Locals Thursday definitely felt like locals Thursday. Crowds were notably lighter, so much so that one woman on the track said, “This place is dead!” It wasn’t, but you could get close to almost any stage including Acura for headliner Ben Harper and the Restless7.
The day started with the Red Hawk Mardi Gras Indians, a tribe where all suits were equally beautiful and equally elaborate. No Wild Man. No Flag Boy. Just a row of Big Chief costumes. Something’s amiss.
in the Music Heritage Stage with twin Cajun fiddling with Joel Savoy and David Greely. Greely’s efforts delving into the history of these songs make his discussions of them scholarly without being impersonal.
Caught some food and a series of set-ending or set-starting notes before returning to the Grandstand for the tribute to Snooks Eaglin with Allen Toussaint, George Porter, Jr. and Brint Anderson subbing for Hammond Scott. The high point had little to do with Snooks, though. As moderator Ben Sandmel played a track so people could hear Snooks in action, Toussaint played along with the track. The freedom in his playing and the obvious look of pleasure on his face suggested that this was him at this happiest – revisiting simpler times when he was just a piano player on a session.
The Meter Men set was ultimately unsatisfying, though I can’t question their funkiness or musicianship. But the classic Meters compositions are as intricate as clockwork with a series of interlocking parts, each necessary to make the song work. With the Meter Men, Zig and Porter hold it down while Leo Nocentelli goes off on chorus after chorus, soloing with a hard rock tone that was at odds with the beautiful source material.
Kenny Bill Stinson’s set recalled Memphis’ Mud Boy and the Neutrons, Jim Dickinson’s Memphis rock band from the 1970s that clung the historical roots of the blues and rock ‘n’ roll without laying down their freak flag. Stinson loves classic rock ‘n’ roll, but not so much that he’s going to keep songs under three minutes. Fortunately, his soloing recalls Johnny Winter’s on Live Johnny Winter And – not in technique but in energy. And bringing out Steve Riley to join him on “Flozene” highlights the song’s swamp pop roots.
Ben Harper was generating an un-Ben Harper-like rock racket as I walked up, which I considered a promising sign. The Restless7 take Harper in a harder, less reefer-y direction. He was even standing up, wearing a blue checked shirt that seemed unfinished without a pocket protector. One new song echoed U2 as it slowly built intensity, but it built it very slowly and they took back down just at the point when the intensity was starting to get interesting. Harper’s attempt at reinvention was interesting, but it hadn’t come together yet.
The day ended with Solomon Burke’s thoroughly odd set, starting with the spectacle of Burke wearing a shiny purple suit in a pimped wheelchair, so large that it’s not clear if he’s reclining or if there’s simply so much of him that he appears to be reclining. His voice is still in remarkable condition and evidently, so is his fertility – 11 children and 90 grandchildren. Two daughters were onstage singing backing vocals – daughter Candy also sang lead on “I Will Survive” – and tending to Burke, toweling him off, cleaning his glasses, and popping something in his mouth. When Clarence Fountain, formerly of the Blind Boys of Alabama came out to sing a couple of songs, Burke played with his ponytail twice, the second time observing the difference in their hair styles.
There was a deeply weird control element in all of that, and the show would have been a circus if it hadn’t been for his voice, particularly on a brilliant version of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Later, he dedicated a song to “the Soul Clan” and named the soul greats that had passed on: Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Don Covay, Wilson Pickett and Percy Sledge – jumping the gun in the latter’s case because he’s not dead yet. Burke invited the audience to come on stage and dance, which was more complicated than it seemed at Congo Square. A verse and chorus later, 30 or so people made their way to the track, then behind the stage to the entrance, then up and on to the stage. The delay muted the effect a bit.