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Jazz Fest: A Last Look Back at the 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

Mike Love with the Beach Boys at Jazz Fest. Photo by Earl Perry.

Mike Love with the Beach Boys on the Acura Stage. Photo by Earl Perry.

My first published work was a review of the Beach Boys’ Smiley Smile. I’ve seen the group dozens of times over the years and was able to become friends with two of the band members, the late brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson. It’s good to hear that music played to an appreciative crowd on a beautiful sunny afternoon in New Orleans, but calling this a 50th annual reunion is outright fraud. Watching the surviving members made me think of those Futurama episodes where people are kept “alive” by putting their heads in tanks of liquid.

The production is sustained by a very capable army of singers and musicians who create beautiful facsimiles of the songs, although you might as well be listening to well-crafted recordings of Beach Boys songs. Unfortunately none of the surviving members of the group are capable of making any significant contributions to this music. (John Swenson)

The Beach Boys’ show was billed as a “celebration” of the band’s 50 years, but it didn’t feel celebratory, perhaps because nobody onstage looked very happy. The years haven’t been any kinder to Mike Love than they have to Brian Wilson, and the look he gave the audience that was once randy now looked like lechery tinged with anger.

I feared the show was going to sound like three guys in the crowd in front of you singing along to the songs you know and love because the Wondermints— the backing band—can play and sing the songs the way we want to hear them. Wilson, Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks acquitted themselves far better than I expected. The show wasn’t as thrilling as Wilson’s in 2005 because there was a built-in drama that made its beauty poignant, but it was as strong a performance as could likely be expected from the Beach Boys after 50 years. (Alex Rawls)

Grace Potter at Jazz Fest. Photo by Earl Perry.

Grace Potter. Photo by Earl Perry.

“This is my Jazz Fest debut,” said a wide-eyed Dayna Kurtz. “I’ve been coming to this festival for 20 years and I’ve wanted to play it for so long.” The sassy, big-voiced belter took command of the Lagniappe Stage with a larger-than-life delivery that was a grab bag of nods to local heroes, shrewd selections from the American songbook and her own contemporary blues, ballads and R&B songs. Kurtz played the New Orleans R&B diva, culling material from the two albums she recently released simultaneously. From Secret Canon Vol. 1, a cratedigger’s delight of obscure 20th-Century pop songs, she chose “Do I Love You,” “Don’t Fuck Around With Love” (changed to “Mess Around” for the family crowd) and “Not the Only Fool in Town.” American Standard, her album of originals recorded in part with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, yielded “Lou Lou Knows,” “Hanging Around My Boy,” “Are You Dancing With Her Tonight,” her tribute to the Ponderosa Stomp “Good in ‘62,” and her celebration of Obama’s 2008 victory, “Election Day.” The wildest moment came near the end of the set when Kurtz, fairly bursting out of her tight black dress, pushed the band into high gear for an electric rendition of Eddie Bo’s “So Glad.” Nice to know that Jazz Fest can still summon up such pleasant surprises. (John Swenson)

The first act of this year’s Jazz Fest to interrupt my plans was Leyla McCalla, whose set in the Lagniappe Tent was riveting in its self-assured smallness. She played a strummed cello and banjo, and was accompanied by a second banjo and, on occasion, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on percussion and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens on vocals. McCalla is performing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops these days, and like them, she’s exploring old music without making it sound old. Her set leaned heavily on Haitian folk songs, but what was most winning was her artistic confidence—the easy confidence that the music and performance never needed more than three acoustic instruments. And she was right. (Alex Rawls)

Red Hawk Mardi Gras Indian at Jazz Fest. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Red Hawk Mardi Gras Indian. Photo by Kim Welsh.

The Radiators didn’t play their usual Fest-closing set at the Gentilly Stage, but the final Sunday did feature Rads keyboardist Ed Volker leading a trio with Joe Cabral on baritone sax and Michael Skinkus on percussion. In what could be seen as an ironic comment on his own retirement, Volker began his set with a line from one of his new songs, “Monkey Ain’t Going Back in the Box.” Volker was a revelation in this new context during his hour-long set, playing slow, dark melodies on the grand piano and cutting a sultry Caribbean groove with his responsive bandmates. The space and dynamics this approach created enabled Volker to use a wide range of vocal techniques, often growling and smearing his lines, as opposed to having to shout over the band at Radiators gigs. Volker also revealed some of the structural ideas he brings to arrangements by performing songs in groups, not just medleys but actual mashups where lines and verses from different songs are fitted into a larger whole. So the dirge-like version of Professor Longhair’s “Tipitina” became part of Volker’s Longhair tribute “Long Hard Journey Home.” Volker then sang “Money” as if it were a Ray Charles ballad, brilliantly capped with a baritone solo that played off the melody of “Goodbye Pork Pie Hat” before Volker raised the temperature with “Every Dog Has Its Day.” “Turtle Beach” morphed into “Alabama Song,” then a triumphant “Run Red Run.” By the time this remarkable set ended with Jelly Roll Morton’s “Whinin’ Boy” combined with “Let the Red Wine Flow” and “Finger Poppin’ Time,” the crowd at the Langiappe Stage was out of the seats and dancing.

The other Rads spinoffs performed at the Fest or in clubs during the two weekends of music, and the Radiators briefly reunited for one teaser set during a benefit for bassist Reggie Scanlan, who is recovering from pancreatic cancer. It was a miracle to see him back in action only weeks after enduring 16 hours of surgery. His New Orleans Suspects closed the benefit show with an outstanding set that featured Dave Malone and Camile Baudoin, along with surprise guest Bill Kreutzmann on drums, playing a killer version of “Turn on Your Love Light.” The two Radiators guitarists have a mind meld of a connection so rhythmically fierce and harmonically adventurous they seem more like the great duo of Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons than any other rock guitar tandem. (John Swenson)

Despite breaking up last year, the Radiators were all over the place this year, including a one- off reunion set at Howlin’ Wolf to benefit bassist Reggie Scanlan, who’s recovering from cancer surgery. Scanlan’s set with funk- rockers the New Orleans Suspects was this year’s inaugural set at the Acura Stage and his first since his treatment. Scanlan’s presence brought plenty of cheers and his characteristically supple basslines deserved them.

On the second weekend, Ed Volker played a solo set (with percussionist Mike Skinkus and saxophonist Joe Cabral, both longtime associates) that included more Rads songs than he used to do solo. But the surprise was the set by the Malone Brothers, who adopted a no-keyboard quartet lineup in the Crazy Horse mold. Dave Malone’s guitar heroics were familiar to Rads fans (as were a couple of the songs), but brother Tommy was louder and raunchier than he could ever be with the subdudes. (Brett Milano)

Flaco Jimenez walked out onto the Fais Do-Do stage and heard people shouting his name. The great accordion player for the Texas Tornados grinned and sipped his beer, then proceeded to animate the infectious Tex-Mex rhythms of his band. Jimenez looked right at home standing next to the portrait of another squeezebox master, Clifton Chenier. Jimenez and Farfisa organ master Augie Meyers keep the Tornados authentic, along with original bassist Speedy Sparks, even after the passing of group founder Doug Sahm and chicano superstar Freddy Fender. The band makes up for those losses by employing Doug’s son Shawn as a singer/guitarist and good-natured MC. Shawn looks and sounds the part, projecting the boundless enthusiasm and good cheer that his father always radiated. When he sings Sir Douglas Quintet staples like “Mendocino” and “She’s About a Mover,” Shawn seems to be channeling his dad and the band. Meyers is the band’s secret weapon, with his laconic demeanor, wicked sense of humor and full-throated baritone singing carrying the day just as much as his playing. His delightful song “Dinero” was a high point of the set. (John Swenson)

Is there something Pavlovian in the hear-weed/smoke-weed connection? On Friday, Seun Kuti introduced “The Good Leaf” and on cue, there was smoke in the air. Saturday in the Lagniappe Stage, Meschiya Lake sang “Reefer Man” and no sooner had she finished the first line when…. (Alex Rawls)

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