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Jazz Fest 2013 Highlights:
Living in a 3-D Museum

People kept asking me this year if Jazz Fest has out lived its usefulness to New Orleans culture. OffBeat is even getting letters from longtime fest-goers claiming that the festival is dead and has little reason to include “Jazz” in its name at all. There’s a strange deja vu about the charge that Jazz Fest has watered down its content because it’s an argument that has been raging back and forth in the press for years.

The people who want to silence New Orleans music in the streets and the clubs point to their love of Jazz Fest as proof that they are not “against music.” These are also the people most interested in establishing a “Jazz Museum” in New Orleans, an institution that turns a living street culture into a mausoleum.

Uncle Lionel Batiste, Jazz Fest 2013, second line, photo, Skip Bolen

Uncle Lionel Batiste Tribute Second Line (Photo: Skip Bolen)

In fact we already have a jazz museum—Jazz Fest itself. It’s a living, 3-D museum, but it has successfully commodified and institutionalized New Orleans culture. Economy Hall, the Gospel Tent and the Heritage and Fais Do-Do stages are living dioramas dedicated to displaying several aspects of Louisiana culture. When I see Rosie Ledet ripping through “Zydeco Boogaloo” with her daughter on rubboard at the Fais Do-Do stage or 4-year-old Sky Alani Pardo making fierce, ancient gestures as she dances with her father War Chief Juan Pardo during the 101 Runners at the Heritage Stage set I know that Jazz Fest is providing a way for New Orleans culture to make its bargains with 21st century realities without surrendering its core identity.

—John Swenson

 

Ah, the first morning of Jazz Fest: Five minutes into the inaugural set, and Flow Tribe are already demanding a sing-a-long. At Congo Square, Fredy Omar’s band is salsa-fying the theme from “Rocky”. And we wind up at the Acura stage, where the New Orleans Suspects play the first set as they did last year. This year’s set is different, though: For one thing, bassist Reggie Scanlan has recovered from his cancer surgery, so instead of being seated he’s jumping all over the stage. And though the band has played a few local chestnuts, this time their set was nearly all original.

—Brett Milano

 

Paul Sanchez’s Rolling Road Show featured even more friends than usual—so many that Sanchez himself only got to sing the first tune. Most of the names were familiar from Sanchez’s usual crew, but there was a new face in Chevis Brimmer, a young singer who displayed an easy charm and sang “Angel,” a fine R&B ballad that he wrote. It was the Fest debut for Brimmer, who’ll certainly be heard from again. You’ve already heard of his granddad: Fats Domino.

—Brett Milano

 

James Rivers is the kind of musician who plays everything under the sun, just because he can. He began on sax playing smooth-jazz versions of the MASH theme and “Ave Maria”. Then he switched instruments and did “Chim Chim Cheree” and the Rolling Stones’ “Miss You” on bagpipes. Finally he uncorked a medley of Jimmy Reed blues tunes, including a flute solo on which he threw in enough grunts and gasps that I was pretty certain he was poking fun at Jethro Tull.

—Brett Milano

 

Mud Woman, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Willow Haley

Getting down in the mud at Jazz Fest (Photo: Willow Haley)

Last year Dr. John celebrated a Grammy-winning album by firing his management team and longstanding band the Lower 911, retaining only trombonist/arranger Sarah Morrow. The New Orleans music community was up in arms over Mac’s decision to recruit outside musicians to play his classic material. Mac insisted that the decision was his, not Morrow’s, and repeatedly said he wanted to make a change. His show with the new band, now called the Night Trippers, was a gilt-edge chance to prove he’d made the right decision.

It wasn’t so much that the Night Trippers sucked. It was much worse—they were clueless as they pounded their way through a set of Dr. John covers completely devoid of rhythmic nuance or syncopation. Morrow, who never struck me as terrible with the Lower 911, simply was not up to the task of being the featured soloist in Dr. John’s band. Mac returned to the clavinet groove from the original recording of “Right Place, Wrong Time” but Morrow’s cheerleader-like efforts to encourage the crowd to shout “whoo” were downright embarrassing. When Mac strapped on his guitar for Earl King’s “Come On” I breathed a sigh of relief; he never failed to inspire the previous band with the funky ostinato riffs he uses for the driving, super-syncopated solo. Not that day. With no response from the rhythm section he just walked through it.

—John Swenson

 

The standard rap on George Benson is that he’s a great jazz guitarist who sold out to slick R&B, but he’s never fully dumped one kind of music for the other. At Congo Square he mixed both with no apologies, usually playing his hottest solos at the tail ends of the pop tunes. He started his discofied 1980 hit “Give Me the Night” without even having a guitar strapped on; so the song’s long and substantial instrumental coda was a surprise. Thanks to audience requests, Benson got two hits out of the way early: Someone called for “Breezin’” two songs into the set, and he responded “You really want to hear it now?” But he obliged on both that and “This Masquerade,” which still left “On Broadway” to close the set.

—Brett Milano

 

Mute Math, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Zack Smith

Mute Math (Photo: Zack Smith)

Near the end of her set, in a move that confirms her diva/soul goddess persona, Jill Scott had two assistants come out to take off her high heels for her.

—David Kunian

 

It’s a commonplace to say that jazz—like so much of American music—has its roots in Africa. But the truth of it really hit home for me during a first-weekend visit to the jazz tent. Never mind that Plunge leader Mark McGrain began his band’s set by blowing an invocation on his yards-long alphorn. The instrument wasn’t African, but the rhetoric was. And then, so was everything Plunge played. It was in the ancient scales, the polyrhythms, and most of all the vocal quality of the phrasing, from McGrain’s muted trombone to drummer Johnny Vidacovich’s mallets. Tom Fitzpatrick’s tenor and flute, Tim Green’s saxello, John Singleton’s bass—after a while, everything sounded like talking drums.

—Jon Garelick

 

Holly Williams is Hank, Sr’s granddaughter, so it’s not surprising how well she can sing a ballad. But her music harks back to the country-folk of Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter, and what stood out at her Gentilly set was the sweetness and vulnerability in her songwriting. When she sang about cheating and drinking, it was her partner doing both; and her life-on-the-road songs were about missing home, not about hellraising. Given the public images of Hank Jr. and Hank III, it’s interesting to hear a Williams sing about being on the receiving end of bad behavior.

—Brett Milano

 

I was impressed that John Michael Rouchell had his top button still buttoned to do his set at the Acura Stage as it must have been plenty warm up there. He still does a great pop/rock set, but what brings it up are the way that during some songs he’ll play a noise solo on his guitar or keyboard to wake up the audience and give his songs some interesting textures. It was also good to see drummer Joe Dyson and bassist Max Moran stretching out of the jazz bag where I hear them most.

—David Kunian

 

If it weren’t for the downpour, we might have missed Tuba Skinny. Tucked into the Lagniappe Stage, all we wanted was a moment to dry off, but Shaye Cohn’s big brass cornet grabbed us. Erika Lewis’s assertive vocals were almost equally brassy, especially when she accompanied herself on drum. Drawing from a variety of vintage styles—King Oliver-era jazz meets bluegrass meets ’30s blues—Tuba Skinny turned a damp paddock into a speakeasy and turned our soggy Sunday blues into party time. When we saw them again on Royal Street, their original stomping grounds, we almost missed the rain.

—Clea Simon

 

Stanley Clarke, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Clayton Call

Stanley Clarke (Photo: Clayton Call)

Howard Miller is the epitome of cool. Surrounded by the feathers and regalia of Creole Wild West, Miller could wear a T-shirt and jeans and still be clearly in charge. Maybe it was the shades and the smile, the way he encouraged some of the youngest of the extended Third Ward family to chant into the mike even as his Wild Man made crazy gyrations. Having taken over for ailing Big Chief Walter Cook, Miller lay back against the beat, making it look as comfortable as an old La-Z-Boy, pushing the rhythmic rap almost into reverse as he declared his sovereignty over “Gumbo City.” The tribe, the city’s oldest, is in good hands.

—Clea Simon

 

The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra finds the zone where traditional jazz meets performance art. The lineup claims to play authentic shipboard dance music of the 1890s; they take the stage in captain’s outfits and use period instruments and purposely tinny amplification. But I seriously doubt that many 19th century groups had Theremin players, or had the horn players shout “…without no drawers on!” during “I’m the Sheik of Araby.” The string arrangements often harked back to Carl Stalling’s Warner Brothers cartoon scores, and the whole sound was surreal in its jollity. They’ve been featured in Woody Allen movies, but I’d say David Lynch would be a closer match.

—Brett Milano

 

First impressions can be deceiving. Natalie Mae began her set that first rainy Sunday on the Lagniappe Stage in the paddock singing a country-gospel tune—high and lonesome with plenty of Appalachian twang, accompanied by just banjo and bodhran. Then she said, “We’ve got some Unturned Tricks coming up for you now.” That would be: tenor sax, trombone, trumpet, guitar, fiddle, female backup singer, keyboards, bass, drums. In short order they moved through a country two-step, country-swing, rockabilly, a John Hiatt cover, and all-out rock and roll. By the time she’d turned the corner for the out-chorus of her own rockabilly “Something to Me” and poured on the gas, she’d left the mountains for the big city.

—Jon Garelick

 

Sun Dancers, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee

Dancing for the sun at Jazz Fest (Photo: Ryan Hodgson-Rigsbee)

A woman at Willie Nelson’s stage greeted me by saying “Excuse me, I’ve got goosebumps,” but I wasn’t sure whether she got them from “Always On My Mind” or just the dropping temperature. Of the half-dozen Nelson shows I’ve seen, everyone has ended with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” but at Gentilly he followed that with his latest treatise on life and death, and one the crowd clearly found more resonant: “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.” There’s one to give you goosebumps, or at least the munchies.

—Brett Milano

 

He hasn’t released it yet, but Shamarr Allen has his hit: Once “My Girl Doesn’t Have Enough Sex With Me” gets out, he’ll be a patron saint to frustrated guys everywhere. It’s one of his classic-R&B styled songs, with a funny (but respectful) Michael Jackson mention in the lyric. When he played it at Congo Square he had most of the guys, and a few of the gals, singing along in agreement.

—Brett Milano

 

Like George Benson, vibraphonist Roy Ayers either crossed over or just plain sold out in the late ’70s/early ’80s. His set at the Jazz Tent opened with some of the material that made him a hit back then: Elegant disco with cosmic overtones, completely enjoyable now that this kind of music is all but extinct. Unfortunately he followed that with a version of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night in Tunisia” that became a springboard for overlong sax, bass and drum solos, with the tune itself falling by the wayside early on. Never thought I’d ever say this about anybody, but Ayers’ set needed less jazz and more disco.

—Brett Milano

 

Patti Smith was starting “Because the Night” as I arrived and went into “Banga” (with longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye doing the dog barks) and “People Have the Power,” a high level of intensity that I was told she’d maintained for the full set. There was a short breather on a piano/vocal Neil Young ballad, “It’s a Dream,” which she slotted in because “I didn’t do as much yakking as usual and we zipped through our set.” Then came the encore segue of “Land” into “Gloria,” a moment designed to inspire. As the song peaked for the third or fourth time, Smith made her testimony: “We have our blood. We have our imaginations. And we are fucking HERE!” Never mind if you’re too cynical to go to concerts looking for epiphanies: This was one.

—Brett Milano

 

The Voice of the Wetlands Allstars set is usually an easy way to check a bunch of names off your must-see list. The lineup was slightly altered this year: Dr. John was absent, and Michael Doucet replaced Waylon Thibodeaux in the fiddle slot. But the high point went to Johnny Sansone, whose “The Lord Is Waiting & The Devil is Too” proved an unusually intense bit of swamp blues. When Sansone went red-faced and clutched his heart after screaming a chorus, I wasn’t sure whether to get worried.

—Brett Milano

 

Earth, Wind and Fire, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Elsa Hahne

Earth, Wind & Fire (Photo: Elsa Hahne)

The most exciting moment in any brass band show is when the group has established a rocking groove and one member breaks out of the pack with a solo of real jazz invention. And no one makes that moment more thrilling than Roger Lewis, the baritone saxophonist for the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He did it with that band in the pouring rain at the Fess Stage on Thursday. Wearing a rainbow-colored tie-dye T-shirt, he shifted from honking bass lines to a solo of bluesy lyricism. He was wearing the red T-shirt of the Midnite Disturbers, Stanton Moore’s all-star brass band, when it poured again on the first Sunday. He hurried over from the Jazz & Heritage stage to the Economy Hall tent and changed into the traditional white-shirt-and-black-tie dress of the Treme Brass Band for a moving tribute to the late Lionel Batiste. Wearing a white fedora and blazer, Lewis sat in the five-man reed section of Delfeayo Marsalis’s Uptown Jazz Orchestra earlier on Thursday. He stepped out to center stage to deliver the vocal and crowning solo on his comic blues number, “Dirty Old Man.” In whatever guise, Lewis wrestled his massive horn into a stomping beat and then into exhilarating improvisation every time.

—Geoffrey Himes

 

As a presence in New Orleans gospel for almost half a century, Jo “Cool” Davis has always brought in a big band for his Gospel Tent sets; yet this year’s star-studded ensemble was perhaps the most ambitious. It would be difficult to miss the always animated David Batiste who stood alongside Davis with his keyboards strapped over his shoulder. Joe Krown manned the organ while Charles Moore provided a strong bottom on bass with saxophonist Brian “Breeze” Cayolle in the horn section. A beaming Jo Cool performed from his wheelchair and pleased the crowd with his signature tune, “Hem of His Garment”.

—Geraldine Wyckoff

 

When Beausoleil played the Fais Do Do stage on the second Friday, guitarist David Doucet wisely wore his white shrimp boots. Less wisely, some of the band’s fans tried to dance in the ankle-deep mud in front of the stage only to lose their shoes in the muck. Despite the adverse conditions, Beausoleil put on a terrific show, thanks to the twin-fiddle duets by Michael Doucet and Mitch Reed, to the guest vocals and accordion solos from Jo-El Sonnier and to the guest vocals and mandolin from Don Vappie. On the Monday night after the festival ended, David Doucet found himself in far more civilized surroundings: the front room of the Columns Hotel on St. Charles Avenue. Seated in front of the tall French windows and wallpaper and beneath a crystal chandelier, Doucet sat between former Beausoleil bassist Al Tharp and current Pine Leaf Boys guitarist Jon Bertrand. On the old Cajun songs from Octa Clark, Nathan Abshire and Dewey Balfa, Doucet sang in French and played sparkling acoustic-guitar solos, while Tharp played fiddle and Bertrand the steady rhythm. On the three American folk songs at the end, Doucet switched to English and Tharp to banjo. In the corner by the fireplace, couples were waltzing in the shadows.

—Geoffrey Himes

 

Dwayne Dopsie, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Golden Richard III

Dwayne Dopsie (Photo: Golden Richard III)

As someone who neither loves nor hates Billy Joel, I’d say his set was about as good as Fest sets by aging ’70s superstars get (and he’s fine with jokes about his age, pointing out onstage that “I look so much like my dad now that my mom’s started hitting on me”). A couple of his biggest hits were absent (to these ears, “Just the Way You Are” wasn’t missed), replaced by deep cuts like “Zanzibar” and “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” both as close to jazz as he gets; there was also a Preservation Hall Jazz Band cameo during the New Orleans-referencing part of “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.” Joel’s self-effacing humor was a plus; he even took a jab at one of his whinier lyrics, “The Entertainer,” noting afterward that “I was wrong on that one, but we all write a bullshit song sometimes.”

—Brett Milano

 

This year was the Fest debut of the Nevilles, a name that’s meant to signify more instead of less (second-generation Nevilles Ivan and Ian are now full members; Charmaine and Omari Neville both guested). With Tony Hall on bass and Nikki Glaspie guesting, that put all but one member of Dumpstaphunk onstage, which should give you a hint of the new direction. Charles’ sax was worked into the arrangements instead of being confined to the instrumentals; Art did little singing, but his organ was right upfront, not always the case in recent years. And the return of guitarist Brian Stoltz, joining Hall and longtime drummer Willie Green, reunited their best-ever rhythm section. Yes, you missed that tenor in the harmonies; but compared to the Brothers’ all-over-the-place set at last year’s Fest, this was a rejuvenated band.

—Brett Milano

 

Maybe it was the rain throughout, but I got a real sense of poignancy from B.B. King’s set. The man is 87 and doesn’t try to appear young and spry. He took his time settling into his stage chair and spent a good ten minutes bantering (with the band, the crowd and guest Allen Toussaint) before easing into the first number. His extended guitar solo on “The Thrill is Gone” had a languid kind of flow; at set’s end he proclaimed his love for New Orleans musicians and did “When the Saints Go Marching In.” But before wrapping up he thanked the crowd warmly and said “If I can’t be with you again next week, I hope you can think of me sometime.”

—Brett Milano

 

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 was one for the fusion fiends, with musical references to Clarke’s stint in Return to Forever and Duke’s with Frank Zappa. 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.”

—Brett Milano

 

Wanda Rouzan, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Golden Richard III

Wanda Rouzan (Photo: Golden Richard III)

How great was the Boutté Family’s gospel set? John Boutté never took a lead, content to work as part of the stageful of Boutté family singers in the Gospel Tent. His presence was still strong. As Vance Vaucresson, who proved to be the set’s prime mover, ad-libbed when John flourished his tambourine for the first time, “Y’all heard of the dancing man, right? Well, this is the spirit man.” To Vaucresson’s right was a powerful lineup of family singers—Tricia and Tanya and John Boutté, with Arsene DeLay on the far left. Matriarch Lilian Boutté was sharp-edged and beautiful as she sang “It rained all day and it rained all night. Didn’t it rain.” I was admiring the sheer theatricality of it when Vaucresson touched on the secret of the Gospel Tent, its insistence on personal experience. Referring to Tricia, who had an oxygen tank offstage, he said “My cousin can’t breathe and she’s here singing for you today!” Vaucresson had the crowd going with him, riding his energy as he paced the stage with his arm raised in worship.

—John Swenson

 

Astral Project founder David Torkanowsky was on hand but not with that band: He played with the decidedly more electric funk/fusion lineup, the Fleur Debris Superband, with Nicholas Payton on trumpet and electric piano, George Porter Jr. on electric bass and the badass Zigaboo Modeliste on drums. This was a more high intensity brand of electric fusion but Torkanowsky’s angular brilliance pushed the band, particularly Porter, into strange and beautiful waters. Payton’s interaction with Tork on keyboards was fascinating—he was really playing ideas on the electric piano, not just comping—and his trumpet playing proved to be the band’s most important solo voice.

—John Swenson

 

Nothing beats the great choirs in the gospel tent. Bishop Sean Elder brought his 22-voice choir, backed by an amazing three-piece band. The Bishop stepped out front to sing “Jesus Loves Me.” You could be excused under the circumstances for describing the rainstorm that suddenly struck the Fairgrounds as “Biblical.” The rain came down so hard and fast that the gospel tent was inside what seemed like a waterfall. It was a mass baptism. The aisles filled and the whole tent was packed shoulder to shoulder. The Bishop worked the crowd like he knew they were coming. “Jesus loves me,” sang the Bishop. “Say it!” “JESUS LOVES ME,” they responded, wet and wild.” The rain stopped, but nobody was leaving as the crowd delighted in the unexpected gift of a moment. The Bishop went into the processional “God Has Been Good To Me,” singing “The world is moving much too fast…” By the end of the set, the tent was empty again, almost as if nothing had happened.

—John Swenson

 

Big Chief Bo Dollis, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Golden Richard III

Big Chief Bo Dollis (Photo: Golden Richard III)

The Hadley Castille tribute at Festival International by Sarah Jayde and the Sharecroppers was particularly moving to me since the Cajun swing fiddler legend was slotted to play Festivals Acadiens last October but fell sick and died 11 days later. The Sharecroppers, ably fronted by granddaughter/fiddle protégé Sarah Jayde, still turned in an admirable performance at Acadiens while under a storm of tough emotions. What distinguished this Castille tribute from its Jazz Fest counterpart was the collective of 50-some Manitobans who were already coming for what would have been Castille’s 80th birthday. They honored him anyway with the traditional French song “A la claire fontane,” singing repeatedly ‘Hadley, we’ll never forget you’ in French. “That was one of the best experiences of my life,” son/guitarist Blake Castille stated afterwards. “This one goes in the books.”

—Dan Willging

 

“I used to be the youngster in the band and now they call me Pops,” zydeco purveyor C.J. Chenier said with a laugh as he remembered his early days when he blew saxophone with his father Clifton Chenier’s band. The sun sparkled off his Chenier’s big, beautiful, keyboard-style accordion as he strutted, almost peacock-like in attitude, at the edge of the stage. Old school at heart, C.J. wove his magic on a rarely heard Fats Domino number, “If You See Rose Mary” that, particularly in his rendition, shouted swamp pop.

—Geraldine Wyckoff

 

Some bands seem obliged to jam at Jazz Fest, even if jamming isn’t what they do best. That was partly the case in Hall & Oates’ set, with stretched out versions of “I Can’t Go For That” and “Sara Smile” that collectively filled nearly one-third of a 90-minute show. The jams were largely beside the point, and the point with H&O is the four-minute singles that thankfully filled most of the set. Though H&O are tied to the past as hitmakers (1985’s “Method of Modern Love” was the newest song played), Daryl Hall remains a fine singer and charismatic performer. John Oates did a good job on whatever it is he does.

—Brett Milano

 

Pete Fountain’s set amounted to a celebration of the man, who’s seen some recent health problems and had to miss a scheduled French Quarter Fest appearance. Seated in a red walker, he was joined onstage by family members including his granddaughter who played washboard; and his great-granddaughter who serenaded him with “You Are My Sunshine.” The sad part is that he was unable to do much playing: Longtime protégé Tim Laughlin handled most of the clarinet lines; Fountain added just a few grace notes here and there. He held his clarinet throughout but was mainly there as guest of honor, smiling broadly and posing for photos for the fans upfront.

—Brett Milano

 

Taj Mahal and the Real Thing Tuba Band, Jazz Fest 2013, photo, Kate Gegenheimer

Taj Mahal and the Real Thing Tuba Band (Photo: Kate Gegenheimer)

Y’all can have Irvin Mayfield and Aaron Neville. I ended my Jazz Fest with the raucous reedy melodies of the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars. Given that several of the band members are scattered to other coasts, when they get together, it’s a great family reunion. Also, they never play better than when they are playing a wedding, and then, never better than when it’s an old friend. All those stars aligned on Sunday and, in true fashion, they rocked out especially with members Ben Ellman (playing gig number 1000 of this week) and Stanton Moore (playing gig 21,234 of this week) taking a break from their Galactic travel schedule to power up some Klezmer. The hora has never been done like this.

—David Kunian

 

The one pitfall you might expect from a solo Aaron Neville set—that it would be wall to wall ballads—wasn’t really the case at his closing set: Neville made smart choices from his catalog, picking upbeat tunes to scatter through the set, and saving the big ballads (not the commercial ones, but sturdy numbers like Leonard Cohen’s “Bird On a Wire” and Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come”) for the peak moments. Neville isn’t reinventing himself at this late date: The songs (including the odd “Mickey Mouse” finale) were all ones that he’s sung for many years, and the band included familiar faces Charles Neville and guitarist Eric Struthers. There were times (especially during the doo-wop material) when you wished the band was better at rocking out, but Neville’s voice was back in angelic mode, without the occasional raspiness that’s shown up in recent years.

—Brett Milano