By now there’s nothing unusual about seeing heavy hitters like Ivan Neville, Anders Osborne, and George Porter Jr. on a New Orleans album’s credits. The surprise here is that they’re all working with a Boston-area singer-songwriter with no previous local-music connections. This sort of thing used to happen a lot in the ‘70s, when the likes of Paul McCartney and former teen idol Bryan Hyland stopped into Allen Toussaint’s studio. This time the producer is Galactic’s Ben Ellman, who already worked wonders with his own band and Trombone Shorty. Montbleau contributed songs to Shorty’s For True, and he absorbs all the local color he can get on For Higher.
It’s hard to fail with a band like this (drummer Simon Lott completes the lineup), but Montbleau brings a mighty set of pipes, and Ellman goes for a live production that highlights his interplay with the band, leaving in an offhand laugh or two. But the album really works because it establishes a personality for the singer, one that’s intense but upbeat, prone to introspection but trusting that things will work out. Curtis Mayfield’s “Here But I’m Gone” (which Porter has also done with the Runnin’ Partners) is the disc’s deepest moment, a monologue in which a junkie takes stock of the damage he’s done. Montbleau doesn’t flinch from the lyric’s self-examination, and he follows it with the original “Burning & Hiding,” which looks at the same situation from a post-recovery viewpoint, and transforms the last song’s ominous groove into a confident strut.
Early ‘70s soul is the touchstone for the album, with covers of Eddie Hinton and Bill Withers and similarly-styled originals. The Meters also come into the mix via “Head Above Water”—part post-Katrina anthem, part all-purpose pep talk—but the best moment comes when they look further afield. “Sweet, Nice ‘n’ High” was originally an album track by the obscure hard-rock band Rhinoceros. Here it draws bliss from Montbleau’s voice and Osborne’s slide guitar, and proves that crate-digging can be an art in itself.