The city fell silent after Hurricane Katrina, its legendary music scene devastated. But two years later, the town's arts community is coming together to get the Big Easy swinging again. A look at their extraordinary stories

By Clark Collis and Vanessa Juarez
Updated August 15, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
Dino Perrucci

”I’m walking to New Orleans,” sings Fats Domino on a July afternoon, performing his 1960 hit about the city he adores, in the city he adores. ”I’m walking to New Orleans!” Accompanying himself on piano at Tipitina’s during a shoot for an upcoming DVD, the legendary rock & roll architect sounds great for a 79-year-old man…and downright terrific for a dead one.

It has been almost two years since Hurricane Katrina, when Domino was widely thought to have perished. It turned out Fats was fine, but it’s easy to see why people were worried. A day after the city’s levees gave way, 80 percent of Domino’s hometown had turned into a vast toxic lake, with his Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood among the hardest hit. When the water finally subsided, more than 1,500 people had died. Some devastated New Orleanians were sure the city was gone for good. Now, however, visitors who stick to tourist areas might not encounter any evidence of Katrina at all. Though wide swaths of the city remain devastated, New Orleans is slowly rebuilding the culture and nightlife that make it one of America’s most vital communities.

Today’s Tipitina’s taping is part of a DVD that will benefit the Tipitina’s Foundation, a major player in that rebuilding process. Fats, too, has played an important role in the recovery. (A Domino tribute CD featuring Paul McCartney, Neil Young, and Elton John, among others, is due Sept. 25.) In May, he performed live here for the first time since the storm — a significant night for the city that reveres him above all of its other homegrown living legends. And his Lower Ninth Ward house has been rebuilt, a rare sign of hope in a neighborhood that has seen little of it since the storm. (Even now, the vast majority of houses remain abandoned, still bearing the paint marks that indicated whether bodies remained in the structure.)

The ongoing devastation in the Lower Ninth, and neighborhoods like it, makes New Orleans’ musical renaissance even more incredible, since many of the city’s impoverished players lived in those very areas. The way in which the town’s musicians, club owners, restaurateurs, promoters, and charity workers have fought to rescue New Orleans’ cultural scene represents one of the most unbelievable comebacks in entertainment history — one that features equal amounts of heartbreak and dogged hope in the face of overwhelming adversity. And one we thought they should tell you about themselves…

AUG. 27-SEPT. 8, 2005
On the morning of Monday, Aug. 29, the levees fail in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. ”We had this idea that New Orleans had some sort of spiritual shield going,” says Big Easy-based singer-songwriter Spencer Bohren. ”But that was ignorant to think.” Countless musicians lose their homes and their possessions. Others lose much more.

Dr. John, singer-pianist, New Orleans legend ”I was on tour when Katrina hit. Playing while all that was going down was the worst feeling in the world.”

Ani DiFranco, singer-songwriter ”We went out that Saturday night, and we’re all hanging around the bar watching this huge spiral on the TV screens and these flashing arrows pointing at New Orleans. We’re, like, ‘Ah, f— it!’ We were hatching this plan to drink our way through the storm. When we woke up we had 2,000 messages: ‘Get out! Get out! Get out!’ We were in the last wave of evacuees.”

Irma Thomas, Grammy-winning ”Soul Queen of New Orleans” ”We left that Saturday to go to a job in Austin. We played the gig Sunday night and said, ‘Okay, when we get up Monday morning we’ll see what’s left of the city.’ When we saw the news after breakfast, I turned to my husband and said, ‘Baby, we don’t have a home to go to.”’

Cyril Neville, the Neville Brothers ”We lost everything. Twenty-five years of reel-to-reel tapes, home movies, writings, my book collection — all of that’s gone. Aaron [Neville, Cyril’s brother] lost everything. I lost everything.”

Kenneth Terry, the Treme Brass Band ”The house I was renting had a lot of damage. Actually, the house next to my house fell on it.”

Armand ”Sheik” Richardson, photographer, trumpeter ”Every Friday night for 25 years, when we didn’t have a party or something going on, we played music in a garage. Some really famous people played there. [Across the street] was a house with some old people. They would come sit outside with their little armchairs. We’d send them some beer, they’d laugh and clap and raise hell. Well, those three people died. There was a red ‘X’ on the house with the number three on it. I’ve got a picture of it. They were found in an attic, man, with their faces up against the vent trying to get air.”

Irvin Mayfield, artistic director of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, who lost his father in Katrina: ”It’s very hard to express what I would want to say about [my father’s death]. But one thing about it is, it definitely reminds people that, Hey, this thing was real. People lost their lives, and it doesn’t get much more real than that.”

Ani DiFranco ”We went back Thursday to recover our master tapes. All of the street people that we knew from our neighborhood were still walking around. And all of the privileged were gone. There wasn’t any entertainment going on — there was survival going on.”

Antoinette K-Doe, owner of R&B venue the Mother-in-Law Lounge ”We took on five and a half feet of water. I have an apartment upstairs, and I was up there seven and a half days. They did a lot of looting around here. Some guys were out there saying, ‘Tonight, we’re gonna go in the Mother-in-Law Lounge.’ I shot over their heads with a shotgun. I said, ‘I don’t think y’all want to come in here.”’

Joann Guidos, owner of music venue Kajun’s Pub ”I pulled out my weapons to protect my place. We had a couple of people that made threats, and I said, ‘Come on by, we’ll be here waiting.’ They never came back. But I was running out of fuel and, on Sept. 7, U.S. Marshals took all my weapons. I left Sept. 8.”

NEXT PAGE: ”What you saw on TV doesn’t prepare you. There were no animal sounds. The smell was death. It looked like the apocalypse.”