The New Orleans Social Club – Sing Me Back Home (2006)
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The New Orleans Social Club - Sing Me Back Home

We set up shop at Wire Recording, a deep-dyed down home studio on a strip of highway along South Lamar in southeast Austin, with lots of homey touches like the Christmas lights strung up over the vocal booth, but most importantly the endangered MCI analog tape machine that made the music sound raw and real.

This sublimely funky setup thrilled our sonic skipper, the wizardly Ray Bardani. “Old school!” he exlaimed.

The healing came slowly, like an unspooling film, in snapshots, one frame at a time.

I’ve covered other New Orleans tributes here before, but Sing Me Back Home is hands down the best — in fact, the worst thing about this album is that it’s only just coming out now, months after the multiple disasters that recently befell the city have cycled through the public consciousness. It was recorded over the course of six days in October 2005, so I can’t help but think an earlier release was possible:but then, that’s why I don’t work at a major label.

Anyway, whatever. The folks at Sony/BMG and Burgundy Records could have sat on this until ten years from now, and it’d still be a gorgeous, timeless collection. The New Orleans Social Club is less a proper band than a loose aggregate of native sons and daughters who know a thing or two about making great music. You’ve got some Nevilles, members of The Meters, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Willie Tee, Marcia Ball, The Subdudes, and that might not even be the best of the lot.

That there are no wasted notes goes without saying. (Dr. John’s greeting to the band, delivered via speakerphone, sums it up nicely: “How you muthers doin’? Y’all know what to do.”) And though you’d think capturing the noise made by such a talented assemblage would be an easy job, records like these are all too often less than the sum of their parts, so thunderous applause is in order for engineer Ray Bardani and producer Leo Sacks (whose liner notes I’ve taken the liberty of excerpting here).

Choosing a pair of songs to represent the album is a tough job, but someone’s got to do it:

:there was music on his mind, so Ivan [Neville] went back inside and plopped a plate of paprika-spiked fried chicken on his Hammond organ, determined to find what he was looking for: A greasier vibe that would bring John Fogerty’s ageless anti-war anthem “Fortunate Son” (download) down to where it needed to be.

Listening back to that Hammond humming, George Porter blurted out, “What’cha gonna do with the money?!”

Everyone knew who he was talking to, in Washington and down river in New Orleans. “That’s rollin’!” Ivan said, hollering like the Saints had just won the Super Bowl.

And my personal favorite:

The diminutive John Boutté showed up, shadowboxing like a bantamweight before a big fight. “I just want you guys to know,” he said, touching his throat, “I didn’t smoke at all today.”

And then this scion of the city’s renowned Boutté family gave the vocal performance of a lifetime: A transcendent version of Annie Lennox’s “Why” (download).

“This is the book I never read/These are the words I never said/This is the path I’ll never tread/These are the dreams I’ll dream instead:”

Sounding like a young, raspy-voiced Rod Stewart, Boutté reached for God’s blessing:

“This is the fear/This is the dread/These are the contents of my head:Do you know how I feel:I don’t think you know how I feel:”

Despite the shocking abdication of accountability by the people who should have helped them, the gathered ones came to cook. They filled their plates with faith and seasoned them with courage. They cooked for their friends and neighbors scattered by the winds. They did it for their elders and their ancestors. They did it for the spirit world. They did it for the living and those to come.