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A week ago last Sunday at the annual Rhythm & Roots Festival in Kingston, Rhode Island, Louisiana slide-guitarist Sonny Landreth closed out his set with his best-known tune, "Congo Square." The song honors a hallowed spot in New Orleans, and Landreth played it the way he always does: raw and celebratory. The only jolt came when you realized that Congo Square — in history a meeting place for slaves, in myth the spot where jazz was invented — was under at least a foot of flood water.

For those of us who love New Orleans and its music, it’s been one sobering week. At first it wasn’t certain how many of New Orleans’s musical legends had even survived Katrina, with Fats Domino, master songwriter Allen Toussaint, soul queen Irma Thomas, and alt-rock legend Alex Chilton reported missing. (All have since turned up safe, Toussaint sitting in on last Tuesday’s David Letterman show.) So far there seem to be no musical casualties, but the real losses still run deep: somewhere under that toxic sludge in the current news photos are Carrolton Station (the funky outskirts club where I saw a few all-night Dash Rip Rock and Continental Drifters shows), the warehouses where the Mardi Gras Indians keep their feathered robes, and the studios where the book was written on early-’60s rhythm and blues.

The week has also reminded us where the Bush administration puts its priority. Never mind the pathetically late response — to judge from government statements, you wouldn’t think that New Orleans is anything more or less than an oil-rich town. You might hear a passing reference to Mardi Gras or Bourbon Street, but who in power has mentioned any need to preserve the city of Tennessee Williams and Louis Armstrong?

Meanwhile, New Orleans’s musicians are out there playing as always. Browse the chatboards for the Funky Meters, the Radiators, or Cowboy Mouth and you’ll find stories of bands now touring with borrowed equipment, doing benefit shows even though their own possessions may be lost. Although the Rhythm & Roots Festival didn’t feature any bands from within New Orleans, there were a few with connections: Landreth and Steve Riley are from rural Louisiana, and veteran jam band Little Feat borrowed a couple of players and a lot of its groove from the Crescent City. There was a resolute feel to a lot of the sets, with Little Feat doing more of that groove than usual (their ’70s nugget "Fat Man in the Bathtub" is now a fiery second-line stomp) and Landreth closing "Congo Square" with a plea to "Give what you can, because New Orleans will be back."

Those feelings are echoed by former Continental Drifters singer Susan Cowsill, who’ll be the first New Orleans artist to hit town since Katrina: she’s at Fall River’s Festival for the Arts this Sunday afternoon and then at Johnny D’s on Wednesday. Under normal circumstances her current tour would be an upbeat occasion: her fine solo debut, Just Believe It, which saw limited release last year, is coming out nationally on Blue Corn. She’d been doing a monthly "Covered in Vinyl" series at Carrolton Station, performing favorite Joni Mitchell and Neil Young albums in their entirety. At Johnny D’s, she’ll mix some of that material with her own.

Cowsill and her husband, drummer Russ Broussard, had been living in New Orleans’s midcity district. When I caught up with her, she’d been dividing her time between volunteering at the Red Cross and catching up on a week’s worth of sleep. "The words ‘scattered’ and ‘shattered’ come to mind right now," she said over the phone from Nashville. "This is heartbreaking, it is mindblowing, it is more than any of us could fathom. But that being said, this isn’t the first time any of this has happened, and we’ll rise from the ashes. Right now we’re waiting to see what our house looks like and find out when, not if, we can move back. My daughter is asking me if New Orleans is done, and I have to say, ‘Gimme a break — it’s been here since the 1600s, and it’s not going away now.’ "


Issue Date: September 16 - 22, 2005
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