It’s been over 13 years since I first moved from Alabama to New Orleans to attend college. Most people ask “Loyola?” No. “Tulane?” Helllllll no. I landed in New Orleans at the University of New Orleans (UNO) one week before the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
It would be remiss for me to not mention that New Orleans was, as many of you who weren’t there have forgotten or didn’t know, very much still a mess a year after Katrina (and several years following that). Military Police regularly patrolled the campus and the city. There was still a curfew. The piles of debris stood 15+ feet high on the neutral grounds. Groves of trees stood, bent at disturbing angles (imagine an entire forest that’s been mowed down by a Godzilla-size monster truck). Many of my friends lost their homes, schools, churches, cars, contents of their homes, and general memories. Many friends lost family members, pets, and friends. Many lived in FEMA trailers for months. Many got sick from the chemicals in the FEMA trailers. A guy got murdered in our dorm building the first semester, and, I believe, his murder was never solved. New Orleans was ranked #1 on the FBI’s list of cities with the most murders per capita in the U.S. for 3/4 of the years I lived there. Beyond these very real problems, I was a general wreck– homesick, in a doomed long-distance relationship, a bit rudderless, and having many, what I now call, “youthful indiscretions”.
It was a Very Bad Time™, but is there a more poetic city and time to be a wreck in? Absolutely not in the U.S., but I think Detroit was a close second. If you would like to more fully understand the events leading up to and occurring after Hurricane Katrina, I highly recommend Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke .
While home on my first winter break from college, I remember finding a Word document that was a letter my mother wrote and presumably sent to my grandma with words I’ll never forget: “I still don’t understand why she wanted to go down there.” It was a fair question that she never ended up asking me aloud.
And why did I want to go “down there”?
It has been nine years since I moved away with only a few visits in between. Although I think it’s been long enough that I cannot claim New Orleans, it is not a city one simply lives in and can walk away from. Why did I want to go DOWN THERE?
Many of us skittered to UNO like vultures to a carcass. Enrollment at UNO was WAY down after Katrina. Many folks never came back. However, many folks (like me) bit at the full-rides UNO offered to those of us who had above average ACT scores but weren’t like “Hey big brain, you’re gonna be a doctor or an engineer!”. Many folks also came for the fantastic music and film programs. I am so thankful for the opportunity to this day and will, hopefully, one day get to pay UNO back.
Beyond that, New Orleans is a beating heart. People come from all over to party and have a good time in New Orleans, and she always provides. However, she’s so much more than a good time. You know when she’s sad or mad. And she has the best sense of humor. She is the best friend that’ll cry when you cry and vice versa. No wonder she attracts so many artists, musicians, writers, and weirdos (like me).
Being down there was a very good place to be.
Given the plentiful opportunities for musicians and other artists, I met so many talented people while in New Orleans. One friend I have kept in touch with is Darren Hoffman. I met Darren while he was studying percussion at UNO, and I was a student worker in the UNO College of Liberal Arts office. Darren is a multi-instrumentalist and a bit of an entrepreneur. He was always working on several projects at one time, many of them involving some both tech, music, and other artistry– including the TRADITION IS A TEMPLE and Tutti Music Player.
While at UNO, Darren used his musical talents and desire to learn to connect with many native New Orleanian musical greats, including drummer Shannon Powell:
[Shannon] stands tall in the lineage of New Orleans’ rhythmic giants; he is a torchbearer of the city’s culture and one of the finest drummers in the world. He’s also a great singer, his vocals invoking styles that echo the churches, street parades and jazz clubs of his hometown. Known for his contributions to traditional and modern jazz idioms, having worked with Danny Barker, Harry Connick Jr. and Wynton Marsalis, Powell is also a veteran of New Orleans’ rich rhythm and blues scene having backed up such greats as Snooks Eaglin, Earl King and Dr. John.
Darren and Shannon bonded over percussion and became friends outside of the strictly academic sphere. When Shannon first heard Darren play guitar, Darren gained the nickname the “Jewish Jimi Hendrix” and Uncle Nef was conceived.
Uncle Nef, a ropeadope artist, is a rhythm and blues duo- Shannon and Darren- that performs traditional blues riffs with modern and raw adaptations. They released Blues, their first album, in 2017. In 2019, Uncle Nef has blessed us with the raw Love Songs album.
When artists release a second album, it is always concerning that it won’t be as authentic as their debut album. However, Love Songs is an entree to the snack that is Blues: both are excellent and full of feels, but Love Songs is satiating– all without the presence of a bass player.
All of the tracks are excellent, and you will want to listen to the whole album. I am going to share my three favorite tracks from Love Songs here:
“That Was That”
“That Was That” is the first track on the album and a slow burn. The song begins with Shannon singing “That was that/ I loved you, my baby.” So, maybe not the kind of love song you would expect from an album entitled Love Song. However, if you’re in a hurt state, a “I-am-heartbroken-and-betrayed-and-want-drink-so-I-don’t-feel” state, you know, this is the jam for you.
During Darren’s guitar solo, I am pretty sure I can feel my skin on fire.
“Tourette’s” (Nirvana cover)
“Tourette’s” is Uncle Nef’s take on the Nirvana song of the same name. Only they do it without lyrics and with more blues.
“A-Side” is my favorite track on the album. A 3 minute and 24-second wailer. I will share my interpretation of this song:
You’re in the midst of a metaphorical desert of heartbreak (like step 2 of heartbreak). You are far enough out in this desert that turning around is not an option, but you also have little hope and no end in sight. You cried all of your tears miles back, and you don’t have the energy or resources to make more tears. So your only option is to keep going, passing the various dangers and mirages along the way. Or you can also stop and die. The choice is yours.
If that isn’t a love/pain song, I guess I finally can’t feel anymore! Huzzah.
Blues is a tradition, and the cross-generational approach to blues that Uncle Nef takes on is one that keeps the tradition alive.
Help keep the tradition alive by supporting New Orleans artists and Uncle Nef by getting your own copy of Love Songs.