Recasting Marvin Gaye’s iconic 1971 album What’s Going On for an America torn apart by the aftereffects of Hurricane Katrina, the ceaseless, bloody war in Iraq, a sense of intense paranoia about our nation’s government, and skyrocketing gasoline prices might seem like a timely, if foolish errand on the surface. But The Dirty Dozen Brass Band would probably argue that not much has changed in the three decades since Gaye laid down these nine, now classic tracks. Like so many New Orleans residents, the six members of the band had their lives shattered by the events of Aug. 29, 2005 and, in an odd bit of serendipity, it just so happened that most of them had separately turned to Gaye’s What’s Going On for emotional comfort; it was decided that reinterpreting the seminal piece of R&B social commentary would be both a meaningful artistic sentiment and cathartic distraction from the hellish horrors of their hometown. (Appropriately, a portion of the proceeds from the sale of each copy is being earmarked for the Tipitina’s Foundation, benefiting the music community of New Orleans.)
A band renowned for its forward-thinking fusion of R&B, gospel, soul, and jazz, What’s Going On, stylistically, makes sense for this sextet. Perhaps even more surprising is that The Dirty Dozen Brass Band doesn’t lock itself into literal updates of Gaye’s masterpiece, instead choosing to honor the spirit of the work. Chuck D. lends a tense edge to the modern take on “What’s Going On,” name checking a laundry list of grievances that brings the song down from its falsetto roots to a more urgent place. Bettye LaVette’s reading of “What’s Happening Brother” is a weathered delight, while G. Love’s crack at “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” slinks out of the speakers, dripping dirty funk. The most potent works of art are those which speak to each generation in their own, unique way; Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, a searing, relevant masterwork very much of its time is sadly, but unsurprisingly, as necessary now as it was some 35 years ago.