Jazz Fest Week One: Quick Thoughts

The Revivalists set the bar high for showmanship when they opened the Gentilly Stage on Friday. Not only did they bring guests out before noon—the Rebirth Brass Band—but they also brought out burlesque dancers who removed their tops and revealed their pasties as the song came to an end. What song? I have no idea.

What do you call it when Glen David Andrews plays “It’s All Over Now,” which was originally a soul song by Bobby Womack, then given a rock feel by the Rolling Stones, then a brass treatment by Rebirth, then semi de-brassed for the occasion by Andrews? Does it portend an Indian Summer? Six more weeks of Spring?

Jim James by Alex Rawls

There’s over the top, Over the Top, OVER THE TOP and Glen David Andrews, who figured out how to insert Little Richard’s verse-punctuating “Woooo!” into the middle of lines. He was on his knees before the first song was over and I was exhausted.

On Saturday, Ledisi worked almost as hard as Glen David Andrews, though she measured out her high points a little more judiciously, letting a song do the heavy lifting at one point, then showing off her voice for another. She stretched out “Brand New Day” into a James Brown-like breakdown, complete with a dance of her own devising. As she walked offstage then back to work the crowd, she even resorted to “Who Dat”s to try to pump the audience. First “Who Dat”s I’d heard all festival.

At one point during Simon and Garfunkel, I feared I’d need a refresher course on scientific notation to calculate the layers of nostalgia stacked up like pancakes in that show. Since Art Garfunkel’s voice largely abandoned him, nostalgia was what the show had to offer. When they performed the nostalgic-to-start-with “Mrs. Robinson” and inserted into it a verse of “Not Fade Away,” the nostalgia meter spun out of control. When the arrangement for the nostalgic-to-start-with “My Little Town” evoked the 1970s L.A. studio sound heard on James Taylor records, the nostalgia meter exploded.

Paul Simon will turn 70 in October, and since he more or less looks his age, it was hard to imagine what if anything these songs of youthful angst and alienation still hold for him. How does it feel to sing such lines of “poetry” as “to the neon gods they made” and “the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls”? The enthusiasm he showed for the Graceland material he performed while Garfunkel took a break only emphasized by contrast the distance he must feel from those thoughts and the young man who recorded them.

The love the duo got from the audience at Acura Stage says how much those songs mean to people—so much that they listened with great generosity. And in the sweetest moment of the show, everyone—Simon included—appreciated Garfunkel’s brave attempt to reach the high notes at the end of “Bridge over Troubled Water.” He missed them, but received an enthusiastic ovation and the first visible sign of affection onstage, a laughing smile and a hug from Simon.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s set Sunday was a reminder that there are no corny songs, just corny versions. It opened with a dynamic, joyful “Bourbon Street Parade” and closed with not one but two back-to-back versions of “St. James Infirmary.” The idea of repeating a song seems like a recipe for disaster, but the first was sung by My Morning Jacket’s Jim James and it had a haunting air, with James contributing ghostly moans while Terence Blanchard’s solo escalated the melancholy with grace. Blanchard remained onstage and took a different, livelier tack on the rollicking version sung by Clint Maedgen but whipped to the finish line by drummer Joe Lastie.

When it was done, I wished that the “Wonderful World of Louis Armstrong” set that someone joked should be competing versions of “What a Wonderful World,” with the winner the only person able to perform it for the rest of the year. Suddenly, it seemed not just like a public service but a potentially interesting show.

Robert “1-String” Gibson is the reason I go to Jazz Fest. The street musician had a folk artist’s lack of refinement, but he also had a huckster’s sense of how to make a dime on the street, which called all previous “shortcomings” into question.

He plays a guitar with one string because the cops broke most of the tuning pegs off of his guitar when he was thrown in jail one time. Sounds like a folk artist to me. But he opens with a one-stringed version of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” obviously referencing Hendrix. Too post-modern a move to be naïve.

A couple of generic blues songs. Maybe he is a folk artist. A song about singing on Bourbon Street in the summer with the chorus, “It’s hot / it’s hot / it’s hot out here. / I need a dressing room with air conditioning.” That’s the kind of song that’ll you get you paid on the streets.

He’s aware, and he’s practiced. He’s got enough guitar technique to be impressive, but I suspect most of it is showier more than difficult, and his tricks are the things that put dollars in his guitar case. Another Bourbon Street blues with lines that show little awareness of rhyme and meter is great, but the irregularities may be calculated to make people think they’ve seen a true primitive and drop another dollar. Or, maybe he’s really naïve.

I walked away from Gibson with more questions than answers and more to think about than I took from most shows this weekend.

It looks like fun being a Midnite Disturber, but I was at the show and heard it on WWOZ and couldn’t keep track of compositions or head arrangements as the players seemed to hurry to the solo sections. The vibe coming off the stage was infectious and helped, but I wish the solo-tag the Disturbers play mid-song built to more than just a series of solos.

The Blues Tent’s stage manager had to lay awake reliving James Andrews and the Crescent City All-Stars’ Sunday set. Who were all those people? Where did they come from? Had the show gone on much longer, audience members would have started cycling through a lineup that seemed to be in constant flux. James sang, Big Chief Alfred Doucette sang, James’ and wife Karen sang. One minute Kevin O’Day’s behind the drumkit; the next he has his son onstage dancing on the piano. For a cover of “If You Want Me to Stay,” there’s one keyboard player, but Josh Charles took over for “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” Andrews said he was having a party and it felt like one onstage, with two bassists (one, Matt Perrine), two guitarists and a horn section that included Craig Klein and Roger Lewis. The whole thing bordered on out of control (and I’m told before I got there, there was nothing “bordering” about it), but that wheels-could-come-off vibe was part of the fun and James was at the center of it.