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Katrina Hits New Orleans Musicians Hard

The musical community in tradition-rich New Orleans, the city that helped birth jazz, has suffered mightily in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

Fats Domino, the 77-year-old boogie-woogie pioneer known for such classics as "Blueberry Hill" and "Blue Monday," was rescued by Coast Guard boats last week. R&B diva Irma Thomas, whose version of "Time Is on My Side" predated and, some say, outclassed that of the Rolling Stones, escaped unharmed to Gonzales, Louisiana, though through her Web site she is asking for help for her daughter-in-law, who lost everything in the storm. Allen Toussaint, the legendary record producer, solo artist and songwriter, who penned hits for Patti LaBelle ("Lady Marmalade") and Dr. John ("Right Place, Wrong Time") was reportedly among the thousands holed up at the Superdome for several days, before he was able to get out and travel to New York City. Contacted there and asked about the future of New Orleans' once-vibrant musical scene, he said, "It's on intermission, but will never leave. Just come back after the break."

Finally, Alex Chilton, of the Box Tops and Big Star, was missing for nearly a week. Relatives, as well as Jon Auer of the Posies, had contacted him on Monday after the storm hit, the day he reportedly lent his car to two friends who were driving out of the city. Then all communications stopped until late in the Labor Day weekend, when he was reported to have been evacuated by the Coast Guard. Hundreds of other well-known artists, including Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, the Neville family, Soul Asylum's David Pirner and hip hop's Master P, reported anywhere from extensive damage to total destruction of their homes and recording facilities.

Even those who got out safely faced the difficult task of finding a place to stay, and musicians in and around the area all the way up to Memphis opened their homes to the dislocated. Louisiana bluesman C.C. Adcock, according to a spokesperson at the Yep Roc label where he records, had a houseful of musicians staying with him in his Lafayette, Louisiana home base (known to friends as "Disgraceland").

The Neville family, perhaps as closely associated with the New Orleans musical scene as any artists, have relocated to Memphis. This historic blues town has become a haven for many musical refugees, and the Beale Street Merchants Association is currently in the process of setting up paying gigs for artists. The MusiCares Foundation, a part of the Grammy organization, is providing funds, shelter, food, medical help, instruments and recording equipment replacement, as well as other necessities, to musical refugees through its Memphis office. Yet a return to normal will take weeks and months. Though several key New Orleans musical landmarks remained unharmed — Preservation Hall among them — the toll on people, equipment, clubs and audiences will be long-lasting. Currently Pollstar lists no New Orleans concerts at all until January of 2006.

Finally, bands out on the road, including Quintron and Miss Pussycat, Blackfire Revelation and hundreds of others, scrambled for information about the people, homes and property they'd left behind. A message on the Quintron and Miss Pussycat Web site read: "Quintron and Miss Pussycat did make it out of New Orleans before the hurricane hit. Their van was loaded up with their instruments and puppets — but their house, the Spellcaster Lodge and ALL of their belongings are casualties of Hurricane Katrina. Pretty much all Q and P have is what they need to tour... This is a DEVASTATING turn of events for our friends."

Blues-rock duo Blackfire Revelation reported on their Web site that family members including a grandmother, sister and aunt had been trapped in their fourth-floor apartment for five days before finally being evacuated to the Superdome.

Other musicians joined the flood of families trying to get in to the hurricane zone to check on aging family members. Stoo Odom of SF art-rock trio the Graves Brothers sent an email from Pasadena, Texas, where his mother and stepfather had airlifted from New Orleans' Touro Infirmary, his stepfather still recovering from surgery. After the storm, power went off and patients were moved to the roof, where they were rescued by Blackhawk helicopters and sent to hospitals in Houston, Lafayette, Baton Rouge, and Little Rock. Odom's family ended up just outside Houston, where his stepfather continues to improve. An email from the hospital read: "My mom and Frank are utterly exhausted. Frank is particularly weak but has rebounded substantially in the less-than-24-hours I've been here. Been spending lots of time at the hospital and running around town rounding up living supplies. Everything here is calm and improving."

The musical community is organizing dozens of benefits — from high-profile events featuring such mainstream stars as Dave Matthews, the Rolling Stones and Ellen DeGeneres to spontaneous concerts at local venues throughout the world. CDBaby (www.cdbaby.com), an online retailer for independent musicians, was one of the earliest to respond, offering its musical partners a way to donate profits from their CDs to Katrina relief. To date more than 5,000 musicians have responded, representing nearly every genre from hip-hop to jazz. Reid Paley, a NYC-based singer/songwriter and sometime Frank Black collaborator who sells his records through CDBaby, explained that it was not the storm itself, but the way that the government handled it that moved him to contribute. "People are in trouble, people are hungry and dying, and what we get is Fake-President Beavis on television, annoyed at having to interrupt his golf game, bleating 'We will not tolerate lawlessness,' and 'We're reaching out to corporations.' Appalling," he said in a recent email. "A mother trapped in a disaster area trying to get food and diapers to care for a hungry baby is not looting."

His anger was mirrored by many of the artists touched by the crisis. Kanye West famously denounced President Bush for not caring about black people on national television, but many in the musical community are equally enraged. Many are linking the U.S. government's failure to act in New Orleans to the Iraq War. Perhaps the Blackfire Revelation site summed it up best by saying, "We need every military resource available in New Orleans now!!! ... America is the priority!!! Innocent people are being murdered in our neighborhoods and the Red Cross and other relief agencies can't even get in to rescue them because they cannot get through the storm of bullets. I never thought I'd be screaming for a full military occupation of any city in the world, let alone my own hometown, but we need as many troops as possible and we need them right now!!! Time is running out!!!"

Hurricane Katrina donations to the Red Cross can be made through the organization's Web site. — Jennifer Kelly [Tuesday, September 6, 2005]

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