The New Orleans episode of "Sonic Highways" discovers New Orleans' musical mainstream.
I’ve contended from the start that Sonic Highways, Foo Fighters’ HBO series, works best as autobiography. It doesn’t so much shine a light on the cities’ music cultures as the parts of it that Dave Grohl related to. The Los Angeles episode received criticism from Los Angelenos, but it made the concept clearest as instead of focusing on the best punk bands, Sonic Highways paid attention to The Germs, which featured Grohl’s long-time friend Pat Smear. Locals complained that L.A. doesn’t extend to Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, but for Grohl it does because that’s the home of Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age. In the process, the episode illustrates how people define a musical place.
Friday night, the New Orleans episode aired, and it wasn’t obvious how it would work since Grohl had no meaningful history in New Orleans. What he got was the story someone would get if he spent a week in town with a good guide—in this case, Preservation Hall’s Ben Jaffe. Families and legacies are important to Jaffe and the Hall band, and the musical evidence says that the story of families is a valid one. But if Grohl had 10 different guides for his week in town, he’d have 10 different through-lines for the episode, and none would be more definitive or exactly right than the others. He didn’t get the story; he got a story. It takes a long time to get a handle on New Orleans, though a crash course that includes Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and Cyril Neville is a good start.
Because Grohl was in the process of making his relationship to New Orleans while shooting the episode, it has little of the counterintuitive quality that brings the rest of Sonic Highways to life. Rather than celebrate the underground and alternative music as the show does in other cities, the New Orleans episode goes straight to the biggest names. As a result, it’s a very affectionate embrace of the city’s mainstream. The up side of that is that the production included a lot of great footage including some killer Meters clips including their Saturday Night Live performance, as well as a lot of cool photos. The down side is that it neither says much about Grohl or Foo Fighters, nor does it find a less-told chapter of the story.
Sadly, the series remains allergic to women. The only one interviewed is Bonnie Raitt, and that is to speak admiringly of the city. No Irma Thomas?
As has been the case with the whole Sonic Highways project, criticisms feel ungenerous because each episode has told stories and highlighted artists and scenes that have so far been left out of conventional histories. I suppose outside of New Orleans, Dr. John and Allen Toussaint are known only as names, so telling their stories is more underground nationally than it seems to us. Grohl’s affection and respect are clear, but it’s a shame that he didn’t find come away with a take on New Orleans’ musical culture that was more individual or nuanced.