Amos Lee show in Virginia to benefit NOMRF

The New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund sends grants to assist musicians who are still displaced 19 months after their homes were destroyed. To help address these needs, an Amos Lee benefit on April 27th at James Madison University in Virginia has been booked by Blink of an Eye Productions. The student who founded Blink of an Eye was shaken by the tragedy at Virginia Tech this week, but she is continuing on with the concert and feels it will be an opportunity for healing.

NOMRF Founder Jeff Beninato, who as a teenager played bass on Bourbon Street with both of Fats Domino’s sons, and his wife, writer Karen Dalton Beninato, founded the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund while displaced for months after Hurricane Katrina. The couple eventually went back to retrieve some of their furnishings, with no power in their Mid-City neighborhood and the National Guard patrolling the area at night.

They settled in Illinois, and can empathize with calls from displaced musicians trying to get by. The Fund is collaborating with a home furnishing nonprofit to help musicians starting to move back as more Road Home grants come through. But finding an audience can be a struggle since more than half New Orleans’ population is still gone. Many displaced musicians are trying to get re-established.

"If you're not a band leader, or if you play a style of music New Orleans is not traditionally known for, it takes longer to get your music career going in a new area. These are the musicians who are eligible for help from fewer and fewer outlets," Beninato said.

Through nomrf.org and Exiled on Main Street, they honor displaced musicians including vocalist Timothea Beckerman who died without ever making it home. Beninato lost two friends and former bandmates to the storm.

"Scott Sherman was my competition in junior high school band had one of the best garage bands out of New Orleans, Dr. Spec's Optical Illusions. Playing with him was my last gig before the storm at a Ponderosa Stomp event. As far as anyone knows, he was dropped off on Danziger Bridge and died there."

"And we lost Barry Cowsill, who adopted New Orleans along with his sister Susan, and was a fellow musician and a genius writer. The Partridge Family was based on their life story. So many famous musicians have thrived in this city because they all realize how important New Orleans pop style is to American music,” says Beninato.

NOMRF supporters include Dr. John who played a benefit for Wardell Quezergue in Chicago and surprised Wardell with his Grammy certificate to replace the one he lost to the storm. The grass-roots fund makes donations go further by hiring no professional fund-raisers. “Our help comes from individual music lovers all over the world, “ Karen said, “This summer, musician Joe Topping flew over from Liverpool and walked 1,300 from Chicago to New Orleans in support of the musicians.”

Friends still ask when the Beninatos are moving home. “My parents’ Alzheimer’s disease is progressing so quickly that every day I spend with them has been a gift," Karen says. NOMRF stays plugged in locally with the help of Board Member Robin Chambless, stage manager for this month’s Gambit’s Big Easy Awards (New Orleans' version of the Grammys). Chambless will accept recognition along with other music charities on behalf of the Fund. Board Member John Stirrat of Wilco spearheaded a benefit months after the storm, and Beninato's former bandmate Peter Holsapple of the dB's produced "What Becomes of the Brokenhearted" as a benefit download. Holsapple, now touring with Hootie and the Blowfish, lost everything to the storm.

A NOMRF music cruise in January is also on the horizon. One positive aspect to continuing the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund’s work is raising awareness of the ongoing need to help displaced musicians.

Jeff concludes that, “One note from a musician who would not have been able to pay his rent from half way across the country makes it all worth it.”


A Lot of Discussion Dissolving

In his article at the official Google blogspot, John Hanke, the director of Google Maps, has this to say about the Google imagery of New Orleans:

“This weekend, there has been a lot of discussion about our imagery of New Orleans in Google Maps and Google Earth. I thought I'd give you some background that may clear things up, and also let you know about new imagery of the region now available.”

When you click on “a lot of discussion” link you’re directed here:


And at that site, you're told that “No related articles are found," The articles are in the ether, along with my mid-city neighborhood and the RNC email server. I'm not a conspiracy theorist and rarely wear tinfoil hats, but can't help wondering where 'a lot of discussion' went.

And yes, Google has achieved an admirable mea culpa with its Darfur map, but that does not do any more to bring displaced New Orleaneans back than Oprah’s admirable act of building a school in South Africa.

Created because of her promise to Nelson Mandella, Oprah Winfrey’s African school was promoted on a network special that aired twice in prime time. When asked why she went halfway around the world when the need is so great in cities like New Orleans, Oprah answered that her African students appreciate and value education.

That was before snacks and visitation. Some parents complained that they could only visit their children once a month and that junk food is banned from the school. ActionAid had a bigger concern stating, “Only 150 hand-picked girls from poor households will enroll in Oprah’s boarding school. This number may rise to 400 and there’s no doubt they will receive an excellent education and some will emerge as future leaders. But there are over 40 million girls who have never been inside a classroom.”

There also were more than 300 New Orleans children on a waiting list for public schools at the beginning of this semester. They just sat at home until schools found room for them. Not to make Google and Oprah feel even more like no good deed goes unpunished, but displaced survivors of a man-made disaster are still waiting in America. There should be enough compassion to embrace us all. Anderson Cooper is back in New Orleans, so this week we’re almost as popular as Anna Nicole’s orphan.

But local heartbreak can be too close for comfort. We founded the New Orleans Muscians Relief Fund after evacuating to a town that houses State Farm’s national headquarters. The neon State Farm sign glows above our television screen. So there is a segment of this town that increasingly winces at the words New Orleans, especially with this week’s engineering email disclosures.

Postcards from far away are always easier to live with than a town that could ring your doorbell and ask for a school. Or a map that reflects the hole in its levee.


11-Year-Old Jake Produces Great New Orleans Video

This is by a slideshow by Jake. He's 11 and for his 11th birthday asked for $11 donations to the New Orleans Musicians Relief Fund instead of replacing the train he lost to Katrina because that's the kind of kid he is. So we gave him a link on nomrf.org and a tee shirt.

In his free time, Jake collects toys for New Orleans children in the hospital because he's thankful for the hospital's care when he was younger. In the slideshow he made to commemorate New Orleans, Jake uses a song by Liverpool musician Joe Topping who walked from Chicago to New Orleans in support of NOMRF's efforts for displaced musicians.

After one week of trumpet lessons, Jake was right there to play trumpet for Joe's second line welcome along with the New Wave Brass Band, the Voodoo Vixens and his mom, Jo. We all second-lined for Joe who walked for three months in the sweltering heat discussing New Orleans with everyone he encountered while wearing his guitar case on his back. The heavy kind. His song in the video is "How High."

With supporters like Jake and Joe, New Orleans should have a good long stay above the bubble in the world's consciousness.


Dr. John on NOLA's Music, Politics and Charity

For The Telegraph

Jelly Roll Morton. Louis Armstrong. Fats Domino. Pete Fountain. Al Hirt. The Neville Brothers.

If New Orleans is the birthplace of American music, then Dr. John is perhaps the leading conservator of that seminal tradition.

But even though he's a piano virtuoso, don't mistake the good doctor for some stuffy highbrow. After all, one of the many nicknames for New Orleans is "The City That Care Forgot."

"We play wherever they are all over the world," Dr. John said in a recent telephone interview. "If they hire us, we're there.

"We try to do the best we can to represent our hometown. We try to bring the people in to have a good time."

Indeed, Dr. John is just the latest in a long line of legendary musicians from the Crescent City who put the "good times" in that quintessential New Orleans expression: "Laissez les bon temps rouler." That means "Let the good times roll" for you non-French speakers.

And from the fabled city at the mouth of the mighty Mississippi River, Dr. John will appear some 1,300 miles upstream this weekend when he plays two sold-out shows Friday and Saturday nights at the Argosy Casino.

Dr. John is the stage name of Malcolm John "Mac" Rebennack Jr., born in New Orleans in 1940. He began his career as a session musician in New Orleans in the 1950s under that name, usually playing guitar. But after a shooting incident injured one of his fingers, he switched to piano, learning under the tutelage of one of the city's greatest players, the late Professor Longhair.

Starting in the late 1960s and into the 1970s, Dr. John adopted his stage name and crafted the persona of "The Night Tripper," blending voodoo references with elaborate costumes and psychedelic influences. He perhaps is best known for his 1973 hit, "Right Place, Wrong Time."

As he has aged, his onstage persona has mellowed, but he remains true to the mission of the New Orleans sound.

"The music makes me feel good, and it's my job to make the people feel good," he said. "We wanna get up and dance and have a good time. If we get the people dancing and having a good time, we've done our job all right. If we don't do that, we're the ones that messed up. That's how we look at it."

When Dr. John says "we," he's referring to his longtime backing band, which includes Herman "Roscoe" Ernest III on drums and percussion, David Barard on bass and John Fohl on guitar.

"It's the same backing band I've had for a gang-and-a-half of years," Dr. John said in his trademark raspy New Orleans drawl. "Herman and David have been with me from the lower 9th Ward. John is the new guy in the band; he's been with us for five or six years.

"It's a funky band. We have a good time. We play anything. We don't just play the hits. Every night, I play different shows."

In fact, Dr. John says the band has a book with 191 songs it can play on any given night. As the interview was taking place, he was picking out the songs for that night's show in Trenton, N.J.

"I'm writing the set list for tonight. The set list is Number 141, then up to Number 174, then Number 2, Number 7, Number 11. It makes it a shorter method for the list that way."

Dr. John's repertoire spans the entire history of New Orleans music, as perhaps best illustrated on his classic 1992 album, "Goin' Back to New Orleans." He has either worked with or covered the material of all the great musicians mentioned at the beginning of this article.

When Dr. John tickles the ivories, he evokes the turn-of-the-century New Orleans cathouses where Jelly Roll Morton rose to fame. His baritone echoes the magical voice of Louis Armstrong, and the syncopated rhythms of Dr. John's music incorporate the "second line" style made famous in the city's colorful funeral processions, as well as the Afro-Caribbean beats that drive the frenetic marches of its "Indian tribes" during Mardi Gras season.

And though Dr. John's music is mostly about the parties and the good times, his love for New Orleans shows just as much in his sorrow about the devastation visited on the city by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. He's angry at the politicians who he feels failed the city's residents both before the storm and in its aftermath, reacting bitterly to the latest news out of South Louisiana last week.

"I agree the governor (Kathleen Blanco) ought not to run again," he said. "I agree the (U.S. Army) Corps of Engineers has been milking the city of New Orleans for $8 million a year for 50 years. The guy who wrote 'Walkin' to New Orleans' (Fats Domino), his whole hometown is gone. I'm not thrilled with the mayor (Ray Nagin); I wish he wouldn't have run again. I'm not thrilled with the president. I'm not thrilled with any of the politicians, period.

"I'm not thrilled with the big organizations that come down, saying they're gonna help. The only people who are doing something are the small organizations who come down and do things. The small organizations help people. The big organizations help themselves get a lot of publicity, but all the money goes to the red tape."

But for those who want to help the people of New Orleans with donations, Dr. John says there are several organizations doing worthwhile work. Nearest to his own heart are the New Orleans Musician's Relief Fund and the New Orleans Musicians Clinic.

"Those help the musicians get established to bring the music back," he said.

And bringing the music back to New Orleans - and to Alton and the world, for that matter - is what Dr. John is all about.