New Orleans, a city famous for jazz funerals and voodoo, may seem like an unusual setting for a gospel album. Tellingly, the Blind Boys of Alabama have been recording their spirituous five-part harmonies for five decades but have never cut an album in the Big Easy until now. In response to Katrina’s disaster of bibilical proportions, the Blind Boys have made a moving tribute to the city, its people, and its music on Down in New Orleans, and if the album is neither a classic of New Orleans jazz nor of Southern gospel, it reminds us of the deep connections that have always existed between the two genres.
Over the course of their 21st-century renaissance (spurred by 2001’s Spirit of the Century), the Blind Boys have, save for a mediocre set with Ben Harper, been remarkably shrewd at choosing collaborators and material. Their work with pedal-steel phenom Robert Randolph produced a righteous cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and fans of HBO’s The Wire are undoubtedly familiar with their eerie take on Tom Waits’s “Way Down in the Hole.” The Blind Boys have a knack of taking a secular tune and convincing you it has always been a spiritual, and on New Orleans they take songs both spiritual and secular and convince you they have always been about Nola. These weathered, wise voices serve as perfect spokesmen for a legendary and historic city that has stared death in the face and has hardly made a full recovery.
The Blind Boys have dug deep to find both classic gospel songs and more obscure material that resonate with New Orleans’s troubled recent history, and they should be commended for avoiding no-brainers like “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “House of the Rising Sun.” They are accompanied by a couple of great-sounding local bands, the Hot 8 Brass Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, as well as a veritable legend of New Orleans R&B, Allen Toussaint. Despite the depressing conditions in New Orleans, the Blind Boys make a concerted effort at uplift: “Free at Last,” “Make a Better World,” and “If I Could Help Somebody” are all attempts to create a soundtrack to a hopeful, joyous sort of reconstruction. “Across the Bridge,” with its crescendoing piano rolls and squawking brass section, would be the album’s strongest track were it not topped by the tuba-fed celebration of “I’ll Fly Away.” Even more subdued versions of Curtis Mayfield’s “A Prayer” and Mahalia Jackson staple “How I Got Over” swallow tragedy with gulps of serious, determined faith.
On Down in New Orleans, familiar gospel melodies have been wedded beautifully with the syncopated swagger of a Dixieland funeral parade, a practice that goes back to Louis Armstrong but which is nevertheless a joy to hear. An unsettling question arises, though, of whether or not this funeral style also implies the death of the city’s social and cultural heart. While the politics of housing and diaspora play themselves out, lovers of New Orleans’s cultural heritage wait to see where music will fit on the post-Katrina map, and only time will tell whether New Orleans will be seen as a tribute to a vibrant city or an elegy for a bygone era.