THURSDAY MAY 2:
A series of heavy rains have only served to multiply the mud fields generated at the 44th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s first weekend at the Fair Grounds Race Course. On my way in for the first day of weekend #2, with threatening clouds overhead (again), I pass by some serious testifying by the Singing Mustangs Choir to find that some of the track’s grassy infield has become a beach. A layer of sand has been added in an attempt deal with the growing quagmire, though some areas remain a gooey swamp -- like the wide moat that separates the Jazz & Heritage Stage and Big Chief Iron Horse & the Black Seminoles’ Mardi Gras Indian chants from the crowd. As I slog over to Fais Do Do, with my Converse hi-tops already massacred by mud, I reach a spot on New Beach where there’s a perfect harmonic convergence of sound from three stages, with Big Chief, Grupo Sensacion’s meringue, and the charm of Balfa Tojours’ traditional Cajun participating in a spontaneous, compatible-key mashup. I enjoy it for a full minute before moving on.
My page of notes are already bleeding ink when I hear a staffer announce, “Rain in 15.” I settle into the Jazz Tent for an organ “Woodshed” featuring Kyle Roussel, who’s been working with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Joe Ashlar. The duo confirms my belief that there is no sound with more soul than a Hammond B-3 organ played through a Leslie cabinet on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” and “These Are Soulful Days,” which features some fancy footwork from Ashlar. Duly motivated, I head out into the rain to join the party people excited by Jeffrey Broussard’s Creole squeezebox mastery, with Quinten Corvette’s “Star Spangled Banner” a la Hendrix drifting over from Congo Square to provide the soundtrack for my mud-spattering trek. (I’m considering nominating Boston band Muck & the Mires as the Fest’s on-call band for during these conditions.)
After a bit of cool Dixieland shuffle from Aurora Nealand & the Royal Roses over at the Economy Hall tent, I’m back at Fais Do Do, the stage which is offering the most musical revelations, not just today but over all seven days of Fest. The current highlight is Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, who are breaking in a new drummer. The dancing fans kick up some mud to Rosie’s slinky “Stop the Lyin’ Keep on Tryin’” and “Goin’ to the Rock ‘n Bowl,” a juggernaut ode to New Orleans’ zydeco central. “Make sure to tell John [owner] I sent ya,” says Rosie. “I’ll get a free t-shirt.” Flanking Rosie, a tattooed punk washboard player and the Fest’s most, uh, colorful interpretative tambourine player /dancer push the intensity higher and higher. The finale is “Swing That Thing,” for which the dancer -- the “last remaining true male frontman,” Rosie smiles – obliges.
The Gospel Tent helps me avoid downpour #2 as the McDonough #35 High School Choir asks, “Can we have a little church!?” By all means, if by “church” you mean your 40-voice version of “I’ll Take You There” with a hyper organ-funk delivering the upbeat.
I notice that the rains and muck have limited today’s attendance to mostly true music fans (Yea!), but tripled my usual between-stages travel time (Boo!). So I can only catch abridged samples of Shamarr Allen & the Underdawgs’ salsa party-rap (with Allen doling out his cell phone number to the gals in the crowd), Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors (“Everybody’s Got Soul Soul Soul”), and the rockin’-in-the-rain of the all-female Original Pinettes Brass Band.
I join the second line parade of the Pocket Aces Brass Band to snake back to Fais Do Do, where Geno Delafose & French Rockin’ Boogie have a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on. “You didn’t have to stop to listen to us, but you did. And for that, I tip my hat,” Geno thanked the crowd. I stay put for my initiation into the world of Jack White’s buddy, the nattily dressed Pokey LaFarge. “Tired of the same thing all the time,” Pokey sings. And his acoustic sextet is definitely a welcome change of pace -- young’ns mixing it up with the roots of Western swing, ragtime, river blues, and honky tonk and paying tribute to their St. Louis time zone, “Getting’ by on Central Time.” Some might call it schtick, but they’d be missing out. “We play American music,” LaFarge asserts. “It’s not a history project.”
At the two big stages that bookend the track, the layered, loping odes of singer/violinist Theresa Andersson’s group, with Kirk Joseph on sousaphone, sound positively orchestral at Gentilly while
Widespread Panic are already well into their 2-and-a-half hour set of soaring jams at the massive Acura Swamp, er, Stage. In between the two, after getting an earful of Roy Ayers’s fusion evolution,
I’m drawn in by the almost tribal yells emanating from Josh Kagler’s Harmonistic Praise Crusade in the Gospel Tent, where the group is punching out trombone solos and channeling Stevie Wonder.
But now it’s time to return to the Gentilly Stage to hear the shotgun marriage of two of my favorite musical things – Jazz Fest and Patti Smith. I don’t have high hopes. I figure Patti will always reign as the punk poetess of subterranean dives, not ready for the bright daytime cheer of this New Orleans party. I’m wrong. Her set seems a career moment for Ms. Smith, in great, Patti Page-ish voice and clearly enjoying herself. Because of the mucky streams dotting the field, I’m tempted to serve a joke when Patti sings “Pissin’ in a River.” Luckily, I dismiss it as a bad idea.
The Patti Smith Band plays a fair bit of material from Banga and Smith’s 2012 album sounds wide, deep, encompassing, an orgy of notes and words. Guitarist Lenny “Nuggets” Kaye breaks up the middle of the set with a medley of his ‘60s garage rock faves by the Strangeloves, Blue Magoos, and others – “My own personal bar band,” Smith gleams. “They tell me I haven’t babbled as much as I usually do,” she continues later, “so we need to add something to stretch our set. How about a Neal Young song?” Her version of Young’s “Only A Dream” is riveting, and it provides a great lead-in for the climax: the extended protopunk classic from the Horses album, “Gloria.” I never thought I’d be singing “Jesus died for somebody’s sins… but not mine,” to end a day of Jazz Festing.
FRIDAY MAY 3:
The opening of Friday’s Fest is delayed by an hour, but that extra time did nothing to cure the expansion of M-U-D that will put a very serious damper on my standard M.O. of bouncing from stage to stage. It still looks more like a cranberry bog in autumn than Jazz Fest. But there’s too much to hear to waste time moaning.
I snigger at the “no moshing or crowd surfing” sign in front of the Gospel Tent as Betty Winn and One-A-Chord sing “this is how we praise the Lord down in New Orleans” inside. Soon, I’m on my way (again) to Fais Do Do for Bill Miller’s beauteous rendition of “Hallelujah,” which is followed by some authoritative rocking as Bill sings “Jesus left Chicago bound for New Orleans.” Tell Him to bring his shrimp boots and a rain slicker.
Next door at Gentilly, Latin cowboys The Mavericks are playing a great mariachi-flavored love song, floating down the “Dream River.” The songs makes its emotive point even with the lyrics filtered through tarps that are protecting the speakers from the rain and adding crappy ear-bud sound effects. I bounce back to BeauSoleil avec Michael Doucet, who are joined today by squeezebox master Jo-El Sonnier on the Fais Do Do stage. On a few tunes, the teaming of the dual fiddles and accordion sounds like the world’s best calliope. And fiercely crafted solos by mandolinist Don Vappie and guitarist David Doucet fuel the group’s re-envisioning of Roswell Rudd’s “Bamako” to take on the al-Qaeda problem in West Africa. “Enjoy the rain with no hurricane,” Michael says as he brings the set to an end.
Woefully underdressed for the uncharacteristically cool weather, I ignore Mr. Doucet’s advice and instead seek out the Allison Miner Stage inside the grandstand, where I listen to Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. talk about old-school zydeco and performing with Paul Simon and then play a few unplugged tunes in advance of his day-ending set outside.
I find myself back at FDD for steel guitarist Jerry Douglas and his atmospheric, jazzy, hills-blues pickin’ and Americana melodies, more Bill Frissell than Bill Monroe, which provide the day’s hit. Douglas’ band delivers inventive New Grass, with a bullet, on a dobro-led Clapton cover, a particularly beautiful hills melody draped over a bass and fiddle trance-drone, and a propulsive “Who’s Your Uncle.” “Any good food here at this place?” Douglas quips as the crowd roars.
It’s already time to start a last lap around the track to end the day. But first, I need to make a pit stop at one of the dozens of Port-O-Lets, where the weather‘s overflow of H2O has made a messy situation worse. “Be careful, it ain’t pretty in there,” I’m advised. Ugh, true that. I’ve never been happier to be a male. Relieved, sort of, I start my trek by stopping by Acura long enough to hear Maroon 5 as Adam Levine is singing the Police hit “The Bed’s Too Big Without You” in his best Sting voice. I decide to add Adam to Team Tristram -- before Blake Shelton tries to turn him into a country star -- and plot my exit from the screaming teens (audible to the opposite end of the track). I escape to The Cookers, a jazz summit with Eddie Henderson, Cecil McBee, and half a dozen other greats that reminds me not to whine about the weather at this year’s Jazz Fest. Forget the crummy forecast; where else can you hear such superstar jams? The Cookers’ sharp modern bop and hot-shot horns -- almost Philip Glass-ian in one extended ending -- are enhanced by the day’s best sounding mix.
The slower speed limits imposed by the chilly, wet conditions have slowed my victory jog to a slog. But I’m still able to catch come of Tab Benoit shredding the blues, Rockin’ Dopsie, Jr. putting a zydeco stamp on the Stones’ “Beast of Burden,” and Willie Nelson’s personal hit parade warms my heart if not my feet. I put the day away by closing my eyes and letting Jimmy Cliff’s rebel-reggae anthems make me believe I’m swaying in a warm Caribbean breeze.
SATURDAY MAY 4:
Let the sun shine. Finally. There’s still way too much muck to be able to get from stage to stage swiftly, but as on most Fest’s days, today’s music schedule promises a lot, no matter where I end up. The New Orleans Hip Hop Experience showcase is the first hot team of talent I hear today but it won’t be the last. The home of (the ailing) L’il Wayne, New Orleans produces rappers who thrive on aggressively funky street beats, as demonstrated by the dudes and dolls on the Congo Square stage. With DJ Mike Swift and DJ Poppa providing the pumping turntable beats, 3D Na’tee, Rocka B, N.O.V. and Dobama, and others weave grand layers of rhythm and rhyme and close with a group sing of “God Bless New Orleans” backed by a live band.
I slither over to what I call the VIP Circle, a patch of semi-dry land surrounded by something resembling quicksand in front of Fais Do Do, to hear Balfa Toujours singer Yvette Landry tear it up with her chugging Lafayette, La. country swing and ballads band. “Three Chords and a Bottle (Is All I Need Tonight)” sings Landry on a pedal-steel hop, though some have adapted the lyrics to “three whores and the Bible.” She also kills “Dead and Gone,” a love song, as in “don’t trust him ‘til he’s… .”
Good and meaty rock is often not a good match for true Jazz Festers – I usually prefer mine in a dark dingy club. But there have already been a few cases this year where the opposite has been true, and I am currently standing in front of another: New Orleans’ own pandemonium machine Mutemath. The band’s urban modern rock is spiked by the antics of singer-keyboardist Paul Meany, who pushes his limits on “Recent,” a hyper, ringing, circular onslaught that features a Theremin that has been fashioned into a guitar with a fretboard controller. As I look up from writing down notes, I find Meany crowd surfing on a rubber raft just a few dozen feet away.
Sloshing onto the pavement and over to the Jazz Tent, I find Fleur Debris, another Fest superband (again, where else are you going to find this stuff?). Here the Meters rhythm section, Zigaboo Modeliste and George Porter, Jr., are leaving the comfortable confines of their funk reputations to go on acoustic jazz expeditions with trumpet great Nicholas Payton and Astral Project keyboardist David Torkanowsky. A thesaurus is useless here, as all I can come up with is “wow.”
Back to the wetlands, I get as close as I dare to Bill Summer & Jazsalsa. The irony of the setting is immediately obvious: top-shelf jazz-funk salsa surrounded by the pig-slop moat. But it doesn’t slow down the stop-on-a-dime syncopations of the Headhunters percussionist and his crew. For their finale, they pull out Herbie Hancock’s “Cantaloupe Island” and morph into a salsa-hip hop version of “Chameleon” spiced by Private Pyle’s raps.
It’s high time for a break, so I check out the Folklife Village area and find a remarkable room divider created from bayou straw by Arthur Seigneur, who’s here from France to work in Heinz Gautschi’s New Orleans millwork studio. Next it’s over to yet another teaming of talents at the Lagniappe (“a little something extra”) Stage, where organist Joe Krown, guitarman Walter Wolfman Washington, and drummer Russell Batiste, Jr. are dishing out hard-bopping grooves to a dancing audience that includes Mr. New Orleans himself, Allen Toussaint. Washington, who will lead his own Roadmasters in a set on Sunday, provides a highlight by singing a rousing “You Can Stay, But That Noise Must Go.”
After I joining the second line of Trouble Nation and the Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians for a little more parading, l for A quick look at the schedule convinces me I need to spend the rest of the day at least trying to hop from stage to stage. I take a big breath before the coming hour-plus flash of bands (as should you, dear reader). Favoring a path on the outer track, I hear Little Big Town’s spot-on cover of Bryan Ferry’s “More Than This” and Nora Jones laying back with The Little Willies, move to the drums and dance of Malé Debalé of Bahia, get sanctified by the Johnson Extension’s family gospel (yes, that really is the group’s name), and then rock along with Kevin Gordon.
Fleetwood Mac deliver a gritty version of “World Turning” and offer up the Bill Clinton theme song, aka “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow,” but I miss Christine McVie. The smooth R&B fusion of bassist Stanley Clarke and pianist George Duke is getting all Weather Report-y in the Jazz Tent. The Free Agents Brass Band is asking “Who Dat?” from the Jazz & Heritage Stage, while French rockers Phoenix are getting playful and textural with “1901” and other material from their Wolfgang Amadeus Phoenix album.
Frank Ocean’s lyrics don’t sound any more intriguing when they’re amplified from the Congo Square stage, but the buoyant zydeco of Sunpie & the Louisiana Sunspots is on fire, and I’m thinking I’ll accept his invitation to the crowd to hear him tonight in a free show at the Don Jeffe cigar bar. Meanwhile, Los Lobos is shutting down their Tex-Mex throwdown with a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Bertha.” “Adios, los amigos.”
Sunday May 5:
Cinco de Mud-o. “It smells like crap,” utters one fan upon entering the festival grounds. Well, there’s a reason for that: for the remainder of the year this place is a horse track. And as the sunny skies and cool breeze start to dry out the muck, the smells become more airborne. That doesn’t seem to be bothering the Hank Williams of Cajun music D.L. Menard and his Louisiana Aces, his band since 1952. The veteran singer sounds inspired throughout his set of traditional Acadian favorites.
Jazz Fest has ripped my soul many times. But this time, crossing a rivulet of mud to settle in front of the Gentilly Stage for the New Orleans Classic R&B Recording Revue, it has ripped a sole from my back-up boots (my pair of Converse is already in triage). Sis provides a hairband for a temporary repair until I can grab some duck tape and I’m able to sway along, comfortably, to the featured octogenarians, who shame us with their energy. I catch Frankie Ford’s “Sea Cruise” and Al Carson’s “Carnival Time” before sneaking off to watch the Savoy Family Cajun Band, who demonstrate that great layered rhythms can be based around only the “tings” of a well-played triangle. Amédé Ardoin, the Creole patron saint of Cajun music, plays a big part in the Savoy set, in both two-steps and song dedications.
I decide to get back to the R&B Recording Revue – this could be the last chance to catch some of these guys, after all. Supported by the Blue-Eyed Soul Revue, Clarence “Frogman” Henry kicks through “Ain’t Got No Home,” followed by Robert Parker. Parker, who played sax with “just about every New Orleans R&B artist that ever was,” is probably best remembered for the 1966 dance hit "Barefootin’,” which tops off the Revue’s set in style. Puzzlingly, it is a cold ending, with no kudos to the greats that had just graced the stage.
Next door, Fais Do Do is offering a one-two punch of future Cajun royalty, Feufollet and The Pine Leaf Boys. Feufollet is expanding their song base, drifting into swing, folky ballads other styles. But the home-grown bayou grooves are still Feufollet’s forte, and they treat me to what I’d bet is the first Cajun version of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire.” A dozen pair of dancers pry themselves into the crowd in front of The Pine Leaf Boys, who are also swinging their Cajun-Creole set a bit more than usual as they celebrate bassist Thomas David’s ’ 21st birthday.
I’m hoping that The Black Keys provide another rock surprise here at Jazz Fest, and with an offhand “Let’s get this thing going,” the Akron, Ohio, heroes move quickly into a good ‘n loud buzzsaw of raucous tunes. But in this sun-and-funk setting, crammed like sardines in the Acura Stage field where many use the music as mere background for “more beer,” they aren’t drawing me in. And the Keys don’t seem so into it either. So I depart for Wayne Shorter, playing behind the Black Keys at the Jazz Tent. Shorter’s quartet -- loaded with Miles Davis saxophonist Shorter, pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and a personal fave, drummer Brian Blade -- is impressive, to put it mildly. Moody, complex, intense and intimate, the set sparkles with class and vigor.
Drawn in by some raucous harmonies by Kathy Taylor & Favor, I get a last hit of gospel before the day, and Jazz Fest, end. Taylor’s choir appears to be attempting to set a new world’s record for the number of times the name “Jesus” can be used in a four-minute song. I stop counting at 120. “That’s churchin’, right there,” declares the announcer as she closes down the Gospel Tent for 2013.
On any given Jazz Fest day, I might finish off my day with Irvin Mayfield, Taj Mahal (who performed with ten tubas), or the Wild Magnolias. Today, after giving an ear to Aaron Neville’s trademark warble as it melts a few smooth songs from his jazz/R&B/doo-wop set, I’m figuring that the staggeringly special and spirited bluegrass-meets-dixieland melding of the Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s will be all I need to hold me over until next year.
But now here’s Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue coming at us from the Acura Stage like Jumpin’ Jack Flashes and possibly pounding out a new tradition as Fest closers, a role long held by the Neville Brothers. A hard-rock brass band? A guitar-buzzed street parade of showmanship? Whatever. Shorty’s set creates an unexpectedly wild atmosphere that would be worthy of the most happening nightclub. “We’re having fun up here, y’all,” says Shorty, aka Troy Andrews, whose career has skyrocketed the most of any of the dozens of music locals who have been part of HBO’s Treme series. If this is the future, sign me up to follow my rhythm at the next 27 New Orleans Jazz Fests. As long-time Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis says to send us home one last time in 2013, "The future is now. The music is in good hands."
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If I haven’t mentioned some of your favorite Jazz Fest acts this time around, well, sorry, but it’s time to close this year’s recap treatise. Besides, I didn’t get to many of the names that were on my own must-see list. Which is a good reason to plan now to for next year. ~
- All photos were taken with the author’s crappy-ass phone camera.