Groove Mecca: New Orleans’ Jazz Fest 2015, Weekend 2

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Stormy Weather might make for good songs. But being waterlogged is not the best setting for fully appreciating their performance. So after outstanding music but lousy weather during the first round, the four sunny days promised for Jazz Fest part two at New Orleans’ Race Course Fair Grounds are a welcome reward. And a new layer of sand has minimized the smelly horse-track muck underfoot.

We’ll skip checking whether the set lists for the touring headliners differed from those from shows in Seattle or Detroit to concentrate on finding fresh music memories we can take home.

THURSDAY APRIL 30:  Local Hero Day

Soon after walking through the gates, I’ve got a sugar high from praline-filled beignets, a high that I won’t lose today. With its lower-key headliners, manageable crowds, and decidedly local focus, Thursday is a favorite of longtime Jazz Festers, a good day to reacquaint one’s self with Louisiana favorites.

Is There a Cajun-Zydeco Band in Heaven? …  The day is immediately gratifying as I add Joe Hall & the Cane Cutters to my list of fave zydeco groups. …  With stop-on-a-dime arrangements that are still relaxed enough to evoke bayous and backroads, Lafayette’s Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole play their country-Creole rhythms with a French and Spanish flair. Formerly with the Pine Leaf Boys, Watson has really grown into his role as a bandleader and songwriter, taking some cues from zydeco saint Boozoo Chavis.

This ear on the past with an eye on the future is a recurrent theme at Fest.  Beausoleil led a revival to keep Cajun tradition alive. And it was Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys who shook it up by adding Boozoo’s zydeco beat. Riley used to play Cajun-Creole music at Mamou High School pep rallies with Geno Delafose and a few Ardoin boys. Today he has gals from young Cajun group Sweet Cecilia, who are also on the new Playboys album, on stage at Fais Do Do to help with backing harmonies on racing fiddle duets and squeezebox stomps like “Pointe aux Chenes.”

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Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys (Photo: Jeffrey Ufberg/WireImage)

Energized, I fall into a second line behind Da Knockaz Brass Band and social aid and pleasure club dancers and linger at Sturgill Simpson’s set of songs that alternate Kentucky ache with locomotive picking.

Quiet Time…  On my rush to Alison Krauss and Union Station’s day-ending set – for which I fear I will get no closer than half a football field away – I happen upon Amanda Shires.  Putting down her fiddle in favor of a ukulele, the Texas songster warbles her way through a daringly delicate offering of rootsy songs, daring for her quiet lovesick composure in the face of the festival sounds bleeding over from other stages. Sporting a baby bump – “Glad you didn’t think it was just because of beer.” – Shires leaves us with a classical string duo-meets-spaghetti Western finale.

Maybe Alison Krauss should offer Shires a slot as her opening act. Krauss’s acoustic bluegrass melodies also get the gentle treatment as a skywriter smokes a heart and smiley face into the sky overhead and speakers rumble nearby. With master picker Jerry Douglas sitting in, the songs soar with rich four-part harmonies on “Make the World Go Away” – which, in light of the noisy surroundings, floats an appropriate theme.

Widespread Panic and their tireless-hard rock wanking (I mean that in only the best way) have no such problems being heard for their three-hours-plus closing set at the other end of the track. Throwing in some Dr. John licks for good measure, they push their show 20 minutes beyond closing time to extend the party with a tribal jam featuring Big Chief Monk Boudreau, Jr. and his krewe dressed in full Mardi Gras Indian regalia.

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Elton John (Photo: Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images)

FRIDAY MAY 1:  Musical Gentrification

This year’s list of touring-band headliners at Fest reads more like a batch of mentors for The Voice or American Idol competitors than performers with connections to Jazz Fest’s life-force— No Doubt, Elton John, T.I., Ed Sheeran, Chicago, and Steve Winwood, following Jimmy Buffett, Lady Gaga, Pitbull, Keith Urban, John Legend,  and the Who from the first weekend. (Lenny Kravitz gets a pass because he used to have a place in the French Quarter.)  But the acts are (generally) not as bothersome as the superficial celebrity-seeker crowds that they can attract.

Pushing aside real music fans, they waddle to the front of stages to take a dozen more selfies and cackle so that everyone can hear them while they ignore the live music, like it was just Spotify background for their vacations. One of the displays at the Louisiana Folklife Village, a themed collection of shoebox-size parade floats from ’tit Rex called “Me the People”featuring cliques of friends obsessing over their cell phones while ignoring each other – provides a fitting commentary on the situation.

Call to Vote Now! … Kicking the day off on the same stage where Gwen Stefani will finish is Kristin Diable.  The insightful Baton Rouge songster is, herself, a veteran of The Voice process; a private audition yielded an invitation from the NBC-TV show’s producers to Los Angeles. Diable shrewdly declined, wary of a seven-year contract that included relinquishing the publishing rights to her own tunes. She’s a rising star in her own right, a long-blonde presence who fills the stage with her rock’n’roots.  “Music doesn’t have to be religious to be spiritual,” says Diable. “It’s all about the soul of the song.”

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Crocodile Rock… One of the great new-to-me discoveries at this year’s Fest is Gurrumul of Australia.  With his killer tenor, the blind tribal guitarist strikes me as something of a Roy Orbison for the Outback (although technically he’s from an island off the coast).  He’s backed by a jazzy trio that translates to English for him.  Born with “the spirit of a crocodile,” Gurrumul’s songs about crocs, crows and roaming cats sparkle expansively, like they were echoing around the great wide open instead of the Blues Tent.

Don’t Call Him an Outlaw He uses his dad’s crackerjack band, Waymore’s Outlaws, but Shooter Jennings is definitely his own bad boy, one who peppers rolling, old-school C&W with a gunslinger attitude and the knack for getting lost in a lonesome song.  How he gets from here to the Giorgio Moroder tribute CD he plans for later this year will be a trip to watch. …  Jambalaya Cajun Band played their first Jazz Fest gig in 1989. Their newest member joined in 1987. And today their guest outflanks them all – D.L. Menard was born on the same day as the late Loretta Lynn. The cowboy Cajun’s nicely aged vocal helps the band deliver a memorable “Wildwood Flower.”

Blowing Notes …  Nothing can beat the sound of a dozen or so horns swinging in step, and Delfeayo Marsalis & the Uptown Horns are laying down exquisite sonics as the jazz orchestra runs through arrangements of Mingus, Satchmo, and Masekela.  This gives me some incentive to see how Chicago’s iconic horns are doing over at Gentilly. Thick vocal harmonies and guitar solos have taken center stage in many of Chicago’s pop hits. But when they’re allowed to shine through, as they are on “Saturday in the Park” and the finale of “25 or 6 to 4,” the band’s horn arrangements and solos are watertight gems.  (I had almost turned to check out Acura stage headliner No Doubt on the way over to Chicago, but some seriously out-of-tune vocalizing wafting my way helped to nix that idea.)

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Galactic featuring Macy Gray (Photo: Douglas Mason/Getty Images)

More Friday to Remember … I’ve always loved Macy Gray’s rasp, and I especially like her voice with the deep-layered jam grooves of her new musical partners, Galactic.  Macy also fills us in on the re-conciliatory properties of cannabis. … Soul queen Irma Thomas shows, once again, that she can also rock spirituals in the Gospel Tent. … Herbert McCarver & the Pinstripe Brass Band turn “All Over Now” into an extended second-line  romp. … Saxman Terence Blanchard leads a modern jazz ensemble from NOCCA to help the New Orleans’ arts conservatory celebrate its 40th year.

SATURDAY MAY 2: Wander Lost

By the middle of Davel Crawford’s early afternoon Tribute to Fats Domino, the area around the main stage is already impassable. Similar situations have developed near the stages where Ed Sheeran and T.I. will perform in a few hours, meaning that for those for us who like to wander from stage to stage, sampling the music as we go, there’s no room to move. So trying to catch a good look at Jerry Lee Lewis in one of the 79-year-old northern Louisiana boy’s rare concert performances is a problem; I can’t get anywhere closer than the next county.

Does Allen Toussaint Live Uptown? …  During her interview at the Alison Miner stage Friday, Marcia Ball’s quality test for self-penned songs was revealed: “Would Allen Toussaint let this out of the house?” Today’s set at the main Acura Stage proves she’s a woman of her word.

“Is New Orleans in the building?” the Soul Rebels ask in “504,” whatever that building might be. The ever-rising brass band is just as at home blowing up Congo Square with ferocious horn lines as they have been raising the roof at the tiny Le Bon Temp Rouler nightspot. The Soul Rebels even work in a version of what appears to be this year’s mandatory cover tune:  Mark Ronson’s track with Bruno Mars “Uptown Funk.” The original recording is a straight-up cop of a Prince arrangement, but I doubt the Purple One will ever see a penny in royalties.

 Most Un-Fun Mosh Pits Ever… On break from his three-year Las Vegas engagement, Elton John is dishing out arrangements of hits like “Tiny Dancer, “Levon,” and “Daniel” that are thick with syncopations, vocal harmonies and piano jams. But attempts to listen from the edges of the crowd result in bruising shoulder-to-shoulder combat, often with dousings of stale beer thrown in at no extra charge. … Things are no better over at T.I.’s shoutfest, where his usually powerful raps and rhymes sound disjointed, offering no apparent reason to get any closer. … The most inappropriate sardine mosh of all is over at Ed Sheeran’s set, whose 20-something angst-pop sounds designed to fill a coffeehouse, not a festival stage. Sheeran does manage to deliver a nifty read of Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.”

Other earfuls… The Terence Blanchard E-Collective is a fast and furious hard-ass quintet. I’m tempted to call the music the trumpeter’s take on a freedom-jazz King Crimson, so I will. … In the Blues Tent, Aaron Neville – the Mack truck of a man with a voice that could calm a freight train – warms up for tonight’s Neville Brothers tribute show in town at the Saenger Theater. … At 77 years, saxman Charles Lloyd still blows like he’s 27. … Corey Ledet and his Zydeco Band infuse their modern bayou bounce with nods to Chenier/Balfa and their zydeco/Cajun roots at the ever-popular (at least with me) Fais Do Do stage.

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SUNDAY MAY 3:  Party, Down

Whoever came up with Sunday’s Jazz Fest schedule deserves a raise.  The headlining stages feature homegrown talent from the pharohs of funk (Meters) and a New Orleans rock institution (Radiators) to the Nighttripper (Dr. John) and a new-breed brassman (Trombone Shorty), with touring acts (Steve Winwood, Lenny Kravitz) warming up the stage for the locals who will close out the final day of Jazz Fest 2015.  It’s a schedule reminiscent of the Fest’s local-color glory days.

We Should Always Have Such Problems… One of the “problems” of a good Jazz Fest day is that to catch one great band you must miss other great bands at the 10 other stages. So it is as The Radiators are clear across the track as I settle in for The Meters.  Art Neville, Leo Nocentelli, George Porter Jr., and Zigaboo Modeliste are monster players in their own rights. Together, they’re the band that brought the rock to funk and the funk to rock, and today a hotshot horn section and Cyril Neville join in the classic sissy-strut fun. “This is the real uptown funk, y’all,” comes the message from the stage. “I hope Bruno is watching.”

Talkin’ About My (Cajun) Generation… Since hitting the Lafayette scene as prodigy-like Cajun youngsters about a decade ago, Feufollet have a history of living up to their potential. That’s why I’m not too worried about the growing pains the Grammy-nominated band seem to be experiencing as they run down songs from their new CD, Two Universes. New fiddler-singer Kelly Savoy-Jones brings great songwriting with an Appalachian twang to the set with standouts like “Tired of Your Tears.” But Feufollet sound like a good band pursuing a compilation of interests – from new wave psychedelia to folk-rock melodies to Cajun two-steps – while they reset their musical center.

I take in Steve Winwood’s finely-voiced version of Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home” on my way to the Pine Leaf Boys. Another Grammy-nominated product of southwest Louisiana, the Boys prefer not to leave their musical orientation to the imagination; the subhead “Louisiana Music” is part of their band name. Rocked-up Cajun classics like “Amadee Two-Step,” swamp-pop, and a great version of George Jones’ “A Picture of Me Without You” mark the band’s 10th anniversary at Jazz Fest. Accordion and keyboards player Wilson Savoy, son of Cajun royalty Mark and Ann Savoy, even spikes his piano with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” in a balls-of-fire tribute to yesterday’s set by The Killer.

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Christian McBride Big Band with special guest Dianne Reeves (Photo: Douglas Mason/Getty Images)

It’s That Time Again…  Trying to delay the inevitable, I seek out some big-band swing time with leader Christian McBride, a jazz bassist with soul and funk roots. The set is knocked up a notch when guest Diane Reeves joins in.  Reeves is owner of one the classiest instruments in the universe: her voice.  But it’s time to face the music, so to speak, and make a final lap around Jazz Fest 2015.

Bopping past the Stooges Brass Band one last time, I hear enough of Kacey Musgraves and her melodious, neon whirls of country pop to know she’s an artist worthy of more of my time. But so is Dr. John, whose thumping “Ske Dat De Dat” set honoring the great Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong is at turns dark and brilliant.

Ever since taking over as Jazz Fest’s de facto main-stage closing act, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue have played scorching sets that indicated they’d probably fight for the slot had it not been offered. Shorty (Troy Andrews) is a consummate performer with vocal and ‘bone chops to back up his charismatic bravado.  Apparently, he spent his time wisely in Lenny Kravitz’s band a decade ago, learning from LK’s stage command. For the guitar-punched finales of Kravitz’s earlier set, “Fly Away” and “Are You Gonna Go My Way,” Andrews roamed Kravitz’s stage like a wild man, the two connecting as Andrews wailed on his horn.

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Trombone Shorty’ and Lenny Kravitz (Photo: Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

So it’s only appropriate that the Trombone Shorty-led finale has even more fireworks, with New Orleans all-stars including Ivan Neville, Saints quarterback Drew Brees and Meters guitar-shredder Leo Nocintelli among those on stage to help cap off the day. “We’re having fun like we’re at Tipatina’s right now,” a joyous Andrews barks, 20 minutes into an encore but still not wanting to end the set. Or Jazz Fest 2015.

I know just how he feels.