Sunday, December 04, 2005

Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now

The music industry has responded to the ongoing Gulf Coast Hurricane recovery with benefit concerts, programs aimed at helping New Orleans musicians get back to their music, and, lately, with a handful of fund-raising CDs. I wrote about Dr. John’s effort, Sippiana Hericane, a couple of postings ago.

Branford Marsalis’ Marsalis Music spearheads another disc, A Celebration of New Orleans Music, a sparkling collection of previously released tracks by luminaries such as Aaron Neville, Harry Connick Jr., Jelly Roll Morton, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, and Marsalis himself. Proceeds from this one are donated to the MusicCares Hurricane Relief 2005 fund.

Branford’s older brother, Wynton Marsalis, is the featured performer on the live Higher Ground: Hurricane Relief Benefit Concert CD with performances recorded in September at Lincoln Center. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra is joined on the disc by Aaron & Art Neville, Norah Jones, Diana Krall, James Taylor, Cassandra Wilson, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Wynton Marsalis Hot Seven, and others. The Higher Ground Hurricane Relief Fund is the beneficiary of the net proceeds here.

And then there’s the set pictured above (the net proceeds from which…at least $15 per CD sold…is being shared equally by the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and MusiCares Hurricane Relief 2005) which is a 2-disc, 35-track collection of live cuts, newly-recorded songs, and classic tracks featuring 80+ artists.

Disc 1 starts off with a grand live recording of “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?” by the immortal Louis Armstrong. Disc 2 kicks off with “Any Other Day”, a smoothly soulful duet between Norah Jones and Wyclef Jean.

Live cuts on the set include songs by the Dave Matthews Band (“Louisiana Bayou” with pedal steel guitar whiz Robert Randolph sitting in), Bonnie Raitt (with the sassy “I Will Not Be Broken”), Coldplay (the romantic anthem “Fix You”), Sting with trumpeter Chris Botti (a playfully jazzy “Moon Over Bourbon Street”), the Neville Brothers (the stirring “Brothers”), Elton John (the upbeat “I’m Still Standing”), James Brown (the classic “Try Me”), the Winans Family (with the gospel soul of “After All”), and John Fogerty (a potent version of “Born on the Bayou”.)

Aaron Neville joins forces with John Meyer and his band for the beautiful, bittersweet “Heart So Heavy” while Harry Connick, Jr. offers up his own poignant ode to his New Orleans hometown, “City Beneath the Sea”. Chris Thomas King performs a song written in the wake of the after-effects of Hurricane Katrina, the thought-provoking “What Would Jesus Do” and Rod Stewart teams up with soul singers Jerry Lawson and Talk of the Town for a jubilant a cappella rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready”.

R. Kelly’s offering is a fine inspiration number, “Let Your Light Shine”, while Faith Hill goes to church as well with a rousing take on “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” (Ms. Hill also has the most surreal credit lines in the liner notes with nods to the women who do her wardrobe and her hair and makeup for reasons that escape me.) Diddy raps a few lines on “By Faith” and then (wisely) gets out of the way and lets gospel star Fred Hammond carry the rest of the potent song home.

Other tracks here include songs from Van Morrison (a fine tune called “Blue and Green”), Gloria Estefan (a nice acoustic medley of her songs “Coming Out of the Dark” and “Always Tomorrow”), B.B. King, Barbra Streisand, Brian Wilson (a sweetly fragile remake of his own “Love and Mercy”), Josh Groban with Bela Fleck, Clint Black (the apt “When the Levee Broke”), Lenny Kravitz, and the young R&B group Black Buddafly (the lovely, hopeful “Make a Change”.)

The spirit of old New Orleans is celebrated with great old classic tracks from Clifton Chenier (the Cajun swing of “Ay-Te Te Fee”) and Professor Longhair (the joyful “Mardi Gras in New Orleans”.)

The living spirit of modern New Orleans is joyfully invoked by “Goin’ Back to New Orleans” featuring lead vocals and piano by Dr. John along with vocals by the Neville Brothers and swinging solos by Crescent City legends Al Hirt (on trumpet), Pete Fountain (on clarinet), and Charles Neville (on tenor sax).

A handful of all-star collaborations round out this wide-ranging CD: including an infectious track, “We Can Make it Better” featuring rappers Kanye West, Common, Q-Tip, Talib Kweli, and Rhymefest.

The soaring patriotic anthem, “Heart of America”, finds co-writer Eric Benet joining forces with Michael McDonald, Wynonna Judd, and Terry Dexter while a heartfelt cover of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” features the talents of Elton John, Mary J. Blige, Rod Stewart, Gwen Stefani, Velvet Revolver, Steven Tyler, Josh Groban, Ozzy & Kelly Osbourne, Pink, Andrea Bocelli, Gavin Rossdale, Ringo Starr, Phil Collins, and Robert Downey Jr.

The title track, the gospel-like “Come Together Now”, also has an equally unlikely combination of performers as it features The Game, Celine Dion, American Idol alumni Ruben Studdard and Kimberley Locke, Joss Stone, Wyclef Jean, Patti LaBelle, Natalie Cole, Brian McKnight, Aaron Carter, John Legend, Mya, Jesse McCartney, Angie Stone, Kelly Price, Gavin DeGraw, Chingy, Stacie Orrico, and the Backstreet Boys trading off lines and acting as the choir.

The CD is brought to a close, fittingly enough, with a swinging, almost-irresistable version of “When the Saints Go Marching (Back) In” featuring saxophonist Kirk Whalum, trumpeter Roy Agee, bassists Wayman Tisdale and Kyle Eastwood, and rapper Coolio.

The decidedly eclectic assortment of songs and performers on Hurricane Relief: Come Together Now may be problematic for some but I think it’s a cool collection of tunes (most pretty good, some very good, and some downright wonderful) for an extremely good cause. Works for me.

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