Unlike in previous years, the bands also put out CDs that don't require apologists to explain away the recordings' shortcomings. Suplecs picked up the tempo and got some of sludge out its sound on Powtin' on the Outside, Pawty on the Inside (Nocturnal), and Supagroup's Rules (Foodchain) has good songs and a smartass sense of humor, but its hard rock has a dirtier edge than before. World Leader Pretend's name may refer to R.E.M., but Punches (Warner Bros.) brings recent Wilco to mind with its blend of lyricism, melancholy and dissonance. Rock City Morgue's Dead Man's Song (Nocturnal) showed a lot of growth, with the band's musical and lyrical palette expanded beyond '70s New York rock and B-movie scenarios.
Not every artist wears the mass-market-success label comfortably. If Quintron's mid-fi, homemade, thrift-shop soul finds more than a cult audience with Swamp Tech (Rhinestone), what a wonderful world that would be. Pleasure Club seemed like it ought to be a Next Big Thing, but this year's emotionally intense The Fugitive Kind (Brash) never found its audience, and the band broke up this year.
Other impressive rock CDs include Better Than Ezra's Before the Robots (Artemis), roots-rocker Shannon McNally's Geronimo (Back Porch) and Big Blue Marble's Stars in Suburbia (independent), though it isn't always clear how big the indie-rock band wants to be. In truth, though, across the board New Orleans seemed ready to engage the national music community not as emissaries from that weird place down South, but as musicians actively engaging the same musical issues as the rest of the country.
When young African Americans are trying to find an authentic music that reflects the urban experience, the Soul Rebels' Rebelution (Barn Burner) offers a credible option. The hip-hop elements aren't added calculatedly; they're as much a part of the band's musical present and New Orleans' streets as brass bands and jazz are. Rather than live a "keep it real" lie, they embraced the possibilities the studios offered them, even if that meant they couldn't play every note on the album live.
Even the city's signature musical event -- the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival -- had less of an isolationist vibe than in previous years. For a while, Jazz Fest seemed to make the statement that the REAL music was at the festival, and all those popular, successful, contemporary artists were somehow inferior and tainted. Jazz Fest was a good festival anyway, but it felt hermetically sealed and safely insulated from the larger music community as a result.
This year's festival put local talent next to international musicians engaging the same aesthetic questions, which was far more interesting than putting them next to musicians who had already kissed the city's pinkie ring. The result was a great festival with remarkable performances from local and national talent. Fortunately, many of those performances are available on CD from Munckmusic.com, including standout shows by Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown (who died after evacuating to Texas), Ivan Neville & Dumpsta Phunk, Jim McCormick and the Meters reunion.
It's not easy for me to recommend live albums since they're usually as exciting has someone telling you about the show, but the Meters' set is actually more impressive on second and third listens. Unfortunately, there is no legal recording of Wilco's set, but the recent Kicking Television (Nonesuch) gives a strong indication of how beautiful, nervy and alive the set was. In light of such a success, anxiety about next year's Jazz Fest is understandable.
Anxiety applies to almost every aspect of life in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina; Jazz Fest is just one. There is understandable concern that musicians might not return, and many haven't yet. As natural as it is to be concerned for the city's future, there is a possible silver lining to the forced export of New Orleans' musicians. As they become parts of the music scenes in Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, San Francisco, New York and so on, they take New Orleans' musical values with them. As they live in other cities and play with other people, they'll absorb fresh influences for when they return.
For a long time, this city has been a velvet rut into which good music careers disappear. Now that there's nothing velvet about it, it will be interesting to see who's ready for the national stage.