By Rory Callais (RC); Sam D’Arcangelo (SD); Laura DeFazio (LD); Frank Etheridge (FE); Brett Milano (BM); Jennifer Odell (JO); Clea Simon (CS); John Swenson (JS); John Wirt (JW); Geraldine Wyckoff (GW)
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival returned to the Fair Grounds for another delicious display of musical gumbo. That is, until an epic deluge slowed things down for the final two days. With Jazz Fest 2016 now firmly in the rear view mirror, we’re sharing a few thoughts on this year’s best (and occasionally worst) moments.
Most of us have seen police officers at Jazz Fest nodding their heads in time to the music or maybe even doing a few dance steps as they survey the audience. The uniformed officer at the Belize Pavilion, however, got all the way into the brukdown music of guitarist/vocalist bredda “DAVID,” stepping forward to dance like crazy and encouraging everyone to do likewise. A circle soon formed and folks—young and old, women and men—took turns dancing with the smiling cop, who, we imagine, was a native Belizean.
The similarities in attitude and spirit between Belize and New Orleans were made obvious in the Pavilion on both weekends. Take, for instance, that bredda “DAVID” was totally prepared when a strap of small shells on his knees began to slip down his leg. He quickly grabbed the nearby duct tape and made a quick repair. Sound familiar?
Over at the Congo Square Stage, Belizean vocalist Chico Ramos, announced as the godfather of punta rock, made the crowd smile with animated humor. It was fun and educational to move from there to the Pavilion to observe the different styles that come from the Caribbean nation. (GW)
With Steely Dan guitarist Walter Becker describing them as “the best band we’ve ever worked with,” a massive backing band took to the Acura Stage minutes before Becker and singer/pianist Donald Fagen. The horn section welcomed the two legends with a long, jazzy introduction before starting the set with “Black Cow,” a gem from the Aja album (1977) and ushering in an unabashed greatest-hits parade that found all players in full command of Steely Dan’s considerable canon. (FE)
Nicholas Payton wowed during both his own set and performing with the Trumpet Mafia that featured a dozen, mostly New Orleans trumpeters. The ensemble, organized by trumpeter Ashlin Parker and including guest artist Maurice Brown, Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown and his talented young son, John Michael Bradford and more, played tight arrangements of jazz standards with soloists and duos stepping out from the pack. When Payton blew a solo, many of his fellow trumpeters stood with their mouths agape, in awe of his abilities. Payton, a modernist with an old soul, likes to quote and put grins on many faces when he threw in samplings of “Jock-A-Mo” and “Little Liza Jane” during a tune. A highlight of the exciting set was when an equal number of trumpeters faced off from opposite sides of the stage, gradually moving closer and closer for the showdown. (GW)
Did the Po-Boy-Citos not get a soundcheck? Raced over to Acura Sunday morning—only time I’d brave that stage—to catch their great boogaloo-plus tunes and found their usually tight vocal harmonies mangled, the big horn sound surprisingly thin, even on the crowd pleasing “Jala Jala.” By the time John Gros joined the group, the sound had startled to settle. And by “Mary Wants to Boogaloo,” the harmonies were back in place. But it hurt to hear a band so good be tripped up, apparently by forces beyond their control. (CS)
The Electrifying Crown Seekers must have been doing something right. Despite the perpetually boom-y sound of the Gospel Tent, the truly electrifying group (still fronted by remaining original member James Williams) rocked and rolled and, just maybe, saved, too. One elderly believer was dancing in the aisle, swinging high the cane he’d been leaning on only moments before. (CS)
The Gospel Tent first thing on a Sunday morning always feels just right. The back-to-back performances by local legends the Rocks of Harmony, now celebrating 66 years, and the Electrifying Crown Seekers, together for 51 years, represented some of this area’s finest, old-school gospel praising, singing, testifying and dancing to be found. “Praise the Lord I’m still here,” sang one of two strong lead vocalists from the Rocks, who, like the Crown Seekers, carry their own musicians. James Williams, Sr.—the leader of the Crown Seekers and a superb guitarist—surprised and pleased the crowd when, at the end of the set, he played a bit of “Purple Rain” that was soon picked up by the organist. (GW)
Time Is on My Side
On Saturday at Fais Do-Do, D.L. Menard two-stepped through the back door one more time with his trademark humor before Gal Holiday’s Vanessa Niemann channeled both Patsy Cline and Wanda Jackson, notably on “That’s Alright With Me.” Not long after, even without singing, Irma Thomas filled the grandstand at the Alison Miner stage, talking about Allen Toussaint and her long and varied (and still ongoing) career, including the brouhaha with the Rolling Stones over “Time Is On My Side,” which the band heard on what should have been Thomas’s triumphal UK tour, when she was charting with the song. (“I wasn’t angry at them for covering it. I was angry at the audience for not knowing I did it first.”) And, of course, all those labels—like Minit—she was signed to for “one hot minute.” (CS)
I Cried My Last Tear
Allen Toussaint was deservedly everywhere at Fest this year, and the sets I saw with a Toussaint song easily outnumbered the sets without one. Even Kristin Diable, who makes it a point of pride that she’s never performed a cover song, broke her own rule to do “Yes We Can Can.” Irma Thomas did a stack of the songs that Toussaint either wrote or arranged for her in the ’60s. Elvis Costello devoted half his set to reprising songs from his and Toussaint’s collaborative album The River in Reverse—and for pub-rock era fans he brought out ex-Rumour keyboardist Bob Andrews (now a New Orleans resident) for “I Cried My Last Tear,” a song Andrews first did as a member of Brinsley Schwarz. The most poignant moment, however, was unexpected: The official tribute set opened with “There’s a Party Going On,” the song Toussaint wrote specifically for Jazz Fest. That’s when you realized that the host of this party was missing. (BM)
He could have stayed in his trailer backstage at Gentilly, but Elvis Costello had clearly come to this year’s Jazz Fest on a mission of honoring his late friend and collaborator, Allen Toussaint. And Toussaint was a guy whose ability to inspire awed stares and teary-eyed handshake introductions never kept him from passing out warm “hellos” by the food stands or by his Rolls after it pulled up on the track.
Shortly after the brown fedora–clad Costello arrived backstage for his set, he exited the Imposters’ trailer, tiny silver teacup in hand, and chatted with whomever passed by, smiling for pictures with giddy fans and looking content as he watched other artists load in under darkening skies. As his set time approached, Costello retreated into his trailer again, then returned, this time wearing a Toussaint button–adorned raspberry beret.
The set began with a massive burst of energy. What initially sounded like Kraftwerk blared through the speakers, the words “rise, robots, rise” audible through the ’60s sci-fi sound blur. A trip to the end of the Internet indicates it’s a tune from the 1965 flick Gulliver’s Travels Beyond the Moon that sets the stage for what multiple bloggers say is some kind of intelligent robot takeover. That sounds about right given Costello’s use of radio and old-school TV imagery on his last tour. Whatever it was, it lasted less than a minute—long enough for Costello to give himself and a guitar a “ready, set, go” before running, full-speed, to center stage and slicing his hand into the first chord of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?”
The amped-up energy continued, courtesy of the megaphone siren Costello turned on the audience with a snicker after the line, “it only took my little fingers to blow you away” in “Watching the Detectives”; the sheer speed and intensity of “Radio, Radio,” and some guitar work as internally complex as Costello’s image-stuffed lyrics.
A Steve Nieve–centric piano ballad and a billowy version of “Beyond Belief” reined things in before Costello switched gears for the inevitable—and lovely—Toussaint dedication portion of his set, featuring the Crescent City Horns, a great story about Toussaint’s unwaveringly polite studio demeanor and an arms-in-the-sky singalong to “I Cried My Last Tear” with Bob Andrews on keys. (JO)
Back to the Future
It’s safe to say that very few people expected to see Buffy Sainte-Marie leading a loud electric band and doing brittle, punkish rock. Her set at Fais Do-Do was a real shocker for anyone who remembered her only as the wispy protest singer who wrote “Universal Soldier” in the ’60s; instead she seemed more like a riot-girl godmother—indeed, when she did her trademark vocal ululations, I thought of Sleater-Kinney more than once (she also danced through much of her set, and the woman is 75). Her songs remain fiercely political—there were a couple about the environment and corporate greed—and she wears her hippie past proudly without being defined by it. She even mentioned an earlier run-in with the “folk police” over “Until It’s Time for You to Go,” a pop standard she wrote in the late ’60s. (BM)
Buffy Sainte-Marie stood as a figure from the past whose message of social justice continues to be relevant today. She boasts an unusual voice that gets its edge from her unique vibrato. Playing both keyboards and guitar, Sainte-Marie could be viewed as a folk artist with a touch of punk in her bones. She ain’t easy on the world. She softened, though, when singing her romantic hit, “Until It’s Time for You to Go.” (GW)
Howl for Survival
Neil Young’s set was edgy, daring and controversial—everything a Fest set by a veteran headliner never is—and it probably pissed a few people off. Working with the young band Promise of the Real, he took Crazy Horse’s feedback-jam leanings to new extremes: In more than two hours onstage he played eight songs, including two (“Love and Only Love” and “Cortez the Killer”) that stretched to a half-hour. The groove was mighty and the noise was liberating, but the subtext shouldn’t be missed: Some of the songs were environmentally themed (or in the case of “Rockin’ in the Free World,” rewritten as such), and some of the feedback was surely meant to be the earth’s howl for survival. I’ve heard a few attacks on Young’s apparent preachiness on songs like “The Monsanto Years,” (which was played mid-set), but the song made sense to me—if you’re going to write about the environment, a safe enough topic for protest songs by now, why not call out one of the main culprits? (BM)
La Pistola y EL Corazón is the oddball album in Los Lobos’ catalogue, both because it’s all traditional Mexican music and because it was the unlikely follow-up to “La Bamba,” their fluke-hit Ritchie Valens cover (which was also based on traditional Mexican music, but more liberally). They chose to revisit that album this year, in a rare acoustic that included almost no English vocals and no drums; David Hidalgo’s largely trading in guitar for violin and accordion made for a much different sound. Yet the album had a lot to offer to their rock-eared fans; since it favors frantic tempos and impassioned vocals, you can get the emotional gist if you don’t speak Spanish. Getting the last laugh, Lobos followed the full album with “La Bamba,” a song they largely dropped from their set after it hit, but did it in its original folk guise. “That was called ‘La Bamba,’” guitarist Cesar Rosas deadpanned. “It could be a hit. You never know.” (BM)
B.B. King Tribute
With the day’s earlier Jelly Roll Morton tribute appropriately saluting the jazz pioneer’s oft-quoted “Spanish tinge” in describing New Orleans and its musical/cultural persuasion, bad-ass blues goddess Bonnie Raitt, a Los Angeles native of well-earned local pedigree, placed plenty of Afro-Caribbean rhythms in her funky set. As she did at this year’s Grammy Awards, Raitt helped pay tribute to lost legend B.B. King to close the Gentilly Stage following her own set. “We’re here with heavy hearts,” Raitt said as she hit the stage at 6:43 p.m., “but I’m really proud to be a part of this”—before lending her slide-guitar prowess and voice to “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.” Also having performed the King tribute at the Grammys, Gary Clark Jr.—still in town from a glistening Thursday afternoon set at Acura—joined in the parade of star players, coming out to sing and bang his tambourine on “Let the Good Times Roll.” The set reached a climax with Dr. John teaming up with blues/rock guitarist Elvin Bishop for “Woke Up This Morning (My Baby’s Gone)” followed by Buddy Guy joining in the fun for a spirited rendition of “Sweet Little Angel.” (FE)
Broadcast on Acura Stage’s video screens in black-and-white, with filming flourishes including upward angles of the band spun in a fish-eye lens perspective, the band didn’t reach for one of the anthems from Ten until halfway into the set, with “Even Flow.” A mammoth take on the tune, for sure, not surprising after Vedder introduced the song by saying, “We’re going to try and play the shit out of it.” Capable of delicate moments amidst all the rock swagger, Pearl Jam soon switched gears into “Daughter,” mellow in tone but furious in message, marked by McCarthy’s acoustic strumming and ushered to a closing whisper by guitarist Stone Gossard’s masterful solo finish. (FE)
Give It Away
“We are their students!” exclaimed Flea, the inimitable bassist for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, as his band invited Meters legends George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste to join them for a funkified finale. Nearly 10 years after the Chili Peppers made Voodoo Fest history by teaming up with the full Meters lineup for a phenomenal, “Hand Clapping Song”–centered jam session, the rockers returned to the Crescent City for a closer of similarly epic proportions. However this time the collaboration was based around a Chili Peppers original, the Blood Sugar Sex Magik anthem “Give It Away.” Drummer Chad Smith spent most of the jam in visible awe of Modeliste’s prowess behind the kit, while Flea and Porter built up a double-bass crescendo that culminated in a rousing solo from Porter. Ivan Neville also took part in the number, occasionally adding a welcome layer of keys that proved he’s as much a student of the Meters (and of his uncle Art Neville) as the guys in RHCP. (SD)
Before a Fais Do-Do audience baring mud-sloppy conditions only very close to the stage, the folkish funky Creole String Beans shared the stage with T.K. Hulin. The old-school South Louisiana blue-eyed swamp soul guitarist and singer declared early in the set, “That was the funnest three minutes of my life,” before launching into a rousing rendition of “Down Home Girl,” a festive field holler to the arousal of Deep South ladies stomping through cotton fields and smelling of pork and beans, first recorded by Alvin Robinson in 1964 and since covered by everyone from the Rolling Stones to Old Crow Medicine Show. Brian Rini’s slick organ groove here lifted the cover to huge heights before the Creole String Beans sailed into a jamming, up-tempo “Let the Money Drop” from brand-new album Golden Crown. (FE)
Radiators and More
Radiators spin-off Raw Oyster Cult at Gentilly flexed its billing of “with Fishy Friends” in fine fashion: a quick cover of “Get Off of My Cloud” drifted into the Rads’ festive “Long Hard Journey Home” with its “keep on playing, children” refrain, a classic propelled here by set guitarist Camile Baudoin’s trademark hot licks. (FE)
Jazz Fest wrapped up its final weekend with great music and a large but manageable crowd that fit the contours of the race track comfortably. The New Orleans Suspects bid farewell to Reggie Scanlan, the great local bassist who founded the group and played his last gig with the band Sunday. Scanlan, also a charter member of the legendary Radiators, decided to stop touring for health reasons but will continue to play locally. His interplay with drummer “Mean” Willie Green is something truly special and will be missed.
Two of Scanlan’s partners in the Rads played in another group, Ed Volker’s Quintet Narcosis, later in the day. Volker founded the Rads and called on his childhood friend and Radiators partner, guitarist Camile Baudoin, for his latest project. The band also includes Iguanas bassist René Coman and saxophonist Joe Cabral as well as master percussionist Michael Skinkus. Volker led the group through a repertoire of intriguing covers, using the blues technique of grafting lines from different songs together to make new constructions. Towards the end of the set he played one of his newer songs, “Go Down Swinging,” then a slow, ethereal version of his classic “Lost Radio.” He appended an as-yet-unreleased song to the latter, “Gone World,” which had his fans dancing ecstatically in front of the stage. Joe Cabral played several outstanding baritone sax solos. He and Coman then finished out the day with the Iguanas at the Fais Do-Do stage.
The biggest surprise wasn’t even on the menu. The set listed as Raw Oyster Cult and Fishy Friends did include a heaping helping of the Oystermen—guitarists Dave Malone and Camile Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua from the Radiators, John Papa Gros on keyboards and vocals and Dave Pomerleau on bass. They played a series of originals with Malone and Gros trading off on lead vocals, highlighted by Malone’s new tune “16 Monkeys on a Seesaw.”
Suddenly, keyboardist Ed Volker and bassist Reggie Scanlan appeared onstage and the crowd witnessed a full scale Radiators reunion. At the end of their mini-set Gros and Pomerleau returned to the stage and the full lineup played “Papaya” and “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go,” the theme song for all things Radiator.
As Quintet Narcosis sound-checked, Volker played snippets from Allen Toussaint tunes. The announcer introduced them as “Quintet Narcissus” and was quickly corrected. Fans gathered in front of the stage and danced to the sultry rhythms of Volker’s “Let the Good Times Roll” mashup. Cabral’s baritone and Baudoin’s guitar weaved back and forth across the dense polyrhythms laid down by Volker, Skinkus and Coman. Volker slowed it down with the ballad “I Got a Thing For You,” with an absolutely beautiful solo from Baudoin. Volker and Skinkus rolled into a spooky voodoo vibe for “You Ain’t Hittin’ On Nothin’ Unless You’ve Got Something for Me.” After a new song about dancing on the grave of a son of a bitch, Volker introduced “In Harmony” by saying, “This goes back to 1976 with the Rhapsodizers.” A funky “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” / ”Satisfaction” medley powered by an otherworldly Cabral solo finished things off. (JS)
Slaying psychedelic swamp boogie like no other as usual, Honey Island Swamp Band celebrated release day of their major-label (Ruf Records) debut in stellar style. Aaron Wilkinson’s depth of lyricism shined on the cutthroat optimism of “Head High Water Blues,” a track included on Demolition Day, produced in low-fi splendor by Luther Dickinson (North Mississippi All-Stars) at Parlor Studio in the Irish Channel. Trevor Brooks’ keys swirled an outro highlighted by the pulsing horn trio of trombone, trumpet and the saxophone of ascendant local jazzman extraordinaire Brad Walker (he of last week’s Sturgill Simpson “Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert” fame). (FE)
South Mississippi/New Orleans troubadour Cary Hudson delighted in the family-like vibe permeating the shade of the Lagniappe Stage. Choice selections from his Blue Mountain days—the seminal alt-country outfit he founded with New Orleans–area native siblings Laurie and John Stirratt (Wilco bassist)—“Blue Canoe” and “Soul Sister” set up an uplifting, life-affirming good-time full of back-woods hippie praise and prayer. (FE)
Poor Paul Simon picked a rough spot to kick off his new tour, the Acura Stage at Jazz Fest. Simon’s set was so lackluster than the crowd was seen leaving the field in droves shortly after the start of his set. The lucky ones might have landed at the Blues Tent, where Elvin Bishop really tore the roof off the place with his day-closing set. “Where y’at?… Gotta be New Orleans!” Bishop understands the spirit of Jazz Fest as well as anyone.
At the start of the 101 Runners set at the Jazz & Heritage stage, sousaphonist Kirk Joseph told the crowd: “You’re in the right spot, people! The shit over there (gesturing in the general direction of Paul Simon), you’re gonna hear that on the radio. The shit over there (gesturing in the other direction), you’re gonna hear that on the radio. But the shit y’all are gonna hear right here—this is the real shit and this is the only place you’re gonna hear it!”
Joseph was not overstating the case. The Runners powered through an incredible set of Mardi Gras Indian music with Joseph, drummer Raymond Weber and a three-piece percussion section led by Chris Jones on congas powering the beat and June Yamagishi and Billy Iuso playing fiery guitar exchanges behind Big Chief Juan Pardo and four other brightly clad Indian singers. Indians got the Fiyo! (JS)
Paul Simon could have been better in a lot of ways, but his set was still a delightful way to spend an evening at the Acura Stage. Sure, he left a few big hits on the table, and that new song about wristbands should have been replaced with literally anything else. But the good stuff was still quite good, and that backing band is as tight as any in the business. If I have qualms with anything, it wasn’t Simon but the people in my immediate vicinity that had no respect for the man on stage or anyone in the audience. No one within earshot wants to hear about the tech conference you’re actually in town for. No, Paul Simon probably won’t “play something dancier.” And yes, we’re all aware the volume isn’t loud enough, but it might not be a problem if you didn’t feel the need to talk about it incessantly. Note to readers: This should go without saying, but holding a full conversation in the middle of a concert crowd is immoral. Please do not do it. (SD)
“You got to have a wristband, my man, you don’t get through the door.” That line off Paul Simon’s new album cracked me up the first time I heard it, as did the tune’s narrative of a guy whose band is about to perform when he steps out for some air and suddenly finds he doesn’t have the credentials to get back in the venue.
There was something both magical and hilarious about seeing one of the great American music icons of our time holding up his hands above the Acura Stage repeating the mantra “wristband … wristband” eight days into our most wristband/pass/list/laminate–required time of year.
Yes, Simon’s set was plagued by technical problems to which he could have responded with a bit more grace but the highlights stood out to me more than the minor flubs. He’d hit his stride by “Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes,” and his deep affection for the use of unexpected rhythms made tunes like that even more compelling in the midst of a festival that highlights the blended rhythms of different cultures like Jazz Fest does.
That said, I’m still irritated with the cameraman whose obsession with keeping the lens focused on Simon left most of the audience unable to see what was making all those glorious sounds in the breakdown on “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” among other things. Luckily (for me, anyway), so many folks had split before the encore that it was easy to move way up through soupy mainstage muck for the evocative familial love song, “Father and Daughter,” and a rendition of “The Boxer” so alternately soft and peaceful then dark and stormy that the music felt like an aural expression of New Orleans springtime. (JO)
They didn’t just work the tune up this week in the wake of Prince’s death; “When Doves Cry” has long been a part of Gov’t Mule’s always-interesting set lists. Warren Haynes masterfully wove the cover choice around his tender tune “Beautifully Broken” for a thrilling, chilling effect before closing down the Gentilly Stage with his never-gets-old, feel-good anthem “Soulshine.” (FE)
Where were we going to hear the first Prince tribute of Jazz Fest ’16? Turns out it was at the most unlikely of places, the Fais Do-Do stage, where the brilliant Sam Doores, co-frontman of the Deslondes, said “We’re going to play a gospel song, ‘What Are They Doing In Heaven Today?’ It goes out to anyone who’s lost somebody. Today it goes out to Prince.” (JS)
It was still pouring. It was still gross. My ankles and calves were starting to blister and bleed from all the water in my rainboots. But when I stopped to slurp down some spinach, zucchini and crawfish bisque near Fais Do-Do, I heard the strains of “Purple Rain.” Unlike the other zillion times it was played on the Fair Grounds, this version was coming from Rockin’ Dopsie. And he was wearing a calf-length purple robe that glistened like wet Saran Wrap. After hyping the crowd to sing the chorus with him (“we doin’ it in the rain, y’all!”), he tore off the robe, James Brown–style, spun around, waited a few beats, then busted out some high-to-low, second line–ready spin-dance moves that would have worked equally well during a TBC-fronted parade or a New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars performance. Sometimes the best things come to those who get soaked. (JO)
While Jazz Fest began as a destination for jazz, blues, gospel and general roots music, it is hardly a revelation to acknowledge those bread and butter sounds have been relegated to the tents in recent years. But a rainy Jazz Fest Sunday seemed as good a time as any for a tent-based festival day. The New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra played its brand of vintage pre–big band hits during the worst of the second Sunday’s storms. The “Leviathan” of their name is borrowed from the S.S. Leviathan transatlantic ocean liner from the 1920s, and the torrential backdrop was akin to the band playing on as the ship sank. The Gospel Tent featured one of many Prince tributes throughout the weekend, repurposing “Purple Rain” into “Jesus Saves,” bringing forth the gospel undertones that helped make the ’80s power ballad timeless. The stained glass artwork and constant turnover of gospel choirs provided a religious framework to a day where the Almighty’s presence was felt in and outside the tent. (RC)
The real Prince tribute took place in dramatic fashion at the Congo Square Stage at the end of the day. Janelle Monáe, the outrageously talented R&B and jazz vocalist who worked closely with Prince, hit the stage like she was shot out of a cannon. “This show is going to be a tribute to the great Prince,” she said. “This is a song we wrote together, ‘Givin’ Em What They Love’.” For the next hour Monáe delivered the most emotionally powerful R&B performance I’ve seen since… the last time I saw Prince a couple of years ago. “He was rock ‘n’ roll… he was R&B,” she said, “if you know what I mean.” She then tore into “New Dance Apocalyptic,” “Electric Lady,” James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” the Jackson 5’s “One More Time,” and an incredible ballad rendition of “Smile.” Monáe finished with Prince’s “Take Me With You” and “Let’s Go Crazy.” She had been on stage for an hour at that point, moving nonstop, sweating and crying, not stopping for even a drop of water, and she collapsed right there on the stage. Her MC came out, lifted her up on his shoulder and carried her off. That was some wake. (JS)
My Morning Jacket
Dressed in a vibrantly-patterned black silk kimono, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James showed why he’s among the best in the business as a frontman. Leading the band to wailing walls of crescendos, accented by sinister step-out leads from guitarist Carl Broemel, James delivered on MMJ staples such as “Believe” before welcoming frequent collaborator Ben Jaffe on tuba plus other Preservation Hall players to crush two consecutive Prince covers: “Sign o’ the Times” then a deep groove “Purple Rain,” which their purple shirt–clad drummer closed delicately on the high-hats before launching into an epic set-closing “One Big Holiday”—one of many monsters in the band’s considerable canon and one ripped up by James’ soaring vocals and shredding Gibson Flying V. (FE)
There are those musicians whose joy of performing can’t—and shouldn’t, of course—be contained. Two such examples—drummers Shannon Powell and Herlin Riley—come from right here in New Orleans. Their excellent sets in the Blues and Jazz Tents, respectively, were very different. Powell and his crack band paid a funky and fun tribute to another great—and yes, happy—drummer, Smokey Johnson, by playing the hits he performed on, such as Fats Domino’s “I’m Walkin’” and Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Meanwhile, Riley offered up mostly original material from his excellent recently released disc New Direction. Riley was literally bouncing on his drum stool as his band, heard on the album and filled with New York musicians, helped take the music around the world.
Veteran drummer Al Foster, with the all-star group the Heads of State, is a lowrider behind the drum set. He too was all smiles as the band took off with the great saxophonist Gary Bartz as the engine.
Drummer Jack DeJohnette, the core of the trio that included saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and bassist Matthew Garrison, presented the stature of a serene giant while pushing the group with his insistent drums. His happiness at playing with these guys, the sons of John Coltrane and Jimmy Garrison, respectively, wasn’t revealed on his face but in the foward-moving music.
Saxophonist Joe Lovano didn’t mess around, carrying two young drummers in his band. He’s such a physical player, prowling the edge of the stage, that the pair in the muscular drum section fit the bill. (GW)
Henry Gray presented an image of pure class as he sat at the keyboards decked out as usual in a suit, tie and hat. The 91-year-old Louisiana pianist and vocalist knows how to take his time with a song, and credit to his band, which didn’t rush the tempo on some slow blues. He picked up the beat on a boogie-woogie that he kept short and sweet as was heard back in the days of the three-minute 45-RPMs. Gray’s voice was strong on “Stagger Lee,” a number one hit in 1959 for fellow Louisianan Lloyd Price. (GW)
The chair people fought a pitched battle with security at the Gentilly Stage, eventually winning the war by the end of the day as Van Morrison drew a beyond-capacity crowd that spilled entirely onto the race track. If you weren’t already there before he started—and he started before his allotted time without introduction, like a racehorse beating the gate—you had zero chance of checking him out. (JS)
Stuck in a huge crowd and with no view of the stage is not the best way to enjoy live music, but Van Morrison was still a little more low-energy than I’d hoped. On the other hand, I wandered into Johnny Sansone’s set by accident on the way somewhere else, and I couldn’t leave. (LD)
Tab Benoit played a great set at the Gentilly Stage before the chair wars took place during the pointless and distorted set by roots posers Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, who seem to think nobody has heard “Mama Told Me Not to Come” before. My biggest disappointment (aside from the OPP-approved crawfish bread) was missing Glen David Andrews at the Gospel Tent, which was impossible to get to at that moment. But Jazz Fest always offers solace. Dr. Michael White’s Jelly Roll Morton tribute at Economy Hall was a grand slam, highlighted by an astonishing four-handed piano turn from Henry Butler and Butch Thompson. (JS)
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux also did double duty, joining the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars in full Indian regalia for their set on the Acura Stage, then closing out the day at the Jazz & Heritage Stage with his gang, the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indians. The Indians, resplendent in their blue feathered and beaded suits, paraded onto the stage to the funk theme of “They Don’t Know,” with Monk telling his story. Then, after singing the invocation to the sacred Mardi Gras Indian theme “Indian Red,” Monk spoke to the audience.
“Sometimes people ask me, ‘What are the Indians saying?’ Well, it’s passed down to us. It’s who we are. ‘Almighty… I got the fire!’ Because we Indians. Indians of the nation.”
“We all family,” added Monk, gesturing to the ten costumed Indians flanking him on the stage. “This is my family, the next generation. I still teach what I was taught and I keep the tradition going. Every Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest we have a family reunion. They taught me well. Just check out the Black Indians. We come in all colors. It’s an honor to be up here and have so many of y’all out there. What are they saying? We been coming up! Now I’m gonna let my grandson sing one.”
Monk’s grandson began singing “Little Liza Jane” and the Mardi Gras Indian tradition took its next step into the future. (JS)
Some Fest goers sought shelter under the tents or other covered areas in the grandstand. Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Horns held court under the Blues Tent. Lake was fabulous leading her old timey band through classics like Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” as ten silver-clad dancers cavorted on stage left. At the Lagniappe Stage, which offered cover from the rain, Helen Gillet mesmerized the crowd with her one-woman show only a day after she bravely fought off the rain at the final edition of Chaz Fest. Armed only with her cello and the electronic loops she manipulates so skillfully, Gillet, dressed in shorts and a Chaz Fest T-shirt, turned in a magnificent set. She layered loops of cello lines and rhythm patterns to the point where she sounded like a full orchestra, dancing in her seat as she sang wordless vocals. She finished the set singing a song from her Belgian childhood in French. The guy sitting next to me was spellbound. “I’ve never heard anything like that,” he said in wonder. (JS)
Lynn Drury followed Helen with a supercharged set of saucy rockers, the kind of performance that had WWOZ’s Missy Bowen declaring on the air that it was “Dominatrix Thursday” at Jazz Fest. Drury’s excellent recent albums Sugar On the Floor and Come to My House offer great examples of her powerful singing and songwriting, but you really have to experience her live to understand the sheer emotional power she brings to her performances. She delivered a high-intensity set that had the crowd on its feet. (JS)
Jazz Fest really does have everything—even classical music. The wildly eclectic Tom McDermott, joined by “friends” including Aurora Nealand on soprano saxophone and Michael Skinkus on percussion, played a set that ranged from “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” to a medley of tricky classical piano and percussion pieces. Earlier in the Fest, trombonist Craig Klein dedicated the New Orleans Nightcrawlers wonderful version of the march from Verdi’s “Aida” (and we’re not talking Verti Marte here) to “the secret society of St. Anne’s.” (JS)
Pulling the Plug
The great Paul Sanchez rocked out with an all-star Rolling Road Show including Alex McMurray, Lynn Drury, Susan Cowsill, Debbie Davis, Kimberley Kaye, Craig Klein et al. Sweet Crude followed with a strong, well-received set in reasonable weather, but by the time Alynda Lee Segarra and Hurray for the Riff Raff hit the stage the lightning was really getting frightening. Time to batten down. Dr. John made it through a half-dozen songs back at Acura before they pulled the plug. (JS)
Ingrid Lucia called it right when she broke from her planned set on Saturday morning and cued her band to play “Stormy Weather.” That was some of the last music to get played that day, and I was one of the diehards who got soaked up front waiting for Stevie Wonder. The man of course did appear, but rest assured that his megaphone snippet of “Purple Rain” was completely inaudible if you were there. (BM)
Jazz Fest week two opened with hard rain, cooler weather and a stiff breeze. Some Festers are born mudders who love these conditions, and no stage suits them better than Fais Do-Do, where the party never stops and dancing in the mud is a time-honored tradition. The Dog Hill Stompers brought the fire in memory of the King of Dog Hill, Boozoo Chavis, whom they most resemble. It takes three accordions to make that sound resonate, and they do not disappoint. Later on the day it was the intriguing zydeco/hip-hop synthesis of Lil’ Nathan and the Zydeco Big Timers, then the great Bruce Daigrepont on accordion, with his virtuoso sidekick Gina Forsyth on fiddle making those dancers two-step with muddy abandon at the floating Fais Do-Do. (JS)
The rain was pounding, the earth was liquefying, the winds were chilling, and bluegrass indie act Punch Brothers were starting. With the miserable weather threatening to stop the festival at any minute, Punch Brothers were understandably less than enthusiastic to begin their Sunday afternoon set. But then something interesting happened. Typically, a performer or musician is responsible for establishing a mood and elevating an audience. Here, the audience was undeterred by the rain, screaming and yelling in the rain and dancing despite being ankle-deep in mud. And with a mix of joy and bewilderment, Punch Brothers reciprocated, playing harder and faster, with greater exuberance. What could have easily become a rain-soaked dirge became a celebration of embracing life’s unscripted moments, no matter how soggy they may be. (RC)
Big Freedia rocked the house at Congo Square. What rain? Roy Rogers stoked his own fire at the Blues Tent. Big Chief Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias played through the deluge at the Heritage Stage. Then all hell broke loose and it started raining frogs. Stevie Wonder was so ready to play he got a bullhorn and sang “Purple Rain” to those who still hadn’t left. But Jazz Fest was closed and people scattered. The broadening waters flowed through. (JS)
Dancing Across the Water
You couldn’t Big Chief Experience your way out of this one. If you wanted to see Neil Young you had to wade in the water. Neil Young’s “Cortez the Killer” became more than a magnificent piece of sound sculpture, more than the fantastic/ironic story of the greatest and most brutal of the Conquistadores. “Dancing across the water” was a fair description of the hardy souls who attended the event, standing in the muck and mire and horseshit and sewage and God knows what else was making up the landscape at the Fair Grounds. The sounds system and its electronic agony contributed to the parts and sounded more like Young’s live albums Arc and Weld.
The track hasn’t looked like this since Lake Pontchartrain decided to move south 11 years ago. At least the water won’t sit there for weeks. Back then it took tons of gypsum to restore the infield and race track before the next racing season. The groundskeepers have their work cut out for them. Amazingly, people complained when they shut it down Saturday afternoon, so no one should have been surprised that the Fest opened up for business again Sunday. But a lot of people found it astonishing based on the social network buzz about where all those bands were going to play.
I have never been more impressed by the Jazz Fest staff. Putting on the Sunday shows in the middle of an often-driving, day-long rainstorm was an amazing feat. The potential for catastrophe loomed large and even with the heroic job of making it all happen you have to say there was some degree of luck involved that nothing went horribly wrong. Aside from Stevie Wonder’s $800,000 piano, that is.
Here’s to all the musicians who played for the determined fans who made it out there. Rock festival culture has its built-in rites of passage, making the difficulty of attending the event part of its stoic enjoyment. Tales will be told for a long time of the obstacles overcome to see Jazz Fest ’16. (JS)