Glen David Andrews has been one of the most exciting and charismatic performers in New Orleans over the years. Unfortunately for his personal life, however, he has also been volatile and self-destructive. His writing encompasses a poetic grasp of the city’s Treme neighborhood, his voice a powerful, gospel-driven force, and his performance style an astonishing leap into the abyss that, in the past, often seemed to envision a tragic finale. Redemption was not simply a metaphor given this artist’s history.
It was a necessity.
At what appeared to be the nadir of his career, facing a laundry list of charges from the DA’s office, Andrews underwent an intensive rehabilitation program. While he was in the clinic, he began writing about the physical torments of detox and the psychological torments of rebuilding his life. The resultant songs kept changing in live performances after his return to New Orleans. Andrews, who was once known for near-weekly changes in his band lineup, put together a full-time band and rehearsed incessantly, then went into the studio with veteran soul-music producer Leo Sacks and made the recording of his life.
Andrews sounds like a different man here. Even the quality of his voice has changed. His singing is controlled, disciplined to the point of perfection. Where he used to force the action into an up-tempo, athletic frenzy he now seems to have gathered the power in his voice into concentrated vectors that give him extraordinary dynamic range. His capacity for inviting the audience to witness his inner turmoil, one of the most fascinating aspects of his pre-rehab personality, has been translated into a persuasive, almost pleading account of his difficult and ongoing recovery from addiction. On paper that may seem uncomfortably close to the phoniness of televangelism, but when you hear him testify “I can’t stop the rain from falling…but I can change myself” in “Surrender” the desperate honesty and determination to will himself into health hits with the persuasive voice of the great gospel/soul singers—think Solomon Burke and Al Green—plying their trade.
Sacks seems to understand that Andrews is actually reversing the process that created soul music, coming from a secular point of view and translating soul back to sanctified gospel singing/preaching. It’s a stunning achievement. From the sotto voice delivery of the laid back gospel ballad “Chariot” to the open-throated exchange with Ivan Neville on the “Bad By Myself” Andrews totally crashes the distinction between Southern Baptist declamation and soul shouting. By the time he gets to the positive thinking anthem “Movin’ Up” and the dramatic self-awareness of “Lower Power” and “You Don’t Know” Andrews sounds like one of the instant hit-makers of the classic soul era.
Andrews’ greatest talent may be his songwriting. He is a storyteller with an unerring instinct for human detail, strengths which animate the vivid portraiture of “NY to Nola,” a song which expands his palette into the powerful New Orleans funk/rock style of Galactic with a little help from that band’s Ben Ellman on harmonica. And throughout the record he mines biblical images and phrases deftly and uses them to his own purpose, once again as skillfully as a sanctified preacher inspiring his congregation to speak in tongues.
Nothing Andrews has done prepares you for the complete breakthrough, the creative transformation he achieves on Redemption. After a lifetime poring over the catalogues of some of the greatest practitioners of gospel/soul in history, Leo Sacks discovered a contemporary artist capable of making a record that could join the ranks of those timeless recordings. The result is a career-best triumph for both artist and producer, an album that joins recent work by Trombone Shorty and Rebirth Brass Band in a new era of New Orleans jazz and R&B excellence.
Finally, a record that consistently lives up to the promise that Glen David Andrews has shown on such canonical tunes as the Lil Rascals’ “Rock With Me (Roll With Me)” and his version of Dr. John’s “Walk on Guilded Splinters.”
Throughout every track, Andrews is giving it his all with powerful music and his trademark raspy, dynamic vocals. He does not shy away from singing about his well-publicized troubles and the title of the record runs as a theme throughout, whether soulfully begging for guidance from his “Chariot” or speculating on his past while he and Ivan Neville trade wailing vocals on “Bad By Myself.”
Despite his reputation as a brass musician, this record is a rock record with serious doses of rhythm and blues and soul. Anders Osborne contributes psychedelic guitar on two tracks, including a new take on his collaboration with Galactic, “You Don’t Know.” Ben Ellman digs into hardcore harmonica riffs on “NY to Nola.” And Andrews brings it down convincingly on the acoustic-guitar powered “Surrender” that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Bill Withers’ record. But Redemption is not entirely serious.
Andrews’ vocal riff on familiar rhymes that will bring a smile to listeners’ faces as he sings “you can stay, baby/but my mother-in-law got to go” or “bad karma/lots of drama/man, can’t stand my baby’s mama.” The fact that he can laugh on this record as well as expose himself amid the serious issues that abound here, combined with the strong music and performances, gives us the recording that we’ve been waiting for from Glen David Andrews.
Glen David Andrews plays Jazz Fest on Sunday, May 4—Congo Square Stage, 12:25 p.m.; Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, 4:30 p.m.