Since Hurricane Katrina made landfall more than two years ago and decimated New Orleans, that city's music community has been almost solely focused on chronicling the psychological and physical fallout of the storm. It seemed like every NOLA-based artist from Lil Wayne to Harry Connick Jr. recorded material to help lift up his hometown. Even legendary New Orleans R&B figure Allen Toussaint came out of retirement to collaborate with Elvis Costello on The River in Reverse.
But perhaps the most fitting tribute to the hurricane victims was a suite of songs written 35 years ago, performed by some of the city's most cherished native sons. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band's track-by-track redux of Marvin Gaye's 1971 classic What's Going On is alternately brooding and invigorating. The disc, released last year, channels the elegiac, Vietnam-era classic into bloodshot catharsis. The songs are given radical face-lifts so that many of the songs are nearly unrecognizable.
Although this album is arguably the artistic apex of the popular New Orleans group, it's hardly a fluke. When Tornado Brass Band teamed up with Benny Jones in 1977 and created the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, it instantly became one of New Orleans' most recognizable musical exports. The band was celebrated because it broke all the rules of what a brass band was supposed to sound like. It took a musical form that, while still vital to the local community, had largely stagnated and helped infuse it with the funk of the Meters as well as hints of New Orleans R&B. This new vitality helped spark a brass-band renaissance, and soon other outfits such as the Rebirth Brass Band, the Soul Rebels Brass Band, and Youngblood Brass Band formed and began cutting records.
What's Going On opens with the now-infamous radio broadcast of New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleading, "Get off your ass and do something, and let's fix the biggest crisis in this country." Soon, the mayor's words give way to the swell of horns that uneasily reconstruct the title song's perfectly uneasy melody. Later, Bettye Levette drops by for a guest turn on "What's Happening Brother." The Dirty Dozen also finds ways to remain contemporary on the album and feature guest appearances from Gang Starr rapper Guru and Public Enemy's Chuck D.
In person, the affable members of the group have an uncanny way of helping all of us move on beyond the storm with music that can make anyone dance away all his troubles. Perhaps one of their greatest abilities is to not only capture a snapshot of New Orleans' post-Katrina psyche but also to suggest new directions for one of the city's most prized musical traditions.