In response to the devastation wreaked upon a broad swath of the southeast U.S., New Orleans pianist, singer and songwriter Jon Cleary wrote a song he originally called “Breaking Up the Home,” having seen thousands of people in New Orleans and beyond forced out of their homes to live with friends or relatives in far-flung places.
But over the course of the decade since Hurricane Katrina hit 10 years ago this month, Cleary watched his friends and neighbors determinedly rebuild their city and their lives, so he rethought “Breaking Up the Home” and turned into “Bringing Back the Home,” one of nine songs on his new album, “GoGo Juice,” which The Times is premiering ahead of its release on Aug. 14.
Although born in Kent, England, Cleary moved to the Crescent City when he was 17, enchanted like many non-natives by New Orleans’ unique blend of cultural and musical forces.
Those play out in a variety of seductive grooves he and his fellow musicians have created for “GoGo Juice.” A funky second-line parade rhythm of “Getcha GoGo Juice” aligns with New Orleans native sons such as the Neville Brothers and the Meters; a meaty R&B flavor infuses “Beg Steal or Borrow;” a Memphis strut bolsters “Love On One Condition;” and a sultry pulse a la Al Green/Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records classic ’70s collaborations establishes the foundation for “Brother I’m Hungry,” an empathetic look at those who have little or nothing.
Throughout, Cleary’s sandpapery voice carries the joy, the heartache and the resilience that characterizes denizens of one of the most dynamic cities in the world.
“ ‘GoGo Juice’ documents not just where I’m at musically right now, but the journey that’s been taken to get here, and, by the way, that’s quite a long journey,” Cleary, 52, tells The Times. “It has as its base a conventional approach, simply a recording of a band of carefully selected musicians playing together, having fun and getting down like we do every night here in my hometown of New Orleans.
“In that respect, it differs substantially from my last album where I played every instrument and recorded each track, one at a time,” he said.
“I think it has the same thread, the same core element, as my previous albums, which is to say that it’s informed by everything New Orleans whilst still only being a New Orleans record by simple virtue of the fact that all the contributing musicians came up playing in New Orleans,” Cleary added. That means “learning from the old cats — the guys who invented funk and R&B. We play with that accent. Funky is the default mode down here; it’s the ethnic folk music of the Big Easy. That, and a whole lot of soul.”
Before going out on his own, Cleary toured for years as part of the band backing Bonnie Raitt, who has referred to the singer as “the ninth wonder of the world.” He’s also performed with numerous other acts, including B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Eric Burdon and Ryan Adams. His piano playing, which takes center stage on “Bringing Back the Home,” is steeped in the tradition of New Orleans masters such as Professor Longhair, James Booker, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.
As Rolling Stone’s David Fricke summed up one of Cleary’s previous albums, “Cleary can be an absolute monster on his own, but Cleary’s full combo R&B is as broad, deep and roiling as the Mississippi River, the combined swinging product of local keyboard tradition, Cleary’s vocal-songwriting flair for moody Seventies soul and the spunky-Meters roll of his [band, the Absolute Monster] Gentlemen.”
As to working on “GoGo Juice,” Cleary says, “There was no attempt to make this sound like a ‘New Orleans’ record but it undoubtedly is. ... Down here, it’s music before business, which can sometimes make us the round peg that doesn’t quite fit snugly in any of the square holes of the music business. I guess I’ll feel like I’ve achieved something if people hear this without first looking at the label and just dig it for what it is: real music played real good.”