Michael Cerveris and friends perform “Piety”
Friday, April 29, 8 p.m.
The Theatre at St. Claude
When Michael Cerveris went into the studio to create the 2004 album, “Dog Eared,” he did so with what felt like a who’s who of ’90s rockers, including members of Sleater-Kinney, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices and Teenage Fanclub along for the ride. Twelve years on, Cerveris — once again taking a break from what has become a stellar Broadway career — is back with another moving collaborative effort.
But this time, the all-stars are from New Orleans, which Cerveris increasingly has embraced as his home even while continuing his Tony Award-winning work in “Fun Home.” The result is “Piety,” which features contributions from several of the New Orleans musicians who helped collaborate on the Katrina musical-in-progress “Nine Lives.”
When he made “Dog Eared,” he recalled, songs were recorded as musicians were available, “making this sonic house where all these people came to hang out.
“This is the New Orleans version of the same thing,” Cerveris said of the album, which includes such “Nine Lives” collaborators as Shamarr Allen, Paul Sanchez and Alex McMurray. “It’s true of how I like to work in theater, too. I sit and write songs in my apartment or house, and then record something, and my ideas only get me so far. I like handing it over to people and say, ‘Here’s the core, and respond to it in terms of what you hear. Play me what you hear when I play this for you.’
“I’m always excited to hear that (result), and that might spark an idea with me.”
Cerveris recently announced that he will reunite with many of the musicians for a live performance April 29 at The Theatre at St. Claude, co-owned by another “Nine Lives” collaborator, playwright Jim Fitzmorris. Expected to re-join Cerveris: Anders Osborne, Mia Borders, Paul Sanchez, Shamarr Allen, Alex McMurray, Rod Hodges (the Iguanas), Linzay Young (Red Stick Ramblers) and old friend Kimberly Kaye, who also performs with Cerveris in their Americana band Loose Cattle. (She also worked on the latest script for “Nine Lives.”)
(Read more: Michael Cerveris at the Broadway @ NOCCA series)
“Piety” is an evocative, ruminative work that, not unlike “Dog Eared,” feels like a departure from the rock ’n’ roll creations that helped make Cerveris a rising musical-theater, whether in “Tommy” or “Hedwig and the Angry Inch.”
Instead, we hear echoes of Louisiana folklore in “Evangeline,” an eight-minute, acoustic opus flush with fiddle, banjo and even accordion that seem to float on air as Cerveris recalls Longfellow’s famed poem:
Knew so little when she learned of heartache /
Looking for him by another name /
All the ones that never were her Gabriel /
Making sure she never was the same
There’s also the restless spirit in “Crescent” and the closing “Phoenix,” a song of rebirth that can’t help but make one think of Hurricane Katrina even when it’s never explicitly mentioned, with former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason underscoring the closing words, “Wise up / Rise up / Rise and shine.”
The subtle stars of “Piety” might be the backing female vocals. With Cerveris content to underplay his own vocals, practically breathing his lines at times, a chorus rises underneath him, led by Kimberly Kaye and Kendall Meade and including “The Gospel Queens”: Edna M. Johnson, Bobbie Grant and Judy Gibbs.
Cerveris says he struggled at first to put a label on the musical style he was going for here, starting with the term chamber folk, “but that didn’t work.” Instead, he said, imagine “If Nick Drake and Elliott Smith made a record down South, this is what it would be.”
(Read more: John Swenson’s review of “Piety” for OffBeat)
If anything, as the title might suggest, “Piety” feels like an elegy to Piety Street Recording and its owner, Mark Bingham — the album’s legendary producer.
It’s also where they recorded the music for “Nine Lives,” and where Bingham prodded him for original material that he might have for a solo record. From there, the collaboration, years in the making, progressed. At that point, Cerveris noted, there was no inkling that Piety might close, which it since has — leaving behind a legacy of great recordings.
“I’ve been in some other great studios, but there are very few studios that had the soul that Piety Street did,” Cerveris said. “It seemed like a magical place from the time I got there. Mark spent equal time making sure the food was proceeding well on the stove at the same time that stuff was going down on tape. I found that significant and meaningful.
“I just love the place so much and wanted the album to be a footnote in the history of the place.”
He expressed the same love for Bingham behind the sound board: “He’s pretty ego-less as a producer. He’s more interested in the music than putting his own stamp on it. He really listens. He’ll offer his opinion, but also will listen to yours.”
While it was years in the making, “Piety” in Cerveris’ mind seems to have arrived at the right time. When he started making the record, he noted, he wasn’t as invested in his new home like he is these days. Now he owns a home in Treme and practically commutes from New York City whenever he can find a break from “Fun Home.
“My commit to the place is more solid and evident to people,” he said. “It’s being received as the New Orleans record that it is even though it’s not a traditional New Orleans record, but it’s representative of a broad vision of the city and the music scene, and certainly includes so many people from the music scene.”