For a lot of New Orleans musicians, the flood and forced depopulation of the city after Katrina was a slow motion train wreck that piled disaster upon disaster and either ended in tragedy or still hasn’t stopped. You didn’t have to die immediately in the flood to be killed by it.
Some musicians and artists in other disciplines have managed to sublimate this tragedy into their work. Their art flourished even as their lives fell apart. It’s an old story, familiar to the people whose ancestors were brought here in chains or arrived as refugees fleeing religious persecution. When all else fails, music has the power to sustain the spirit and bear witness to the horror of history.
Paul Sanchez is one of those New Orleans musicians who found deep strength in his work even as the comforts of home life disintegrated. Katrina robbed him of his house, his job and eventually his marriage. 12 years later he’s living a nomadic existence, a restless traveler touring the world while he sings and writes about the experience. The personal agony has inspired his songwriting and considerable storytelling ability, and led him to seek out new collaborations.
His latest album, Life Is a Ride, is a new array of material, some songs co-written by friends like Alex McMurray, his partner in the Write Brothers, his old Cowboy Mouth sidekick Vance DeGeneres and Threadhead Records founder Chris Joseph.
Joseph has been a stalwart friend to Sanchez since the flood, arranging financing for his solo projects through the Threadhead Foundation and backing productions of Nine Lives. Joseph also went through some personal problems in recent years, topped off by discovering he has a critical illness. Joseph’s bucket list was to co-write some songs with Sanchez, and the results are impressive.
Joseph and Sanchez co-wrote three songs on the album, including the title track, which McMurray also had a hand in. In “Long Gone Used To Be,” Joseph and Sanchez commiserate on the end of a romantic relationship and partnership: “Suddenly love left/ Vanished like a thief/ It’s gone, long gone used to be.”
On the other songs Joseph and Sanchez turn to philosophizing to try to understand the implications of being told you’ve got an imminent appointment with the grim reaper. When death comes, not suddenly and unexpectedly, but with a formal medical notice, you get to comment on your own life from a distance. That’s what happens in “Tears of Healing”: “You never know what life will throw at you/ Go with the flow wherever you go/ Do what you got to do/ To get on with dealing. This river of tears/ Turns into tears of healing.”
In this context “healing” becomes an incremental victory over despair rather than a full medical recovery. The body may fail but the spirit can certainly heal.
The album’s final track, “Mary Hold the Candle,” an uplifting gospel-inspired reverie. With backing from Royal Fingerbowl, the cast from Nine Lives and a few other fellow travelers, Life Is a Ride rocks with joy—it’s the best straight-out rock record Sanchez has cut in years—and the songs continue his own saga, hitting the open road, telling tales of parties long gone, remembering loves, singing praise to his fans and never forgetting the need for “A Small Vacation.” Which is a good thing to remember when you’re heading for The Big One.