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New Orleans music legends band together

Scattered players' ‘Social Club’ release to benefit Katrina relief efforts
/ Source: The Associated Press

The music of New Orleans is huddled in an old Austin recording studio.

Some of the Crescent City's musical legends have returned to this Texas city where — just six weeks after Hurricane Katrina — they cut a therapeutic album dedicated to their ravaged hometown.

At that post-Katrina recording session, names synonymous with New Orleans — Neville, Porter, Nocentelli, Rebennack — gathered to channel their raw emotions into the bittersweet tribute, "Sing Me Back Home."

On a recent evening, a few weeks before the release of their album, they reconvened.

"The music lives on in those players, no matter where they are," says George Porter Jr., the bassist and band leader of the New Orleans Social Club, the name the collective has adopted.

The great talents of the New Orleans music scene had been accustomed to living minutes away from each other in the Ninth Ward, but Katrina scattered them across Texas, Colorado and elsewhere.

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"I think I live in South Austin," says Cyril Neville, still trying to get his bearings on his new home. On the album, released this week, he passionately sings Curtis Mayfield's "This Is My Country."

In the weeks after Katrina, producer Leo Sacks assembled the New Orleans Social Club — a five-piece band led by Porter, best known as one of the founding members of the Meters. Fellow Meter Leo Nocentelli joined on guitar, as well as Ivan Neville on organ, Henry Butler on piano and Raymond Weber on drums.

Many guests were brought in. Dr. John (whose real name is Mac Rebennack) plays "Walking to New Orleans"; John Boutte covers Annie Lennox's "Why"; and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux sings the specially composed "Chase."

"I knew as soon as you got New Orleans cats together you were going to have the spirit and sound of the city," says Sacks. "We could address all the emotions of the moment."

As much of the album proves, those emotions were running high. Between songs, many were busy tracking the damage to their homes, looking at old photos or speaking to family members dispersed by the storm.

"It helped me to be with these guys and be busy, take my mind off of it," says Weber, who has migrated to Austin with his family. "It was like being back home."

Since portions of the proceeds from "Sing Me Back Home" will benefit the Salvation Army, the New Orleans Musicians Clinic and Music Cares, Weber says he's in the funny position of raising money for his own cause — to rebuild his home.

"I'm part of the project as well, because we did it for Katrina victims who want to come on back home," he says, laughing heartily. "I want to go back home!"

Ivan Neville is the son of New Orleans icon Aaron Neville, whose house was ruined in the floodwaters of Katrina. Like countless New Orleans residents, Ivan feels the government has let down his city and his people, and expresses that by covering Creedence Clearwater's "Fortunate Son."

"A song like `Fortunate Son' was pertinent when it was out during the Vietnam War," says Neville, who is currently living in Austin. "And the fact that that's still relevant now is ridiculous."

Like "Fortunate Son" (which Rolling Stone called "outraged funk"), much of "Sing Me Back Home" is imbued with political protest.

"Too many have died protecting my pride, for me to go second class," Cyril Neville (brother to Aaron and Art) sings on "This Is My Country."

Much of the album, though, is full of toe-tapping optimism. The Mighty Chariots of Fire perform "99 1/2 Won't Do" and Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball sing "Look Up."

"Music always takes the place of anything that's negative," says Nocentelli, who lost an office space to the hurricane, and whose mother and sister lost everything. "Even though the negativity was there, the music overcomes that."

"The music heals," echoes Cyril Neville.

Everyone in the band is concerned that the culture of New Orleans will never come back, even if the city does. Over 250,000 residents — more than half of the pre-hurricane population, many of them black — remain scattered all over the country.

"It's never going to be the same because a lot of the poorest people who had to leave are not going to be able to make it back," says Ivan Neville. "To me, that's a major part of the heart and soul of the city: the people."

Cyril Neville expects to stay in Austin, and suggests others will also remain in their new communities because "we've been treated how human beings are supposed to be treated."

Porter would rather see money given to New Orleans than to cities coping with evacuees.

"Like the guy from FEMA said, `We can't legitimize spending money on a flood zone.' Well, fix (it). Un-flood zone it," he says.

"At this point, New Orleans music will start living in Austin or Denver, wherever the group of players are living that created what is known as New Orleans music," says Porter. "It will be New Orleans music by way of Austin."

Nocentelli thinks projects like the New Orleans Social Club are vital.

"That's the only thing that's left," he says. "With people like the Meters, the Neville Brothers, Dr. John, Wild Magnolias — the music will never leave it. That's something that nothing can take away from New Orleans."