In 2007, Kermit Ruffins got married in Woldenberg Park during the French Quarter Festival. As his beloved bride Juicee mounted the stage, Kermit and the fellas pointed their horns in her direction and the audience roared. Just as things hit a crescendo, the Steamboat Natchez passed and blew its whistle. It was another epically sweet moment when you re-appreciate our intimacy with music. Grinning in of that bond for four decades now, Kermit is family.
I’d bet you a hot sausage that more New Orleanians per capita have stories about Kermit than any living musician. I thought David Simon said something when he talked about the city as a moment factory. Of course, unlike HBO, you and I can’t predict the moments’ arrival or if they’ll be punctuated with gunshots, and anyway, they don’t last. Fortunately for us (and Simon), Kermit is a foreman in that factory.
Remember Henri the emcee! Remember Emile the stone-faced pianist! Remember when No Limit decked out the band in football jerseys! All of us have been vipers, all aboard,all fo’shiggedy. These are unquantifiable,unrecorded gifts from our most public artist, whose voice isn’t perfect pitch but who’ll be there every week, telling you that New Orleans is home. Bumper-stickered out as that sentiment may be, it remains 100 percent fresh and heartfelt when Kermit growls it.
Like many recordings by seminal locals, these tracks only suggest the value of the artist—a temporarily detached from his environment and acoustics, perfectly produced piece of a man, but only a piece. You won’t learn anything you didn’t already know (Kermit loves the two Louis, Sinatra and the occasional show tune; he picks good sidemen; his trumpet sounds as fuzzily whimsical as ever).
Things kick off with “Panama,” featuring Mark Mullins and Dr. Michael White romping through the Caribbean flavored standard. (Should Kermit ever record an album of songs from the Southern Hemisphere, we’d learn a lot.) “More Today Than Yesterday” is great. “If I Only Had a Brain” seems long, but it also takes a salsa turn. Kermit’s unflagging dedication to Armstrong makes “Shine” and “La Vie En Rose” convincing, if not all that necessary.
But play a track in your car, or hear one on the radio, and feel your chest swell up with something very necessary: high hopes. The album consists of favorites from masters of sweetness and light like Sam Cooke, Sammy Cahn and Cy Coleman. As interpreters of fancy, of mosey, of the positive go, who’s better than Kermit?
We appear to be at the odd juncture where the roles of neighborhood champ and HBO character can co-exist in a city actively mutating and resolutely committed to its identities. Good for everybody that at least one person remains true and sounds good doing it.