Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Musical Gumbo in the Big Apple

From the minute I stepped into the lobby at Madison Square Garden last night, it was apparent that I was not about to see a struggling NY Knicks team. The Garden took on a mardi gras atmosphere with costumed characters and performers on stilts mingling among the crowds entering the arena. The lobby was festively decorated with baloons, and streamers in traditional New Orleans colors. A band played a mix of zydeco, blues, and jazz. Abitha Amber Beer, normally found on Bourbon Street was flowing through the MSG taps. Crawfish, Gumbo, and other Cajun delicacies were available at refreshment stands. I was at an event!- New Orleans in New York City.

And what an event it was!! At 7:00 pm, the Rebirth Brass Band wandered through the audience and up on the stage playing a funeral dirge. In typical N'awlins fashion the lamenting soon gave way to celebration. Ed Bradley (CBS 60 Minutes) introduced Allen Toussaint who served as the bandleader for the first segment. Joining and paying tribute to Toussaint were such musical heroes as Paul Simon, Elvis Costello, The Dixie Cups, and the 1st lady of N'awlins blues - Irma Thomas. Two highlights of this first segment were Cindy Lauper doing a Touissant tune and the amazing Bette Midler singing I Think its Gonna Rain Today, a beautiful song written by Louisiana native Randy Newman.

Elton John, one of the major organizers of this event, opened the next part of the show. The opening refrain of Funeral for a Friend (Love Lies Bleeding) was enough to give goosebumps to many in the full garden audience. A rocking version of Levon had people dancing in the aisles. John promised that there will be more concerts to further the rebuilding cause and echoed the evenings sentiment that a newer New Orleans will be part of our future.

Using a rotating stage to minimize the time needed for equipment changes, it was only a few minutes before Jimmy Buffet was wowing the large number of "parrotheads" in the audience. Buffett shared the stage with Paul Simon for a version of Sea Cruise, and with Dave Matthews on a great rendition of Neil Young's Heart of Gold. Buffet's infectious joy reached this audience and he had everyone on their feet.

John Fogarty was next up, and after a rousing introduction from none other than President Bill Clinton, launched into Born on the Bayou. Clinton's suprise appearance brought the evenings loudest and longest reception. He pledged that all monies raised would reach those that needed it most. This was certainly not an easy act to follow, but Fogarty was up to the task. He kept the house rockin' for 4 or 5 tunes, before ending with Proud Mary.

Well over three hours into the evening the unlikely grouping of Buckwheat Zydeco, Lenny Kravitz, and Ry Cooder demonstrated an interesting blend of sounds. They were joined by Irma Thomas in a remarkable cover of Bessie Smith's Blackwater Blues which contains the following prophetic lines:
“When it thunders and lightnin’ and the wind begins to blow/There’s thousands of people ain’t got no place to go.”

Paul Newman introduced the next act - no strangers to the New York crowd - Simon and Garfunkel. After an emotional opening of Homeward Bound, and a rousing Mrs. Robinson they were joined by Aaron Neville who traded verses with Garfunkel on Bridge Over Troubled Water, an incredibly perfect song for this event. Garfunkel took the mike to say: "As many times as I've sung that song, I don't think it's ever meant as much to me as it does tonight."

Aaron Neville touched a few more hearts a bit later on with an exquisite version of Amazing Grace. He performed with his brothers and another Crescent City legendary band, The Meters. Rounding out the finale were the Dirty Dozen Brass Band paying tribute to the traditional jazz sound that is so much a part of the Big Easy's musical heritage.

So, nearly 5 1/2 emotion-filled hours after the Rebirth Jazz Band opened the festivities, they were back doing When the Saints Go Marchin In and once again winding their way through the audience. This time, however, they continued through the halls of Madison Square Garden with throngs of concert-goers following them to the exits. It had a real New Orleans feel to it and a real sense of optimism about it. One could not help but feel good about the rebuilding of this cultural landmark. The future may give New Orleans a new and different look, but its musical heritage will remain intact.


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