MUSIC –

Paul Soniat sings the Katrina blues
Paul Soniat, who happens to live on the Uptown Street that bears his name, is a pianist and songwriter grappling with the world remade by Katrina. In his new CD, Below the Waterline, Soniat lays it on with “Red Eyes,” a song from the soul of the city:

When you tell your
Katrina tales
To your friends, man, it
never fails,
No matter how hard
you try,
Can’t keep, can’t keep
your eyes dry …
Even if you were high
and dry,
You know you got those
guilty eyes
See your friends and what
they been through,
Man, you got those red
eyes too
Red eyes in Lakeview
Red eyes in the East too
Red eyes down in St. Bernard
Red eyes all over
My hometown

There is a flowing, vernacular quality to Soniat’s lyrics, a deep sense of place laced with the sentimentality of an unabashed homeboy. As director of the Botanical Garden in City Park, Soniat plunged into a recovery effort after Katrina with help from several foundations, a hard-toiling staff and cadre of volunteers, cleaning and salvaging one of the most beautiful pieces of the city’s public estate.
That effort drew an admiring report in The New York Times, which on a passing reference to his music, called Soniat “the Randy Newman of New Orleans.”
“Red Eyes” may not match Newman’s classic, “Louisiana 1927” for sheer poetry, but it’s hard to hear Soniat’s voice without getting a few chills. The sense of place permeates his singing style – like a bard sitting across the kitchen table, insisting that his listeners share a common spiritual property. “Even if you were high and dry” reverberates through countless lives who came back from the diaspora to homes pretty much as they left them, only to absorb the emotional tonnage on the news each night of so many others who lost so much. The therapeutic term is “survivor guilt.” And Brother Soniat here is insisting that tears are central to the experience of enduring.
The comparison with Randy Newman may be more appropriate when you hear Soniat’s take on cosmetic surgery. In “Plastic Surgery” he uncorks a Dr. John-like set of pipes, all gritty and full of male midlife bewilderment:

I came home from work
and I was so tired,
I was so surprised
When I saw a woman with
a face
In the place
Where my wife’s face used
to be.
Then I realized!
Had a little
sur-gery.

There is quite a thematic distance between the lyrics of these two songs, one mourning entire neighborhoods gone in a cry of sorrows, the other a kind of slapdash satire on the man out-to-lunch on reality only to discover his wife come home with a new face. Perhaps the seamless nature of Soniat’s subject selections owes much to a worldview of nature and the gentle duties incumbent on the tending of flora.

She said, Honey it’s some-
thing
that I wanted to do
I guess I should have
talked to you
But you know I needed
a new look in my life
Yea, my breasts are next,
I’m gonna change my chin,
I’m gonna take my butt
And sort of lift it up
And then I will be
– beautiful

Paul Soniat is a relative newcomer to the cosmos of New Orleans music. Long an avocational piano player and songster, he found an audience after Katrina when Garland Robinette began playing his tune “Born in New Orleans” as a kind of theme song on his afternoon talk show on WWL 870 AM.
Below the Waterline shows the mark of a serious talent, fine strides on the keyboard and a generous view of the human experiment in the lyrics. He does have a tendency to tilt a bit much on the mushy, sentimental side, but I would add that in a city as battered as this one, we need all the sweetness we can find. Lay it on, Paul.

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