Preservation: An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall

It arrives almost ten years after the fact, and its place of origin is not Nashville but New Orleans, yet even so: You might as well consider Preservation a sort of sequel to the seminal O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack– at least in spirit, if not in style. Like that album, this one gathers an impossibly wide and impressive array of contemporary musicians to interpret songs so integral to the musical roots of this country, they seem almost to transcend genre, and can only really be described as American music, plan and simple. Like that album, this one is a celebration of simplicity, of rugged faith and high hopes in the face of hard times– quintessential Americana themes. And like that album, this one is in service of a true American institution– the Coen Brothers in the case of the former, Preservation Hall in the case of the latter.

And actually, it’s the Hall that proves to be this record’s secret weapon, one that not even O Brother can lay claim to matching: For in that Hall– perhaps as storied and integral to American music history as any other building in the country– dwells the Preservation Jazz Band, arguably the medium’s most legendary and hardest-working band. The lineup of the band has, obviously, changed time and time again since its inception in the early 1960s, but the music they play hasn’t– and in fact, it seems to stretch out to well before the 60s, to a time when jazz was all about filling the dancehalls with high spirits and good humor. The music they play here is old-timey in the best sense of the term, unabashedly fun and swinging with cheerful energy.

It’s the band that anchors this record, and their playing is stellar across the board; but what about the special guests? They come from the worlds of indie rock, of country, and yes, of jazz, and every one of them turns in a stellar performance; indeed, part of the joy of this album is in hearing how naturally the featured guests work their way into the fabric of the Preservation band, locking into the spirit of the music without calling attention to themselves. That New Orleans favorites like Dr. John and Terrence Blanchard turn in fine performances is no big surprise, but what’s really delightful is hearing Andrew Bird swing like he did back in the days of Oh, The Grandeur!, or hearing Tom Waits turn in a deliriously fun scat performance that reveals just how much this music has influenced him. Picking further highlights is tough, but I love the Blind Boys of Alabama bringing a heavy dose of gospel to the proceedings, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James continuing his eclectic career trajectory with a dreamlike “Louisiana Fairytale,” youngster Paolo Nutini continuing his exploration of roots music in a seductively-crooned “Between the Devil & the Deep Blue Sea,” and Ani DiFranco giving what may be the most cheerful and warm vocal performance of her life in a wonderful reading of “Freight Train.”

And that’s the real key to what makes this such a delightful recording: It’s all about shaking off one’s cares and having a good time, with music that swings happily and offers nothing but cheerful simplicity. These are standard songs that most of us know by heart, but no matter: This album demonstrates why their appeal is so enduring, and how much they still have to speak to us today.

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