Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the band has enjoyed an artistic renaissance over the last decade, and the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — whose destruction forced the temporary closure of the historic Preservation Hall, their home base for nearly 50 years — has only fueled their fire. They don’t venture into the recording studio often — their last album of new material, the wonderful Shake That Thing, was released in 2004, and Preservation Hall Recordings mostly functions as an archival label — but when they do, they make it count. For proof, look no further than Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall, an album whose matter-of-fact title doesn’t even hint at the many treasures it holds in store.
For starters, there’s the band itself, proving with each note that holding fast to tradition doesn’t mean trading away creative vibrancy. Though most of these songs will be immediately familiar even to listeners who don’t know New Orleans music from cheap theme park Dixieland, they aren’t rote covers; each performance is infused with the kind of loose comfort that comes from a lifetime of dedication to a craft (and, in this case, to a culture). None of these songs sound like tributes; they’re joyously, brilliantly alive — which is how you’ll feel as they come spilling out of your speakers.
Unquestionably, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band forms the musical backbone of the album, and Preservation would be worth owning even if that was all it had to offer, but the band has lined up an army of guest performers that should be enough to make any music lover drool. Observe: Andrew Bird joins in for “Shake It and Break It,” Tom Waits lends his distinctive growl to “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing,” Jim James (as Yim Yames) shows up for “Louisiana Fairytale,” and Del McCoury stops by for “After You’ve Gone.” And that’s just within the first five tracks — before the album’s finished, you’ll also hear from Ani DiFranco, Pete Seeger, Richie Havens, Merle Haggard, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Dr. John, Steve Earle, Buddy Miller, and more. Hell, even Louis Armstrong comes back to life for a couple minutes to join the band for “Rocking Chair.”
It’s an eclectic group of guests, and nine times out of ten, albums like Preservation suffer from their disparate ingredients. Here, though, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band makes each performer their own, to the point that Waits sounds like he’s been singing with the band all his life, and you might not even recognize Earle or Brandi Carlile. It all adds up to a wonderfully cohesive tribute to the undimmed spirit of a musical idiom that’s too often marginalized and/or taken for granted. Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans? You may not think you do, but this music is so essential, and so universal, that one listen is all you’ll need to understand the error of your ways. Preservation comes out on the 16th — watch this video, then pre-order your copy today.