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Songs of Praise 

Living in New Orleans, it's almost impossible not to make some pretty strange friends. The people who love it are sometimes miles apart in every way except for their rapport with, or love for, this contradictory, multiplicitous city. This month, two dear friends of New Orleans -- both of whom have been to degrees tricksterish and capricious throughout their careers -- have released albums inspired by or dedicated to New Orleans. Ed Sanders' epic Poem for New Orleans is a hagiographical take on the history of New Orleans in verse and music. Michelle Shocked's live gospel album To Heaven U Ride was released directly following a special Internet-only Mardi Gras single that paid homage to her adopted city. Both artists have been consistently innovative, and often surprising, in the turns the trajectory of their works have taken -- even downright odd. So it makes sense, really, that both chose New Orleans as an artistic focus or a second home, and we're lucky to have them.

The sly folksinger Shocked -- whose voice recalls Lucinda Williams with a more directed harshness to her twang -- has always been something of an unknown quantity in popular music. She started out with a pair of homey, Texas roots-based folk records in the late '80s and early '90s, dipped into Western swing, gospel and blues, signed with a major label and eventually fought her way out of that contract in court (using an antiquated piece of antislavery legislation, no less) before deciding to market her work her own way. Shocked, who lives part time in New Orleans, released a single, "Hardcore Hornography," during Mardi Gras 2006 that employed Troy Andrews and the New Birth Brass Band. Her August 2007 release, To Heaven U Ride, is a live gospel set inspired in part by New Orleans, and in part, by her attendance at a full gospel African-American church in Los Angeles, the other city she calls home. Including church-infused covers of songs like Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things Happenin' Every Day" and the Staple Singers' "Wade in the Water," the album's centerpiece is a song Shocked wrote for a Greenpeace documentary about Louisiana's chemical corridor, or Cancer Alley. During the live performance, Shocked speaks movingly, and convincingly, of a parishioner from her church who stood between New Orleans and Baton Rouge and declared that the company Shintech would not build a PVC plant in southeastern Louisiana because Jesus was against it. Sounding fully convinced on tape, Shocked rips into the gospel shouter she wrote for that film, "Good News," and then announces that the plant was not built.

As a member of the '60s Greenwich Village Beat community, Ed Sanders is known for writing his first acclaimed poem ("Poem From Jail") on toilet paper; starting the experimental rock band the Fugs; and founding the seminal publication F**k You: A Magazine of the Arts, which published Ginsberg, Burroughs and Gregory Corso, among others. Perhaps most notably, he wrote The Family, a well-known account of Charles Manson and the Tate/LaBianca murders. After Katrina, Sanders wrote an interpretive history of New Orleans in free verse that uses imagined, somewhat magical characters to trace the city's history from the Battle of New Orleans up through the storm, looping through time with a cavalier eye to actual chronology. In a characteristically Beat move, Sanders imagines the poet Blake in 1820s New Orleans; he has Mark Twain meet Marie Laveau at a Mardi Gras ball, and incorporates parts of the well-known story of Charmaine Neville's assault and escape from the Lower Ninth Ward after the levees broke.

In creating his New Orleans opus, Sanders set up camp this summer with producer Mark Bingham at Piety Street Studios in the Upper Ninth Ward and, with Bingham's help, recruited a battalion of artists from -- as befits Sanders' Beat pedigree -- New Orleans' own bohemia, the Bywater, to create atmospheric sounds for the album. Experimental sax player Martin Krusche played on the record, as did drummer Kevin O'Day, jazz vocalist Troi Bechet, tuba-player Jon Gross, tenor sax-player Tim Green, cellist Helen Gillet, avant-garde guitarist Rob Cambre and accordionist Walt McClements. Even roots-rocker Susan Cowsill ventured downtown to contribute vocals. But the high point of the record is the last, 13-minute-long segment of the poem, titled "Then Came the Storm: A Prayer for Victims of Katrina," which harnesses the combined, unrehearsed efforts of more than 20 local musicians who had stopped in for the day. The combination of two basses, two baritone horns, 11 electric guitars and many other players of traditional and nontraditional instruments creates a howling disquiet beneath Sanders' building crescendo of spoken word that, in the end, makes his epic poem a fitting address for an epic disaster.

click to enlarge Michelle Shocked's To Heaven U Ride is a gospel-based - homage to New Orleans.
  • Michelle Shocked's To Heaven U Ride is a gospel-based homage to New Orleans.
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