Author Archives: Alex Rawls

Times-Picayune Plans to Cut Staff and Publication Days

I had thoughts on the twilight of American Idol based on Ann Powers’ excellent analysis, but the news about changes at The Times-Picayune jumps in front. According to Gambit, The New York Times broke the story that the T-P is going to shift its thrust to Nola.com, cut the print edition to three days a week, and reduce staff size and costs.

According to David Carr at The New York Times:

Times-Picayune Cover After Hurricane KatrinaNewhouse Newspapers, which owns the Times-Picayune, will apparently be working off a blueprint the company used in Ann Arbor, Mich., where it reduced the frequency of the Ann Arbor News, emphasized the Web site as a primary distributor of news and in the process instituted wholesale layoffs to cut costs.

According to Kevin Allman at Gambit, many staffers found out about these plans through the Times story:

The level of disrespect for T-P employees by upper management was the main topic of conversation tonight. All employees with whom Gambit spoke — even longtime senior writers and editors — said they learned of their fates from The New York Times report.

“My supervisor didn’t even fucking know,” said one reporter. “My supervisor.”

“I had to find this out by Twitter,” said another. “Do I go in to the office tomorrow? Do I even have a job to go in to tomorrow? I don’t know. No one has called me. No one has said anything.”

Allman reports that the plan is to reduce staff by a third and cut salaries of the remaining staffers, who’ll blog regularly for Nola.com.

A piece at Nola.com authored by the “The Times-Picayune” doesn’t mention any specific plans for the staff:

“We did not make this decision lightly,” said [Ricky] Mathews [president of the newly created NOLA Media Group]. “It’s the toughest part of transitioning from a print-centric to a digitally-focused company. Our employees make us the company we are today, and we will work hard during this transition to treat all of them with the utmost respect for the hard work and dedication they’ve shown over the years.”

Starting in the fall, the paper will be published on Wednesday, Friday and Sunday because these are the days most in-demand for advertisers.

It’s easy to wisecrack as friends and I have this morning—What about the debs? How will I ever keep track of poor Luann’s love life? Will Steve Kelley be funnier if he doesn’t have to draw so often?—but this news is disturbing at a number of levels, starting with the possibility that 100 to 150 talented people will be out of a job in this economy. We won’t know the details until it happens, but it certainly sounds like those who stay will be asked to do more for less money. If that’s true, this is a shameful betrayal of those who helped get the paper back to life after Hurricane Katrina and an inhumane way to reward those who opted not to take the buyouts that were offered in 2009. (This also gives us a reason to pause when we think about Republicans’ emphasis on freeing businesses up to be “job creators,” but that’s a digression.)

As a journalist, I’m also saddened to see good, professional writers face the choice of accepting harsh pay cuts or being out of a job. That’s not the sort of choice that a community-oriented organization offers its best and most loyal people.

The story at Nola.com assures us that we will continue to get a week’s worth of society coverage, comics and puzzles, as well as “a richer and deeper news, sports and entertainment report.” That seems hard to imagine if writers are being focused on regular online blogging. Not impossible, obviously, but it’s hard to imagine that we’ll see meaningful, multi-part journalism like the recent look at the prison business.

One staffer I spoke to referred to the Huffington Post as a model for what’s to come, which suggests that the new Nola.com could be more varied in its approach, but much of what’s there—and across the blogosphere—is written in response to the hard reporting that mainstream journalists have done. In this new climate, will someone like David Hammer have the time, resources, support and will to cover the investigation into the BP oil spill as thoroughly as he did?

These days, we need journalists holding government and industry’s feet to the fire, and it’s not clear that a web-first approach will make that happen. I don’t know if I would have clicked on a story on the now-withdrawn hospitality zone proposal, but I discovered the plans to fill its board with unelected members when flipping through the pages. I wonder if such a plan will encounter the outcry it received if it is proposed next year.

A recent study showed how the places we get our news affects our grasp of current events. I won’t make an issue of which news outlet makes you know less than people who don’t read or watch the news, but one thing that was consistent regardless of your favored news source is that we have a poor grasp of international affairs. When those stories become part of a menu that have to be clicked on and not something you run across in the process of reading, it’s likely that they’ll be passed over and we’ll be even less informed.

I assume the NOLA Media Group anticipates election coverage and the return of football to help drive people to the site. After all, since there will be no Monday or Tuesday paper, there will be no print coverage after Saints games. Right now, it’s easy to fear that the sky is falling (and for the people working there, it is), but I hope that professionals will continue to do a professional job of gathering and reporting the news. I’d like to think that this doesn’t represent the abdication of journalism in New Orleans, but it’s hard to be optimistic that the NOLA Media Group has the city’s interests in mind and that its priorities are journalistic.

Gathering of the Tribe

Jan Ramsey kicked a hornets’ nest when she raised the issue of accessibility at Jazz Fest for those with disabilities. The conversation that followed in the comments on her post is lengthy, rambling and contentious, but there’s a near-universal sense that the festival ought to do better by festgoers who need help getting around. They’re right, but I wonder if the conversation would be the same if Jazz Fest hadn’t courted the aging baby-boomer audience for so many years. Do older Bonnaroo, Austin City Limits, Coachella and Voodoo fans expect to be similarly accommodated, or will they?

Photo by Kim Welsh.

Photo by Kim Welsh.

Still, those who think Jazz Fest jumped the shark have a point. In a series of incremental steps, it has lost sight of what was once most meaningful to festgoers—the sense of community. When it was a much smaller and younger festival, there was a good chance that most of the attendees shared values, enthusiasms and cultural beliefs. Jazz Fest was a gathering of the tribe, but as it became bigger and brought in more commercial acts, that feeling of unity was fractured.

Many who love roots music do so because they see it as the antithesis of the acts that now define the biggest stages, and you can see that tension play out on message boards, comment streams and Twitter feeds between Jazz Fest traditionalists and those drawn by the big name acts. This year’s headliners were about as sympathetic to Jazz Fest’s core sensibility as could have been booked, but the feeling of audience unity is further splintered by the various VIP packages, which create a class system at a festival that once celebrated music at its most democratic.

If this process isn’t inevitable, it’s hard to fight. Saying no to growth, expansion and greater significance takes a remarkably strong sense of purpose. Add to that the way New Orleans relies on Jazz Fest as an economic engine, and it’s clear that wagging a finger at Festival Productions is a simplistic response to complicated issues. Besides, last summer, one of our interns lodged a similar complaint about Bonnaroo and how it had morphed from a jam-band retreat to a festival that includes rappers and electronica artists.

Jazz Fest has done its part to create much of the discontent that accompanied a generally strong festival, but people also need to reconsider their own expectations and desires. Which ones are realistic and missteps on the festival’s part, and which ones reflect a desire for days that are gone for good? We’re in uncharted territory here as the first generations not to put down their music when they became adults enter their rickety years.

How Disneylanding Happens

Today’s Times-Picayune has a story by Jaquetta White on the revisions for the planned downtown taxing zone—an area from the river to Claiborne Avenue, and from the Pontchartrain Expressway to Elysian Fields. White writes:

New Orleans Square in Disney World. Photo by Wendi Dunlap.

New Orleans Square in Disney World. Photo by Wendi Dunlap.

As is, the proposal, written and supported by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration and local tourism leaders and sponsored by state Sen. Ed Murray and state Rep. Walt Leger III, seeks to create a new board of as many as 11 appointees that would make policy decisions and have the power to levy taxes and issue bonds. The board members would not have set terms and would not be elected by the public.

If passed, the legislation would allow the city to levy special taxes in a new “hospitality zone,” bounded by the Mississippi River, the Pontchartrain Expressway and Claiborne and Elysian Fields avenues. The money would be a sustained source of income for infrastructure improvements in the area.

Murray introduced bills to create this zone in this state legislative session with the upcoming Super Bowl and All-Star Game as the backdrop. The goal is obviously to beautify the most tourist-traveled parts of the city and beef up the tourist industry before these major events, and while this tourist zone represents a different process and a different entity than the noise/live music-related debates, it’s hard not to notice how hands-on and pro-active the Mayor’s office can be when it wants to be. It’s hard not to wonder if the Mayor’s office has delegated the noise-related questions to community leaders and councilmembers so that they can spend hours debating issues such as speaker placement until they slowly dither the questions until the debate ends, not because the issue’s solved but because inertia grinds the process to a bored, frustrating, inconclusive stop.

White’s story also gives us reason to be a little skeptical of the tourism leaders, and particularly the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau. The story online at Nola.com is illustrated by a photo of Allen Toussaint watching representatives of the Ashe Cultural Center in a parade that took place Tuesday in the French Quarter to celebrate National Tourism Week. Look behind Toussaint and you’ll see few people. The photos in the print edition make that point even more clearly as a photo by John McCusker on C-7 shows the Sophie B. Wright marching band parading through an essentially empty Quarter, and one on C-5 focuses on what looks like tourist bureau workers with umbrellas second lining. Judging solely by the photos, the event looks a lot like the sort of faux parade that takes New Orleans’ cultural practices out of context and empties them of meaning.

That’s how the Disneylanding of New Orleans will happen—not through radical decrees but through minor tweaks that separate activities from history and culture, done with the best civic motives in mind.

White’s story gives us reason to fear the same old empire building is about to take place, just in a new office:

In defending the plan, Stephen Perry, president and CEO of the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau, said that hotel operators acted “in the absence of every other citizen and business sector,” choosing to tax themselves in order to improve the area around them. Perry said hotel operators put their businesses at greater risk for competition by deciding to move forward with an additional tax.

“It’s because of the complete lack of selfishness on the part of (local hotel operators) that this is happening,” Perry said. “The hotels are taking a major risk by increasing the taxes on their hotels to make sure the French Quarter is safer, better lighted and has higher standards of sanitation.”

Perry also dismissed complaints he’s received that the proposal called for is too onerous a tax on local diners.

“This is not a tax on locals,” Perry said, dismissing the proposed .25 percent tax on food at restaurants in the designated hospitality zone as “so small.”

“If a local goes in the French Quarter for dinner and it’s $100, this will add $0.25 to their bill,” Perry said.

But in return, he said, the visitors bureau would be able to use funds raised through the tax to hire eight to 10 new convention sales managers and launch an international marketing campaign. Meanwhile, the marketing corporation would be able to engage in more substantial marketing programs in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, places that have traditionally been too expensive.

Summarizing, hotel operators are heroes, a tax isn’t a tax if it’s small enough, and the CVB will grow in numbers and influence. The irony, though, is that what people seem to like so much about New Orleans is its realness. It’s a place where you can find a good brass band just off Canal Street, where memorial second lines spring up unpredictably because death isn’t predictable, and where history and culture shape the cool things people discover here. If the significance of those roots aren’t acknowledged, then the city’s just a big Bourbon Street with fewer bared breasts.

Jazz Fest Sunday: Preservation Hall, Foo Fighters, Asleep at the Wheel

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has spent the last few years establishing itself more than just the flag bearer for one stream of New Orleans music. Starting with the inclusion of Clint Maedgen and Carl LeBlanc (for a period) in the band’s lineup, the band has worked to be recognized as a part of American culture, underscoring the point that musicians make time and again—that music is music and genre labels are put on it by others. Sunday on the Gentilly Stage, the Hall Band and friends dramatized that point in a show that was largely but not solely a celebration of New Orleans music and the band’s place in it.

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

In some cases, the results were thrilling, such as when Trombone Shorty joined in for “It Ain’t My Fault” and Jim James from My Morning Jacket sang “St. James Infirmary” with less reverb on his voice than usual. Segments with Ani DiFranco, Steve Earle, and Allen Toussaint with Bonnie Raitt connected the band to larger musical traditions, and the final “I’ll Fly Away” was more rousing than everybody-on-stage closers often are. The only odd moment came with the Rebirth Brass Band. It joined with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band for a version of “Do Whatcha Wanna” that largely obscured the Hall Band not through intention but because the communal nature of the brass band sound makes it the dominant voice. Then they did a version of “Let’s Get it On” that was simply mystifying as it was neither a Rebirth composition nor a song that had much to do with the Hall. The segment was still a lot of fun, but it didn’t further the narrative. It also had one sweet touch. While many bands act too cool to care about Grammys and awards, Rebirth had somebody onstage with them to show off its Grammy.

In other Jazz Fest notes:

- I was scheduled to interview Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson and Jason Roberts after David Fricke’s interview of Ben Sandmel, Allen Toussaint and Walter “Wolfman” Washington on Ernie K-Doe. At one point, Toussaint played “Hello My Lover” and Benson and Roberts stopped tuning their guitar and violin respectively to pick up the song and join in. It wasn’t audible outside the stage’s green room, but they both obviously enjoyed it. “Now I can say I jammed with Allen Toussaint,” Benson said when the song was done.

- Foo Fighters were certainly the loudest band I can remember seeing at Jazz Fest, loud enough that I could not only hear them at the Congo Square Stage, but I could hear them well enough to know what they were playing. It was louder at the back than it was up front, and more than that, it was hard. The latter reminded me why I like-don’t-love Foo Fighters—because there’s no room in their songs. They’re full of sound with three guitars, keys, bass, drums, and Dave Grohl’s full-throated, raw vocals, which were as in-your-face as any guitar. The band’s to be applauded for working as hard on the first song as it does on the last, but it also means that there’s no way for the set to grow and become more intense without fireworks or blood sacrifice. The band could go quieter as it did for a surprisingly faithful cover of Tom Petty’s “Breakdown,” but it couldn’t get harder than hard. The set ended well with a run through the earlier hits which were, tellingly, more dynamic, less raging songs. A rampaging “Everlong” was exciting precisely because it wasn’t as heavy or relentless the first time around.

- Supagroup performed earlier in the day on the Acura Stage and it sounded like the natural setting for the band. Its songs were made to crunch out of towers of speakers over a pasture of people, and it looked like it was reaching people as the crowd grew and was visibly engaged over the course of the set (with the exception of one Foo Fighters fan who sat and made Dungeons and Dragons characters). The challenge is how to get from bar to the stadium.

Jazz Fest Saturday: Bombino, Steve Earle, MyNameIsJohnMichael

When Rob Cambre and Quint Davis agree on something, the world is coming to an end or it’s something special. In the case of Bombino from Niger, it was one of the best sets of this year’s Jazz Fest. The young Tuareg guitarist led a four-piece band in the Blues Tent in a hypnotic set, exploring a seemingly limited number of notes in each song over a rhythmic pattern that the drummer locked into to such an extent that it became trippy as well as physical. His music’s akin to Hill Country blues if Hill Country blues were freed from blues scales and replaced with Arabic influences. There was a time when the world music offerings would be among Jazz Fest’s highlights, and it’s nice to see that component of the festival return.

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Elsewhere at the fest:

- Steve Earle introduced “This City” at the Fais Do-Do Stage by explaining that the economy bottoming out helped New Orleans “dodge a bullet” from Disneyfication: “There wasn’t enough money to fuck over the city the way they planned. From here on, it’s all about vigilance.” Words to live by.

- Saturday was Cinco de Mayo, which Jazz Fest celebrated with Paulina Rubio. I was fascinated by her set, but her show and Ne-Yo’s after it lost much of their spectacle in the crushing late afternoon sun. Unlike many Jazz Fest sets, they both seemed inextricably tied to a more show-bizzy presentation than Jazz Fest makes possible.

- MyNameIsJohnMichael played a number of songs from his upcoming album during his set at the Gentilly Stage Saturday, and they showed admirable growth. They’re still clearly his songs, but they’re less showy and more self-assured. “Northern Sticks” stands out, and “Orphan” has graduated to set closer with Craig Klein joining his horn section for the occasion. John Michael Rouchell clearly enjoys working with horns and has worked out a new arrangement for the first album‘s “Althea and the Company Store” that gives a song that I’ve always thought a little precious some valuable heft.

- The Eagles‘ version of “Take it Easy” was appalling in its lifelessness. The crowd was far more invested in it than the band was.

Jazz Fest Friday: Mystikal, Theresa Andersson, Feufollet & Ani DiFranco

Friday at Jazz Fest was a good day for a lot of interesting music, even though little that I saw was wholly successful. Yvette Landry’s honky tonk and western swing knocked me out like it didlast year and was the most spot-on music I heard, while Mystikal was the most curious. I missed the start of the set when he first addressed his eminent return to prison for violating the terms of his probation, but The Times-Picayune‘s Alison Fensterstock reports on it here. Like her, I found it hard to suppress mixed feelings during the show. Everyone I know who’s dealt with Mystikal speaks well of him, but he was arrested for misdemeanor domestic abuse battery in February, and to say at the end of the set, “If your girl gets into it, walk away; me, I’m going to run” seemed to miss his role in his return to jail. Bringing out his kids to show his human side further missed the point.

As a music show, though, Mystikal crushed for a solid 15 minutes with a live band that was as hard as his voice but, unlike the live band that Lil Wayne carries, his was a funk band, not a rock band. His relationship with this powerful rhythm engine brought to mind the relationship between James Brown and his band—a relationship that has been implied to a lesser degree by hip-hop since the first “Funky Drummer” sample. But at some point, the punishing sun on the Congo Square Stage got to Mystikal. He started sitting down between songs, held bottles of cold water against his neck, and stopped songs when his DJ rolled too quickly from the song they just finished to the next one on the set list. He complained about it feeling like 200 degrees onstage, and his white undershirt was stuck by sweat to his skin. He didn’t look out of shape, and after a few songs he recovered enough to stay with the show, but he wasn’t his usual flamethrower self.

Theresa Andersson

Theresa Andersson also felt the heat during her set on the Gentilly Stage earlier in the day, but it didn’t show. She later said that she felt lightheaded when she raised her hand onstage, but that didn’t stop her from enjoying temporary freedom from her battalion of foot pedals and dancing to her band. For Jazz Fest and the dates leading up to it, she assembled a big band that literalized the connection between her new Street Parade and marching bands. Soon she will be a solo performer again, but she had four drummers, including husband Arthur Mintz, and six horns onstage with her, and when she performed the still-unreleased “Orpheus” with its chorus about “high-stepping into my heart,” the drumline pounded like one marching on St. Charles Avenue.

As a solo performer, Andersson has turned making music into a very exacting dance, and she seemed to really enjoy having a community of friends onstage with her, feeding off the energy and sense of fun that the three women in the horn section brought to the stage. Musically, the section as a whole was more spirited than precise, but the trade-off worked when the sound didn’t push them inexplicably far forward in the mix. The big band made it possible for her to perform “Japanese Art” from Hummingbird, Go!, which she hadn’t been able to play with loops, and it turned the skeletal, percussion-oriented “Fiya’s Gone” into an arena rock rouser. The big band didn’t transform the closing “Listen to My Heels” as much as it made the song bigger. The mood and feel were the same as on the record, but the song became bigger and more physical, by itself justifying the idea musically.

Elsewhere on the grounds:

- A friend groused about the drummer in Feufollet, but gunfire could have broken out during their version of the Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” and I wouldn’t have noticed.

- “It turns out showing up for morning meetings and playing folk songs won’t get your kid into Lusher”—Ani DiFranco in the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage on the limits of folk music.

Jazz Fest Thursday: Ladies First

I haven’t done the math, but it sure looked like Locals Thursday was Ladies Thursday. It was great to see two of the three main stages headlined by women—Esperanza Spalding’s Radio Music Society and Florence + the Machine—but when female headliners are few and far between, it seems unfair to make fans choose.

Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Spalding’s lateness made it possible to see some of both, though neither entirely paid off in the sections I saw. Florence + the Machine at their best are hard to resist. “Rabbit Heart” is so catchy that all preciousness is irrelevant, and singer Florence Welch worked the crowd with energy, grace and enthusiasm. I think I walked up during the middle of her set, though, as they moved into less energetic material that a friend dubbed “Harry Potter-like.” The songs relied more on Welch’s remarkable voice, and that was plenty for many.

Spalding, similarly, made her tremendous charisma work for her. The show was part of her attempt to present a vision of jazz that is radio-friendly without compromise, and while the music was smart and accessible, it suggested that she didn’t listen to that much radio. Melodies disappeared far too quickly, though the jazz-funk grooves effectively engaged the audience.

In other news:

- Every time I see Hurray for the Riff Raff, I’m struck by Alynda Lee Segarra’s growth as a vocalist. On the Acura Stage, she was a clear, powerful vocal presence, but her power isn’t her thing. She’s also vocally nuanced. She introduced “Take Me” as a dance number, and as upbeat as the song is, the lyrics suggest an abusive relationship. Segarra sings “You can throw me to the ground” with a hint of fierceness and a subtle undercurrent of sadness without ever stepping on the emotion to simplify a complex emotion.

- Rock ‘n’ Roll Moment: Glen Hansard was likely booked to play the Acura Stage because he was the opening act on Eddie Vedder’s tour, but Vedder’s cancellation didn’t mean Hansard was out too. He performed solo, but for a set-closing cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Drive All Night,” he invited a member of the stage crew to play drums on the song. “Joe” clearly had some musical background, likely playing metal. He started building the energy too early, and Hansard suggested he reign it in so he’d have room to grow. The crowd rose and fell with Joe’s progress, and the version of “Drive All Night” was really good too.

- This year’s world music bookings at Jazz Fest have been spot-on. Cheick Hamala Diabate and Chico Trujillo both killed on the Jazz and Heritage Stage, though Trujillo’s stage show made me wonder if I was seeing the Mighty Mighty Bosstones of Chile.

- There’s nothing like watching the moment when a show takes off. It was obvious in Dayna Kurtz‘s set in the Lagniappe Stage. The set started fine, but the third song was a blues song, “Do I Love You,” introduced by John Gros, who sat in on organ. Kurtz picked up on the feel in his accompaniment and moved heart and soul into the lyric, feeling the song as if she wrote it. That commitment carried over to a couple red-hot rockabilly and rockin’ blues numbers including “Lou Lou Knows” with Robert Mache’s guitar playing fueling the fire.

Photos from Thursday at Jazz Fest

Royal Teeth Now With Dangerbird Records + Win A Jazz Fest Ticket From MyNameIsJohnMichael

Royal TeethRoyal Teeth have signed to Dangerbird Records (Silversun Pickups, Boots Electric, Fitz and the Tantrums), and their song “Wild” has been featured in a Buick commercial. Here’s “Wild,” available for free download.

 

MyNameIsJohnMichael is so excited to play Jazz Fest Saturday, May 5 at 12:40 p.m. on the Gentilly Stage that the band is giving someone a ticket to the festival that day:

To win you must ‘Like’ our Facebook page…then share our contest post on your page to let all your friends know…or post your own status update on Facebook tagging @ MyNameIsJohnMichael…we’ll choose ONE winner at random on Friday at 12/noon.

Jazz Fest Weekend One: Beach Boys, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Seun Kuti and More

Technical difficulties prevented my daily Jazz Fest report online this weekend. Here’s the weekend in one lengthy post. Thanks for your patience.

 

Friday

Saturday’s Times-Picayune included a photo from the Beach Boys’ set with only the top of Brian Wilson’s head and his anxious eyes visible behind his white piano. As a picture of fear, it’s beautiful; as news, it’s about 35 years late. Wilson was a catatonic contributor when he first returned to the stage, and that was 10 years after he stopped touring because of a panic attack. In 2012, talk and photos about Wilson’s mental state are documenting a ridiculously old story. Just as the band’s early material presented a vision of California that generations since have wished for, fans hope that each Brian Wilson appearance is going to be the one where he somehow snaps out of it, but by now we know it’s not going to happen and should instead focus on what’s there. Friday he was his usual, fairly inert presence onstage, but his voice was in better shape than it was when he was last at Jazz Fest, and there were some sweet, gently animated touches in his performance of “God Only Knows.”

Brian Wilson at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Friday, April 27. Photo by Earl Perry.

Brian Wilson at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Friday, April 27. Photo by Earl Perry

The show was billed as a “celebration” of the band’s 50 years, but it didn’t feel celebratory, perhaps because nobody onstage looked very happy. The years haven’t been any kinder to Mike Love than they have to Wilson, and a look at the audience that was once randy now looked like lechery tinged with anger. The only interaction between people onstage came when actor John Stamos came out to take the drum throne that he occupied during one of the post-Brian incarnations of the band. Stamos was Love’s guy, unlike the Wondermints’ Mike D’Amico, who has been backing Wilson live in recent years and on this tour. Love did a schticky intro of Stamos, explained theatrically what he wanted him to do in the song—”Be True to Your School”—then made a joke about sleeping with Stamos’ mother the year the song came out. “That’s a ‘yo mama’ joke,” Love proclaimed proudly to end the coarse bit.

The set started with seemingly rote performances of the band’s early classics and a few oddities, including “Then I Kissed Her” and “The Old Cotton Fields Back Home”, but by the middle of the set, the material and performance came together for a beautiful string that included “California Girls,” “Sloop John B,” “Sail On, Sailor,” “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows.” The run ended with the new “That’s Why God Made the Radio”—the sort of oldies-like song that appeared on many of the later Beach Boys album that never sounded classic nor contemporary.

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I feared the show was going to sound like three guys in front of you singing in front of the songs you know and love because the Wondermints can play and sing the songs the way we want to hear them. Wilson, Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks acquitted themselves far better than I expected. The show wasn’t as thrilling as Wilson’s because there was a built-in drama that made its beauty poignancy, but it was as strong a performance as could likely be expected from the Beach Boys 50 years later.

Other notes from Jazz Fest:

- “If you said you wanted to jump off the Eiffel Tower, he’d call someone to help you get there,” Seun Kuti said during his interview on the Alison Miner Music Heritage Stage. “Of course, he’d say, ‘You know you’re going to die, right?’” Kuti was talking about the hands-off parenting style of his father, Afrobeat pioneer Fela. He repeated Fela’s assertion that good African music sounded good without the drums, then demonstrated that playing a song on the tiny stage accompanied only by bass player Justice and Egypt 80′s baritone sax and trumpet.

As funky and compelling as the horns-and-bass combo was, the full 16-piece band (scaled down for the American tour) was ferocious on the Congo Square Stage. Kuti started the show as he starts all of them—with a Fela composition “as a sign of respect.” He dramatized the lyrics to “Zombie,” at points walking theatrically and spastically from imaginary collision to imaginary collision, and the physical dimension added something valuable to the music. Seun’s Afrobeat is as political as Fela’s, and on record there is little sense of pleasure, despite the relentlessly funky grooves. Kuti took obvious pleasure in the extreme physicality of his performance, even using it for comic effect. In his introduction to “The Good Leaf,” he remarked on the injustice in goverments’ anti-marijuana stance. “Mother Nature sends a tsunami, kills hundreds of thousands—not illegal. Mother Nature sends a little plant—” and he finished the sentence with a jumping stomp. On cue, the air filled with pot smoke.

- The confidence David Shaw has developed as the lead vocalist for the Revivalists was obvious and impressive Friday at the Gentilly Stage. This year, there are speakers on the ground in front of the stage, and Shaw regularly performed from them, twice sitting down on them—once with guitarist Zack Feinberg—to perform as casually and informally as if he was on his porch. That he succeeded in making the moment intimate was even more impressive.

- The first act of this year’s Jazz Fest to interrupt my plans was Leyla McCalla, whose set in the Lagniappe Tent was riveting in its self-assured smallness. She played a strummed cello and banjo, and was accompanied by a second banjo and, on occasion, Alfred “Uganda” Roberts on percussion and the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Rhiannon Giddens on vocals. McCalla is performing with the Carolina Chocolate Drops these days, and like them, she’s exploring old music without making it sound old. Friday, her set leaned heavily on Haitian folk songs, but what was most winning was her artistic confidence—the assurance that the music and performance never needed more than three acoustic instruments. And she was right.

Photos from Friday, April 27 at Jazz Fest

 

Saturday

This morning, music industry critic Bob Lefsetz wrote about a recent Bruce Springsteen show:

What kind of crazy fucked up world do we live in where the highlight of a Bruce Springsteen show is not only a new song, but one that features rapping?

We don’t go to the Springsteen show to look forward, but back. To when we were thin, our skin was smooth and our hopes and dreams exceeded our losses, when we still had our optimism.

But decades have taken their toll. It’s not that we don’t smile, it’s just that it didn’t work out how we planned. So we go to the Springsteen show to remember, who we were, when music was the most powerful medium, when we felt we could change the world.

Lefsetz then talks about changes in the music business and the world since Springsteen’s heyday before finishing on a more positive note:

So you scrape up a hundred bucks and go to see Bruce Springsteen. Who’s like a traveling preacher of old. And despite all the press, most people don’t care. Just you.

And that’s enough. You just want to go to the show and hang with your brethren, whose names you do not know, but whose lives you’re very familiar with. You had the same experiences, you bought “Born To Run”, you went to the show, it energized you, made you think of the possibilities.

There’s a lot of truth in that, but it was also true Saturday to a lesser degree for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ set at the Acura Stage. His music isn’t as self-consciously a rallying cry or the expression of a conscience, but as the acres of people that jammed the stage made clear, Petty was one of those artists who could be a focal point for that collective moment. He’s demographically perfect for Jazz Fest—started in the ’70s, he believes in the rock ‘n’ roll verities, and he continued to release hits into the ’90s. Generations have first-hand relationships with his music.

With that in mind, all Petty had to do was show up and play the hits and most of the crowd would have been very happy. Many main stage acts have done exactly that, but Petty’s set list reached for album tracks, bluesier songs from 2010′s Mojo, and a garage-rock take on Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man.” He didn’t neglect the hits, but he refused to be a nostalgia machine and didn’t limit himself to them either.

Petty’s obviously a musical veteran, but the years don’t show in ways that matter. His Florida accent is still very present, and even though he and the Heartbreakers are better players than they once were, it never felt like time and professionalism had worn away anything essential. “Here Comes My Girl” from Damn the Torpedoes still has a slightly awkward hitch as it goes from the pre-chorus to the chorus, and thousands of performances haven’t made the transition easier. As such, the show never felt like memories of rock ‘n’ roll past but for many, like rock ‘n’ roll memories being made.

Elsewhere on the Fair Grounds:

Cee Lo Green at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Apr. 28, 2012. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Cee Lo Green at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Apr. 28, 2012. Photo by Kim Welsh.

- If Jazz Fest wants to book the Congo Square Stage like it’s on par with Acura and Gentilly, it needs a similar chair policy. The glut of chairs up to rails put there by people waiting for Cee Lo Green brought back bad memories of acrimonious real estate battles at the Acura Stage from years ago. Friends and I waded in to try to see Cheikh Lo and got serious stink eye every time we tried to stop.

- Note to bands: Don’t count down how many songs you have left. It seems like you’re apologizing to us for having to put up with you as you reassure us that you’ll be out of our hair in moments.

- Is there something Pavlovian in the hear-weed/smoke-weed connection? On Friday, Seun Kuti introduced “The Good Leaf” and on cue, there was smoke in the air. Saturday in the Lagniappe Stage, Meschiya Lake sang “Reefer Man” and no sooner had she finished the first line when….

- Empress Hotel sounded great opening the Acura Stage with verses that establish mood before shifting with admirable and almost imperceptible grace into lovely hooks that they weren’t afraid to work for a bit. In early press materials I received on the band, glam rock band Sparks was named as an influence, something I hadn’t heard until Saturday when the big stage PA made the affectations in Micah McKee’s voice clearer. He’s mannered, but not so much that it’s distracting, nor so much that it mutes the emotional impact of a song. He introduced “Search Lights” as being inspired by Al Green, and you can feel his reverie in the “waiting for the sun” passage. You had to wait a moment to hear the soul in the song, though. At first, all I heard was Dark Side of the Moon-era Pink Floyd, which made me wonder if Floyd is in the indie air these days. During the Revivalists’ set Friday, David Shaw sang a couple of extended wordless vocal passages that recalled “The Great Gig in the Sky” (and he did them justice).

- The Soul Rebels performed in the bomb site that was the Congo Square Stage after Cee Lo’s set, and they included their cover of “Enter Sandman”—a song they added to their repertoire for a week of shows in San Francisco opening for Metallica. I had looked forward to seeing them do it since I first saw video of it, but in this context, it seemed like a novelty, and as a friend observed, less funky than everything around it in the set. It certainly paled next to the Earth, Wind & Fire-inspired dance party of “504.”

Jeremy Lyons at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Apr. 28, 2012. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Jeremy Lyons at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Apr. 28, 2012. Photo by Kim Welsh.

- “If we weren’t playing, we’d be out there,” Feist said, referring to Tom Petty’s show at the other end of the Fair Grounds. She was wrapping up an adventurous set with “a lullaby”—“Let it Die”, with its melancholy chorus “the saddest part of a broken heart / isn’t the ending so much as the start.” The last half the show didn’t lead inevitably to that moment, though. She rarely went to such a confessional and conventional place, More representative was the percussive “Sealion”, with the backing vocalists including the three-woman group Mountain Man adding percussion in the way they phrased the song’s title in each repetition. It bordered on tribal, over which she added a couple of knotty, distorted guitar solos. It was much heavier than the version on The Reminder and a reminder that there’s far more to her than the lightweight “1-2-3-4″—her introduction to much of America.

- Normally, I grouse about the boomy, cannon-like drum sounds seemingly preferred by Jazz Fest soundmen. I don’t get it since it usually adds murk in the low end, but it was exactly right for Jerome Deupree at the Jeremy Lyons and Members of Morphine set in the Blues Tent. The band’s emphasis on low-end sonics—Dana Colley’s baritone sax and Lyons’ two-string bass—was perfectly suited to the tent, where the roof kept the sound in and the cement floor kept it all alive if not exactly reverberating. I look forward to this band developing a clearer identity—it performs under the name it used at Jazz Fest and as the Ever-Expanding Elastic Waste Band, and it has performed bluesier sets and more Morphine-oriented sets—but it was a perfect matching of space and band and setlist on Saturday.

Photos from Saturday, April 28 at Jazz Fest

 

Sunday

“In the Gris-Gris days, you scared me,” Bruce Springsteen told Dr. John when the Night Tripper joined him onstage Sunday at Jazz Fest. Dr. John led the E Street Band in a version of Chris Kenner’s “Something You Got,” one of Sunday’s many variations from the setlist Springsteen has been playing on this year’s Wrecking Ball tour. It started fairly conventionally with “Badlands,” “We Take Care of Our Own,” “Out in the Streets” and “Wrecking Ball,” but Springsteen also revisited songs from We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, the songs he played when he first appeared at Jazz Fest in 2006. They’d only practiced them in the trailer before the show, he warned, and the starts were accordingly imprecise, not that anybody cared. “O Mary Don’t You Weep,” “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?” and “Pay Me My Money Down” were received as enthusiastically as every other nugget from the Springsteen catalogue, new and old.

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The show didn’t quite span the breadth of Springsteen’s career, but it came close, reaching back as far as Born to Run and visiting Darkness on the Edge of Town and The River, the latter for “Out in the Street.” The song seemed a little lightweight sandwiched between the weightier songs from Wrecking Ball, but it also made a subtle point as it dramatized the sort of life and good times that are threatened by the economic forces that haunt the new album. It was one of the few times when Springsteen did anything subtly Sunday, but it was more powerful than his self-conscious evocation of spirits—a thread that ran throughout the show with forced determination. Sometimes he coaxed some drama from it, such as when he asked with ministerial repetition, “Are you missing anybody?” More often, though, it felt heavy-handed and unnecessary.

He was winning the audience even before mentioning spirits through his obvious passion for rock ‘n’ roll and the joy of playing it. He’s a showman, and his gift for decades has been his ability to connect at a human level, even in arenas. On Sunday he left the stage for a riser about 20 feet from the stage, where he finished “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day” with a young man he’d pulled from the crowd. He gave the fan the mic to take over the lead vocals on the chorus. As the guy’s nerves kicked in, he struggled, but Springsteen encouraged him. When Springsteen shouted, “C’mon E Street Band,” the guy reflexively did the same and Springsteen lifted the guy by his waist and held him up in an oddly sweet moment. On his way back to the stage, someone threw Springsteen a hat that he put on and wore back to the stage with equal charm. Moments like that or dancing with the signing women were more powerful than the theatrically slow, mournful interpolation of “When the Saints Go Marching In” into the gospel-tinged “Rocky Ground.”

Springsteen’s ability to connect with his audience is linked to his ability to evoke community, another trait from the earliest days. The E Street Band has always been a large band, and he’s joked with them, mythologized them, and made the sheer number of band members speak. Sunday was no different, though rather than using Miami Steve Van Zandt as his foil, he invited the horn section, including Jake Clemons, Clarence’s nephew, to join him in jaunts to the lip of the stage. Springsteen was part of an onstage community and did everything possible to make it seem like everybody in the crowd was part of it too. During the show-closing “10th Avenue Freeze-Out,” he paused after the line, “When the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band” and hugged a sign that someone had made—“New Orleans Loves Clarence”—and orchestrated a prolonged cheer in Clemons’ honor. It furthered the sense of community and was the show at its best.

Other Springsteen thoughts:

- He introduced “Jack of All Trades” with pointed, class-conscious thoughts that referenced the Occupy Movement. Did the people with enough money to buy their way into the VIP trough immediately in front of the stage have enough self-awareness to cringe in that moment?

- While the assembled masses felt community with Bruce, they weren’t that fond of anybody encroaching on their space. At noon, the Acura Stage grounds were fully staked out from the chalk line to the track with people starting to move folding chairs into the drainage trench that serves as a walkway. Some stretched out their tarps to occupy enough space to park an Acura. One group in the standing area had laid down their folding chairs to demarcate their territory by a barrier. The whole land-grab vibe was heinous.

- People who hope that one day Jazz Fest will get a McCartney or U2 should remember this weekend, which likely marked the high end of what Jazz Fest can accommodate without reconfiguring the grounds. It’s not simply that Springsteen and Tom Petty have massive followings; it’s that they’re so big that the small percentage of passionately committed fans can still fill the Acura lawn. Even people who normally wander camped out for Springsteen, and the situation would only be worse with bigger bands.

Elsewhere Sunday:

- At the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Johnny Sansone spoke of how he liked playing the opening slot on the Acura Stage on Sunday—how there are five people there when you walk onstage, and how they become 500 once you start playing and become thousands after that. This year, that was tens of thousands, all there from the first note waiting for Bruce. Fortunately, he was up for it with a band that included Anders Osborne and John Fohl. “Invisible” from The Lord is Waiting and the Devil is Too was so moody that it created a haunted moment on a sunny day.

Dave Pirner, Rene Coman, Rick Olivier and Alex McMurray at the Tribute to Alex Chilton at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Apr. 29, 2012. Photo by Kim Welsh.

Dave Pirner, Rene Coman, Rick Olivier and Alex McMurray at the Tribute to Alex Chilton at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Apr. 29, 2012. Photo by Kim Welsh.

- Alex Chilton valued the feel of a performance more than its precision, and it was as if he sent the wind to his tribute at the Gentilly Stage to keep things spontaneous. At one point, Susan Cowsill was helping Dave Pirner with his lyric sheets when the whole sheaf blew off her stand. The wind kept things off-balance but it never derailed the enthusiastic, in-the-right-spirit performance. The Iguanas‘ Rene Coman and Doug Garrison made the tribute one Chilton would enjoy, with songs from his career that Chilton still performed played by people he knew and had some connection to. Players included Alex McMurray, Memphis sax player Jim Spake, Davis Rogan, James Singleton, Vicki Peterson and more. Rick Olivier of the Creole String Beans was particularly entertaining as he sang the songs from Like Flies on Sherbert.

- Hipsters Assemble! Boston’s Debo Band looked irredeemably like a cool kids project, with three horns, two violins, an accordion, guitar, bass and drums playing “Ethiopian groove” music. It worked remarkably well, though, and was often genuinely heavy. A lot of the credit goes to charismatic vocalist Bruck Tesfaye, whose relentless energy and ability to sing while bouncing gave the set just enough authenticity and charm.

Photos from Sunday, April 29 at Jazz Fest

Jazz Fest First-Timers Take Note

One of our readers, “Coach,” wrote us with his Jazz Fest guide for first-timers. Here it is. If you’ve got additions or other ideas that Coach may have missed, let us know. We may need to post your suggestions as well.

Here are my band suggestions. Try to see them at night time as well as during daytime. Or mix and match it up. Or do whatever the hell you want to do. There’s so much going on that planning (at least for me) borders on ludicrous and lots of people will end up getting pissed off that you’re not “on plan.”

Trombone Shorty, by Aaron Lafont

Rebirth – MUST see, indoors/outdoors, early/late. They’re the epitome of a great NOLA brass band.

Trombone Shorty – MUST see, he’s the most “on-friggin’ fire” guy going. He’ll have an amazing, eclectic assortment of stars with him.

Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys – MUST see for authentic rockin’ zydeco, another legend Rosie is.

The Stooges Brass Band, the Soul Rebels, TBC Brass Band, New Birth Brass Band, the Dirty Dozen, etc. – All have their own charm and infectious enthusiasm. Always fun.

Anders Osborne, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, John Mooney all blow doors off.

Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias – They always play on Sunday at “Coach’s Spot,” Heritage Stage, for those of you who don’t know or haven’t seen me there in the past 17 years!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

- At the Fest, make an effort to check out all stages, even if for just a song or two. Hidden gems abound. Also, the grandstand has air-conditioning, long lines at much cleaner restrooms (for those that give a sh*t) than steaming hot, feces-laden port-o-potties (nice visual, eh?). I like the respite of AC personally, but only briefly.

Anders Osborne

- If you want to see a headliner, plan ahead.  Find a spot in front of one of the two big stages right after the previous bands set ends. Fest is very good at keeping the bands on track timewise. Otherwise, NOLA has two times: It’s either getting darker or it’s getting lighter.  Bring your shades when you go out at night!!!!

NO BEADS – BEAD SEASON ENDED ON ASH WEDNESDAY.

Clubs:

The best shows start after 2:00 am, hands down. Sleep when you get home!!!!!

Maple Leaf is a favorite, as is Tipitina’s (always a clusterf**k at Fest though) and Rock-n-Bowl (I think you all will really like this place, just a hunch). Gotta get a Bloody Mary at Igor’s with two caveats; 1) the sun must be coming up and 2) you have not slept. Talk about a freakshow!!!!!!

 

Jazz Fest vets: What do you have to add? What do first-timers need to know? Or has Coach pretty much covered it?