One of the unspoken rules of Jazz Fest is: If you’re playing the big stage, you’d better be loud. Maybe an Emmylou Harris or a Bon Iver can get away with low-volume subtlety, but for a hometown band to attempt it on the Acura stage is almost unheard-of.
The roots band Hurray for the Riff Raff pulled it off last year, opening Thursday’s lineup with a set full of dark, foreboding beauty; highlighted by “St. Roch Blues,” about a friend who was murdered in his home. Not party music by any means, but the songs were strong enough to draw the audience in, and Alynda Lee Segarra’s haunting voice did the rest.
“We were all nervous until we got onstage, but it’s actually pretty comfy up there,” she recalls. “I was really scared to pull out some of the quiet ones, but I was amazed at how connected to the audience I felt. I heard some folks we know shouting when we introduced ‘St. Roch Blues’ and it made me feel pretty emotional.”
Segarra has done a lot of travelling, both musically and personally. She spent a year traveling America by freight before settling in New Orleans, lately she and the band have been embraced in Europe. “New Orleans stole my heart, but it also felt like the only place in the country I could actually get it together a little. The only thing I had to prove for people here was that I really cared about the music.” Though her songs are often populated by Western characters and Depression era women, her own life is in there too. “I know a lot of characters and they got a lot of great stories to tell. But I also write about my experience a lot and put it in a character’s voice. Lately it’s obvious that I am enjoying writing the stories of my heroes. ‘Ode to John and Yoko’ was so satisfying to write because I had fallen in love with their story.”
Her musical life has also taken some jumps, from an early fascination with Judy Garland to a longstanding love for the ‘60s. I definitely feel that music the most—doo wop, soul and R&B. I have been learning that my voice really fits in with doo wop. I don’t really have the chops to be a straight up soul singer, but I love to sing some Ronettes and Marvelettes. That’s the music I grew up listening to.”
Segarra recently got a surprising mention, when a New York Times Style writer spotted Hurray for the Riff Raff shirts on fashionable Rockaway Boardwalk dwellers, and concluded she was “to a certain group of Brooklyn women what Sarah Jessica Parker is to readers of Vogue.” Her reaction? “I get teased about that a lot, particularly from my own band. I never thought anyone would be comparing me to Sarah Jessica Parker, but if it means someday there’s people doing drag performances of me, then I’m happy.”