Make It Funky, the four hour-plus salute to New Orleans' R&B tradition at the Saenger Theatre on April 27, prompted dancing in the aisles at its best and puzzled consternation at its worst. To the organizers' credit, the show ran as close to on schedule as anyone could reasonably expect, starting only 20 or so minutes late with a cutting contest between trumpeters Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield and Troy Andrews. Andrews also played with Big Sam's Funky Nation, and with confident, accomplished performances, the first half-hour of the show (and the first weekend of Jazz Fest) felt like a coming-out party for the former Trombone Shorty.
After a fairly strong start, the show acknowledged the blues with 16-year-old Joss Stone and Leo Nocentelli. It's tempting to dismiss Stone, but singing "Dirty Man," she was fine though unspectacular, and Nocentelli was admirably restrained. Still, it was difficult to see a single tune as proper recognition of New Orleans' blues tradition -- particularly one by Chicagoan Laura Lee.
The "why them?" question cropped up a number of times during the evening. When the Blind Boys of Alabama followed Aaron Neville, one couldn't help but wonder what the Zion Harmonizers were doing that night.
Still, the show remained on solid footing through the blues and gospel portions, and a piano duet with Jon Cleary and Allen Toussaint on "Sunny Side of the Street" revealed a lot, as Cleary played what you expect from a New Orleans piano player, while Toussaint's technique was more refined, nodding to classical music at points. Henry Butler then delivered one of the high points, an athletic solo piano workout with more left-hand runs than you typically hear.
The show then spotlighted Toussaint, who backed Lloyd Price and the Dixie Cups after playing some of the hits Toussaint penned. A restrained performer, Toussaint's elegance will likely translate well to the screen. Toussaint's set also featured two nice surprises: the funky "Choo Choo Train" and a version of "Lady Marmalade" sung by Toussaint backing vocalist Irene Sage.
After an intermission, the show struggled. With two oversized, angular guitars more appropriate for Poison than Earl King as a backdrop, Jonny Lang sang a disposable "Good Golly Miss Molly" with a house band featuring Ivan and Art Neville, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, and out-of-towners Steve Jordan (drums), Willie Weeks (bass) and Danny Korchmar (guitar). With Russell Batiste, Willie Green, Tony Hall and George Porter Jr. backstage, the presence of Jordan and Weeks seemed questionable. Just as odd was emcee Quint Davis' introduction of Korchmar, announcing him enthusiastically as the guitarist on Carole King's Tapestry and James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, two records rarely associated with New Orleans, R&B or funk.
Their presence highlighted the central question the show raised: How much faith do the producers show in New Orleans music by including non-New Orleanians? Bonnie Raitt's guest spot with Toussaint was warm and respectful, and her association with Jon Cleary and Toussaint has been well documented. Still, Toussaint's set didn't need a guest spot. Similarly, Earl Palmer still has sufficient chops that he didn't need Jordan to double his drum parts.
Keith Richards was the most obvious "star power" addition, and though his sloppy, unprepared version of Guitar Slim's "The Things That I Used to Do" upset many, no one seemed happier to be a part of the show than Richards. After singing, "The things that I used to do/ I don't do them no more," he ad-libbed laughing, "and if you believe that ." He only knew the first verse, though, and as that became obvious, he mumbled something about it being an idea from someone backstage. He sounded much more prepared for "Rip It Up."
The set had its charms though, as Snooks Eaglin exuded charisma performing Earl King's "Come On," but just as the procession of guests eventually overshadowed The Band in the 1978 concert documentary, The Last Waltz, "New Orleans music" became a concept to celebrate instead of the product of real, dynamic musicians. Filmmaker Michael Murphy has used Wim Wenders' and Ry Cooder's Buena Vista Social Club as a reference point, but nobody flew Elton John or Christina Aguilera to Cuba to sing with Ibrahim Ferrer or Ruben Gonzales.
The final funk set was built around the Neville family, but the late hour and the deflation from the rock 'n' roll set diminished the energy in the room. Still, Art Neville injected more New Orleans culture than could be found in the previous hour into an extemporaneous talk about Valence Street and hurricanes as technicians dealt with equipment changes. When he kibitzed with Porter, he injected personality into a show that strangely lacked it. The concert ended with an all-hands-on-deck "Hey Pocky Way" jam that went exactly how you'd expect -- a lot of people, a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of confusion with no one directing traffic. As such, it was fun, but like the show, it felt like the reason for the occasion was lost in show-biz rituals.
- Whether talking to Lloyd Price (right) or George Porter Jr. (not pictured), Art Neville added personality to Make It Funky.