Kermit Ruffins has two subjects for songs: How much he loves New Orleans and how much he loves the Treme. Everything else spins off of one of those two themes. Why does he love them so? That’s not always clear. In “Good Morning New Orleans,” it seems to be the sunlight, the breeze and the stars twinkling by the river. In “I Got Mine,” he seems happy that something’s always going on. Since we haven’t cornered the market on day, night or activity, it seems like he could be equally infatuated with Cincinnati if he’d just give it a chance.
But to be fair, Ruffins is not about the words; he’s about personality, and the passion for the city in his voice is more profound than any line he sings. And here he surrounds himself with a lineup that can similarly find something valuable in any song—George Porter, Jr., David Torkanowsky, Herlin Riley, June Yamagishi and an army of horn players including Trombone Shorty, Eric Traub, Corey Henry and members of Bonerama. Riley’s bouncy swing on the slight “Hello Good Evening” fuels one of the album’s best tracks and nudges Ruffins toward his most playful vocal on the album.
When Ruffins wraps himself up in New Orleans—thematically or conceptually, recording “Didn’t He Ramble” and “I Ate Up the Apple Tree”—he’s figuratively and musically home. When he strays from it, the results get dodgy. “High Heel Sneakers” is unmemorable, and an instrumental version of the Isleys’ “All for the Love of You” presents Ruffins tryout of a soul-jazz guy persona in case the swing thing doesn’t work out. Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father” is beautiful and features a lovely Torkanowsky solo on the Fender Rhodes, but it requires more of Ruffins as vocalist than he’s up for.
Ruffins’ love for the city speaks to people and transcends the details of the recordings, and those who similarly love New Orleans without question find him singing their song, no matter what he’s singing. There are occasions when Livin’ the Treme Life requires you listen to the spirit not the song to hear magic, but it’s always entertaining and periodically gets what’s great about Ruffins on disc.