Producer Mark Bingham shuttered the Piety Street studio two and a half years ago, long enough to reflect on the range and breadth of music that was made there, the most important New Orleans recording studio of its era, and one that ranks in history with the remarkable body of work that emerged from Allen Toussaint’s Sea-Saint and from Cosimo Matassa’s J&M before that. The recordings made at Piety—from Morning 40 Federation’s Ticonderoga to The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, Bingham’s own What If William Blake Had Gone to New Orleans?, Dr. John’s N’Awlinz Dis, Dat, or D’Udda, Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello’s The River in Reverse and essential records by Brother Tyrone, Bonerama, Dr. Michael White, Rob Wagner, Happy Talk Band, James Blood Ulmer, Jon Scofield, Kermit Ruffins, James Singleton, Helen Gillet, Nicholas Payton, OK Go, Alex McMurray, The Iguanas, Marianne Faithfull, Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Coco Robicheaux, Ray Davies and many more—document an entire era of New Orleans music, the time beginning with the emergence of a new idea of the city’s music and culture in the new millennium and the destruction and rebirth of that culture following the inundation of 2005.
Every time I think the legacy of Piety Street has been capped, another record made in its final days emerges to remind me of the significance of the work Bingham did there.
Piety, the remarkable album that introduces actor Michael Cerveris as a New Orleans recording artist, may well be the final release of importance to emerge from the studio. Cerveris chose his time for the drop carefully, tweaking the package with help from former Piety Street manager and visual artist Shawn Hall. Bingham himself lingered on the production with the touch of an artist who doesn’t want to part with his creation. The breathtaking product reminds me of classic recordings by Leonard Cohen and Nick Drake, dreamscapes illuminated by whispered accompaniment from fallen angels in a choir of lost hope and defiant acceptance. Images of light suffuse the album, which is full of references to the sun, both shining and occluded, and the light of human energy as it waxes and wanes.
The songs cover the range of Cerveris’ writing career, from the 1980s, when he played a British rocker on Fame and wrote the high-school reminiscence “Tenth Grade,” to the recent rediscovery of his rural American roots in New Orleans, where the inspired “Evangeline” was written.
Like the great actor he is, Cerveris has a genius for working with others, knowing when to surrender control to his compatriots in a project. Bingham’s greatest strength is that he is as much of a musician as a producer, so when he becomes involved with a project he helps shape the contours of the creation’s concept and often plays on it as well. Cerveris has been on several records before, including his own first solo album, a live recording of his alt-country outfit Loose Cattle, a live album with Bob Mould and various soundtracks, including Nine Lives. His collaboration on the latter with Bingham and songwriter Paul Sanchez led directly to Piety, which began with Cerveris, Sanchez and Bingham playing the songs on acoustic guitar and gradually filling out the contours of the record with a host of New Orleans musicians. Sanchez even co-wrote one of the songs on the album with Cerveris, “Lost in New Amsterdam.”
Anders Osborne plays a beautiful slide part at the start of the album’s first song, “How Many Times,” which has a textured, Beatlesque glory, and a poignant Shamarr Allen trumpet solo. Allen also adds a memorable, almost “Penny Lane”-like solo to the brooding “Better.” The lighthearted “Tenth Grade” gets a sprightly guitar solo from Alex McMurray. Kimberly Kaye, who partners with Cerveris in Loose Cattle, adds gorgeous backing vocals along with Kendall Meade. Bassist Dave Anderson, drummer Eric Bolivar, multi-instrumentalists Rod Hodges, Karal Winton and several others make contributions, but the album’s unifying element is provided by Jimbo Walsh, who wrote great string arrangements for these pieces, and Matt Rhody, Helen Gillet and Jack and Sam Craft, who perform those arrangements brilliantly.
The album closes with the anthemic “Phoenix,” one of several songs about New Orleans after the flood. Steve Gleason, the Saints player whose fight against ALS has been part of the mythology of post-Katrina New Orleans, was at the point where he was barely able to speak as he recited the last line on the record: “Rise up/ Wise up/ Rise and shine.”
As inspirational as that moment is, especially taken together with its companion piece, “Crescent,” the one song I keep coming back to is “Evangeline,” a beautiful melody with an unforgettable chorus. The song’s heartbreaking sentiment is carried along on the singer’s voice, a sepulchral banjo accompaniment from Al Tharp, and Linzay Young’s haunting violin solo. Cerveris recasts this quintessential American story of oceanic displacement, religious persecution and the never-ending search for identity in the New World as a fairy tale whose agonizing history is quieted by the fabulous image of the lost lovers reunited as the Mississippi and Atchafalaya rivers and the delta they create together. The haunting chorus is underpinned by the most moving of Walsh’s string arrangements:
“Evie, leave the light on/ I’ll be back to make you mine/ Evie leave the light on/ My Evangeline.”