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Highlights of Jazz Fest

Count Basin looks back on the best and weirdest moments of the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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Front row seats

In the Gospel Tent, Mavis Staples didn't stick to just gospel, but she did preach a little. At one point she invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and not long afterward, she delved into contemporary politics. During an extended version of "Freedom Highway," she said, "They passed around the Kool Aid and called it tea!" She stopped in the middle of The Impressions song "This Is My Country" to ask, "What's with all these people disrespecting the president. Saying he isn't a resident. You see the president's face painted like a clown. You hear people saying 'We're gonna take our country back.' Back to where? The '50s and the '60s. No. No. No. I ain't never going back to the back of the bus."

Zac de la Rocha?

Country sensation Zac Brown is an excellent guitarist, blending both Appalachian and Flemenco lines into his guitar solos. He and his band launched into a peculiarly masculine version of "America the Beautiful." But the band finished with an aggressive cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name."

Full metal jacket

My Morning Jacket opened its set with the pulsing "Victory Dance" from its 2011 album Circuital, the first of several long, heavy and down-tempo extended cuts from the band's recent output. "This is very beautiful," said singer Jim James. "Like I'm inside a painting," and noting, several times, how the crowd looks "pastel." Preservation Hall's Clint Maedgen joined for experimental saxophone riffing, and trumpeter Mark Braud was game to keep up. The rest of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band followed on stage for "Holdin' on to Black Metal."

Good signs

Known for his gentle R&B pop like "So Sick" and "Sexy Love," it makes sense that Ne-Yo's sign language interpreter looked like a male model (it turns out "sex your body" is pretty easy to understand in American Sign Language). Before singing his hit "Miss Independent," he asked women in the crowd to "make some noise" if they could pay their own rent and car note. "Men," he said, "take note of the women not making noise. They're not the ones you want."

Swamp pop quiz

Local swamp pop act the Creole String Beans reference all sorts of arcane local lore, especially on its recent release Shrimp Boots and Vintage Suits — shrimp boots of course being the fancy term for Chalmette Reeboks. Rick Olivier also lauded the St. Gabriel Women's Penitentiary, the Bonnet Carre Spillway and drive-thru daiquiri shops in his lyrics and stage banter. Perhaps the deepest dive, though, was a tribute song to local horror show host Morgus the Magnificent and his obscure, campy New Orleans-shot 1962 movie The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, the plot of which the Creole String Beans reprise in the song "Instant People."

Tre-makeover

Fans of the Red Stick Ramblers may have been confused when they arrived at the Fais Do-Do Stage and read the sign for "Annie Tee and Her Bayou Cadillac." Fans of HBO's Treme probably figured out the deal quickly. Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli) is the name of the show's fiddle-playing character, and the Red Stick Ramblers have served as her fictional backup band Bayou Cadillac. After two songs heavily laden with Katrina references, Tee took her bows, and the Red Stick Ramblers' stage placard was revealed. The Cajun swing band tore into its regular set, including up-tempo rocker "Made in the Shade" followed with their country nod "Drinkin' to You." In the crowd: Micarelli, Steve Earle and That '70s Show's Kurtwood Smith.

Stage krewe

Galactic's show on Acura Stage featured a Carnival parade of guests as it played many of the songs on its recent release Carnival Electros. Living Color's Corey Glover handled vocals on many songs, including "He Na Na" and Living Color's "Cult of Personality." Other guests included Trombone Shorty, Shamarr Allen, Pedrito Martinez, Casa Samba and Mardi Gras Indian War Chief Juan Pardo.

Grohl with it

"I thought we were going to have to play some jazz," said Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl before the band's powerhouse two-hour set. "That shit is hard, man."

  Following opener "Times Like These," the band hit several tracks from its latest album Wasted Light ("Rope," "White Limo," "Arlandia") and revisited early hits like "Big Me," "Monkey Wrench" and, the closer, "Everlong" — but not before singing "Happy Birthday" to guitarist Chris Shiflett (he's 41) and chugging through Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' "Breakdown."

  Grohl switched places with drummer Taylor Hawkins, who then sang "Cold Day in the Sun." Overheard in the crowd: "He can play drums, too?"

Sanborn again

What do you get when you cross one of the world's best jazz organists and a sultan of sax? A virtuoustic performance full of shimmering solos, good-natured one-upmanship and musical conversation, all adding up to a joyful journey through twisting, Byzantine lines of improvisation. A few brave souls stood up and boogied when David Sanborn held impossibly long wails. For an encore, Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco played a song called "I've Got News For You," its ruminative keyboard passages leavened by Sanborn's sultry saxophone. The number built to a tumultuous climax featuring organ chords as mighty as any stadium rock power chords, and it left everyone breathless.

Overheated

Anyone looking to the Blues Tent for refuge from the afternoon heat on the final Sunday was out of luck — Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings turned in one of the day's hottest shows. The sunset sendoff was reflected in two outfits: conga and bongo drummer Fernando Velez's dress shirt, whose lavender hue quickly saturated to a deep purple; and Jones' cocktail dress, its sparkling pink-fringe trail resembling a shaken bottle of rose as she paced the stage, rattling off motormouthed commentary — new news: she turned 56 this week; old news: she's a world-beater — between soul lessons from 2010's I Learned the Hard Way like someone who might spontaneously combust if she ever were to stop moving.

He was cocky, but he was good

Rolling Stone's David Fricke interviewed Ernie K-Doe biographer Ben Sandmel, Allen Toussaint and Walter "Wolfman" Washington about the late Emperor of the Universe. Toussaint, who penned "Mother in Law," revealed that the recording was almost scrapped during rehearsals because K-Doe initially took the lyrics too aggressively, essentially just shouting them into the mic, Toussaint said.

  "He was like that," Toussaint said. "It wasn't that he was rude, he just had a spirit that was driving all the time and he wanted to shout and preach like a preacher."

  Sandmel described K-Doe's spirit and tenacity this way: "In his mind, he never failed. It was just that the rest of the world hadn't noticed. 'I'm a millionaire, I just haven't gotten paid yet,' that was one of his mottos."

Grand finale

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band closed the Gentilly Stage on the final Sunday and presented its own parade of guests, including Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint, Steve Earl and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. The Rebirth Brass Band also came onstage to play several songs, and in case anyone wanted to have a look at the Grammy the band just won, it was prominently displayed during the band's appearance.

  As Preservation Hall again marked its 50th anniversary, it offered an appropriate finale. Joining the band for the final songs were trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, who turns 101 in July, trombonist Wendell Eugene, who is nearly 90 years old, and the next generation, the Preservation Hall Junior Jazz Band. There were several generations of musicians playing on "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "I'll Fly Away." It was as joyous as it was fitting close to the Jazz & Heritage Festival.

  For more of Count Basin's Jazz Fest notes, visit www.bestofneworleans.com.

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