This year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was probably the most anticipated in the event’s 36-year history. For months after Hurricane Katrina, worldwide fans of Jazz Fest wondered if it would happen, and if it did, what form it would take. How many stages? Would it be locals-only? Rumors of mega-stars U2, the Rolling Stones and Paul McCartney were all in the air. In the end, the festival looked a lot like festivals in the past minus two stages, and the rumors proved false, though Bruce Springsteen choosing to begin his Seeger Sessions tour in New Orleans was pretty big news.
Jazz Fest seemed particularly important this year because the period from Mardi Gras to Jazz Fest was the wounded city’s best chance to attract much-needed money and attention. With characteristic humility, Jazz Fest producer told The Miami Herald that the message he got from city leaders was, “No pressure, but we’d just like you to save New Orleans.”
Whether the festival did that or not remains to be seen, but there’s no doubting how good it felt to be back at the Fair Grounds, surrounded by remarkable music, remarkable food, and other people who love New Orleans’ culture and know how important it is. Here are our recollections of this year’s Jazz Fest — the good, the bad and the inexplicable.
By Rob Cambre (RC) Jeremy Deibel (JD), Geoffrey Himes (GH), Joseph Irrera (JI), Cree McCree (CM), Alex Rawls (AR), John Swenson (JS) and Geraldine Wyckoff (GW)
Friday — a genuinely beautiful day, not too humid, not too hot, but clearly a beginning-of-summer day. Early in the day, there was a disconcerting amount of space everywhere except in the line for posters, which was so long it prompted unpleasant flashbacks of FEMA, Red Cross and unemployment office lines. There was a lot of anticipation, not just for the start of the festival but also for Bob Dylan, slotted for the late afternoon show on the Acura Stage. Starting around 1 p.m., the deluge of people began, and people who came in through the Sauvage Street entrance reported waiting in line for almost an hour.
Nothing says “Jazz Fest” like watching people fight over space at the Acura Stage. At 11:35 a.m., a woman stood alone on a large blue tarp and tried to spread it out. One corner was blocked by people with chairs, so she tried to get them to move forward and when they wouldn’t, tried to spread her tarp around their chairs. At that point, a guy in the chair took exception and, well, unkind words were exchanged. Good times, good vibes.—AR
David Egan’s performance at the Acura Stage was like his songs — economical, no frills and perfectly soulful. During “After This Time” from his Twenty Years of Trouble album, he relied on a gentle blues shuffle, a wry wit and the vocal of man who knows he’s doing something he ought not do. There’s a lot to be said for embracing the eternal verities of the blues.—AR
While the name “Dukes of Dixieland” might conjure up images of straw hat-and-banjo cornball revivalism, their Economy Hall performance featured an extended duo between the bassist and drummer that wouldn’t have been out of place in a set by Dutch improv outcasts Han Bennink and Ernst Reijseger. Percussive string-slapping, cheeky song-quoting, drumsticks crackling on the neck and body of the bass — all of these antics ringing out as potent reminders of early jazz’s inherent radical streak. Maybe the festival should book Bennink and the ICP Orchestra in the trad tent next year (hint-hint).—RC
Jonathan Batiste channeled James Booker in the showstopping “E Flat Blues” in the Jazz Tent. Leaning back, stomping the beat during an extended piano solo, he pulled a handful of piano styles together with the brashness of youth. Like Booker, he even visited the classics, inserting a flourish-filled quote from Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude.” He waggled his foot in the air like a silent movie slapstick comedian, then hopped out from behind his keyboard on foot after the song as if he could defy the overwhelming air of decorum in the Jazz Tent. And, it turns out, he could.—AR
The Blues Tent was abandoned this year, but there was blues galore on the other stages, from Bryan Lee on the Southern Comfort Blues Stage to J. Monque’D at the Fais Do-Do Stage. Some kind of special magic hung on that Fais Do-Do Stage all weekend, and Monque’D wasted no time channeling it in the hottest set he’s ever turned in at Jazz Fest. Raful Neal Jr. and Marc Stone on guitars were chomping the stomp out of a hard-edged set of classic blues, pushed on by one of the city’s great R&B drummers, Willie Cole. With Nelson Lunding pounding away at the keyboard and Monque’D grunting and strutting and delivering blurted harp solos, this unit sounded like nothing less than the Muddy Waters band in its prime. Monque’D may have been pumped by the desperation that followed the loss of his new album, which was near completion when it was washed away in the flood.
Monque’D repeatedly referenced his experiences with the Baton Rouge blues tradition. “When I was a kid, we were scared to death of Slim Harpo,” Monque’D said. “He had the red devil looking eyes.” Monque’D then launched into an apocalyptic “Raining In My Heart” and followed with a tribute to Earl King and Professor Longhair, a merry, lurching “Big Chief” where he nailed the whistled melody and prompted a spontaneous second line. The show ended with an apoplectic hammering of Muddy’s “I’ve Got My Mojo Working,” Monque’D signifying with his gold teeth glittering through a wicked mustache grin under his tan fedora and wraparound shades.
After the crowd brought him back for an encore, Monque’D finished off with an unlikely turn, avoiding Katrina bromides to draw attention to another tragedy. “Every year at Jazz Fest I tell a story about why I sing the blues,” he said. “Let us not forget our brothers and sisters in Darfur in the Sudan in Africa.”—JS
In the same sense that James Taylor was never the “new Dylan” but always the “new Tony Bennett,” Keb’ Mo’ was never going to be the “new Robert Johnson” but always the “new Harry Belafonte.” Which is a good thing to be. Like Taylor, Bennett and Belafonte, Keb’ Mo’ represents middle-of-the-road pop at its elegant best. Like his predecessors, he framed his melodies in unfussy, focused arrangements at the Fair Grounds, and he delivered his lyrics in a tone true as a rule and clear as a bell. The fact that the blues were mere window dressing for his pop singing takes nothing away from the pleasure of his music.—GH
Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes’ paean to “Sweet Chalmette” (“that’s in St. Bernard, y’all”) was one of the first — and best — post-K moments of Jazz Fest. You gotta love a band that can transform a not-so-sly sendup of Y’at culture (“mama’s a drunk / daddy’s a loser / and old Uncle Frank’s a grade school cruiser”) into an angelic a cappella hymn and anthemic crowd singalong. It helped that the song’s pretty sweet to begin with, and the electric fiddle made it soar. But what really took it over the top was the collective realization that, while frozen fish sticks and mac & cheese aren’t hard to come by, “Friday nights at the Daiquiris and Cream” — like most of St. Bernard — ain’t dere no more.—CM
Overheard: Jazz Fest is “Woodstock with Walkers.”—JI
Good ol’ Bobby Dylan and his crackerjack band got down on a slew of favorite tunes from days of yore, or 1965 to be more precise. He brought a post-bop sax player’s sense of melodic invention to singing a setlist that leaned heavily on Highway 61 Revisited, a great move by any standard as those are some of his best songs. The alternate versions of these tunes from No Direction Home seemed to have primed the audience to openly accept these evolving renditions. Dylan’s continual reinterpretation of his own compositions saves him from becoming a hoary nostalgia act for the boomer set AND teaches a lesson to his musical descendants on the art of reinvigoration.—RC
When Bob Dylan first recorded “Like a Rolling Stone” in 1965, it was a vicious taunt aimed at a daughter of privilege who had tumbled out of society into life on the street, the implication being that it served her right to confront the hardships the poor and bohemian face every day. It was a young man’s approach, and it was brilliant in the fury of its indictment.
But when Dylan sang the song again during his encore, the familiar song had a whole different subtext. Instead of sounding accusatory, he sounded sympathetic, as if the 64-year-old Dylan understood, in a way that the 24-year-old Dylan never could, that no one’s pain is easy or deserved. When he sang, “How does it feel to be without a home?” the connection to New Orleans was unmistakable, and the singer in the white cowboy suit seemed to imply that it doesn’t matter whether you lived in Lakeview or the Lower Ninth Ward, your loss is just as real and just as deserving of empathy. Instead of spitting out the line, he warbled it, as if he really wanted to know how it felt and how he might help.
To do otherwise would be mere posturing, and there’s been far too much of that. “You and I we’ve been through that / and this is not our fate,” he sang on the next song, “All Along the Watchtower.” He sang as if brushing aside all the lies, distortions and bombast surrounding our current national crisis. Denny Freeman unleashed a guitar solo that sliced through the obfuscation as effectively as Dylan’s voice, which added, “Let us not talk falsely now / the hour is getting late.”—GH
Bob Dylan cranked his way through a set that avoided any direct political or social comment unless you want to read something into his choice of “Maggie’s Farm” to open the set. He had the perfect opportunity to make a Katrina reference on the chilling “High Water (for Charlie Patton),” but he not only avoided the obvious connections that his protégé Bruce Springsteen later made during his Jazz Fest set, he deliberately expanded the context. After all, the song was written well before 8-29. “It’s rough out there,” he sang in a tone of deepest, almost mocking irony, emphasizing the idea that the high water is not just in New Orleans, but everywhere. Dylan doesn’t need to make his songs literal or reactive to current events — they’re pure prophecy, working outside of the timeline of political reality.—JS
In 1970, late in his career, Duke Ellington composed and recorded “The New Orleans Suite,” an underrated collection that transformed the raw materials of Crescent City jazz into sophisticated big band arrangements. It made a lot of sense that Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra would begin their Fair Grounds show with two selections from that suite — “Second Line” and “Portrait of Louis Armstrong” — for this group is trying to transform the same raw materials into a similar elegance.
They are well prepared for the task, because the member musicians are all New Orleanians who have absorbed those materials at first hand over many years and because they are led by a trumpeter with grand, Ellingtonian ambitions. They can play the second-line rhythms and Satchmo brass parts with a lived-in authority, and they mustered the lush harmonies with confidence. The third piece in the set was a Mayfield original, “Fertile Crescent,” that began with tinkling piano and percussion that implied rain, then suggested Africa with an Islamic clarinet and the black church with a choir of saxophones. If it didn’t quite rise to the level of an Ellington masterpiece, it was on the right road in the right direction—GH
Members of the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra came into town from all over the country to perform at the fest. On this day, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield led the ensemble along with his very young son Irvin Jr., who took his job as assistant conductor very seriously mimicking his dad’s every gesture. The ensemble was stop-on-a-dime tight while loose during solos and in its sense of enjoyment. Evan Christopher wove his clarinet through “A Portrait of Louis Armstrong” and guests such as saxophonist Donald Harrison and trumpeter Kermit Ruffins jumped in to the swinging affair by set’s end.—GW
Saturday — the wind kicked up, making the dry Saturday a tough day at the Fair Grounds. That didn’t stop the Dave Matthews fans from showing up when the festival opened to stake out their spots on the Acura lawn. The posters were already gone, and Patton’s Catering—the purveyors of oyster sacks—remained AWOL until week two. By 4 p.m., food lines were almost uniformly 10 or so people long, regardless of what was sold.
Nothing quite creates the sense of being down home in a Cajun dancehall like seeing Belton Richard with the band’s wives and girlfriends sitting in folding chairs in the back right corner of the stage.—AR
Belton Richard & the Louisiana Aces don’t play an oldies circuit; they play dancehalls, and they know what it takes to hold on to a crowd more interested in two-stepping than nostalgia. The gray-haired Richard, with an orange-and-red button accordion strapped across his beer belly, wasn’t fooling around. Backed by fiddle, bass, drums and pedal steel guitar, he provided his classic form of Cajun-country with a timing that snapped and solos that crackled. He soon had couples twirling in the dusty grass. He climaxed the set with a swamp-pop version of Buck Owens’ “Together Again” that was all about the immediate moment and not the distant past.—GH
World Leader Pretend pulled off the wackiest and smartest moments of the first weekend of Jazz Fest in the same set. During “B.A.D.A.B.O.O.M.” local actor Bryan Spitzfaden came out as Ernie the Egg, encased in a papier-mache eggshell. He punched his way out of it and revealed himself wearing a Speedo, chicken feet and the word “YES” on his chest. He shouted spoken word intros to the song’s verses and hurled himself around the stage in one of the funniest, most out-of-control moments in Jazz Fest history.
Shortly after, the band moved from the ridiculous to the sublime as it addressed life in New Orleans after Katrina obliquely by covering Talking Heads’ “Home (Naïve Melody).” The song’s bittersweet melody has always been lovely, but “Home / is where I want to be / but I guess I’m already there” captures perfectly the slight sense of displacement that comes with living in a city that’s not exactly the city we know anymore.—AR
At this point in his career, Snooks Eaglin could rest on his reputation. He could hire some eager-beaver rock ’n’ roll kids for no money and hope for the best. Instead, Eaglin assembled one of the best bands at the whole festival and delivered one of the best sets. Sitting in a folding chair with his wraparound shades and sly grin, Eaglin had one-fourth of the original Meters, bassist George Porter, on the barstool to his right and two-fifths of Papa Grows Funk — organist John Gros and drummer Jeffery Alexander — behind him. They began with Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” and it was like a firecracker went off.
Flicking the backs of his fingernails against the strings, Eaglin added staccato accents to the push-and-pull beat, while Porter rolled the beat around with his fat, fat tone. Soon everyone was playing not only the groove but also tangents that echoed, commented on or contradicted the beat, all in the name of a delicious tension that coiled and released, coiled and released. Soon it didn’t matter what they were playing — the Isley Brothers’ “It’s Your Thing,” George Jones’ “No Use Crying,” Sir Mack Rice’s “Mustang Sally” or Eaglin’s own “Drop the Bomb” — it was all about the beat getting snarled and straightened, then snarled and straightened again.—GH
Eddie Bo after a raucous “Check Your Bucket” at the Fais Do-Do Stage: “If you haven’t had a drink today go get one. You gotta get something to drink today. Today is celebration day!”—JS
Many sad musical experiences begin with the phrase, “A Tribute to ….” They’re either unduly respectful or shameless, trotting out the crowd pleasers to bask in the subject’s reflected glory. Jhelisa’s tribute to Nina Simone didn’t fall into either trap, treating Simone’s songs like they were hers. She and her band, which included Astral Project’s James Singleton, were emotionally and musically uncompromising, earning a standing ovation from the Jazz Tent, which was filled to overflowing with people there for her or staking out space for Herbie Hancock.—AR
Herbie Hancock started 20 minutes late (they never could get his strap-on synthesizer to work properly) and he spent the first 15 minutes of his set playing a pretty but slight Afro-pop piece by his guitarist Lionel Loueke. But then Hancock explained to the crowd that he and bassist Marcus Miller had both played with Miles Davis, though at two very different stages in the trumpeter’s career, and they would celebrate that connection by playing “Tutu,” which Miller had written and produced as the title track of Davis’ 1986 album. And to play Davis’ trumpet role, Hancock brought out on stage New Orleans’ Terence Blanchard.
Miller and drummer Brian Blade established the prodding, funky beat while Hancock’s synth and Blanchard’s trumpet stretched long, arcing lines above it. Blanchard took a long solo of piercing cries, long sighs and punctuating pauses, followed by Hancock’s acoustic piano solo that featured questing, impressionistic runs by both hands, digging the lyricism out of the party tune. It reminded us that the inner poetry of Davis’ recordings — and Hancock’s playing — never went away, even if it was often obscured by other distractions.—GH
Almost as much fun as the wives on Belton Richard’s stage was the woman playing tambourine with Baton Rouge bluesman Henry Gray. During his set on the Lagniappe Stage, she hopped around onstage with remarkable enthusiasm, bouncing her head from side to side like a member of the Peanuts gang during the dance scene from A Charlie Brown Christmas.—AR
As Hugh Masekela blew his final notes at Congo Square Saturday afternoon with rapper Juvenile in the wings, one festgoer said, “Watch the crowd’s average age drop 30 years in 10 minutes.” And he was right.—AR
Etta James’ version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” at the Southern Comfort Stage Saturday was an epic of blues-as-performance. You never felt that she would really prefer to go blind than see her guy with another woman, but that dramatic situation gave her the chance to vocally act out the song’s passion. As such, it managed the odd mixture of being powerful without being moving.
…And speaking of movements, you’re never really ready for blues legends to talk about them. Nonetheless, Etta James asked the crowd, “Y’all eatin’ a lot? You know what your going to be doing when you get home?”—AR
If “Ascension Day” on Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint’s The River in Reverse sounds familiar, it should. In an interview Saturday afternoon, Costello admitted that he heard Toussaint playing “Tipitina” in a minor key and that inspired him to write lyrics to the piece. As a result, Professor Longhair get a posthumous songwriting credit Allen Toussaint, however, had the line of the interview when, referring to the post-hurricane musical diaspora, he dryly observed that “Katrina was quite a booking agent.”—AR
Sunday — It would be nice to say this was Bruce and the Meters’ day, but it was Bruce’s day. He was the news, and feared to be such a draw that the Congo Square Stage went dark when Yolanda Adams’ set ended at 5:25 p.m. Rain early that morning dampened the dust that blew so ferociously the day before, and shortly after it cleared, Bruce Springsteen took to the Acura Stage with his band for a seven- or eight-song sound check performed for anyone on the Fair Grounds who could get away to watch it.
Political commentary was in startlingly short supply the first weekend of Jazz Fest, and much of it was subtle. When Papa Grows Funk played a powerhouse version of “Come Together,” John Gros sang, “Got to be George Bush / because he’s so hard to see.” As political barbs go, it initially seemed a little easy. True, the president hasn’t taken the lead in rebuilding the city, but he has visited the city 10 times now. Still, inserting Bush in the song where he did made it sound as if Bush is the reason we all have to come together. Gros set up an “Us vs. Them” scenario, and June Yamagishi’s screaming, Hendrixian solo was so full of life that it was obvious what side you wanted to be on.—AR
This Jazz Fest, just about every stage turned into the Gospel Tent at some point in each performance. One of the most spirited invocations came during Walter Payton’s set in Economy Hall with Gumbo Filé, where Payton told his own Katrina story about “blessing and adversity” before introducing Big Al Carson. The massive vocalist, capped by a black beret, kept time with his cane as he turned “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” into a lively sprint that sent second line umbrellas hoisting in the air. The gospel medley gathered force with “This Little Light of Mine” and turned into a full rock ’n’ roll revival when it became a joyous “Shout!” that raised every soul in the tent out of their seats. Talk about a hallelujah chorus.—CM
Seen on a banner overhead: “Impeach Bush.”—AR
You have to admire Elvis Costello for taking artistic risks, such as his collaborations with Burt Bacharach and the Brodsky String Quartet. But artistic risks are only real risks if there’s an actual chance of failure, and those pairings often proved underwhelming. The problem was this: Costello favors complicated, ornate constructions and putting him with another composer or arranger who also favors the complicated and ornate produces an overload in that department without any compensating advantages. That’s why Costello’s collaboration with Allen Toussaint makes such brilliant sense. Toussaint is all about economy and focus, which is just what an overreaching talent like Costello needs. And, conversely, Costello’s penchant for taking risks is just what the play-it-safe Toussaint needs.
Their performance on the Acura Stage on the first Sunday was one of sartorial splendor. Toussaint arrived first in a canary-yellow blazer, gold pants and a shiny gold tie, and offered a bit of his oldies show. Then Costello entered in a purple suit, purple shirt and purple tie and immediately pushed the show into higher gear. He sang “On the Way Down,” a song Toussaint had written long before the two men had met, and transformed the chorus — “The same people you misuse on the way up / you might meet on the way down” — from a folksy aphorism into a prophecy of a day of reckoning.
When Costello sang “The River in Reverse,” the new song they co-wrote about Katrina, the two men achieved a splendid balance of daring and craft, of bohemian imagery and street-corner testifying. “What would I take in exchange for my soul / would I know when it’s been sold?” Costello bellowed over Toussaint’s piano and the punchy R&B horns, “Wake me up! / Wake me up with a slap or a kiss. / There must be something better than this, / because I don’t see how it can get much worse.”—GH
Rumor has it that a condition of Bruce Springsteen’s contract is that no planes or helicopters fly overhead during his performance. You really are the Boss when you can clear the airspace above you.—AR
When Bruce Springsteen sang “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” began with just his own voice and acoustic guitar, as if he were performing in a 75,000-seat coffeehouse. Soon the banjo and fiddle joined in and now the old hymn that Bob Dylan recorded as “Gospel Plow” sounded like an Appalachian string-band number. Then half a dozen harmony singers leaned into their mics and it became a choir selection. Then the tenor sax, trumpet, trombone and tuba jumped in and it was a brass-band parade tune. It was a remarkable demonstration of how New Orleans’ carnival music and Dixieland can find its place in what we usually think of as folk music and how easy it is to leap from one branch of that tree to another.
But it was more than a lesson in aesthetic theory; it was a terrific bit of showmanship. Every time the horns entered the arrangement, they made the sound both bigger and brassier, providing a dramatic shift any time a song threatened to become routine. And when the horns dropped out again, they provided another dramatic shift, making the song suddenly more intimate. It was as if Springsteen was a film director, moving from close-ups to wide shots and back again as the mood required.—GH
Never been much of a Springsteen fan, and upon first hearing about this “Seeger Sessions” project I was frankly relieved that it was referring to Pete Seeger and not Bob Seger. The Bruce set frankly converted Springsteen-disser me, so I guess the guy’s passion is still capable of winning over the cynical and hard-hearted among us. Or maybe the fallout of the storm has rendered us more receptive to tent-revival emotionalism, East-coast style. Amen, either way.—RC
Overheard: “For once, the Acura Stage was worth it.”—JI
Friday — Typical Jazz Fest weather: warm and sticky. It’s a day of firsts of a sort—kids’ music group the Imagination Movers graduate from the Kids’ Tent to the Acura Stage, and contemporary country star Keith Urban closing the stage. There’s nowhere near the same level of international attention paid to this weekend that there was to the first weekend. Even Aljazeera covered Springsteen’s appearance.
The street signs for the intersection of North Dupre and Orchid streets are attached to a telephone pole. During the second weekend of Jazz Fest, the signs were draped with heavy chains of Mardi Gras beads and the pole was wrapped in brightly colored ribbons like a Maypole. At the bottom of the pole were three candles and two bouquets of flowers atop a large pillow of coiled Mardi Gras beads. Fastened to the pole was a Xeroxed sheet in a plastic sleeve reading, “Daniel Breaux, May 1, 2004.”
That was the date Breaux was murdered by teenage robbers a few yards away. At every JazzFest before then, you could see Breaux in front of the Fais Do-Do Stage or on the wooden platform in the Economy Hall Tent executing some of the most amazing dance moves you’ll ever see, often with his favorite partner, Claudia Dumestre. They never showed off; they were obviously doing it purely for pleasure. Nonetheless, they were reminders that some of the most creative art takes place off the stages at Jazz Fest, and this homemade shrine was further proof of that.—GH
Alvin Batiste, the head of the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts jazz department smiled as he stood stage side listening to NOCCA Jazz Ensemble. Actually, several different groups of students performed. Some fine original pieces were offered as well as standards like Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” which received a stop-time arrangement. One could detect the influences of the NOCCA teachers, especially bass instructor Chris Severin. The guys on bass weren’t just rhythm men; they filled it out with intricacy and melody.—GW
Fans who arrived in time to stake out prime real estate for Keith Urban were good sports for the Imagination Movers, but not such good sports that they were prepared to do the “Look in the Fridge” dance or shake their body parts during “Shakable You.” It was reassuring to hear a kids’ music band that genuinely likes funk and rock ’n’ roll, and they convey it well enough that Robert Walter — himself a father of a 3-year-old — and Galactic’s Jeff Raines joined the party not as spotlighted guests but as auxiliary members. A goof that others want to join and Disney wants to profit from isn’t a goof anymore.—AR
The Pine Leaf Boys demonstrated that genres don’t have to be jails. They’re Cajun traditionalists, but their rhythms were remarkably varied. They also, frankly, looked like stars. They finished with an explosive cover of BeauSoleil’s “Zydeco Gris-Gris” with Wilson Savoy grinning at center stage, balancing his accordion on his knee. He made it all look easy, and guitarist Jon Bernard made it all look exciting, punching his fist in the air for the “Zydeco!” shout at the end of each chorus. He ended up playing on top of the speaker in front of the stage, where he might have been mistaken for a rock star if he wasn’t chopping out a zydeco rhythm.—AR
Word had been leaking out of Acadiana for some time now that the most exciting young band in the region was the Pine Leaf Boys. They showed up at the Fais Do-Do Stage back up their reputation. As soon as Wilson Savoy began pumping out his button-accordion riffs against Cedric Watson’s sawing fiddle and the thumping rhythm section, all doubts evaporated. Here was a biracial band that played traditional swamp instruments and mostly traditional swamp repertoire with an attitude that had nothing to do with preserving the past and everything to do with communicating the hunger and impatience of youth.
Chris Strachwitz, the legendary founder of Arhoolie Records—which released the Pine Leaf Boys’ La Musique — was beaming in front of the stage, and so were many other longtime Cajun fans who had worried that the genre was growing old with its practitioners. During the next set on the same stage, Wilson joined his fiddle-playing brother Joel and their parents Marc and Ann for a Savoy Family Band show that rocked harder than any Marc and Ann show in the past.—GH
What is reality? Marva Wright is up there on the Southern Comfort Blues Stage backed by an assortment of local musicians including three members of Papa Grows Funk, none of whom played in her band pre-Katrina. Still, she insists “This is my band, the BMWs, which stands for the Band of Marva Wright. We scattered all over the place, but we are here in my hometown.” Wright proceeds to turn the banal set piece of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” into a personal lament “for my family who survived and my family who didn’t make it.”—JS
You know Katrina has led us into bizzaro world when Chris Owens is slaying them at the Economy Hall Tent. The roar from the crowd is audible over in the paddock, prompting an investigation. There she is in her amazonian glory, backed by her crack show band and big voiced singers blowtorching her way through Joe Walsh’s “Rocky Mountain Way” with the crowd on its feet and screaming encouragement.—JS
Did anybody at Jazz Fest look better than Little Freddie King, who rocked a wide-brimmed hat and an electric blue preacher’s suit, complete with baggy pants?—AR
It’s hard to think of Keith Urban as country, despite the occasional banjo and mandolin. Fifteen years ago, he would have been John Mellencamp and 10 or so years before that, Bob Seger. Like so much contemporary country music, Urban is ultimately suburban music — music for those in the middle and upper middle class who moved to a place they thought was good to raise a family. It’s easy to look down your nose at that, but really, I suspect more of us lead lives more like those in Urban songs than Dylan songs, and that’s not so bad. The latter might be more dramatic, but you get a better night’s sleep in the former.—AR
While the teaming of renowned, out-of-town jazz musicians with hometown artists didn’t always work too well; there was no such problem with bassist Roland Guerin leading the group with “special guest” pianist Marcus Roberts. These two, along with drummer Jason Marsalis, have played as the Marcus Roberts Trio for the last decade, and its first gig was at Snug Harbor. As leader, however, Guerin held the repertoire reigns and thus would switch from acoustic to electric bass at will and chose the upright for a beautiful bass/piano rendition of “I Can’t Get Started.”—GW
When most bassists solo, they merely elaborate the supporting parts they usually play, not realizing how pointless those parts can be without something to support. Roland Guerin, by contrast, knows how to shift gears from comping to soloing. When Guerin joined pianist Marcus Roberts for an unaccompanied duet on Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started” at the Jazz Tent, for example, he stopped playing harmony and began playing melody. And what a strong melody it was, beginning in the crisply articulated original theme and then developing into smartly shaped variations.
The show combined four-fifths of Guerin’s quintet (Guerin, saxophonist Quamon Fowler, percussionist Calvin Veal and drummer John Jones) with Roberts’ trio (Roberts, Guerin and drummer Jason Marsalis). The overlapping groups meshed superbly, with Guerin’s group lending a new funkiness to Roberts and Roberts lending a new elegance to Guerin.—GH
Saturday—it threatened to rain all day, but a few sprinkles aside, it was just another hot, humid day. It was a spiritual day in a sense, with two acts that fans get religious over — Jimmy Buffet and the Radiators — closing the Acura and Southern Comfort Blues stages respectively. It was also the day you couldn’t keep Warren Haynes off the Southern Comfort Blues Stage.
Love was in the air. At 11 a.m., a couple was wed under the entrance to the Native American Village. The bride wore in a white wedding dress with a rose wrist corsage and the groom was in white dress shirt over a maroon T-shirt and cargo shorts. Twenty or so friends and passersby were there when the officiate pronounced them man and wife, and they showered the happy couple with red beans and rice—dry, thankfully. An hour later, a plane overhead carried the proposal, “I love you Billie. Will you marry me?”—AR
“He’s got the right idea,” said Ellis Marsalis of the Mandeville High School Jazz Ensemble’s band director, who brought in the noted pianist plus saxophonist Tony Dagradi and trombonist Mark Mullins to appear with the 18-piece ensemble. From experience, Marsalis has seen the results of students working with professionals. This big band was already swinging hard and working some complex material such as Pat Metheny’s “Every Sunday Night.” The whole band seemed to lift when the powerful Mullins stood center stage and blew.—GW
Susan Cowsill got the second Saturday of Jazz Fest off to a celebratory start, even though that’s the last word most people would associate with her laid-back country-rock. But Cowsill used the opportunity of opening the Southern Comfort stage to remind everyone in the audience just why we were all back in the ravaged city. With songs like “Crescent City Snow” and “Just Believe It,” she reminisced on pre-Katrina New Orleans and offered hope for its future. She even paid tribute to all of those lost to the storm, especially her brothers Bill and Barry, with an astounding cover of Lucinda Williams’s “Drunken Angel.” As Cowsill said it best in her own lyrics that day, “you can’t stop hurricanes, and you can’t stop me.” As the success of this year’s festival illustrates, no truer words were spoken that day.—JD
Was anybody at Jazz Fest more literal than the Ohio Players? When DJ Soul Sister asked them to explain “Fire,” one member said, “Our songs are about our lives and our loves. When we sing, ‘When you shake what you’ve got / and girl you’ve got a lot,’ that’s about a woman.” They also explained that their infamous covers portrayed nude African American woman covered in honey, wrapped in a fire hose or leaning on a horse “beautifully and eloquently.”—AR
Patrice Fisher and Arpa had to perform shorthanded in the Jazz Tent Saturday when Black Man Soul of Honduras couldn’t get visas. Fisher’s world chamber jazz is a curious concept and one that will become part of my yearly Jazz Fest experience, and one can only speculate what it would have been like with more percussionists and dancers this year. They still had guest Angel Rios, who led a spirited version of “Oye Como Va,” but with Fisher’s harp, the cello and violins, it sounded a little like a Strings Unlimited muzak version.—AR
At the Southern Comfort Blues Stage, Robert Randolph filled all available sonic space with sound. Like performers in the Gospel Tent — where his roots lie — his music is an expression of passion, and more notes, more instruments and more intensity indicate more passion. Ultimately — also like Gospel Tent performers — he turns passion into spectacle. Fortunately, the spectacle’s engaging. Wearing a Carlos Delgado Mets jersey and grinning throughout the set, it’s hard to imagine anybody was having more fun than he was.—AR
Overhead: “Shell stop polluting. Clean up your act.”—AR
Imagine the early Tom Waits playing maddened boogie-woogie piano like Jerry Lee Lewis rather than beatnik-jazz piano like Bill Evans. Imagine Waits singing three vivid verses about going to his sexual preference for a “Ten Foot Woman” and then even more vivid verses as the song stretched past seven minutes and the bounds of good taste. Imagine Waits arriving on stage in an iron-lung machine and popping out in a feathered and beaded Mardi Gras shirt only after a blue-uniformed nurse opened the door. Imagine Waits playing a romantic Dixieland piano melody as he sang a convoluted story about an unwise entanglement with a 17-year-old girl “eight weeks pregnant by a hometown married man.” That’s Bobby Lounge.—GH
The details make Bobby Lounge’s raunchy songs more than just jokes, and they’re the common thread in his songwriting. They make “Muddy River,” his murder ballad compelling and they give his songs texture and a sense of place. If it seems obscure, it’s probably because no one else thought to write about life on the Northshore before.—AR
Quote of the Fest: When pianist David Torkanowsky was asked why he didn’t play more at the Fest (he only appeared with Bonerama) he answered: “They make bad programming choices every year except usually I’m included in them.”—GW
Harrison’s set boasted so many elements that it was a Jazz Fest in itself. He began playing straight-ahead with his own group that included his nephew, trumpeter Christian Scott, and then got into his nouveau swing groove. Saxophone great George Coleman, making his only second appearance at the Fest, came on and was all over the classic “Nearness of You,” weaving his way through and around the melody and proving the reason for his legendary status. The set closed with Indians from Harrison’s Congo Nation filling the stage with feathers.—GW
Harrison’s band featured special guests Eddie Palmieri and George Coleman, making for an odd if eclectic set. Palmieri pumped up the crowd with his trademark Afro-Cuban rhythms, while Coleman plied sophisticated post-bop, even taking a tonally eccentric turn at that most overplayed of standards “Body and Soul.” Every tenor saxophonist takes a shot at this tune, making it the “Stairway to Heaven” of jazz, but Coleman’s bent notes and overtone manipulations made for a stranger “Body” than one would expect in such a set. It was like he was channeling fellow Memphisian Frank Lowe via Lester Young and Pharoah Sanders.—RC
Sunday — it finally rained, but not enough to ruin the day. Sunday was defined by Fats Domino, first because he was such an overwhelming draw, and then because of his cancellation. From mid-afternoon on, the Fair Grounds were abuzz with rumors about Fats: He’s here, he’s in the hospital, he’s playing, he’s not playing, he’s playing with Lionel Richie. Reports from backstage are that Allen Toussaint, Paul Simon and Irma Thomas were waiting around with Mayor Ray Nagin and Mitch Landrieu for Domino’s appearance. Domino did walk onstage and mumble something, then he hung around backstage for almost a half-hour before being driven away by WWL-TV’s Eric Paulsen.
The Big Apple to the Big Easy Blues Jam promised special guests, but featured band JD and the Straight Shot were too generic to wait through.—AR
It was fun to see more attitude from a young Cajun band — this time, Feufollet. The bass player played an all-black, heavy metal-looking bass and hopped around and postured like a member of Duran Duran. He was obviously having a lot of fun, but the relative lack of activity in the Cajun mosh pit to the right of the stage suggests his energy would have been better spent working on his groove.—AR
Amanda Shaw had the buzz at this year’s Jazz Fest, but the youngsters most likely to blossom into important Cajun musicians are the members of Feufollet. Accordionist Chris Stafford and fiddler Chris Segura founded the band 11 years ago when they were 10 and 13 respectively, and their steady work since then has matured them into remarkable players who could handle an ancient Dennis McGee two-step or a brand new country-Cajun number by Stafford. They didn’t have the eye-catching and ear-catching flash that Shaw had displayed the day before, but Cajun music isn’t about that kind of American Idol athleticism. It’s about absorbing a tradition so thoroughly that you can make something new out of it. With Segura, Stafford and second lead singer Anna Laura Edmiston filling the roles of Chris Thile, Sean Watkins and Sara Watkins, Feufollet came across as the Cajun equivalent of Nickel Creek.—GH
Mere weeks ago, Big Chief Bo Dollis of the Wild Magnolias was in the hospital in a coma. At the Acura Stage Sunday, we had to wait to see how he was. The band played a three-song set while the Indians got ready backstage, and at a distance, each larger and more elaborate costume seemed like it must be Dollis. When they took to the stage, one Indian was almost 10-feet tall with pink feathers and elaborate side panels that he had to open, then Bo Dollis stepped out from behind him. Instead of an elaborate costume, he wore a white linen shirt and white pants, and a member of the stage crew brought him a drum throne to sit on. It was sad to see him out of costume and too weak to throw toy tambourines over the photo pit to the crowd, but remarkably, his voice has retained the power and intensity of a flame thrower.—AR
“The rain can’t stop the fire,” sang the Hot 8 Brass Band while it poured down on the crowd. The band was right. The deluge didn’t seem to faze the energetic audience. Some umbrellas went up, a few ponchos came out, but most people continued buck jumpin’ to the Hot 8’s pump-it-up sound. In fact, the crowd seemed to enjoy the drama that the storm added to the set. The Hot 8 has been through a lot during the past several years even beyond the scattering of its band members caused by Hurricane Katrina. It paid tribute to trumpeter Jerome Batiste who, while setting up cones to alert drivers to his disabled vehicle was hit by a vehicle that resulted in the loss of both legs. “He’ll be back!” was the rallying cry along with “Can’t stop that fire!” As always, the band remembered trombonist Joseph “Shotgun Joe” Williams, who was shot and killed by police in 2004. On a lighter note, the group thanked all the Jazz Fest volunteers and “the peanut crew.”—GW
Irma Thomas has so many great songs in her catalog and is in such fine voice that it’s often disappointing when she dips into that medley of touristy New Orleans songs. The crowd-pleaser tunes made an appearance in her Jazz Fest set, but they were preceded by a near-perfect song-cycle of Thomas’ signature pieces delivered with a regal confidence that reminds us she’s one of the best ever. C’mon, she sang “It’s Raining” right as Sunday’s downpour was dying out—how perfect is that?—RC
John Boutte’s Jazz Tent set was every bit as emotionally stirring as Springsteen’s acclaimed performance. Backed by trad jazz players such as trumpeter Leroy Jones and guitarist Todd Duke, Boutte may have struck some as just another covers singer as he tackled everything from “Basin Street Blues” to Annie Lennox’s “Why.” But he had a way of leaning on certain lines with a gospel singer’s shout or a jazz singer’s variation that wrenched the lyrics out of their original context and gave them a whole new meaning.
The greatest song ever written about an American flood is Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” and it has been sung constantly since Katrina washed ashore. But no one has ever sung it quite like Boutte did that afternoon. Where Newman had sung it as a detached newspaper reader, Boutte sang it as an involuntary participant ankle deep in water. After singing the original lyrics straight through once, Boutte began to change them for his own purposes, just as Springsteen had done with “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live.”
Newman’s lyrics about “six feet of water in the streets of Evangeline” became “12 feet of water in the streets of the Lower Ninth.” Newman’s lyrics about “President Coolidge came down in a railroad train with a fat man with a notebook in his hand” became “President Bush came down in an aeroplane with 12 fat men with martinis in their hands. The president said, ‘Fat men, ain’t it a shame what the river has done to this poor Creole’s land?’”
Finally, Boutte’s high tenor rose to a feverish pitch and he cried, “Louisiana, they’re trying to wash us away,” as if calling out to everyone in the tent who had lived in the state last August. One by one members of the audience spontaneously stood up from their folding chairs, raised their arms above their head and sang along, “They’re trying to wash us away.” They had earned the right to sing this song in the first person.—GH
The Mardi Gras Indians tell their history in song and since Katrina, new material has entered the tradition. Indians, particularly at Jazz Fest, have also been teaming up with members from one gang joining other tribes to fill out the ranks. Both of these elements were on display when the Black Eagles took the Jazz & Heritage Stage. “Oh, she came,” sang the group led by Big Chief Jerod Lewis. For the occasion, the Black Eagles also included chiefs Little Kevin, Little Bo and Larry Bannock among a stage full of percussionists, women and children. “Made it through that water,” they sang.—GW
It was nice to see Yonder Mountain String Band at the Fais Do-Do Stage Sunday; the festival could use a dose of bluegrass, roots rock and Americana. It would be nice, though, if it was something less faceless. One day later, it’s impossible to recall anything about the set except a general pleasantness. The idea of mid-level roots music touring bands in the middle of the day is a good one, and in a year when age and infirmity hobbled or sidelined a number of musicians, bringing young talent to Jazz Fest is a good thing. Still, do they have to be Bonnaroo-approved? Yonder Mountain String Band and Old Crow Medicine Show (who played last year) made their name on the jam circuit before appearing at Jazz Fest.—AR
There must be something about Jazz Fest that brings out extraordinary courage in its older performers. Three years ago, hooked up to an oxygen tank, Herbie Mann bravely gave his final performance before passing on two months later at the age of 73. This year it was 76-year-old Pete Fountain, a recent recipient of quadruple bypass surgery, taking center stage and giving a stellar performance. It wasn’t the usual, chatty, ebullient Pete Fountain of years past, but it was him in the flesh nonetheless — and looking fit and trim with 50-75 pounds less of it. He didn’t disappoint anyone who jammed the Economy Hall Tent beyond capacity that final Sunday, playing some of their favorites — “Blues in the Night,” “Muskrat Ramble,” “Up a Lazy River,” “It Had to Be You,” “The Blues” (with guitarist Alan Young on vocals) and, of course, his signature song, “A Closer Walk With Thee.” Joined onstage by local favorites, Tim Laughlin on clarinet and Connie Jones on trumpet, every song was met with a standing ovation.—DS
I have seen the past of zydeco music and its name is Thomas “Big Hat” Fields. This tall, broad-shouldered man in the white cowboy hat and blue plaid shirt wasn’t interested in modernizing the music. He was determined to preserve the sounds he heard as a young kid before his house in Rayne, Louisiana, was finally hooked up to electricity. Manhandling his small button accordion in his giant mitts, Fields played the rural stomps that flourished in the days before Keith Frank. “They don’t speak Creole anymore,” he complained between songs; “they don’t speak French. They done turned zydeco into Texas hip-hop. But this is how zydeco is really done. This is how we did it out in the country.” You don’t have to agree with Fields’ dismissal of all the changes in the music to be thankful that at least one band is preserving the old style.—GH
Lionel Richie opened his show at the Acura Stage with “Running With the Night” — the same song Earl Turner used to open his show nightly at Harrah’s Casino.—AR
BACKSTAGE AT ACURA: Bruce Springsteen was the most generous in terms of his early Sunday morning sound check when he played full-powered to an empty field save for a flock of geese and a small group of workers and volunteers who he graciously acknowledged by enthusiastically waving his arms and smiling widely. Not so with Paul Simon who instructed security to not allow workers to watch his early morning sound check, a stop and go affair with much tweaking of equipment. Not surprisingly, Bob Dylan took the prize when he and his four band members arrived in five separate busses. Dylan did not have a sound check but had security on high alert for anyone pointing a camera in his general direction during his set. Many unsuspecting festgoers were disarmed of their cheap camera equipment and even their photo-taking cell phones as a result. The guests in the tent — corporate types who were out of their suits and dressed down in khakis — hung by the rail to backstage looking for “the guy from U2” and pointed out a few men who didn’t have any resemblance to The Edge. The most excitement around the tent was when Dave Matthews boarded his bus to leave after his show while aspiring groupies competed for his attention by screaming loudly, only to be disappointed as the doors closed behind him without much ado and the sleek black bus rolled off the track. Sorely missing in the immediate environs around the tent was the pungent scent of marijuana.—Reporter X