Irma Thomas – Rain or shine
Back in 1962, with the soul genre still barely defined, she’d stunned and charmed pop music with the clean, clear emotional weather report “It’s Raining”, one of the tunes Allen Toussaint penned for her alone. Now, 44 years later, her new album, with its explicitly post-Katrina content and often pre-R&B-era blues stylings, comes to us with the title After The Rain. And maybe Irma Thomas, long known as the Soul Queen of New Orleans, really does have some special relation not just to that ravaged, resilient city, but to downpours anywhere.
The very moment she took the stage May 7 at the poignant 2006 edition of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, before wall-to-wall crowds that were being drenched all morning long, the day’s torrents stopped cold.
“Maybe I have been staying on His good side!” she laughs in retrospect. “Well, I’m hoping I have.”
Reunited with Toussaint and joined by Paul Simon, Thomas ripped into a freshly appropriate “Bridge Over Troubled Water”. As her producer of the last 21 years, Rounder Records’ Scott Billington, observed from stageside, “When she did her second-line medley, some of her own hits plus ‘Hey Pocky Way’ and ‘Iko Iko’ [rousing New Orleans R&B classics], all of those people were waving their handkerchiefs. It was just an astonishing sight.”
As the details of Katrina’s devastation spread last summer, Thomas was one of the residents worried music fans around the world began to inquire about. She happened to be in the middle of a relatively uncommon trip out of town, for a show at Antone’s, the fabled Austin blues joint, when the flood hit. The Lion’s Den, the popular New Orleans club Thomas ran with her husband and manager Emile Jackson for decades, was devastated. (She can be seen walking through its ruins in the documentary film New Orleans Music In Exile, which recently premiered on the cable channel Starz.) Most of her career memorabilia going back as far as her start circa 1959, at age 18, was destroyed, only a few wall posters surviving the waters.
“Anything I found that was salvageable was a plus,” she said when we talked in May. “But our priority right now is trying to find some place to live; the club is the furthest thing from our mind. And we don’t own that building anyway.”
Pleased just to have found all of her family members in good shape, Irma and Emile are living in Gonzales, a town between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, for the moment. Her new album was recorded not in the city, as would be typical, but in the remote rural Louisiana Dockside studio. The opening track, Arthur Alexander’s country-tinged ballad “In The Middle Of It All”, uses imagery of a house trapped in a deluge to depict a marriage gone bad. It proved an eerily prescient post-devastation number, though like most songs on After The Rain, it had been chosen for recording before the hurricane hit.
“That was the first take on that!” Thomas recalls, a bit surprised about it still. “It just kind of flowed out, so I said, ‘We don’t need to do that anymore; it’s finished.’ I’ve been known to do some one-take situations, but under these circumstances you wouldn’t expect it, because all of the musicians involved were affected by Katrina, one way or another — and we were all there, pouring out whatever we had.”
A lean, touching, churchy (if Broadway ballad-like) turn on Stevie Wonder’s “Shelter In The Rain” is the album’s closer, and Irma’s adept, slamming rendition of the traditional “Another Man Done Gone” (with blues/Americana stalwarts Sonny Landreth and Dirk Powell backing her) is lyrically updated with storm references. That latter is just one of the surprising older roots standards on this new record, Thomas’ first in seven years; others include the jazz-era blues “Make Me A Pallet On Your Floor” and acoustic gospel master Blind Willie Johnson’s “Soul Of A Man”.
This is not the sort of material generally associated with a singer who has worked in R&B, girl-group pop and classic soul for decades. The lean, often acoustic backing is a major change, too, for a singer usually backed by a funky brass. The stretch, Irma says, was the point.
“I give Scott full credit for that,” she says of Billington. “He felt that I have not been able to shine as much as I could as a vocalist, in terms of clarity and expression — because I’ve always been covered with a lot of horns, and when you have horns in the mix, they often get the priority, even unintentionally. And he took this chance and also chose the songs. When I first received them, early last year, way before Katrina, I said, ‘You gotta be kidding!'”
“True,” Billington agrees. “She had a little trepidation at first, when she heard some of these songs. But I think she’s singing better now than she ever has, which is astonishing, since usually voices go in the opposite direction. And it just seemed to be confining at this point to do another straight R&B record. What should be most important here would simply be finding songs that would sound great when Irma sang them. That’s what I tried to do — and also to experiment with using some acoustic instruments.”