01 April 2012 — by John Swenson
Here we have the complete “score” for Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans, combining the 24 songs released last year with 15 more written as part of the original conception but recorded in separate sessions toward the end of last year at Piety Street Studios. This ambitious project includes more than 100 New Orleans musicians and dozens of collaborators from elsewhere, and is a prime example of the way New Orleans artists and friends have responded to the historic cataclysm of Katrina and the ensuing federal flood. Art, and folklore in particular, is uniquely suited to express the unfathomable emotional terror unleashed on a populace by the destruction of generations-old cultures. Art can express such inarticulate grief in mythic, dreamscape fashion and Nine Lives does this masterfully.
Katrina brought journalist Dan Baum to New Orleans to write a series of pieces about a city in recovery and led him to write the city’s back story, covering the time between Hurricane Betsy (1968) and the contemporary calamity of Hurricane Katrina. Baum told this story through the lives of nine New Orleanians. Without the destruction brought by the flood, Nine Lives never would have been written…
… and Paul Sanchez might still be a member of Cowboy Mouth instead of one of the most important post-Katrina songwriting voices and musical organizers in the city. Nine Lives: A Musical Story of New Orleans, Sanchez’ ingenious collaboration with lyricist Colman deKay, takes Baum’s book as the inspiration for a Wagnerian opus of songs mythologizing a New Orleans that no longer exists. Sanchez and deKay have recorded the songs, put together a small-scale stage presentation and implemented plans to turn it into a Broadway musical. This album is the fullest realization of the idea so far. In retrospect, last year’s 24 song version was designed as a collection of the best songs from the project sequenced to work on their own. The final version of the album includes the additional songs and significantly re-sequences the first 24 songs to advance the book’s story line in a more coherent fashion.
The new version also adds depth to the characters Joann, Billy, Wilbert, Belinda and Frank. Matt Perrine scored the instrumental set piece “Betsy’s Coming” to set up the 1968 storm, while Shamarr Allen wrote “Katrina and the Flood,” one of three new compositions from him. The new version adds context, emphasizing the contradiction of the piety/violence duality inherent in the parochial school system in the hilarious “School Song”/”Fight Song,” a classic piece of musical comedy with a cameo by Debbie Davis as a nun. The funk rocker “Disrespect” adds further context, and pieces such as “Gloria on the Phone,” “Quit Your Job,” “Kajun’s Pub” and “Billy’s Fall from Grace” add detail from the book that fleshes out the narrative. “Keep Your Eyes on That Snake,” “These Pies,” “Slam Bang Thank You Man” and “The Sadness of Rex Mansion” add drama, excitement and emotional depth.
The curtain raiser “Fine in the Lower Nine” and the finale “Rebuild Renew” hold their places. “Fine in the Lower Nine,” one of three pieces written by John Boutte, is a powerful stage-setter for the production and features outstanding vocal performances from Boutte and Treme’s Wendell Pierce. In addition to Boutte, Sanchez relies on several frequent collaborators. Trumpeter/vocalist Shamarr Allen is responsible for “House of Dance and Feathers” and “We Are the Band.” Alex McMurray plays Officer Tim Bruneau on the hard rocking “Jump Out Boys” and plays guitar and banjo on other tracks. Tom McDermott’s versatile piano work is all over the production, and Matt Perrine’s brilliant arrangements add depth and New Orleans authenticity to the production, quietly heralding the finest work of his career.
Now we have two distinct versions of Nine Lives: A Musical Story, and hopefully there will be more, including an original cast soundtrack. Nine Lives is already well on its way to becoming a historic watermark in musical theater; there are few better indicators of the ongoing revival in the city’s music scene.