If you’re wondering why a virtually unknown, not-great roots-rock band was doing the noon set at Acura, it’s because JD & the Straight Shot’s frontman James Dolan is CEO of Cablevision and Executive Chairman of Madison Square Garden, inc., and has leveraged himself onto major shows by the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and others. As a songwriter Dolan is competent, as a singer he badly needs a little Autotune (especially so on a cover of It’s a Beautiful Day’s vocally challenging “White Bird”), and we won’t get into the irony of his doing lyrics about the hard lives of moonshiners and prisoners. Business is business, but this is a prime slot at Jazz Fest that could have gone to any number of deserving bands.
While Dolan was partying like a rock star, the New Orleans rap crew NOV was delivering the lyric “I want to party like a rock star.” The crew, whose name is short for innovation, was an early standout at the New Orleans Hip-Hop Experience revue, doing their first number in old-school rap style with turntables, and the second (also about wanting to get famous quick) with guitars fronting a band. Later in the same slot, Big Choo came out in Mardi Gras Indian garb and did a rap based on the Indian chant “Let’s Go Get ‘Em,” underlining the obvious kinship between Indian music and hip-hop.
The Boutte Family’s Gospel Tent set turned out to be one of the week’s most moving. The set is usually an occasion for the sisters and cousins (and John Boutte, who contributed group vocals and tambourine but didn’t solo) to get back to family vocal roots, but this set was different. The hymns were mostly about keeping faith through adversity, and the family’s lately seen its share: During “Never Lost My Faith,” Tricia (Teedy) Boutte pointed an out an oxygen tank offstage and sang “I have to walk a little slower, eat a little less, but Lord, I’ll never lose my faith.” And after she’d sung beautifully on “His Eye isOn the Sparrow,” it was announced that Tanya Boutte is being treated for a brain tumor. Cousin Vance Vaucresson referred to these concerns, and to a mother’s longtime cancer battle, during a stirring finale that resolved to keep up the praises. Here’s wishing these lovely folks the very best.
The Little Willies have all the earmarks of a vanity project—a fairly big star, Norah Jones, teaming with some friends to do something from a different realm, country music. But their two albums have been convincing, and despite the band’s jokey name, they’re usually on the melancholy side. At Fais Do Do Jones looked regal in a red cocktail dress (the same exact one she wears in her new “Miriam” music video) but didn’t make herself the star of the show: She sang from behind the piano and turned half the leads over to acoustic guitarist Richard Julian (who did the Johnny Cash-associated murder ballad “Delia’s Gone”), the band even did a few instrumentals. But Jones’ solo turn on Kris Kristofferson’s ballad “For the Good Times” proved that she’s their main asset.
When Stanley Clarke and George Duke first recorded together in the ‘80s, they steered clear of the expected fusion and made a couple of smooth R&B-based albums. Not the case at the jazz tent, where their set (I saw the first half) was one for the fusion fiends, with musical references to Clarke’s stint in Return to Forever and Duke’s with Frank Zappa.
Keyboardist Duke got some tasty solos in but bassist Clarke was dazzling, doing his trademark strummed chords and flamenco-like runs up the fretboard. Their R&B days were recalled with Duke’s “Sweet Baby”, a song that didn’t seem to get much recognition, but which Duke pointed out was the biggest hit song either of them has had. But before the standard “Autumn Leaves” Duke noted “Whatever else we might play, we’ll always be jazz musicians.”
And so to close out the day with the great California-based rock band that’s rightly become an institution. No, not Fleetwood Mac—who sounded alright from a distance but didn’t entice me to fight the Acura crowds, seemingly the week’s biggest—but Los Lobos, who rocked hard at the blues tent. When I arrived they were playing a cover I recall seeing them do at the Acura stage a dozen years ago, namely Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.” Most of the set was similarly vintage, including couple of cumbias, the psychedelicized rocker “Mas y Mas” and the Dead-tribute medley of “Not Fade Away/Bertha”—plus an early nugget I can’t recall seeing them do live before, the power-pop tune “Set Me Free Rosa Lee”. I won’t say that Los Lobos never play a bad set—I saw one last winter when co-guitarist Cesar Rosas missed the gig—but at a show like this they’ll take you to roadhouse heaven.