It may finally be time to retire Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” as the post-Katrina song that everybody plays at Jazz Fest. After all, Newman was writing about an entirely different hurricane with topical references that don’t necessarily resonate today. You can only work up so much emotion about President Coolidge.
On the other hand, Johnny Sansone has come up with a perfect modern equivalent in this album’s title track. Taking stock of local life over the past two years, he points the fingers in the right direction (his insurance company right alongside Bush and Bronwie); and throws in some pointed lines (“My mother’s out in Houston / my daddy used to be in a grave”) that Newman would likely admire. What makes it work is the music’s tone of muted celebration. His accordion and Doug Garrison’s slowed-down second-line drumming match the steely determination of the lyric. And without underlining the point too hard, Sansone makes it clear that the kind of paradise he’s singing about—where “little people suffer and big shots don’t compromise”—isn’t confined to New Orleans.
That’s the standout track, but the disc as a whole marks a songwriting breakthrough for an artist who’s been better known as a singer and harmonica player. True, some songs could use a bit of editing (most run between five and seven minutes) but there’s an impressive range here for a blues-based album; from a nautical epic to a dark-humored rocker to “Johnny Sadsong,” a neat bit of self-mythologizing in the “Bo Diddley” vein. And the topical theme returns on the more somber finale, “I’m Goin’ Home,” which catches the mixed emotions of a hurricane exile during the return trip across the bridge.