Through rain and shine, Jazz Fest fans were treated to a great range of music over two weekends. The fest was a homecoming for Randy Newman, and the Neville Brothers returned to their closing Sunday slot on the Acura stage. There were many new performers from near and far, and attendance approached 400,000 at the Fair Grounds. Count Basin looks back on a busy fest season and shares his favorite moments and a few observations.
Pretty in Pink Floyd
Kim Carson looked great in a Get Kinky tank top and leather pants and brought out the country sound in Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here. Who knew that Pink Floyd could sound so great with a twang and pedal steel?
The tribute to Turbinton brothers Earl and Willie Tee was split into halves with a jazz set and an R&B set. The melodic jazz installment looked like an Astral Project preview (which had the next set in the Jazz Tent) as former Project pianist David Torkanowsky joined guitarist Steve Masakowski and bassist Jim Singleton in the assembled band. The second-half tribute to Willie Tee started with Bob French explaining that the Turbintons played during an era when musicians had to be ready for anything jazz and R&B and then he sang the Mardi Gras Indian song "New Suit" in his deep, Lou Rawls-like voice, with Alfred Uganda Roberts on congas and Detroit Brooks on guitar.
Best Place for an Umbrella
Economy Hall continues to span the generations with babies sleeping on shoulders, kids strutting with their swinging moms and dads, and senior second liners like 86-year-old Helen Arlt leading the way. Even during the first Saturday's boisterous buckets of rain, the Count felt rays of sunshine bursting through him as Dr. Michael White, Tom Sancton and Sammy Rimington paid musical homage to clarinetist George Lewis, playing everything from Lewis' favorite hymns to his bluesy compositions.
The next act, the Harlem Blues and Jazz Band whose members played with jazz icons like Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Louis Armstrong drove the Count to join Arlt and all the others who know that an umbrella can be used for more than just keeping the rain away.
The Ponderosa Stomp showcase kind of a teaser for the midweek show that followed at the House of Blues packed the Blues Tent to the gills Saturday afternoon. "Gills" is an apt reference. As the crowd got up to leave when the set was cut short due to rain at 6:30 p.m., it became apparent that they'd been happily sitting in ankle-deep water.
Most memorable, as usual, were the acrobatic antics of 60-something Texas soul shouter Roy Head, whose biggest hit was the frenetic dance-floor filler "Treat Her Right." Head strutted, thrusted and hit the floor like Britney Spears wishes she could. At one point, he straddled Stomp producer Ira Padnos' wife Sam as she got low during a saxophone solo. Toward the end of the set, he squeezed onto the piano bench to aggressively snuggle keyboardist Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural in a way that may have bordered on harassment.
Archie Bell took the stage at the end of the Ponderosa Stomp revue. He's famous for the 1968 song "Tighten Up," recorded with backing band the Drells. Stomp founder Padnos introduced Bell as the author of a song so famous it has its own dance. Bell gave immediate instructions. "First you put your hand on your hip," he said. "Then you start moving like you were holding a screwdriver and tightening it." Bell had the audience's hips shifting side to side when thunderstorms forced the shortening of the set. Bell clearly felt the audience could get a lot tighter, but eventually ended the song.
Some Like It Hot
Jazz Festers usually embrace the heat, especially spicy heat. Crawfish everything, jambalaya, alligator pie we eat it up without a thought to the sweltering midday heat. But what about a hot café au lait? It usually is not as popular as its iced counterpart unless you've been drenched in a torrential downpour. One silver lining to the first weekend's rain clouds was shivering in the Blues Tent while sipping one of the city's best café au laits hot.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Lafayette Cajun-bluesman David Egan kicked off his Sunday set with a swamp-funky version of "Blow Wind Blow" á la Dr. John. "Blow my troubles away," he crooned to the crowd standing below in the mud pit created by Saturday's rains, but instead the wind blew over a second rainstorm.
Mamadou Diabate plays what may be the Malian equivalent of a washtub outfitted with a broomstick and string, only a lot more sophisticated. The kora features a long wooden neck extending from a cowhide-covered calabash (a very large gourd). The musician sits almost lotus-style with it centered in front of him and picks strings extending on both sides of the neck. Diabate elicited sounds ranging in similarity to the precise picking of a harp and the rhythms of blues guitar. Accompanied by a stand-up bass, full drum kit and xylophone, the group offered a pleasing, polyrhythmic take on traditional Malian music.
We All Are Crazy
Shamarr Allen blew away expectations as he trumpeted his particular brand of brassy rock 'n' roll on the Jazz and Heritage stage this year with help from his funk/rock group, the Underdawgs. He sang the question on everybody's mind "How can that trumpet play that rock 'n' roll?" as his command of the trumpet and a stunning accompanying saxophonist served up a funky jazz/pop. Allen's interpretation of Gnarls Barkley's 2006 hit "Crazy" had New Orleanians in the crowd singing along to the lyric, "We all are crazy."
Better Not Get Trashed
The worst addition to Jazz Fest was the lime-scented, $5 slap in the face called Miller Chill. The abundance of green-barrel recycling stations at least kept the experience from being a total waste.
The Midnight Disturbers a group of black and white musicians showed that brass band music is a common language no matter how you come to it, and that it can bring us together even in the rain. Kudos to their T-shirts honoring many of the long-gone musicians from the city including James Black, Brian O'Neill, Frederic Sheppard and Henry Red Allen.
Let the Children Play
The Kids' Tent was a little more popular than usual this year. Karen Konnerth, a local puppeteer and kids' program coordinator, has lovingly ruled the Kids' Tent for more than 25 years. But with all the rain, mud and puddles outside, parents took extra interest in the tent, and many realized what a great mix of music and performers it features: Johnette Downing, Curtis Pierre of Casa Samba, NORD's Crescent City Youth and many others.
One treat was the Young New Orleans Traditional Brass Band, a multi-ethnic group of pre-teens and just-barely teens dressed in the traditional brass band outfit of black pants, white shirt, black tie and captain's hat adorned with their name. The group played a wonderfully messy and energetic set of raucous standards. The crowd watched as kids who are still carrying some baby fat got red in the face belting out "Didn't He Ramble." It was brilliant.
The star-studded Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars got the opposite of what they wished for on the first Sunday afternoon. Performing in front of a full field of spectators on the Acura Stage, Cyril Neville along with Tab Benoit, Dr. John, Monk Boudreaux and other luminaries begged, "Don't let the water wash us away," as ominous rain clouds moved even closer and the first few drops fell on the crowd.
Lost and Found
Did someone lose a pair of flip flops? I have them.
Nicholas Payton proved that jazz musicians can still look hipper than everyone else. He played with a sophistication that would impress musicians like Roy Haynes and Miles Davis, who exuded personal style and musical talent. His new songs were deep and majestic without being ponderous or slow.
We'd Like to Roll This Way, Please
At the Throw Back Jamm on the Congo Square stage, bounce artists from the old school were operating under a Fest mandate to keep their sets squeaky-clean. It might not have been such a tall order if the spare, upbeat local club rap weren't also well known for gleefully lewd call-and-response lyrics. For the most part, the rappers complied (except for a few forbidden words bleeding through when showcase organizer Joe Blakk rapped over a prerecorded backing track). Queen of Dirty South bounce Cheeky Blakk performed her hit "Twerk Something" substituting "playa" and "with it" for the N-word, and "women" for "bitches." (How refreshing!) Still, it was the former Luther Campbell protégé Bust Down who got around it: performing his hit, "Nasty Bitch," he simply yelled "Nasty" and held the mike out to the crowd, who were more than happy to supply the second part of the chorus.
Hip-hop is Here to Stay
Jazz Fest has drawn large crowds for rap artists like LL Cool J and Mystikal before. This year's New Orleans Bounce showcase was a bit like the induction of a heritage side as early bounce artists were featured. But really, hip-hop was everywhere. Following the Bounce showcase on the Congo Square stage was the Grammy and Latin Grammy winning rap and reggaeton act from Puerto Rico Calle 13. Lead singer Rene Perez Joglar, aka Residente, brought the noise in Spanish. Ludacris added a little extra bling to the Roots' set, but only a little in his brief appearance on stage. Galactic played a cover of Led Zeppelin's "Immigrant Song" which featured Chali 2na of Jurrasic 5 rapping over it. During his set on the Jazz & Heritage Stage, trumpeter Shamarr Allen went from a slightly funky and drawn out version of "St. James Infirmary" to straight raps, one of which featured his young son making a guest appearance on the mic. Allen didn't call for the audience to "jump" in hip-hop fashion. Instead, he called for people to "second line."
Making this Land a Better Land
Jazz Fest has always proved to be a good place for performers to get up on their proverbial soapboxes and this year was no exception, with Stevie Wonder stomping for Obama and "The Voices of the Wetlands" speaking out for our battered coast. The musicians often let their songs do the talking, or singing, and this was best exemplified by Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello. During the duo's double set, Costello beseeched the crowd with numbers like the title track of their 2006 album, River in Reverse, while Toussaint took a slightly more optimistic, soulful approach by playing tunes from his classic songbook like "Yes We Can, Can."
Al Green = Sexy
Al Green's set on the first Sunday was weirdly miraculous: The rain that had been pounding the Fair Grounds all day mysteriously stopped as he hit the stage and started up again when he left. His breathtaking extended workout of "Love and Happiness" left the audience rapturous and wrung-out. But the highlight for us was this little bit of connection that was made in between bouts of Green's traditional distribution of red roses to select women in attendance, a feature of the show hindered by the fence separating the front row from the stage's edge.
Al Green lamented to the crowd, "I want to come out there!"
Woman in crowd responded, "Come on, baby! Come on!"
Jazzed Up on Thursday
In the Jazz Tent, John Ellis and Doublewide kicked off the first Thursday of Jazz Fest in three years with their unique blend of contemporary jazz and New Orleans brass sounds that sometimes resemble a polyrhythmic second line on acid, a wild carnival of sounds backed up by hoots and snorts from Bonerama's Matt Perrine on the sousaphone.
Courting the Crowd
Randy Newman was as sardonic as always on solo piano for an appreciative crowd. He played a generous number of fan favorites including "Short People," "It's Money That I Love," "Marie" and "Political Science." He debuted a new song from the children's movie The Frog Princess (filmed in New Orleans) for which he wrote the score (and Dr. John sings on the soundtrack) with the refrain of "You Can Find Your Dreams / In New Orleans." Before playing the inevitable set closer "Louisiana 1927," (which brought tears from the audience, but at this point, only he or John Boutté should be allowed to sing it so it doesn't become a cliché), he pointed out that after seeing the destruction, he realized that, in terms of New Orleans, "It's important that America has a city that knows what's important."
His best new line was from the forthcoming song "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country," in which he sings, "You know it pisses me off a little / That this Supreme Court is gonna outlive me / A couple of young Italian fellas and a brother on the Court now, too / As for the brother/ Well, Pluto's not a planet anymore either."
Wine isn't typically praised for its thirst-quenching qualities, but even when the lines for Miller Lite were backed up 10 deep at the beer tents, we could stroll right up to the wine booths, where wine is served in small bottles with twist caps. No corkscrew, no waiting.
Midway through the New Orleans Nightcrawlers' set, trombonist Craig Klein set about introducing the the band members to an enthusiastic crowd, but seemed to come up short after presenting Matt Perrine on sousaphone. "And I don't know his name," he paused expectantly. "He just jumped up here. He's killing though Conga Man!" The crowd erupted in applause.
With on-again, off-again showers, it became apparent that the production staff was shaving about five or 10 minutes off many sets, which messed with some attendees' schedule. Leaving the Acura Stage after Art Neville's set (where little brother Aaron Neville had joined him for a few songs), we saw Ivan Neville running up to the backstage area only to be told by an exited fan: "You just missed your daddy playing with your uncle! It's over!"
From the early-Mother's-Day department: we all read about the expectant mallard who chose to nest in front of the Acura Stage, and how the Fest stepped up with a barricade to protect the eggs from the crowd. How ironic, then, that when we left the stage after Art Neville's set Friday, we heard a staffer frantically radioing for help regarding a baby that had been abandoned in its carriage next to the handicapped-accessible Port-A-Potty. "Can we get a cop over here?" she was saying. "That baby has been alone for more than a half hour." Parenting scoreboard: Duck 1, Jazz Fest attendee 0.
Now We Danza
Some people play traditional music like it is a museum piece and there are those, like the Danza Quartet, who play it and push it like it is a living, breathing entity. This group draws on musical genres from throughout the southern hemisphere and combines them in energetic performances. Pianist Tom McDermott's Brazilian choros and clarinetist Evan Christopher's great originals mingle with Michael Skinkus' percussion.
Slight of Hand
Closeups of guitar virtuoso Richard Thompson's hands on the big screen next to the Gentilly Stage made extra sales of the Jazz Fest DVD a shoo-in for a serendipitous alternate use as an instructional video. His fingers flew through classics like "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." The announcer drew boos when he closed the set by asking for a hand for "Richard Thomas." On Sunday afternoon, after the Raconteurs' explosive set on the same stage, we overheard a group of fans still getting laughs out of the gaffe.
During the Lee Boys' scorching sacred steel set, it was easy to mistake the Blues Tent for the Gospel Tent. A few feet away, the Greater Antioch Full Gospel Baptist Church Music Ministry wasn't slacking off, either. But Jazz Fest had its bases covered by booking the Lee Boys to play a set in each tent. Solid choice.
Will Someone Tell Jimmy Buffett What Time It Is
Jimmy Buffett's happy-hour rock and roll vibe suits him well and draws plenty of fans. It's certainly kept him from having to wear a suit for quite some time. He cajoled his Parrothead following at the Acura Stage that "It must be 5 o'clock somewhere." The Count can't help but wonder if having an office or leaving it at 5 p.m. aren't relics of the last millennium.
Duck Didn't Fly
Cajun. Duck. Po-boy. A combination of these three words would seem destined for greatness. And yet that new addition to the Jazz Fest food options fell a bit flat. It may have been a casualty of comparison, however. The Cajun duck po-boy looks an awful lot like the cochon de lait po-boy served a few booths down the line, though it just can't compete with the latter's smoky-edged pork strands, crunchy slaw and crisp French bread. There was promise, however, in the sharp, creamy horseradish sauce that accompanied the Cajun duck, available for self-application from large iced tea dispensers strapped to the counter. With better bread, a good dose of that sauce and perhaps something more substantial than pickle chips and iceberg in support, the duck could be much improved next year.
Remembering Fess at the Fest
It's difficult to update a Crescent City classic, especially those created by Professor Longhair, aka Henry Roeland Byrd. Either you were born here, or, like Jon Cleary, you've been here long enough that the New Orleans street beat is your natural pulse rate. For this year's Longhair incarnation, there was perhaps none better than Henry Butler. An emperor of the ivories, Butler pounded his fingers through "Go to Mardi Gras" as his band added some musical ingredients of drums, funky guitar and upright bass. Butler just about made the song his own.
More Tales of God's Will
Terence Blanchard has made no secret of his mission to keep Katrina and New Orleans on people's minds via his Grammy-winning album A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina). His quintet was joined onstage by a large contingent from the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra, which is also featured on the album. The set was stirring and Blanchard's elegant and elegiac solos in the pieces "Funeral Dirge" and "Dear Mom" were magnificent to the point of sublime.
Blanchard told the story of Spike Lee and his mother conspiring to film her return to her flooded Pontchartrain Park home, a heartbreaking scene in Lee's When the Levees Broke for which Blanchard wrote the score and the material that would develop into A Tale of God's Will. Blanchard asked his mother at the time if she was sure she wanted to do that? He told the audience that her response was that she had to do it to share with the country what happened to New Orleans. Blanchard tells people who ask about the scene that 100,000 New Orleanians all experienced the same thing.
His mother has since moved back into the home, and Blanchard says that some things never change. "Even if you have played for the president, you can still go home and be told to take out the trash," he said. "'And make sure you put the lids on tight,'" he mimicked. "Because last time they weren't on tight and the dogs got in the trash.'"
Cajun Mountain Climbing
The Lost Bayou Ramblers pride themselves on a traditional sound, with French lyrics supported by fiddle and accordion strains that seem to holler of Acadiana. On stage, however, this young, energetic Lafayette band offers anything but a typical Cajun dancehall performance. The band closed out a barnstormer of a set on the Fais Do-Do Stage. Alan LaFleur gave a few hints as to what would come as he periodically lifted his upright bass over his head with one tattoo-scripted arm. Later, this battered-but-tuneful bass was cantilevered out over the edge of the stage with LaFleur perched on its tail end, still playing. As a grand finale, he held the bass stable, slapped its strings in time with the rest of the band and invited fiddler and vocalist Louis Michot to climb up the instrument's ample flank. Michot kept strumming as he climbed and then held a photogenic pose there atop the bass as if it were a mountaintop. The Lost Bayou Ramblers didn't miss a beat.
Improving With Age
The string bass-oriented acrobatics of the Lost Bayou Ramblers are unique but the spirit is pure Cajun. Musicians over 50 like Goldman Thibodeaux put on an energetic show, and the Jambalaya Cajun Band's Terry Huval and Reggie Matte braved the bayoulike terrain in front of the stage to dance with the audience during their closing number, "Il y a une Mouche dans ma Couche Couche."
Avoiding the Blue(s)
If the singing thing doesn't work out, Irma Thomas might have a future at comedy clubs. During her set on the first Sunday, the Queen of New Orleans soul explained second lines and our city's propensity to find any excuse for a party. "In New Orleans, we celebrate everything we celebrate mosquitoes, we celebrate roaches We celebrate when our pregnancy test comes back negative!"
One of the most interesting feats by a multi-instrumentalist came from the New Orleans Bingo! Show's Clint Maedgen, who played a solo by blowing into a pair of half-filled glass Coke bottles. Members of the band also played a cheese grater, a toy chainsaw and a lunchbox full of ball bearings. At the end of the set, Clint thanked the toy department at Red, White and Blue thrift stores. At times, the bohemian carnival ensemble stuck to more conventional instruments like accordion, tuba, cello, theremin and also a megaphone and siren. The music was complemented by hand puppets, confetti and other props.
On the Allison Miner Music Heritage/Lagniappe Stage, interviewer Ben Sandmel and erudite rocker Richard Thompson tried to out-smarty-pants each other, treating the crowd to a genial battle of wits that included references ranging from Ibsen to Britney and came off like English sketch comedy. Thompson may have won, if only because he managed to fit the phrase "pre-Raphaelite" into song lyrics. It was one of the best live interviews we saw on that stage and the top two pieces of info learned were these: Thompson thinks the accordion is the coolest instrument ever, and his Fairport Convention bandmate Dave Pegg won a drinking contest with Janis Joplin and John Bonham.
That's How We Jelly Roll
Reprising his role from the Broadway musical, Jelly Roll and Me, Vernel Bagneris let everyone know that bragging, boastful-but-talented rappers may have first flourished in New York City in the early 1980s, but they had nothing on the piano players of Storyville in the 1890s at least in terms of rude turns of phrase and hubris. Morton who claimed to be the inventor of jazz wouldn't have felt cheated by the Bagneris or his band's perfect renditions of Morton's ragtime originals.
That's Funked Up
Ivan Neville led Dumpstaphunk through a song about people affected by Katrina. It featured the chorus, "We've got to help those people out," and mentioned problems like losing homes and being displaced to other cities. It also mentioned that politicians can be part of the problem and continued, "We have to help those people out, too." After a while the song segued into an extended funk jam in which he had a solution for many problems. "Put it in the Dumpsta." It seemed to be the band's novel approach to using music to bring peace and understanding to the world. Neville went through many social ills that could be better served by music than rage, including, "You know when someone cuts you off and then flips you off?" he sang. "Put it in the Dumpsta."
Fans of the Fest
The most popular wardrobe item for the first weekend was brightly colored crocs. The most popular item the final weekend were gold "Fan Up" Hornets T-shirts.
Jack White's band the Raconteurs won hands down for the most rock brought to the Fair Grounds, with its screaming, fuzzed-out Detroit garage-rock set. Getting the words "New Orleans" in the lyrics of the first song may have helped, but singer Brendan Benson is a local who grew up on the West Bank.
It was kind of obvious from the band members uniformly pasty, doughy look that nightclubs, and not outdoor festivals, are their natural habitat, and that nighttime is their regular hours. They also showed their newbie status at Jazz Fest by inviting some friends to come to their Gentilly Stage show as guests by saying, "Just tell them you know us at the door."
One of the most amazing solos rendered at the Fest was a song plucked on the banjo by Béla Fleck. He sat in with Abigail Washington and the Sparrow Quartet, which offers a deconstructed, art-damaged version of bluegrass. It's a marvel that Fleck gets so much out of just two hands and a single banjo. He obviously felt at home with the quartet and together they sounded deeply primitive and weirdly postmodern at the same time.
Fleck has been on tour recently, matching strings with musicians from Mali, Gambia and several central African nations. It's hard to imagine if his talents have boundaries. He's been nominated in more Grammy categories than any other artist.
You've seen the guests of artists lounging languidly in the wings, enjoying the music from the stage itself. Local alt rockers Rotary Downs had a special surprise waiting among its Lagniappe Stage entourage, however. Layla Isis, sister of bassist Jason Rhein, is an accomplished belly dancer with a devoted following in New York City where she lives. Midway through the band's set, she emerged on stage, barefoot and bare-bellied, and worked through a riveting routine of traditional Middle Eastern dance. A gigantic smile on her face, a gleam in her eye and a thousand sparkles stitched into her costume, she was a delight of movement and mystique as the band poured on its richly layered sound.
Second to Last
It's not a traditional closing set, but perhaps it should be. The Wild Magnolias had the second to last slot on the Jazz & Heritage Stage on the final Sunday. The tribe was joined by Davell Crawford on keyboards, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews on trumpet and Larry Boudreaux of the Mardi Gras Indian Rhythm Section among others. Dollis didn't perform for most of the set, but came on to sing the anthemic Indian tune "Handa Wanda" as the second to last song. His signature deep, gravelly voice made it one of the best Indian recordings ever. It's still a treat to hear him sing it live.
- Scott Saltzman
- Stevie Wonder plays a mix of his classic funk and soul along with new work.
- Scott Saltzman
- Mamadou Diabate plays the kora.
- Scott Saltzman
- Alison Krauss and Robert Plant sing material from their album Raising Sand.
- Cheryl Gerber
- Kim Carson entertains crowds at the Acura Stage.