With eighty percent of New Orleans submerged under up to twenty feet of water in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and thousands of casualties anticipated, the music world is dealing with the emotional impact and trying to imagine the future of one of America's most influential cultural centers.
"I'm very passionate about the city -- I've had amazing experiences there," says former Phish bassist Mike Gordon, who has played the city numerous times. "We used to go canoeing on the bayou, go to Mother's Restaurant and see these hip brass bands that no one knows about. New Orleans is such a fuel for the entire country's music. There is such a looseness to the city and the people, a happy-go-lucky quality, throwing caution to the wind. I don't think the pure essence of the place can be wiped away by natural disaster."
Daniel Lanois, who had his Kingsway Studio there on Esplanade in the French Quarter from 1988 to 2001, is also optimistic about the city's spirit. "As terrible as this may seem, nothing could ever kill the music of New Orleans," he says. "I think more music will come out of this. I have a feeling that the music community there will pull up its pants and get on with things. It's a part of the world that's seen a lot of hardship -- and yet a lot of beautiful music has come out of there."
But for current locals, the tone is much bleaker, as several artists -- like so many other residents of the now completely evacuated city -- are coming to terms with losing everything. Alt-folk singer-songwriter Ani DiFranco, who evacuated earlier this week, was too distraught to talk. "Ani is devastated," says her spokesperson, "as she's had a lot of damage to her home in the French Quarter, including the loss of her new album." Susan Cowsill, formerly of Sixties pop group the Cowsills and now of roots rockers the Continental Drifters and a New Orleans resident for thirteen years, left most of her possessions -- and her cat -- behind. "It's really strange: We've got a small U.S. tour coming up -- but all the equipment's in the house," she says, on tour in Tennessee. "It's just so surreal. They're telling us we can't go home for three months. I played Nashville last night, and it was pretty pitiful. It probably sounded like I was going to cry at any minute. I want to go home and start trying to help people!"
"I live in one of the higher parts of the city, so [my house] could still be there -- but I don't know," singer-songwriter Shannon McNally, who sought refuge with family in Mississippi, says through tears. "I didn't talk to many of my friends before we left, so I have no idea where anybody is. I'm just assuming that anybody I haven't talked to is on the road or in the Superdome, but I don't know. I'm a little numb. The best parts of New Orleans are underwater. And all those people that couldn't get out -- they're New Orleans."
Singer Marc Broussard, currently on tour on the West Coast, grew up outside New Orleans and is awaiting word from family. "My brother called me yesterday to say he had to pick up our boat and go fish my cousin out of his house," he says. "So it's really crazy. He said people are walking around with guns, and it's just like a guerilla war zone down there. I was just shedding more tears than I've shed in a long time. I have no idea what's going to happen. There are already parts of New Orleans that are as bad or worse than third-world countries."
The vibrant club scene that defines much of the feel of New Orleans faces an uncertain future, of course -- but is bolstered by a determined community. "As far as rebuilding and getting back to the city, I haven't talked to anybody who has not wanted to go back," says Rio Hackford, owner of French Quarter indie rock venue One Eyed Jacks. "It's starting from scratch and building on what's the fucking backbone of the real true music scene of fucking America. New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and always will be. It's obviously as bad as it could possibly be, but I'm invested in the city. We'll be the first ones to open for business! I mean, where are these musicians gonna go? It's gonna be a mess for a long time, but it'll be a mess with some good tunes. The spirit of New Orleans, it runs pretty deep."
With an entire city displaced, many musicians are resigning themselves to life on the road for some time to come. "As far as I can tell, my house in the Marigny is underwater," says Galactic bassist Robert Mercurio, who has lived in the city for sixteen years and is currently on tour in Seattle. "And with the looting, I'm worried I'll come back to my house being trashed, even if it's not flooded. The city's never going to be the same, which is amazingly sad. The band has talked, and since we don't have a home, we're planning on picking up some more gigs." McNally is also facing extended time on the road. "I'm effectively homeless, so I think I'm going on the road. But I'm very lucky in that I have a lot of friends and family and places I can go."
Looking ahead, many are trying to remain optimistic. "Maybe the city will get a facelift," says Mercurio. "New Orleans has bounced back before. I feel New Orleans has a really special place in people's hearts -- besides the people that live there. It's great to see everybody extending their hands to help out." McNally adds, "It's a very powerful place, and I have to believe that even if most of it gets displaced that it will bubble to the surface. I hope that the country realized that it's the coolest city in the world. I can't think of anywhere else that is as special."
Additional reporting by David Fricke, Lauren Gitlin, Jessica Robertson, Charley Rogulewski and Gillian Telling