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New Orleans is on their minds

October 29, 2005|Steve Hochman | Special to The Times

There were three ways you could tell that you weren't in New Orleans on Thursday at the House of Blues in West Hollywood. So said actor-satirist Harry Shearer in his role as emcee of Second Line on Sunset, a showcase of, and benefit for, Crescent City musicians two months after the devastating hurricane and flood.

First, he said, "you aren't sweating." Second, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, the evening's opening act, was not cooking up barbecue outside the club, as is his custom at home. And third, "We get to go home to a nice, dry house."

Otherwise, it almost could have been a pre-Katrina night at New Orleans' Maple Leaf or one of the clubs that line Frenchman Street. It wasn't so much due to the presence of the Neville Brothers or the Dirty Dozen Brass band, internationally known musical ambassadors who spend much of their time touring, but of Ruffins, trombonist Sammie "Big Sam" Williams, pianist Jon Cleary and veteran blues guitarist Walter "Wolfman" Washington, stars to those who know the New Orleans scene.

That was exactly the point of this show, which benefited the Louisiana Cultural Economy Initiative and the MusiCares Hurricane Relief Fund, but it also gave a gig to the musicians, many of whom lost their homes and the venues they usually play.

Dancing, big grins and shouts of "Yeah you right!" punctuated the roiling rhythms and blaring brass, as befitting a second line, the part of a New Orleans funeral in which mourners turn celebrants, embracing life and joy.

Ruffins, a young player linking Louis Armstrong roots with forward-looking spirit, was joined for a second-line blast by members of the Dirty Dozen, the band that revived and revitalized brass-band traditions more than 25 years ago. English transplant Cleary and Ivan Neville paired for a lively can-you-top-this two-piano clinic on the styles of Professor Longhair, James Booker and Fats Domino. Then Cleary brought up his band, the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, with Williams and Washington coming along to turn up the heat.

The Nevilles closed with a set concisely showing why the four brothers are tagged "the first family of New Orleans funk," mixing Mardi Gras struts with soul balladry and robust R&B.

Throughout the evening, musicians sat in with each other, crossed genres and generations, blending jazz, funk, blues and gospel. It's all part of a music culture that is about continuity and evolution -- a scene that is very much alive. Just like its city.

"I'll see you back in New Orleans," Cleary declared.

Yeah you right!

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