Crescent City queen

Irma Thomas comes to Tanglewood
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  August 30, 2006

POST-KATRINA: the songs of After the Rain resonate deeper.

It’s a little more than a year since Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, and Irma Thomas’s life, like those of most residents of the city, has yet to return to normal. But she’s more fortunate than many. Thanks to her standing as the Crescent City’s queen of soul, Thomas and her husband, Emile Jackson, were able to purchase a second home in Gonzalez, Louisiana, about 55 miles away from their flooded abode.

“When I’m not on the road, I’m driving in every day trying to get all the contractors to finish rebuilding our house. My band and I were in Austin when the storm hit. The water subsided three weeks later, and Emile and I couldn’t get back to look at our home for going on two months. When we got back, the house still had water inside. Mold began to form. We lost everything we had. Now it’s taking a long time rebuilding homes in New Orleans. Some builders are taking advantage of the situation, but there’s also a shortage of skilled workers because so many people haven’t been able to come back to the city.”

But one thin silver lining in Katrina’s wake has been the international attention the storm focused on the city’s musicians. Thomas has spent more time touring since Katrina than bird-dogging contractors. And on Saturday she’ll be in Western Massachusetts as part of the line-up of this year’s Tanglewood Jazz Festival, which runs Friday through Sunday.

Another highlight of the Saturday bill will be a first-time union of Thomas with hoodoo piano player Dr. John and jazz trumpet giant Wynton Marsalis. They’ll play tunes by the classic songwriter and arranger Johnny Mercer, whom Dr. John pays tribute to on his latest album, Mercernary (Blue Note). Thomas also has a new album: the graceful, elegant After the Rain (Rounder), her first in six years. Although its tunes were chosen before the hurricane hit, the piano-ballad treatment of Stevie Wonder’s “Shelter in the Rain,” the Blind Willie Johnson gospel blues “Soul of a Man,” and the laments “In the Middle of It All” and “Another Man Done Gone” resonate deeper in the wake of the disaster. That helps make the album a worthwhile new chapter in Thomas’s long career, which stretches back to 1961 and includes dozens of songs by some of the greatest writers in soul and R&B: Allen Toussaint, Dan Penn, Jerry Ragovoy. Ragovoy wrote her best-known hit, “Time Is on My Side,” which was covered by the Rolling Stones.

For Thomas, the work has been a blessing. “I think being so busy has helped distract me from some strong inner feelings of loss. I’m getting over it. You can’t bring anything back that’s gone, so . . . I do what I have to do to get through it. To work and to dream is a major part of getting through.

“The government could have done a lot better by the people of New Orleans, but what’s the point of rehashing what they didn’t do? I have been a participant in fundraisers for organizations that go overseas and help people, whereas we as the city of New Orleans and as a country wasted time trying to figure out who was in charge. Get help first, then worry about who is in charge. A lot of people wound up dying and suffering unnecessarily.”

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