Marvin Gaye’s awed and fearful three-word mantra is perhaps the most natural reaction to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. As we watched a city drown and empty out and now, perhaps, wither and die, we can’t help but ask—as Gaye did when confronted with all the injustice, hate, and strife on the Vietnam-era home front—what the fuck is going on? New Orleans’s most accomplished brass band here poses that question with a song-by-song remake of Gaye’s 1971 gem, and it works best with the less familiar stuff. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” is the best remake of the original album’s three smash singles—rapper Guru (of Gang Starr fame) has a jazzy flow simpatico both to the Dirty Dozen’s groove and Gaye’s caramel style. On the other hand, Chuck D’s gruff rhymes on the title track, while righteous, feel clumsily stitched to the song. And whosoever greenlighted bringing G. Love aboard for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” should be sentenced to a month’s hard labor sandbagging the levees.
Luckily, there are much better renditions among the album tracks. One is Bettye LaVette’s witchy wildcat vocals on her complete reinterpretation of “What’s Happening Brother” Another is the sanctified church organ on the Southern-fried, Ivan Neville–led “God Is Love.” Best of all is the near-instrumental “Flyin’ High (in the Friendly Sky),” which stays low-key for a few minutes before erupting into a classic New Orleans–style second-line street party, all while the Dirty Dozen chant “Help me somebody!” in unison. No, they never do get around to telling us What’s Going On, but music like this is yet more proof that you can’t kill New Orleans merely by dumping Lake Pontchartrain into it.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band play B.B. King’s Friday, October 13, bbkingblues.com.