Classic rock radio is a scourge upon the airwaves, but classic rock itself could be a beautiful thing, full of great tracks that haven’t been recycled to death. And one of those tracks happened to be the first thing that greeted me at the Freret Street Festival this past weekend: The funk/rock band Gravy was onstage, and kicking into a song that fit my definition of vintage Southern rock: gospel-ish organ, stately plodding rhythm, greasy slide guitar. But that guitar lick suddenly sounded familiar from high-school days: Sure enough it was a song from the southern part of London, Pink Floyd’s “Fearless” (granted, as close to inspiring heartland rock as PF ever got). They followed that with “Buy You a Chevrolet,” a blues standard covered by lots of people, but most of us ‘70s kids learned it from Foghat—and judging from Gravy’s arrangement, they did too. Original tunes (including a couple of Meters-esque instrumentals) filled the rest of Gravy’s set; the reference points were familiar but it kicked hard and heartfelt. The band plays Jazz Fest on Thursday, May 2—I’m dreaming they could recreate the Floyd version of “Fearless” by grabbing a group from the Gospel Tent to do the “You’ll Never Walk Alone” finale.
There were plenty of familiar sounds on hand at the festival, including the vintage mono pressing of a Byrds album that I snagged from a vinyl vendor (complete with original price tag; apparently someone bought it for $2.89 at a place called the Exchange in 1966). Closer to home, the new edition of the Wild Magnolias were almost a tribute to the original, with Bo Dollis Jr. singing in a gruff voice that easily recalls his dad’s; and a young group recreating the funky Willie Tee arrangements of old. Dollis Jr. performs uncostumed, and the Indians paraded through the crowd while the band did its thing. Playing the far-end stage, the Creole String Beans’ covers of vintage New Orleans R&B and swamp-pop tunes are always a kick, but it’s easy to overlook the good humor of band-written tunes like “Funky Spillway” and their fashion statement, “Shrimp Boots & Vintage Suits.”
Biggest surprise of the day was Mia Borders, who I’d always seen playing solo acoustic and pegged as a brooding songwriter type. The show found her with a full electric band and showed that rocking out is more her forte. She still does a lot of brooding lyrically, but the group gives her the drama that she couldn’t summon with one guitar. It also brings out her tougher side, notably on “Forget My Name” (introduced as the first single from her forthcoming CD Quarter Life Crisis), a non-sentimental breakup song. With another guitarist she also gets more room to stretch out vocally; her cover of Bill Withers’ already-suggestive “Use Me” was full of what Dr. John would call “in-your-window.”