Big Easy's Musicians Move Their Acts to Austin

The Neville Brothers -- from left, Aaron, Charles and Art -- have long been associated with New Orleans, but they scattered after Katrina.
The Neville Brothers -- from left, Aaron, Charles and Art -- have long been associated with New Orleans, but they scattered after Katrina. (By Brian Brainerd -- Denver Post Via Associated Press)
By Sylvia Moreno
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 30, 2005

AUSTIN -- The self-proclaimed Live Music Capital of the World, the place that gave rock-and-roll superstar Janis Joplin her start in the 1960s, is sounding a little funkier these days. The chili, as one of the famed Neville Brothers sings in his new regular gig, has met the gumbo.

Among the estimated 1 million Louisiana and Mississippi Gulf Coast residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina are musicians trying to reestablish New Orleans's distinct second-line beat in a city better known for folk and roots, rhythm and blues, indie rock and country rock.

The city's population of more than 8,700 musicians has not only grown a bit but also diversified racially and ethnically. Relocated here indefinitely, among others, are Cyril Neville and Tribe 13, Ivan Neville and Dumpsta Funk, the Hot Eight Brass Band, the Iguanas, the Caesar Brothers Funk Box, the Radiators, and Big Chief Kevin Goodman of the Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Some of them have even created an ad hoc band with a name that sums up who they are today, post-Katrina: "The Texiles."

"We all want to go back, but how can you go back to a situation like that? Everything was so vibrant and now everything is dead," said Dale Spalding, 56, a harmonica player and vocalist. "New Orleans was a great musical scene; it was intoxicating. But Austin is a very rich musical town, too."

Whether these musicians will transform a largely white music scene remains to be seen. Right now, Austin officials are monitoring the adjustment of the estimated 7,300 Katrina evacuees, 90 percent of them black. They have moved to a city forced this year by black leaders to confront long-simmering complaints of unfair treatment by police, a place where black residents say they have been excluded from the mainstream economy and the vibrant cultural scene. Those issues, activists contend, have led to the steady decline in the numbers of blacks, who now make up 9.5 percent of the city population of nearly 700,000. The influx of Katrina evacuees could reverse that trend, some political observers believe, and inject the small black community with cultural, economic and political vitality.

Austin's newest residents "bring a true cultural mix, which is what every city should be," said Nancy Coplin, music coordinator at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport.

Certainly when the evacuees arrived in Austin in early September, the city's private and public sectors, along with the huge music industry, welcomed the Katrina diaspora with open arms.

"Like everyone else, I was disturbed and startled by the images of people -- the confusion, the apparent lack of centralized coordination in any kind of relief effort," singer-songwriter Natalie Zoe, vice chairman of the Austin Music Commission, said of the situation in New Orleans. Her initial foray into Austin's Katrina shelter with plates of homemade cookies and bags of clothes from her closet quickly evolved into a large-scale effort to locate and connect displaced musicians with MusiCares, the charitable arm of the Recording Academy, and with sources of housing, furniture and even vehicles.

Club owners, such as Steve Wertheimer of the well-known Continental Club, opened his home to homeless musicians and began putting them to work by scheduling gigs. Clifford Antone, owner of the legendary blues club Antone's, organized four relief concerts to benefit charities helping Katrina evacuees. Roadhouse blues singer and pianist Marcia Ball organized her own concert to directly benefit the displaced musicians and create a relief fund that continues to distribute cash to those still trying to reestablish their careers.

A small group of musicians and music fans created Instruments of Healing to replace instruments the New Orleans musicians lost. And the Austin airport, which features live musical performances five days a week at three in-house venues, added a 10th gig on Thursday afternoons showcasing the displaced musicians. The performance series is co-underwritten by an airport concessionaire and Austin honky-tonk country band leader Lucky Tomblin.

"These folks suffered a devastation beyond anything I ever dreamed we'd see. A beautiful, beautiful soulful city was devastated," Tomblin said. "Hopefully this series of concerts will keep people from forgetting that these people are out there struggling. It's not over."

Storm-tossed New Orleans musicians have resettled in music capitals such as Nashville (where Aaron Neville has established his home), Memphis, New York and Los Angeles. But since the hurricane, musicians also have relocated throughout Louisiana and to Atlanta; Houston; Dallas; Birmingham; Orlando; Santa Fe; Montgomery, Ala.; Portland, Ore.; and even Hoboken, N.J. Some have trickled back into the flooded city. Others are in and out, playing in reopened clubs and hoping they, too, can start their lives anew in New Orleans next year.

Cyril Neville and his wife, singer-writer Gaynielle Neville, just bought a house in southwest Austin and have helped resettle 10 members of the extended Neville family and 26 of Gaynielle's relatives here. Neville said he has no desire to return to a New Orleans that will never be the same.

"The majority of the black people are gone and that has been, for a long time, a black city," he said. In majority-white Austin -- where he found the response to aid his extended family "overwhelming" -- he said he sees a "level of positivity" and goodwill that has the potential to overcome racial strains. "My new home is here in Austin," he said.

Upset by the city's and state's inadequate response to a crisis that disproportionately affected poor and working-class blacks such as himself, Goodman of the Flaming Arrows said he will not return to New Orleans anytime soon, either. Goodman said he spent five days in the New Orleans convention center with no food or water and was airlifted by military helicopter to a commercial flight that took him to Austin.

He is now renting an apartment in south Austin with his fiancee and has made the elaborate headdress for his new Mardi Gras costume. The costume he had almost completed for next year's festivities was ruined in the flood. Now his dream is to perform at Austin's New Year's Eve celebration and to create a smaller version of a New Orleans-style Mardi Gras here next year. He already has talked to city music officials about the plan.

"I don't know if in the long term the music scene will change. But in the short term, we're going to get something going," he said. His stay in Austin so far has been everything the chaos of the Katrina aftermath was not back home.

"We just needed someone to hug us and say it was going to be all right," Goodman said. "We got that here."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company