Holly Williams is Hank Sr’s granddaughter, so it’s not surprising how well she can sing a ballad. But her music harks back to the country-folk of Rosanne Cash and Mary Chapin Carpenter, and what stood out at her Gentilly set was the sweetness and vulnerability in her songwriting. When she sang about cheating and drinking, it was her partner doing both; and her life-on-the-road songs were about missing home, not about hellraising. Given the public images of Hank Jr. and Hank III, it’s interesting to hear a Williams sing about being on the receiving end of bad behavior.
A personal favorite, the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra find the zone where traditional jazz meets performance art. The lineup (including at least two moonlighting rockers, Sam and Jack Craft) claims to play authentic shipboard dance music of the 1890’s; they take the Economy Hall stage in captain’s outfits and use period instruments and purposely tinny amplification. They’re not completely faithful, however: I seriously doubt that many 19th century groups had Theramin players, or had the horn players shout “…without no drawers on!” during “I’m the Sheik of Araby.” The string arrangements often harked back to Carl Stalling’s Warner Brothers cartoon scores, and the whole sound was surreal in its jollity. They’ve been featured in Woody Allen movies, but I’d say David Lynch would be a closer match.
The Iguanas used to describe themselves as “garage-Latin,” but they’ve gradually gotten more into Latin groove and further from garage-rock in recent years. Their Gentilly set started with a couple of their best early rockers, “Oye Isabel” and “Boom Boom Boom,” but from there they got into Cuban and cumbia instrumentals that were infectious enough, but probably better suited to a late-night than a mid-afternoon set. They revved things back up by closing with the gallows-humored singalong, “Waiting For My Gin to Hit Me.”
Three years ago a one-stringed guitarist, Robert “One String” Gibson, caused a small sensation at Jazz Fest and this year the Ocho Rios, Jamaican artist Brushy One String seemed likely to do the same. The stripped-down guitar is an obvious attention-getting device, Brushy uses the low E string to play walking basslines and the guitar’s lower body as a hand drum. His material alternated between patois-heavy dancehall reggae and old-school Rasta spirituality, all of it was strong and his voice stood up to the minimal accompaniment. It remains to be seen if Brushy will come up with a set’s worth of good material—His Destiny album has just seven songs and on Friday he did similar half-hour sets at the Blues Tent and the Jazz & Heritage stage—so Quint Davis’ intro of him as an “international phenomenon” may have been be a tad premature. Wait and see, but his US debut was promising.
With a choice of living legends at day’s end, I’d planned to catch a few Jimmy Cliff songs and then proceed to Willie Nelson, but Cliff’s set proved too good to abandon. The recent success of his Rebirth album has likely revitalized Cliff, but he was always a savvy performer and you can’t argue with the catalogue, going back to 1969’s “Wonderful World, Beautiful People” and 1970’s “Vietnam” (which was turned into “Afghanistan” at Congo Square, but the closing chant of “Stop the war!” was the same). He also revived the ’70s cover of Cat Stevens’ “Wild World” that proved his ear for a pop song. Still in strong vocal form (if a tad raspier) at 65, Cliff is an affable showman, but traces of his tougher side aren’t far behind: Before “The Harder They Come” he mimed the memorable face-knifing scene in that movie and got the crowd to shout the character’s “Don’t …with me” threat . You can always count on hearing a couple covers of “Many Rivers to Cross” during Fest weekend, but the original was still the greatest.
A woman at Willie Nelson’s stage greeted me by saying “Excuse me, I’ve got goosebumps,” but I wasn’t sure whether she got them from “Always On My Mind” or just the dropping temperature. In either case, I caught a satisfying half-hour of Willie being Willie, with a Hank Williams medley, a couple songs he does at every show (“Georgia On My Mind”) and a couple less obvious ones: The latter segued into another Georgia song, Billy Joe Shaver’s “Georgia on a Fast Train,” which should be a standard but isn’t; and he introduced his the title tune of his latest album, the old Sinatra (and others) number “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”. Interesting that of the half-dozen Nelson shows I’ve seen, every one has ended with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” but at Gentilly he followed that with his latest song about life and death, and one the crowd clearly found more resonant: “Roll Me Up And Smoke Me When I Die.” There’s one to give you goosebumps, or at least the munchies.