Until the last day, this year’s Jazz Fest was the Return to Normal Fest (whatever “normal” means), the festival that was more or less the festival we recognized with the mix of locals and visitors that we’re used to. The stages were all back—minus the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, which inexplicably remains in the paddock merged with the Lagniappe Stage and not in the grandstand on its own. Most of the food vendors were back, and much of the talent we’re used to was back. Even the weather was back, with the second weekend being the first hot weekend this year—something that often arrives during Jazz Fest.
Sadly, Alvin Batiste’s passing Saturday night changed the way we’ll look back at this year’s festival. It came on the eve of his set with Bob French and Branford Marsalis to highlight Marsalis Music’s release of albums honoring the two New Orleans jazz legends, and Batiste literally loomed over the proceedings that day. He was on everybody’s minds, and two pictures of him playing his clarinet hung in the tent. For more on Batiste, see our memorial to him elsewhere in this issue.
Here are the moments that caught our writers and photographers’ attention, and as usual, there was a lot to think about out there.
Fats Domino’s cousin Reggie Hall is well known for his R&B nugget “The Joke,” which sets a sublimely goofy lyric to the tune of “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.” So what’s he got against playing it? In the three times I’ve caught Hall at Jazz Fest, he’s never done anything but other people’s hits.
Saltiest Stage Patter: To nobody’s surprise, that prize would have to go to Jerry Lee Lewis. In addition to the usual leering during “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” he offered this gem during “You Win Again”: “I love you still…not too still, baby. But you know, still enough.”
The fest has finally discovered Americana. Wilco kicked that door open in 2005, and the heady Calexico fit in beautifully this year. As did Gillian Welch, Lucinda Williams and T Bone Burnett, who probably got the gig on the strength of his film soundtracks, but whose solo set was as edgy as it gets.
Technical glitches are inevitable at an event this large, but this was the first year in memory where they got in the way of the music. Delays at the Gentilly Stage caused Eddie Bo to start an hour late on Friday morning. He did 20 minutes and was yanked offstage before “Check Mr. Popeye.” At the same stage Sunday, Henry Butler’s vocals were AWOL during his version of “Tipitina,” and Dr. John’s vocals in the New Orleans Social Club were inaudible during “Walking to New Orleans.” When George Porter, Jr. suggested that the microphone be put in a different channel, Dr. John quipped, “Put it in the Irish Channel.” The next weekend, they were checking monitors when Rotary Downs was scheduled to start at 11:15 a.m. and would continue to do so for the next 10 minutes.
Last year, Clarence “Frogman” Henry announced he was thinking of retiring, which drew the expected “nooos!” from the crowd. The same rap got the same response this year, and undoubtedly will again next year.
Best Katrina Dedication: Mem Shannon sending “Ignant Stick” out to FEMA. Shannon later did a more moving, newly-written number about a man surveying the remains of his house after the flood.
Evoking both the Iraq war and current conditions at home, Theryl “Houseman “ DeClouet joined Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove for Edwin Starr’s “War” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.” Both were served up well, but isn’t it time we protested current events with songs less than 30 years old?
Believe me, after being jostled by near-capacity crowds all day Saturday, Ludacris’ “Move Bitch” never sounded so appropriate.
Early in their set, Gregg Allman, Warren Haynes, Derek Trucks, Chuck Leavell and the rest of the band delivered an exquisite rendering of “I Walk on Guilded Splinters,” a nod to Dr. John, who was one of the first artists to have them open for them on their way up.
“I’m feeling all kind of spirits here.” And homegirl Lucinda Williams called them all down in her first New Orleans appearance since the death of her mother, who lived on Carondelet Street for many years. Fresh from a self-imposed road tour retreat—”I just stayed on the bus for two days, contemplated, and saved all my energy for Jazz Fest”—Williams seized the moment and ran with it. Dancing with the spirits of Jim Morrison and Flannery O’Connor (both of whom she name-checked on stage), she hit every station of the cross, searching for “Joy,” pleading for spiritual redemption in “Unsuffer Me” and getting down with her nasty self in the primal ooze of “Righteously” and “Essence.” But the most remarkable thing about her performance was the way she shared her feelings with us, every step along the way, confiding in the audience like we were her best friend (which I guess we are).
“With all the tragedy around us, there’s always good old-fashioned sex,” she reminded us early on, looking sexy as all get-out in a filmy kelly green top. Later, she looked tragedy straight in the eye with “Everything Has Changed,” an invocation of post-Katrina New Orleans that brought tears to many eyes, including her own. “I knew I wasn’t gonna get through this show without breaking down,” she said. “That one did it.” She paused a moment, then let her eyes take in the sweeping vista of Fest fans before her. “I love all the flags!” she cried. “New Orleans Not War, I like that one. And what’s that one say?” “Here!” the flag-bearer shouted, but Williams didn’t quite hear it right. “Beer? You know, at the essence of it all we’re all primal creatures. We crave sex and beer.” Then she broke into “Bleeding Fingers,” her paean to sex and beer and rock ‘n’ roll, and let the spirit of Paul Westerberg carry us all to the other side, with a serious assist from guitarist Doug Pettibone.
“I don’t know, I think I had some kind of spiritual enlightenment or something,” she said at the end of “Fingers,” just before leaving the stage. A tsunami of cheers, whistles, claps, stomps and other human percussion brought her back to “Get Right with God.” And oh boy, did she, turning Gentilly into the Gospel Tent. “Sister Lucinda!” the stage MC cried in the afterglow. “Sister Lucinda!”
Floating out of the Fair Grounds, my head still miles above the clouds, I overheard a guy on a cell phone shouting his review of the show to a friend: “I saw Lucinda Williams. She was good. I think she’s on some kind of medication.”
No, bro. She just got right with God. Them be God meds.
Jerry Lee Lewis is still rock ‘n’ roll in every inch of his 71-year-old body, from the top of his pompadoured head to the tip of his black patent leather cowboy boot, shown in glorious close-up on the Acura big screen. “Hello, you good lookin’ thing!” he shouted straight to me (okay, to the crowd, but that’s how it felt). Then he turned my whole body to jello with “Sweet Little Sixteen,” rocking my world so hard with that single song that I was able to tear myself away for the one Sunday artist I absolutely could not miss: Gillian Welch.
“You’re having too good a time,” David Rawlings chided us during Gillian Welch’s set. “We don’t want to ruin our reputation.” Sorry, man, but it’s too late for damage control. Any semblance of “downer rock” dignity you tried to maintain flew straight out the gates with “I’ll Fly Away” and was completely demolished by your encore: Johnny and June’s “Jackson”! Heaven is hearing Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sing, “We got married in a fever / hotter than a pepper sprout” in their high lonely harmonies with grins as wide as the Mississippi splashed across their mouths.
Todd A. Price
The Rob Wagner Trio inaugurated the new upgraded and expanded AT&T/WWOZ Jazz Tent, which—in a good sign for the future of modern jazz in New Orleans—was still too small to hold the crowds throughout the festival.
The Gangbe Brass Band spread out across the Congo Square stage in their flowing black clothes trimmed with orange. It’s hard not to compare the African ensemble to our city’s own brass bands. Our bands are gritty and fun, carefree and sometimes carelessly out of tune. The Gangbe Brass Band was well-rehearsed and orchestral, with a sound that soared instead of being anchored to the streets.
The Madison Bumble Bees harnessed the full power of the Almighty. The brass ensemble looked like a gather of middle managers, with white shirts, ties and cell phones clipped to their belts. When they played and sang and shouted, they made a noise that shook the poles at the gospel tent and kept people on their feet until the bitter end. With an hour-long set that included no more than four songs, the Madison Bumble Bees started at ecstatic and went up from there with horns that spoke in unison tongues.
The oysters on the half-shell were once again in the grandstands, and almost every vendor returned this year. The only glaring holes were the bags of cracklins and the Vietnamese dishes. The food was back in full force, but the much-heralded addition of wine and champagne turned out to be foul tasting white and red from Fetzer (“The Miller Lite of wine”) and pink bubbly in a can.
What was good, though, was great. Vaucresson’s hot sausages, despite the loss of his grill (see www.findthegrill.com), were a sentimental favorite. Linda Green’s ya ka mein was rich and salty and her banana bread pudding one of the best sweet treats at the Fair Grounds. Guil’s Gator—bits of slightly chewy, fried alligator mixed with onion and jalapeños—was a tasty new find. Can someone explain, though, why crawfish bread is such a hit? Charred bread filled with a blob of lukewarm, greasy cheese does not represent the city’s best eats.
Overheard: “Trombone Shorty has changed some since he was 13.” As have we all, but dressed in a white suit and white shirt, he looks like he’s having fun being a rock star. His band isn’t quite up his level, but they don’t lack energy or commitment, and that will go a long way. His decision to mature musically with Orleans Avenue instead of cherrypicking an A-Team of players is also an encouraging sign.
T Bone Burnett visually recalled the Man in Black in his high-collared coat with long tails and black pants. His graying hair and thinner voice brought to mind an apocalyptic minister who found his messages in the Old Testament—a very different message from the vague warmth of Cash. Then again, when our president tries to make vague warmth his calling card, maybe the dour prophet of “Zombieland” is the voice we need to hear.
Addiction is the central metaphor and tension in Lucinda Williams’ music, so it’s no surprise that she introduced a song by saying, “We’re primal animals. We all crave sex and beer.” In that context, “Unsuffer Me” from her new album, West, was her “Cold Turkey.”
Walking across the front of the Acura Stage at 10:30 a.m., the white line that marks the end of the chair-free zone is as crowded with chairs as the Orleans Avenue neutral grounds are with ladders on Endymion morning.
At noon Saturday, there was a press conference during which Shell announced that it would remain Jazz Fest’s title sponsor until 2010. The press conference was bracketed by Shannon McNally ecstatic trance on one stage and Bonsoir, Catin’s Cajun girl power on another. That juxtaposition made business men saying the sorts of things business men say sound like the lifeless platitudes that they are.
One thing you have to give to goths is their commitment. One girl attended Jazz Fest with a collar studded with long spikes and her face painted with artificial pallor.
Wilson Savoy of the Pine Leaf Boys says Ray Abshire is his definition of traditional Cajun—two fiddles, an acoustic guitar, a five-string acoustic bass and an accordion, all played sitting down in white sport shirts and tan slacks. They played two-steps and waltzes, and in the steadfast refusal to be a show, Abshire and his band subtly suggested that those of us who watched weren’t hearing the music right. It wasn’t made to be an artistic, aesthetic object; it was designed to be the soundtrack to Saturday night.
Before the Bobby Charles set, friends asked if I thought he’d be there, and when I said no, they couldn’t believe it, as if Jazz Fest can mend a bad back, bad teeth and a 10-year rough streak. On one hand, it was a shame Charles couldn’t make it because it would have been great to see a Louisiana legend get his due, but the Friends of Bobby Charles—Shannon McNally, Dr. John, Marcia Ball and Parker James backed by Sonny Landreth’s band, augmented by Pat Breaux and David Egan—presented his songs with more vitality than he could have managed. It’s also no surprise that people walked away talking about McNally and not Charles. She was riveting, and part of his songwriting gift has been to write in common speech, creating lines so seemingly artless that listeners link the sentiment and the singer, never noticing the song that put them together.
Overheard by someone walking away from Rod Stewart: “That’s the world’s biggest casino,” and it was hard to disagree. Stewart took songs that once had life and reduced them to simple statements—the Memories of Your Life. He didn’t sing a word that he invested with any personal belief, and he was so irony-impaired he performed the 12-inch disco remix of “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy,” and worse, did it as the encore. That was really his final statement, the thought/question he wanted us to walk away with.
The Lost Bayou Ramblers almost sent the dancers in the Cajun Mosh Pit running for cover early when the race was on in the rockabilly-ish “You Can’t Put a Monkey on My Back.” At the same time, as their music serpentined back and forth across the Texas-Louisiana border, you got the feeling you were seeing what people once saw in the dancehalls, performed with the same wild spirit.
The Benjy Davis Project is often only a rhythm away from contemporary country, and that’s not meant derogatorily. The songs have the sort of detail and nostalgia for lower middle class teenaged romance once represented by Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” and these days, that combination is found coming out of Nashville, not the Midwest.
After the rains Friday, the Stooges Brass Band played Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” to the small crowd that first emerged from cover. Finding the stage too confining, they paraded out to the crowd, where people circled around them and sung along. The drainage ditch that split the stage grounds was a good-sized stream at that point, but people leapt, tiptoed and trudged through it to join that pack.
Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top introduced a song as “one of our R-rated songs,” then sang “Bang Bang.” Nice maturity, Beavis. “Huh, huh; huh, huh. He said, ‘Bang.’”
Often, these recollections focus on guest appearances, which seemed to be few and far between this year. Does Jack Leonardi being called on stage by the Counting Crows’ Adam Duritz to hop/dance during “Hanging Around” count as one?
On Saturday morning, it was hard to imagine that I’d see a more adventurous and accessible performance than Rotary Downs (and I didn’t). The band’s melodic indie rock was tested with a dissonant guitar at times, energized by changing textures throughout, and defined by song structures that constantly surprised. There was a time when singer James Marler simply seemed remote in his understated vocals, but now there’s a far more interesting, more human tension between cool and passion, between clarity and privacy, and between contact and distance. The set suggested New Orleans really ought to be paying a lot more attention to Rotary Downs.
Two John Mayer thoughts. 1) No one speaks to our experience and the world we’re living in like another wealthy white blues guitarist who may or may not have parked his car in Jessica Simpson’s garage; and 2) When he went for the talk box, all I could think of was Frampton Comes Alive.
Maurice Brown never returned to New Orleans after Katrina, and his set Sunday demonstrated what we’ve lost. I could have done without the smooth jazz tune, but he was adept at any jazz style he touched, and was brilliant in his first solo, a study in rhythm and dynamics that featured a slow run of staccato notes, followed by a series of swift clusters of notes, recoiling after each blast like he was feeling the kick of a rifle. He finished his set with the first of many tributes to Alvin Batiste performed in the Jazz Tent that day.
The Lord works in mysterious ways, even through the words of Alicia Keys. The Greater Antioch Full Gospel Choir took advantage of the ambiguity of the pronoun “you” to convert a number of old school jams including “If I Ain’t Got You” into something spiritual.
Of the many traits and quirks that make up the eccentric and often occult nature of New Orleans music, shared repertoire is the most potent. McLuhan said that an archetype is a cliché that has graduated to mythic status by overuse, but there is an aesthetic difference in archetypal New Orleans material that is measured by the depth of the performance. Party anthems and Blues Brothers-style covers of 1960s R&B tunes are rampant on the Jazz Fest stages and often resort to the pandering banality of Bourbon Street tourist clichés. But there are touchstone songs of New Orleans whose meanings contain cavernous depths easily plumbed by musicians talented enough to recognize them as true archetypes.
One of the most powerful is “St. James Infirmary,” an ancient lament whose imagery of identifying the dead body of a loved one is chillingly contemporary in light of the thousands who drowned in the flood of 2005. This is one song that, in the right hands, can’t be overused. Three of the most effective performers on opening day included “St. James Infirmary” in their sets within minutes of each other.
Dr. John led his band through an incantatory set at the Acura Stage that Friday, drawling his funk band through a mystical ritual at a tempo that pulled each beat to taffy snapping tensile strength, an extraordinarily hypnotic sound that he can only summon at the height of his power. The band was glistening with the sheer muscle of the beat’s restraint as Mac declaimed a funky “Right Place, Wrong Time,” wrapped up with a square knot of a guitar solo from John Fohl, and rolled a slow mambo through “Mos’ Scosious,” then rolled into an improvised vocal that wielded “St. James Infirmary” like a magic wand. He drew the whole section of music into a dramatic coda as the stunned audience watched in a trance-like state, its usual buzz hushed to a whisper.
Over at Congo Square, Troy Andrews a.k.a. Trombone Shorty was taking another approach. The newest star of New Orleans music is never better than when he’s working a festival crowd into a frenzy, and he had this crowd pogoing with hands outstretched as he launched into a very different take on “St. James Infirmary,” a rave-up with corkscrewing emotional climaxes that exploded into 15 choruses of a circular breathing solo on a single trumpet riff. When he ended, the MC prompted the crowd, “If y’all want to hear Troy play higher, stick your fingers in the air and SCREAM!!!” Andrews then played an Armstrongesque trumpet climb-up beyond high C, then ran to the front of the stage to urge the crowd on. It was a performance as athletic as it was musical and the crowd rocked like they were at a sports event. They soon were as the finale of “When the Saints Go Marching In” turned into a “Who Dat!” pep rally.
Back at Acura, the crowd waited expectantly for Van Morrison. Perhaps too expectantly, for when the bard emerged with a country roots band whose principle soloists were an Irish violinist and a black woman playing steel guitar and banjo, there was some grumbling from an audience that clearly expected hard R&B. “Hi there,” he said, then rolled into “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” at once a nod to Ray Charles’ stay in New Orleans and his career balancing the R&B and country elements of his soulful style. The tempo soon took a turn of the screw into a fast “Careless Love,” then “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down” and Morrison went off into the vocalese ether, emerging at “St. James Infirmary” with an eerie vocal sleight and some new lyrics. He sang it as a slow dirge, his band offering the sparsest accompaniment, then in the show’s dramatic moment, a real theatrical turning point, he demanded of the crowd: “People wanna know… can I die just… standing… PAT!” He paused, then spat on the stage. “Standing… PAT!” Right then the band blasted in behind him with the trumpet crying a solo over the flourish.
He brought Dr. John and Herb Hardesty up for a rhythmically elongated tribute to Fats Domino, “Hello Josephine,” then sang “There Stands the Glass” like a man who’s battled one, but the magic centerpiece to this set was “St. James Infirmary,” a song he made his own on this New Orleans afternoon.
The lack of a Neville Brothers or Meters presence was a psychic hole in the Jazz Fest lineup, but the Radiators lived up to their role as fest closers with a killer set. As the group relies less on marathon jams and more on its voluminous catalog of songs, the Rads have actually gotten tighter and more focused with age, and percussionist Michael Skinkus and saxophonist Tim Green have become so familiar with the material they now sound like regular band members rather than guest soloists. “Roller Coaster,” a compressed three minute tune that hits like a track from the Nuggets compilation, was transformed by Green’s vertiginous saxophone break.
Zydeco was everywhere. The Blues Tent, where Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas used old school R&B liberally through its crowd pleasing set; the Acura Stage, where Buckwheat Zydeco paid tribute to Fats Domino by singing “Walking to New Orleans;” Congo Square, where Terrance Simien continued to stretch the boundaries of zydeco into a vehicle for his Herculean stage antics; and of course the Fais Do Do Stage, where Brian Jack reminded the mud-dancing neo-hippie crowd that “Turn On Your Love Light” was recorded by the Grateful Dead and Dwayne Dopsie boasted that his ska-like “Where’d My Baby Go?” was “number one in the Bahamas for three straight months.” Pancho Chavis and Boozoo’s Dog Hill Stompers wore matching uniforms as they played favorites from the late zydeco patriarch’s songbook. Drummer Rellis Chavis then brought out a band featuring his three sons and two nephews and Rellis Chavis, Jr. began slamming out the double clutch drum beat favored by younger zydeco dancers. Sure enough, female members of the Chavis clan appeared side stage doing a line dance in matching Dog Hill Stompers shirts with their names on the back. For the finale, Rellis, Jr. came front stage and strapped on the accordion, giving all indication that zydeco is one element of this festival mix that will be around for a long time.
When West Monroe native Kenny Bill Stinson gets down at the piano and starts hammering the keys and singing in his frenzied tenor on songs like “Goofed Up” and “Rockin’ in the Country,” his resemblance to a younger Jerry Lee Lewis is uncanny. Maybe it was just because Jerry Lee was scheduled to play the big stage the following day, but during Stinson’s first Saturday tilt at the Fais Do Do Stage, more than one person said, “He sounds more like Jerry Lee Lewis than Jerry Lee Lewis does.” Word got backstage to Stinson, who commented, “I heard that, and I hope Jerry Lee doesn’t hear it. He’ll come and kick my ass.”
If the seven horns and multiple percussion instruments of the ambulatory Gangbe Brass Band from Benin sounded strangely familiar to New Orleans brass bands, it’s partly because they share the same heritage of providing funeral music for their respective communities. But it’s also an example of the cross-pollinization that is becoming a central element of contemporary music, because all of the band members claimed to have seen the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on its early 1990s visit to Benin. This music is a fresh take on the form with more emphasis on the brass than rhythmic improvisation, but its tightly disciplined beats are truly inspirational. The Jazz Fest set was a great example of the festival’s continuing ability to bring fresh and meaningful world music into a mix where new sounds seem to find it harder and harder to make the cut.
Welcome to the 2007 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell. It’s a Shell Special Event, so if you want to go into the Shell hospitality section located in the Fair Grounds OTB facility you must adhere to this dress code:
And so Jazz Fest takes its place alongside Cancun as the destination of choice for vacationers of privilege. A few people still able to connect the dots from Baghdad to St. Bernard through the hysteria of Reconstruction II sported “No War for Oil” buttons with a red line through the Shell symbol, but the buttons quickly disappeared after the first weekend.
Corporate hospitality areas are taking up an increasingly larger section of the Fair Grounds along with the “Big Chief” sections. Politicians are giving press conferences at the same time musicians are playing at the Fest. The crowd is skewing dramatically older—the AARP Stage can’t be far off—yet at the same time the number of parents bringing infants and toddlers has increased exponentially, making the kids area one of the busiest sections on the grounds.
Jazz Fest’s mantra of inclusiveness is being seriously challenged by creeping Rod Stewart-ism on the promoter end and the stratification of a vision that relegates Jazz Fest (older white people) Essence Fest (older black people) and Voodoo Fest (younger people, mostly white) to strict demographic profiling. It’s folly to complain about a trend that is providing one of the few leading edges of economic development to this struggling city, but it’s worth pointing out that fringe gatherings such as Chaz Fest are providing the kind of warmth and local orientation that gave the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival the character it’s now cashing in on.
Given the thankless task of playing the first set on the first day in the Jazz Tent, the Rob Wagner Trio handled the job with class and aplomb. Now that the trio’s members are scattered around the country, New Orleanians can no longer take them for granted and count on that weekly appearance at d.b.a. The time apart hasn’t diminished their interactive abilities one iota, and trio constants Wagner (saxophones) and James Singleton (bass) displayed rich melodic invention and a composerly sense of form in their own solo contributions. Drummer Ocie Davis brings quicksilver accents and unfailing swing to the proceedings. This is high-level playing, remarkably free of clichés, and deserves a better time slot next year.
T Bone Burnett rose above the late start and sound problems by hammering home a set of spooky, swampy, atmospheric rock ‘n’ roll (well, no other category can quite contain him) with an A-list band including ringers Marc Ribot (guitar), Victor Krauss (bass) and Jim Keltner (drums). Burnett pulled no punches lyrically, throwing nicely terse barbs at the powers-that-be like drunken provocations to a barroom brawl. Ribot’s guitar was all over the place, layering piercing loops of feedback and electronic detritus while slurring bluesy bends worthy of Hubert Sumlin.
James Carter’s Organ Trio did a wonderfully strange set that combined occasional bits of schmaltz offset by self-effacing humor and astounding musicianship. At times it played like a comedic take on a woodwind clinic, with Carter’s extensive array of instruments (including tenor, baritone, and soprano saxophones and flute) displayed on a stand to his right and then deployed with the merciless skill of a samurai. Carter is an absolute monster on all his horns, and while this can lead to showboating, more often than not he erred on the Roland Kirk side of the fence—that point where un-serious material meets major chops and the listener’s mouth smiles involuntarily then goes agape in wonder. He definitely hit some low notes on the tenor (augmented by visceral vocal growls) that I know aren’t supposed to be there and constructed logically flowing solos that used an insanely wide range of timbral variety, not to mention fast changes in embouchure that would cause most saxophonists to pull a lip muscle. The man is a stunt pilot.
Inaccurately billed as “IAQ” (the moniker of Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder’s Improvisational Arts Quintet), the Kidd Jordan/Alvin Fielder Ensemble that actually took the stage was a septet that set Jordan’s fiery tenor sax and the exploding constellations of Fielder’s drum kit against a shimmering canvas of complex sonic color. It was quite a cast: International free-music hero William Parker on bass (When is the Jazz Fest going to give William a gig with one of his own bands here? It’s waaay about time!), underground piano wizard Joel Futterman, local brass statesman Clyde Kerr, Jr. on trumpet, next-generation Jordanian Kent Jordan on flutes, and invisible man Maynard Chatters performing internal surgery on the strings of an old upright piano. It was the kind of dense ensemble improvisation that is usually beyond the abilities of the Jazz Tent to render properly, but this year was different. I don’t know if it had to do with the tent’s new location and/or the addition of carpet to the ground (good move), but this was one of the best-sounding sets Jordan and Fielder have had at the Jazz Fest in years. Combustive lift-offs gave way to gentle solo statements and furious testifying like an expertly-paced composition, proving yet again the eternal possibilities and deep humanism of collective improvising.
Ba Cissoko of the Republic of Guinea was, for me, the surprise pearl of the fest this year. Always nice when you can walk toward Congo Square out of general curiosity of the performer’s country of origin only to be stunned silent by the sheer beauty of the music, and there are few sounds in the world more beautiful than the African kora (a harp-like stringed instrument) when it’s played well, let alone two koras with a strong rhythm section.
Ba Cissoko’s set was remarkably free of the egregious world beat/French disco influence that’s ruined a lot of African music in recent years, but he’s not afraid to add contemporary elements into the mix. At one point, I craned my neck to see who was responsible for the searing distorted guitar leads that were blazing over the percolating rhythms, only to find it was Cissoko’s cousin, Sékou Kouyaté, shredding away on the freakin’ kora! Is he gonna play it with his teeth and set it on fire next? Not quite, but it had that kind of impact.
He looked pretty ghostly out there in the afternoon sun, and his voice lacks the strength it once had, but Jerry Lee Lewis delivered the goods as only a true rock ‘n’ roll originator can. The Acura Stage’s video screen close-ups let us see that Lewis eschews the usual boom-mike setup used by pianist/singers, instead opting for a mike stand right in front of his lap, in between him and the piano, that he actually plays around and sometimes behind. Totally awkward, totally impractical, just so wrong, and so totally rock ‘n’ roll.
Gillian Welch is a remarkably deep writer, singer, and performer, so it’s no surprise that her Jazz Fest set found an audience rapt in attention, but it’s time to heap some kudos on her partner, guitarist David Rawlings right now. Rawlings consistently took each song to the stratosphere with his soulful guitar solos, played with the spiky punch and piercing wail of an oversized detuned mandolin, but he really stole the show with his singing feature, a throttling, barn-burning rendition of the standard “Stag-O-Lee.” Amazingly, this was topped by the next number, when Welch joined him for a duet rendition of “Jackson” fit to stand up there with both the Johnny Cash/June Carter and the Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood versions.
Not even May 4’s torrential downpour could dampen the tenacious spirit and sly wit of the lil’ ol’ band from Texas. By the time ZZ-Top hit the stage, the rain had subsided and the diehards were richly rewarded by the bearded ones for toughing it out. There was no shortage of ZZ hits, but they’re a smart and classy enough band to know that playing at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is not your average arena tour stop, so they made several nods of gratitude to our town and even did an old Larry Williams tune, “High School Dance.” Billy Gibbons and Dusty Hill played with effortless authority while throwing in the occasional bit of subtle unison-guitar-swing stage choreography, just enough to tease and not enough to look like a Vegas act. Gibbons’ guitar solos on “La Grange,” “Tush” and “Just Got Paid” were tonal stunners, a virtual masterclass in getting the most out of the right note, properly milked.
The Ponderosa Stomp
Dave Bartholomew pulled out his trumpet twice during his excellent set at the Ponderosa Stomp and played short solos that had all the finesse yet grit that his 86 years can offer. Old Leather Lungs still can blow with the best; one solo he did with a mute and his hand in front that was as nuanced and delicate and beautiful as anything I heard this Jazz Fest. Bartholomew probably learned to do that from the musicians who invented it, and you could hear the history of New Orleans music in each note. No one plays like that anymore.
There was a moment when Bobby Emmons and Dan Penn, the Memphis songwriter famous for songs by Aretha Franklin, James Carr, and Percy Sledge among others, did Penn’s lovely ballad “Dark End of the Street” on the main stage and even the loudmouth know-nothing hipsters in the back were forced to shut up by the quiet power of Penn’s plaintive voice. It was a moment where time stopped except for the tears coming from certain people’s eyes.
Unsung hero of New Orleans funk, Willie Tee was excellent and his band was in fine form, doing several of his great ’60s singles and some of his Indian music. During one tune, I saw a collaboration that I naively had never contemplated this night. Influential percussionist Alfred “Uganda” Roberts took a solo that jumped out of the speakers sounding more fantastic than anything I’d heard that night, and when I looked to the soundboard, there was veteran engineer Tyrone Powell who has been mixing Roberts as part of his work all over New Orleans for three decades and therefore knew exactly how to make him sound. Everyone has heard what happens when a great singer works with a great band or two great instrumentalists play off each other, but I hadn’t thought of how the collaborations between live sound engineers and musicians make the musicians play better and the music sound better.
Jazz singer Little Jimmy Scott seemed like the most unlikely performer in the Ponderosa Stomp’s short history. The Stomp is all about earthy, rootsy rawness, while Scott is perhaps the most otherworldly and ethereal singer in American music. With his delicate, angelic countenance, outstretched arms, and eerily wide vibrato (the only precedent for which is in Korean Pansori court music), Scott was like some benevolent messenger from another dimension sent here to soothe and heal with sound. Once the crown silenced enough to actually hear him, we were treated to an earth-stopping rendition of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child” that seemed to envelop the room in Scott’s arms. Accompanied only by bass and piano (with free jazz veteran Hillard Green on bass—talk about range), Scott delivered the most fragile and powerful set of the night.
Pity any performer that has to follow Roy Head. The man just destroys the place with his wild energy and good-natured lewdness. Sure he sings, but his whole deal is so much more than that. I guess you could just say he explodes. Roy’s set at the Stomp had folks howling with laughter at his oddly-timed pratfalls, sleazy hip-grindin’, and incessant hugging of Lil’ Buck Senegal and his bandmates (instruments be damned). As long as Roy Head is around, the untamed spirit that animates the best rock ’n’ roll will be alive, crazed, and well.
Look out! Roy Head is heading right for you and he’s looking for trouble. He’s working his way down the bar approaching stage left at the House of Blues as Barbara Lynn plays guitar left handed and sings like the end of the world is coming. Head is up next on the Ponderosa Stomp lineup and he’s readying himself to hit the stage like a barrage of M-80s. Dressed in a sharked-up suit and looking as dangerous as a septugenarian as he did in the 1960s (maybe even more—what has he got to lose, right?) Head mixes congratulations with threats as he makes his way to the one moment where everything still falls into place for him—onstage. He immediately has the backing band, led by guitarist Lil’ Buck Sinegal and keyboardist Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural, in stitches as he barks commands and continually rides Dural while doing multiple choruses of his greatest hit, “Treat Her Right.” Head seems to have trouble dropping to the ground and doing the stage-humping routine that has supercharged his act for 50 years, holding on to Sinegal on his way down.
The next day Head talked about the Stomp as he held court at the Republic, where he was participating in a fundraiser for the Global Green USA/Active Music New Orleans rebuilding program.
“They gave me that damn cordless microphone,” he said. “What am I going to do with this? You know, I do all that stuff with the microphone stand Joe Tex taught me.
“I come in for rehearsal and I find out I’m with the Buckaroos,” said Head. “What? I’m not playing with no country band! So I get in there and it’s these punks onstage with the rooster hair and all that. Now I’m going nuts! Buckaroos! What the …? Finally, out comes Lil’ Buck and all these black guys and I go, ‘Okay, this is the Buckaroos, now I get it. I can sing with these guys’.”
Head saved his best performance for last, showing up as the unnanounced special guest that evening at the Swamp Pop revue at Jackson Square. This was rockabilly, swamp pop, Cajun R&B and some bayou country with a band right from the Ponderosa Stomp with Warren Storm on the drums and C.C. Adcock leading the group on guitar. This version of “Treat Her Right” rings through the night sky, During Adcock’s tumbleweed of a solo spinning out sparks, Head does the false ending and brings them back again. It all stops on a dime even as Adcock plays that solo through the arrangement right up to the last note.
“Is there a paramedic in the audience?” Head joked. “We’re in the heart of Louisiana but I’m a Texan. They say Texas is bad, but Texas ain’t bad. Louisiana is BAD!”
Adcock kicks the band into Doug Sahm’s “She’s About a Mover” but it’s an elongated R&B groove, a swampy, spooky darkness compared to the brightness of Sahm’s Tex-Mex rock, and Head is possessed, singing it great, riding the syllables, letting the music carry him. When he get to the line where a girl in the song asks, “Hey big boy what’s your name?” he’s got a Roy Head reply: “I said hey hey baby / let’s me and you play the game.”