Help is on the way
Friday’s hurricane-relief concert brings Marcia Ball and BeauSoleil to the Crest Theatre
How can you calculate the loss of a nation’s soul?
No, this isn’t another jeremiad about the past five years of presidential leadership—although that leadership’s lack of a response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina does come into play. Specifically, how do we, as a nation, come to terms with the loss of New Orleans, the Mesopotamia of American musical culture, the birthplace of jazz, incubator of the blues, and beacon of cultural freedom?
“So much of our music—the jazz, blues, soul, rhythm and blues, and funk—came out of New Orleans; it’s like the cradle of American music,” is how pianist, singer and songwriter Marcia Ball described it. A native of Gulf Coast Texas (Orange, just outside of Beaumont), Ball grew up about 10 miles east of there in Vinton, La. “It has influenced everything that has come since,” she added. “Even reggae was based on the music of New Orleans, as heard over the radio in Jamaica.”
For Ball, New Orleans was a beacon of personal freedom the way that San Francisco is for many young people in Northern California. She saw the city’s iconic R&B singer Irma Thomas perform when she was a teenager. “When I started playing in bands in the ’70s,” she said, “I found Irma’s old records from the early ’60s and covered some of her songs.” As a pianist, she dug Louisiana keyboard legends Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Later, she discovered the deeper stream of New Orleans piano music—first Allen Toussaint, then Professor Longhair, James Booker and Dr. John.
Of course, the city’s significance transcends music. “The way the people talk, the very distinct musical originality, the food, the historic French and Spanish architecture, the Caribbean and African influence—New Orleans is America’s most exotic, unique city,” Ball said.
The heart-rending loss of New Orleans, and the devastation that followed three weeks later when Hurricane Rita slammed the Gulf Coast, has motivated people to stage benefit concerts across the country and around the world; a few have already taken place in this city. On Friday evening, Ball will headline “Delta to Delta,” a benefit performance at Sacramento’s Crest Theatre. The fete was organized by a pair of local impresarios at Swell Productions (including SN&R contributing writer Mindy Giles) in conjunction with the Delta Action Group and several sponsors. Also on the evening’s slate will be the Cajun-music band BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet and local band/cottage industry Mumbo Gumbo, longtime standard-bearers for Gulf Coast sound. Up-and-coming singer-guitarist Emory Joseph, whose 2003 album Labor & Spirits caused a stir among fans of roots-rock acts like Little Feat and Ry Cooder, will open.
Proceeds from the show will be donated to Habitat for Humanity, MusiCares, Project HEAL and Volunteers of America; the latter group has been helping Katrina evacuees who have relocated to Sacramento. A silent auction will raise funds to benefit hurricane victims in the Gulf Coast and the Sacramento area, along with Gulf Coast musicians now living in exile. The auction, information for which can be found at www.deltaactiongroup.org, is also raising money to fund a resource for Sacramento-area disaster plans and flood-control issues. Our levees are vulnerable, too.
Marcia Ball believes that New Orleans will return. And whatever may happen to the physical structures in New Orleans—whether they are rebuilt the way they were or the city is transformed into a Disney and Halliburton vision of the birthplace of smooth jazz, fronted by Kenny G—the soul of the city is its people. “Although they may be scattered for a while,” she said, “I believe they’ll come home when they can.”
The jury is out on whether government and its friends in private industry will make a bad situation even worse. “What is certain,” Ball said, “is that the people who have been displaced need ongoing support. It’s hard to imagine losing everything but the clothes on your back, but this is what happened to thousands of people from all walks of life. We, who are so much more fortunate, need to continue to help our friends who have given us so much.”