The “with special guests” album is typically a loaded proposition. While the guest often adds new elements to the band’s sound (and hopefully increases exposure and sales), the guest also can also disrupt the fragile chemistry of the band, significantly diluting their sound. Thankfully Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s new guest-laden effort does not fall victim to these traps and wonderfully weaves each guest’s sound into that of the ensemble. Band leader Ben Jaffe initially laid out a dream list of potential guests who understand the traditional sound of Preservation Hall, and much to his surprise, everyone on this dream lineup agreed to take part in recording the twenty standards that comprise the excellent Preservation: An Album To Benefit Preservation Hall & The Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program.
Multi-instrumentalist and singer Andrew Bird sets the tone for the album with a rollicking turn on the bouncy “Shake It and Break It.” After opening with such a lively pace, the group downshifts a bit but maintains their unmistakable swing feel as Paolo Nutini deftly warbles through “Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea.” Up next is madman Tom Waits, who leads the band through one of their most thrilling numbers, a twisted, butt-shaking turn on the ancient Mardi Gras anthem, “Tootie Ma is a Big Fine Thing.” With plenty of percussion powering an oddball secondline beat that compels strange movements reminiscent of a hip replacement, Waits applies his unique, guttural growl and guides the ensemble through dynamic shifts while maintaining an incredibly loose atmosphere that has a warts-and-all/devil-may-care vibe. The entire piece crackles with a very live energy, and a similar feeling is successfully applied later on in the album with Dr. John directing everyone through “Winin’ Boy.” The song shuffles, slinks, and grinds before he shouts, “Oh, suffer now, honey!” and everyone erupts into a raunchy burst of sound.
While the more explosive numbers are obvious highlights, this album is not without its share of wonderfully soothing songs, particularly Jim James’ megaphone-enhanced vocals on the very smooth “Louisiana Fairytale,” Ani DiFranco’s delicate touch on the sprightly “Freight Train,” Del McCoury’s country twang on the bluesy “After You’ve Gone,” and Ritchie Havens’ effortless and gentle spin on the emotional “Trouble in Mind.” Even Louis Armstrong makes an appearance, his vocals lifted from an old recording and plugged seamlessly into “Rocking Chair.” As wonderful as these performances may be, they pale in comparison to the effort Pete Seeger and Tao Rodriguez-Seeger apply to “Blue Skies.” Taking a song that is usually performed without much depth of meaning, this arrangement shifts its tone numerous times, perfectly portraying the pain and difficulty the singer has experienced before relishing in his newfound source of love and optimism. The result is a revelatory turn that is laden with pathos and indirectly alludes to the rebirth of New Orleans in a post-Katrina landscape, as the elder Seeger leads everyone in a joyous sing-a-long while Charlie Gabriel’s clarinet beautifully wails across the top.
With twenty tracks in tow, not every one can be a winner. Indeed, Brandi Carlile’s vocals on “Old Rugged Cross” are sung an octave lower and serve to create a plodding dirge, while Merle Haggard’s spin on “Basin Street Blues” suffers from his decision to occasionally sing off the beat while the band plays what may be the most straight-ahead version they’ve ever recorded of this classic, resulting in a puzzling incongruity that doesn’t always sit well. Nevertheless, the vast majority of these performances are big winners and should serve to expose the genius of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to a new and larger audience. As an added bonus, the proceeds from this album will benefit the band’s venerable French Quarter hall and their music outreach programs, so Preservation: An Album To Benefit Preservation Hall & The Preservation Hall Music Outreach Program will become a gift that keeps on giving in many ways.