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R.E.M.'s Mike Mills Goes To Washington


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Helping the Musicians of New Orleans Return Home


Photo by Caroline "Puck" Deutermann

"It pissed me off."

That is how R.E.M.'s Mike Mills described his reaction to seeing firsthand the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina and the stagnated recovery effort since. Though his band has a history of political involvement, Mills himself has shied away from activism until now. Having seen the suffering of New Orleanians in the aftermath of Katrina, he declared, "No one can appreciate the destruction without seeing it and I was very aware that due to the nature of the media, this would be forgotten."

"We need to remember that these are human beings just like you and me," he continued. "Regardless of how inept state and local government may have been, it's up to the rest of us to help them."

Mills, the latest musician to come to D.C. in hopes of raising awareness of the struggle still going on in New Orleans, said this just after performing on Saturday night at Hope for Home, a semi-private cocktail party hosted by the Future of Music Coalition ("FMC"). The event was held at the home of FMC supporters and D.C. residents Eric and Sharapat Kessler to benefit Al "Carnival Time" Johnson (pictured above performing with Mills), an icon of the New Orleans Mardi Gras community, as well as Sweet Home New Orleans, an organization dedicated to aiding the Crescent City's displaced musicians.

Johnson, a jovial man whose broad grin reveals a bright gold tooth, personifies the spirit of his beloved city. Unfortunately, he is also representative of the musicians FMC and Sweet Home New Orleans are trying to help. As a result of Katrina, he lost his home in the city's hard hit Lower Ninth Ward, and he might have lost more but for a party that took him out of the city.

"We left for a barbeque that Saturday before the storm hit," Johnson recalled. "We tried to get back in, but we couldn't get back in because of the counterflow of traffic. We would have gone in if they had let us."

Johnson did not return home for two months, first evacuating to Houston and then ending up in Jackson, Mississippi. When he was finally able to go back to New Orleans, the 40-plus years of memories held in his home were reduced to a few sundry items that could fit into a garbage bag. The singer/pianist is now splitting his time between Houston and New Orleans, and is unsure of what the future holds for his native city.

"We took a pretty good lick down there," Johnson lamented on Saturday. "I haven't gotten over it yet and the longer it goes, the worse it gets, and I don't understand how that's happening."

James Morris of Sweet Home New Orleans was also present at the fundraiser and described the storm's overall effect on the the city's musical heritage in stark terms, saying, "The city has a very strong tradition of music that's steeped in its neighborhoods, and the neighborhoods are gone."

"In New Orleans, kids learn to play from their grandfathers sitting on the stoop on a Saturday afternoon," he explained. "This can't be recreated anywhere else because it comes through the families."

Morris believes that nothing less than the heart and soul of New Orleans culture is at risk. "The next 10 to 20 years of New Orleans' music is at stake, because these kids are no longer in New Orleans."

The people who gathered on Saturday night did so in hopes of avoiding this cultural catastrophe. The attendees, who each made a minimum contribution of $100, were treated to an evening of music, drink, and New Orleans-style cuisine. Guests wore Mardi Gras beads and festival decorations adorned the house as a reminder of the evening's cause.

Mills, fresh from recording with R.E.M., began the night's musical performance, which took place in a tented backyard patio with a makeshift stage. Along with drummer Matt Tebo and trumpeter Kevin Cordt, both local musicians, as well as FMC Executive Director Jenny Toomey on backing vocals, Mills played an acoustic, four-song set. Beginning with R.E.M.'s "Wendell Gee", he went on to play The Troggs' "Love Is All Around Us", and his own composition, "Gift of the Fathers", written in honor of baseball legend Roberto Clemente. An experienced showman who recognized that the song's namesake was but 20 minutes away, Mills closed his set with R.E.M.'s "Don't Go Back to Rockville".

The band, including Mills, remained on stage as Johnson took to the piano and mic for his own brief set of classic R&B and Mardi Gras anthems. After performing Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill", Chubby Checker's "The Twist", as well as the Mardi Gras chants "Iko Iko" and "Mardi Gras Mambo", Johnson started singing his own "Lower Ninth Ward Blues". Midway through the song and unable to hold back the tears, he stopped and told the audience, "I couldn't handle that." He went back to playing boogie woogie with his trademark "Carnival Time" and then returned to the blues to close the set. The tears returned, but he made it through. Especially poignant was that as Johnson left the stage, he apologized for his performance to every guest he encountered. It was hard not to feel as though we collectively failed this man who lost everything, but still felt the need to apologize when he cried about it.

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