to New Orleans in 2008.
A hilarious chapter titled “Fats Domino’s Excellent Adventure” reveals the eccentricities of a bona fide hometown hero on his first trip to New York in decades to perform at a post-Katrina benefit concert. A chapter on trumpeter Terence Blanchard recounts the realization of his magnum opus, A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina). Other post-Katrina profiles on two New Orleans legends (clarinetist Pete Fountain and legendary songwriter-pianist Allen Toussaint), New Orleans Jazz & Heritage producer/director Quint Davis and the reclusive former Box Tops frontman Alex Chilton (who rode out Katrina in his Treme home) are all rendered with uncanny empathy and an eye for N’awlins detail that only a local could summon up.
While Swenson is a native New Yorker, he has for the past 20 years split his time between residences in Brooklyn and the Bywater. A former editor at Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and currently a contributing editor to New Orleans’ Offbeat magazine, he has chronicled the lives and music of Crescent City legends as well as up-and-coming young talents. New Atlantis compiles some of his best post-Katrina essays that appeared in Offbeat.
Like Spera, he has a deep reverence for the New Orleans music tradition as well as an insider’s understanding of the local music scene. His pieces cover an astonishingly eclectic range, from insightful treatises on the brass band tradition, the legacy of Louis Armstrong and the mysterious culture of the Mardi Gras Indians to illuminating profiles on Voice of the Wetlands activist and blues guitarist Tab Benoit, New Orleans legend Mac (Dr. John) Rebennack, 400-pound bluesman Big Al Carson (a mainstay at the Funky Pirate on Bourbon Street), trad jazz clarinetist Dr. Michael White, ragtime piano specialist and James Booker interpreter Tom McDermott, and renegade-genius record producer Mark Bingham.
Swenson also writes with passion and clarity about the passing of legendary guitarist Snooks Eaglin, about his own return to the Crescent City after evacuating prior to Katrina, and about the return of the spirit of laissez le bon ton roulet with the first post-Katrina Mardi Gras in 2006. He ends the collection with a thoughtful piece that neatly segues from how the Saints’ Super Bowl victory in 2010 uplifted New Orleanians to how the enormity of the BP oil spill in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon tragedy just six weeks later provided yet another challenge to the long-suffering but resilient residents of that troubled metropolis. He gives the final word on this troubling matter to his New Orleans mentor, Dr. John: “This is my home. This is my roots. This is sacred land, and when y’all start playing around with some sacred land, somethin’ bad gonna happen.”