If you need proof that songwriting still matters on a blues album, just compare the respective Katrina songs on Bryan Lee and Mem Shannon’s latest. Lee’s title track amounts to a catalogue of the familiar events. The delivery is certainly heartfelt (he sounds near tears at one point), but “That’s when the levee broke / You know it ain’t no joke” hardly counts as fresh insight. On the other hand, Shannon’s “All I Have” zeroes in on one guy surveying the ruins of his house. The story is movingly told, and the “Rainy Night in Georgia”-style groove doesn’t hurt either.
Songwriting has always been Shannon’s ace in the hole. He first got attention by writing about his former life as a cab driver, but was smart enough to move on when that topic was played out. Since then, he has written an equal share of humorous tunes and harder-hitting personal and political ones; while edging from pure blues into funk. Yet his first live album isn’t the expected live greatest-hits; it leaves out onstage standouts like “S.U.V” (which got some national airplay) and the topical “Wrong People in Charge.” Instead, the set puts his funky side forward: Much of it is given to stretched-out versions of his groove-driven numbers (plus surprise Tom Petty and Neville Brothers covers), with only “All I Have” and the hard-luck story “Forget About Me” to show his more thoughtful side.
That said, A Night at Tipitina’s delivers just what the title promises; the sound and feel of a hot club date. That means a whole lot of jamming, with the last two tracks totaling 25 minutes. The band s tight enough to carry it off, with the core Membership lineup joined by a guest horn section (Jason Mingledorff, Tim Green and Joe Cabral); and Shannon playing a bunch of stinging guitar solos. It’s a looser side that you don’t always hear on his studio albums, and if it gets the jam-band crowd to investigate his catalogue, so much the better.