by John Swenson
As a fan of the Who dating back to the band’s earliest American performances, I approached the Broadway production of Tommywith trepidation, fearful of another degradation of Pete Townshend’s spiritually sophisticated rock masterpiece.
Not only did I find myself enjoying the production, I was knocked out by the young actor who played the title role with the most feeling for this difficult-to-fathom character I’ve ever witnessed. His name was Michael Cerveris and I would hardly have expected him to later become a key element of the New Orleans music scene.
But today Cerveris is an integral member of the city’s tightly knit group of musicians and conceptualists, a central figure in one of the organizational foundations of post-Katrina New Orleans music, the stage production of Nine Lives.
On North of Houston, we hear another unexpected side of Cerveris: He emerges on this live recording as a white-hat Americana singer steeped in steel-guitar sonorities and sounding like one of the up-and-comers in Nashville’s alt-country scene. It’s an ironic setting considering the role Cerveris played in the HBO post-Katrina drama “Treme”—the black-hat music-industry manager encouraging erstwhile young violinist Annie to “sell out” and abandon her Cajun rock band for a more Nashville-centric business model.
Cerveris knows how to front a performing unit and surrounds himself with outstanding players: Gabriel Caplan on electric guitar, Jon Graboff on pedal steel, Alex Harvey on mandolin, Justin Smith on fiddle, Lorenzo Wolff on bass and Eddy Zweiback on drums (Kimberly Kaye helps out on vocals). Cerveris makes shrewd selections from the deep canon of country songwriting. There’s a terrific version of Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Gasoline and Matches,” a real outlaw-country rendition of Mark Bilyeu’s “Backwater,” Dolly Parton’s “Run That By Me One More Time” and her “collaboration” with Cee Lo et. al., “Jolene, F**k You.” There are a couple of Dylan songs, a Justin Townes Earle tune and two numbers from Cerveris himself, the easygoing “Dog Eared” and the atmospheric “Evangeline.” Not surprisingly, one of the set’s best songs is a Cerveris/Paul Sanchez co-write, “Lost in New Amsterdam.”
Then, just when you thought you’d heard it all, Cerveris finishes off with a reprise of his star-is-born moment, “Pinball Wizard.”