If you're on a budget this holiday, it might not be wise to buy "Doctors, Professors, Kings & Queens: The Big Ol' Box of New Orleans." Not because it costs $50. Heck, no: That's cheap. But because once you've heard, seen -- and seemingly tasted -- this terrific box set, you'll rush out and spend whatever it takes to get to the Big Easy, pronto.
A more effective tool for promoting New Orleans tourism hasn't been invented. Four CDs containing 85 tracks demonstrate the city's dizzying range of music, from R&B and zydeco to funk, blues, gospel and jazz. Meanwhile, 84 pages of liner notes lead you through the city's bead-filled streets, overflowing bars and mouthwatering restaurants. This is probably the world's only box set that will leave you hungry, but not for music.
Fats Domino is just one of the sons of New Orleans captured in "The Big Ol' Box."
"The Big Ol' Box" is a history lesson as well as a musical bonanza. But there's no song organization by genre or date, just a huge mess of sonic jambalaya mirroring the region's rich, multicultural music scene.
The first thing that jumps out of "The Big Ol' Box" is how celebratory everyone is. Even the sousaphones smile. That's no surprise to residents; traditional jazz funerals are among the many things that exude a joyful spirit in the Crescent City. But to those of us unaccustomed to partying 24/7, this box set is especially uplifting.
It's also enlightening. If you're not graying yet, you may not be aware that rock-and-roll pioneer Fats Domino is from New Orleans. And how about Little Richard, who unleashes "Rip It Up" here? It's easy to forget that New Orleans was a fundamental building block of rock-and-roll, at least until you delve into "The Big Ol' Box."
Aaron Neville's "Tell It Like It Is" and Smiley Lewis's "I Hear You Knocking" provide chart-topping familiarity, but dozens of other regionally legendary artists offer perspective, insight and plenty of spice: Clifton Chenier, Buckwheat Zydeco, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Radiators, Zachary Richard, Dr. John, Henry Butler . . . and those New Orleans Klezmer All Stars, of course.
Neo-hippies will enjoy a hot instrumental track from Galactic -- but will also get a lesson in jam-band influences from the smoking Radiators ("Confidential") and mega-funky Meters ("Hey Pocky A-Way"). Even the cliches are vibrant: "When the Saints Go Marching In" receives tasteful hip-hop seasoning -- they call it "brass-hop" -- from local innovator Coolbone.
As you listen, leaf through the book, which raises the bar for box-set literature. Not only does it provide the story behind each artist; it's also all you'd ever need to tour New Orleans.
Want to talk voodoo at the perfect bar? Need to distinguish Cajuns from Creoles? Wonder where the locals' secret spots are for po-boys and banana pudding? It's in here. (Incidentally, cranking the CDs drowns out your growling stomach.) By the time Louis Armstrong & His Dixieland Seven end the five-hour-plus tour by asking, "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" you're so immersed that you can truthfully answer no.