With the help of some heavy donations, Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s 2010 benefit album, Preservation, featuring guest spots by Tom Waits, Merle Haggard, and Pete Seeger, helped rebuild the band’s eponymous home, still languishing in sodden decrepitude five years after Katrina. Now, with the hall restored to its former folksy splendor, the group celebrates its 50th anniversary, this time in a live context and with somewhat sprier collaborators, including My Morning Jacket, Merrill Garbus (better known as Tune-Yards), Mos Def, Lafayette indie rockers Givers, and Seeger’s grandson, Tao Rodríguez-Seeger. As Mitt Romney continues to court the elusive youth vote, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band makes a stronger play to the same demographic with this ebullient live disc, in which cameos by relative youngbloods energize such chestnuts as “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” Recorded on January 7th of this year at Carnegie Hall, St. Peter & 57th St. shows the current Preservation Hall lineup in a flattering light—that is, as exponents of a musical sensibility not so much trapped in amber as preserved via community.
The Preservation Hall guys do well in this context: Their Nola home is something of an ongoing open jam, and while few four-piece horn sections play better Crescent City blues, their estimable chops are best appreciated as accompaniment. Steve Earle, one of the hoarier guests on hand, offers a rendition of “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business” that smacks of the Memphis original and gets a nice boost from the brass, as Earle here and there channels Dr. John (conspicuously absent from this concert). The Del McCoury Band, featuring comedian Ed Helms on banjo, offers up “One More ‘Fore I Die,” and Allen Toussaint makes his required appearance. Decent tracks all, none of which would feel out of place on an episode of A Prairie Home Companion.
After the old folks are abed, though, things pick up: Lamson and Givers take the stage, offering lively performances in both French and English. Lamson herself finds a middle ground between Janis Joplin and Madeleine Peyroux, and it’s a shame to hear Givers leave after only two tracks. Rodríguez-Seeger then delivers a little manifesto about the importance of habanero influence in New Orleans music and offers a worthy case study with “El Manicero.”
Now, the tuba isn’t exactly a subtle instrument, so it’s worth noting just how versatile the Preservation horn men prove themselves on this album: “Bonjour Cousin” (sung by Lamson and Givers) and “El Manicero” require very different rhythmic and dynamic approaches, but the collective pulls it off thanks, in part, to principal tubist Ben Jaffe, who performs each tune with grace (picture an elephant tap-dancing and then performing a samba, all without falling) and whose father, Allan (also a tubist), bought Preservation Hall in the ‘60s and formed its first touring unit.
“Tootie Ma,” one of two tracks the group performs on its own, is a very sexy second-line groove over which tenor saxophonist Clint Maedgen exercises a sly and jaunty vocal command. It’s rare that a Louis Armstrong cover has you dancing to your iPod at bus stops; even rarer when an Armstrong cover trumps the original. The other guest-less track, “Bourbon Street Parade,” exemplifies the album’s more kitschy and forgettable moments. It’s an upbeat sort of museum piece, or a lithograph of New Orleans circa 1890; strolling the avenue in recent decades, one is less likely to spot the straw-hatted “big-shots” mentioned in the lyrics than fragrant pools of stomach discharge.
Mos Def has mined the New Orleans second-line rhythm for some of his own more potent beats, and if his singing on “It Ain’t My Fault” is less than tuneful, the call-and-response with Trombone Shorty atones in some measure. Garbus offers a lush, languishing version of “Careless Love,” and everyone comes together at the end for a Last Waltz-style jam on “I’ll Fly Away.” (The Blind Boys of Alabama and the McCourys steal this song on their respective verses.)
The peak of the album, though, is a tremendous rendition of “St. James Infirmary,” so doomstruck and sprawling that it flows into a second track. In the first, Jim James (his throaty delivery serving almost as a fifth horn) takes us right up to the moment of his sweetheart’s death; in the second, Maedgen recounts the funeral and resurrection with Lazarean fire. MMJ and Trombone Shorty can only scramble to keep up with Maedgen’s hell-bent vocals. It’s the classic New Orleans track: death, the fertile rot of decay, and the squalling trumpet-blast of rebirth—a bayou funeral that’s gone on for 50 years and, given the fluid nature of this touring unit, may well proceed for 50 more.