April 27-29, 2012
Fair Grounds Race Course, New Orleans
There are lots of worthwhile music festivals out there these days. Coachella, Bumbershoot, Bonnaroo, Rhythm and Roots, and Lollapalooza are annual destinations for many, just to name a few. They all have one thing in common: they all studied, and to varying degrees mimicked, the multi-stage model of the New Orleans Jazz Fest.
But Jazz Fest has one thing that one thing that can't be copied: the Gulf region's built-in talent pool. Even though Hurricane Katrina scattered the city's cultural base, and some of the fertile urban funk has been gentrified, there still ain't nothin' like New Orleans. Or Jazz Fest.
The first Friday here has always been a favorite; it's like the Fest's musical spring blossoming after a barren winter. This year's opening day offers a full helping of true blue Louisiana fare, and I'm happy to see that Cajun dance "floor" that has formed to the right of Fais Do Do is especially full of two-steppers during another masterful set from Cajun kings Beausoleil.
Still, it's a shame that acts like Muddy Waters piano man Henry Gray, the brassy roots Revivalists, and the long-time gospel sanctifiers the Electrifying Crown Seekers take the stage before noon, before most Fest-goers' ears have fully arrived.
Me? After my 15-hour drive (who can afford to fly these days?) I head straight for the fortification of a dish of Crawfish Monica. Sufficiently energized I can now sway to the sharply arranged trumpet and slide trombone interlay of the Young Pinstripe Brass Band. Their sousaphone low end adds an extra street kick as they work Marvin Gaye's "Mercy Mercy Me" on the Jazz & Heritage Stage. Nearby Geno Delafose's incredibly dependable nouveau zydeco is already kicking the Fais Do Do crowd's butts to a higher ground. I'm one of them, so I miss Dee-1's politically fired raps over at Congo.
I follow the strutting parade and Mardi Gras chants of the Blackfoot Hunters over to catch jazz singer Leah Chase, daughter of bandleader/restaurateur Dooky Chase, and the top-shelf vamping of her band. As fans of American Idol's judges might point out, Leah's gutsy vocals have a tendency to be a bit "pitchy." But on "Baby Do Something" and a smoky version of Patsy Cline's "Crazy" that turns the Jazz Tent into a cool cocktail lounge, it really doesn't seem to matter.
I catch a little of soprano-voiced NOLA hard rockers Zebra and UK rock-poppers Gomez --always cool, even at Jazz Fest. Then mid-day I become fixed in front of what will prove to be the weekend's best find: Seun Kuti and the reformed Egypt 80 band. Suen leads his dad Fela's seminal group in a severely rhythmic rawness, with an echo of Fela that has kind of a Nigerian punk-hop edge. Instead of hardcore guitars, there are horns punching it out over charismatic poly-beats. Instead of hip-hop's booty shaking, the rear ends on stage pulsate so wildly that their fertility dance could coax flowers from a rock.
As I catch some of Slavic Soul Party's mix of Balkan brass band and heavy Klezmer thunder, I realize I'm holding up pretty well for a sleep deprivation subject. But all day log I've been wondering just who all these fresh-faced young college types are here to see. Surely not the Beach Boys on their 50th Anniversary Tour, though genuflecting at the altar of Brian Wilson isn't a bad idea for any music fan. I think I have the answer when, inside a porta potty, I get a whiff of second hand spliff that leaves me a little happier on exit: Steel Pulse. But I'm wrong. They're here for Bon Iver. Bon Iver is this year's Arcade Fire, Jazz Fest-wise: their sparse indie folkisms shouldn't work here but they do. Probably because they get Jazz Fest, they're excited to be here. "This is the best musical festival in the world," says singer Justin Vernon, who first attended at age 14. "The city, the experience."
Contrast that with the Beach Boys, who treat their set as just another date on their itinerary. The Boys' set ain't bad, especially when they aren't playing the hits, like "Help Me Rhonda" and "Surfin' USA." Instead of "they," I should probably say backup band, since Brian Wilson, behind a grand piano, is the only real Beach Boy at an instrument. And he only comes alive, sort of, for "Good Vibrations."
I pass a rocking Buckwheat Zydeco, making a mental note to catch him at nightclub this coming week, on my way to the Texas Tornadoes at the Fais Do Do Stage. Flaco Jimenez, Augie Myers and Shawn Sahm are pounding out a wonderful Tex Mex mix highlighting songs by Shawn's dad Doug Sahm ("Mendocino") and Freddy Fender ("Tear Drop Falls").
T Shirt: I Love Dessert.
SATURDAY: They Call Me The Wanderer
Every year I promise myself that for at least one day I'm going to plant myself at one stage and let the music roll over me. Ain't gonna happen this year. There's too much to hear, and more importantly, discover. Like these early impressers, the Loyola University Jazz Ensemble. Given an unenviable 11 am slot at the Jazz Tent, the group delivers an invigorating, sophisticated, modern jazz wake-up that reminds me some of the class act Irvin Mayfield will offer later in the day with the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra. Who knew?
Next up was the Archdiocese of New Orleans Choir, blasting a Holy Ghost version of the funk chestnut "Fire." Speaking of ghosts, I swear for more than a moment that the late, missed Mark Sandman has returned to resurrect his old crew when I walk in on Jeremy Lyons and members of Morphine in the Blues Tent. It's a stunning, eerie rebirth of Sandman's eccentric sex-blues, and I hope singer-guitarist Lyons and the Morphine boys keep it up.
A bit staggered, I stroll over to the Fais Do Do stage, where the Savoy Music Center of Eunice Saturday Cajun Jam has relocated this week with a couple dozen musicians a-fiddlin' and a-pickin'. Marc Savoy, who rounds up the musicians and as never missed a Saturday in 47 years, was introduced by the Arhoolie Records owner Chris Strachwitz, also a stalwart Cajun, as "the critical mass that keeps Cajun music alive."
On the way to Congo Square, trumpeter Shamar Allen is goading the Gentilly audience with his straight-to-YouTube funk-hop: "I told y'all white people had rhythm." At Congo, a "Jamm" of talking-drum Afrobeats and international juju melds with the haunting voice of Senegal's Cheikh Lo, echoing the legacy of Youssou N'Dour. At Acura, the Voice of the Wetland Allstars -- an advocacy super-group for Louisiana wetlands that includes Dr. John, Tab Benoit, Cyrille Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and many others -- are delivering an up-tempo homage to the region's culture. "That's Louisiana!" And so far I'm feeling good about this year's Fest, like I will want to come back next year for the 26th or 27th straight year. (But who's counting?)
Next I'm back at Fais Do Do (again), where the Carolina Chocolate Drops' stripped-down acoustic shuffles sometimes play more like a music lesson than performance. But they have a goat-skin banjo, kazoo, and enough Southern ethos to make songs like Papa Charlie Jackson's "Your Baby Ain't Sweet Like Mine" crowd pleasers.
I circle the crush around Cee-Lo "The Voice" Green, lingering for a few post-Goodie Mob songs including "Forget You" on the path to the Blues Tent. There, soul great Bobby Rush seconds the notion that it's singers like him and James Brown that invented rap. "If it weren't for me there wouldn't be no 50 Cent. It'd be a Quarter or a Dime or something," the 75-year-old chimes before launching into a perfect mimic of Michael Jackson's white-gloved moon walk.
Tom Petty is one of the great living rock songwriters. But to borrow a lyric, "oh my my," not even for him would I attempt a trek into the mass of sardines that is the Acura infield. Besides, his "Charlie T. Wilbury Jr." version of "Handle With Care" and a finale of "American Girl" sound just fine from the outer boundaries of the Fairgrounds racetrack -- even if it is akin to watching a CinemaScope flick on an iPhone.
For good measure, Petty pulls out a feedback-tumbled version of Bo Diddley's "I'm A Man," "Something Big," and one of his own faves, "Have Love Will Travel," which he dedicates to Jazz Fest 2012: "How about a cheer for all those bad girls, and all those boys that play that rock 'n' roll."
I come up on the Congo Stage where the Soul Rebels brass band is playing, I guarantee, the sickest rendition of Metallica's headbanger "Enter Sandman" I'll ever hear. Then they bring it straight back to New Orleans with a "Roll Rebels Roll" chant, and odes to the post-Katrina Crescent City, "504," and "Night People" hangin' out. Soul Rebels have risen to the day's headliner at the Congo Square stage, and they deserve it. Their set shows they're an elite brass band in a class with Dirty Dozen and Rebirth.
I am again witnessing sousaphone players -- today from Soul Rebels, Midnight Disturbers, and 101 Runners -- whose basslines are beaten out with lips speedier than Jaco Pastorius' fingers (take it from a jealous bassist). That's part of the reason that 101 Runners can put a funky new shine on tunes as tired as the Big Chief Bo Dollis favorite, "Little Liza Jane."
I scoot over to the dance party ending the day at Fais Do Do with Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Chas. "I wanna know who wants me to start some mess here tonight," Nathans queries before launching his krewe from Lafayette, winners of the Big Easy award for best zydeco band, into "Zydeco Train," which sounds like a swampy locomotive take on the Champs 1958 nugget "Tequila."
Rebels, Petty, Nathan -- that's a finale trifecta I can live with.
T Shirt: The Trumpet is My Weapon .
I buy my ticket, walk through the gates, and immediately encounter the New Orleans Spiritualettes, who start my Fest Day Three at the Gospel Tent with high-wire testifying; it is Sunday after all. Properly christened, I'm on my way to Fais Do Do stage, which has a lineup of down-home boys that could keep me here all day, starting with crustily good-humored Hadley Castille and his Sharecroppers, who are joined by Steve Riley on fiddle for a finale of "Cajun Flames of Hell."
Riley is back to his regular squeeze box accordion for his set with the Mamou Playboys following Hadley. Riley and his gang continue to push their fiddle-squeeze box adventures way beyond standard Cajun forms and deliver a particularly nasty foot-mover "Oh Ma," which has the early crowd bopping.
After catching an earful of the Batiste Brothers' funky-hip take on a Professor Longhair tune at Congo Square, I decide to catch some of the Tribute to Alex Chilton next door at the Gentilly Stage and end up staying for most of the set. Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner, Susan Cowsill, Alex McMurray and a host of others are having infectious fun as they bang out Chilton gems, including "Lost My Job" and a cover of the Seeds' "Can't Seem to Make You Mine."
"Thank you for coming out and supporting the New Orleans music community, which is evaporating like the ozone layer," Susan laments before doing a nice job with the vocals on "September Gurls."
I hear some Trombone Shorty -- blow baby blow --wafting over from the Acura stage as I try to decide: CJ Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band? Or Lindingo of Reunion Island? Silly me, BOTH is the correct answer. Chenier IS burning red hot with accordion and harmonica-fueled dancehall zydeco. But there are more exotic goings-on next door at Congo, where the primitive clack of Lindigo's griot percussion merges with hypno lines from the stringed kora, mallet-played balafon and syncopated vocals. Grand.
The masses are already packing the Acura field in anticipation of Bruce Springsteen's marathon set, providing a full house for Dr. John. The good doctor's new album "Locked Down," produced by the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach, is raw and alive, his best in years, and the oh-so-funky strut of his Fest set follows suit. "Go doctor go doctor go." And he is. But my get-up-and-go is dragging.
Sarre paintingOne really needs some pre-conditioning to maintain the ability to dart from stage to stage for eight hours a day, and this boy and his barking feet didn't have any. Luckily, I remember a cure, albeit transitory: a rest stop in the air conditioning of the main grandstand. On the way, I breeze by the unmistakable tone of Sonny Landreth's guitaring in the Blues Tent and then through the Gospel Tent to get taken higher by Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church. It works -- I am a little higher -- but I still need to sit in some A/C to contemplate what check-cashing store I can knock over so that I can afford one of Holly Sarre's colorful NOLA-during-the-flood paintings (just kidding, mom).
I'm climbing the grand stand stairs, past the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars' set on the Lagniappe stage below, to an interview with Ironing Board Sam, who obliges the audience with his namesake dance song and a surprise rendition of "Over the Rainbow."
I emerge from my cold-room respite to Cowboy Mouth, who are trying to coax a "rock and roll orgasm" from the Gentilly crowd, and then past an edgy ethnic mash provided from the Debo Band Ethiopian Groove Collective. Debo should moving my feet but they feel more like an art project. I realize that I've missed Iron & Wine's set -- damn -- and Ramsey "In Crowd" Lewis's keyboarding (a last minute Jazz Tent replacement for an ailing Dianne Reeves) is a little too middle-of-the-road to rattle my bones. Another shot of gospel, from Evelyn Turrentine-Agee, whose choir is stomping for the Lord in black "God Did It" t-shirts, pulls me back up.
On the way to seeking out some further redemption from Reverend Al Green, I can hear the guitar of Tab Benoit, who's got some serious tone of his own, ripping up the Blues Tent and probably the speakers in his amp as well. When I arrive near Congo Square, Al Green is singing "Can't Next to You, Babe." Ain't that the truth, I think as I peruse all the bodies between me and the stage. So, leaning on a rail at an entrance from the outside track, I take in Green's big-band medley of soul hits -- more like short bits really: "Sitting On The Dock," "My Girl," etc. The highlight for me will be a snappy rendering of "Love and Happiness," delivered after returning from one of my several attempts to infiltrate the perimeter of the encampment surrounding the Acura Stage for Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, with nephew Jake Clemons filling in for Bruce's recently departed friend, saxophonist Clarence Clemons.
Just as his 2006 Jazz Fest set the year following Katrina was a perfect, fitting ode to a soggy Crescent City -- and a career moment -- I figure the common-man protests of Bruce's new CD "Wrecking Ball" would dovetail nicely with the distaste for how gentrification in the "new" NOLA is displacing some of the city's unique heritage and funk. And what I can hear of it, but not totally see, Bruce's set is an epic growl of a performance.
In between my attempts to get within earshot of Bruce's 2-½ hour show, I'm able to wade much more comfortably in front of Atlanta psych-pop soul singer Janelle Manae, who is brushing a painting right there on stage while singing about "Luv." The headier excursions of Nicholas Payton's XXX trio over in the Jazz Tent are nearly drowned out by the rumble of the E-Street Band nearby, but Sunpie Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots are unfazed over at Fais Do Do, turning their accordion summit into a great "last dance" for the first weekend.
Back in Bruceland, Dr. John joins in on "Something You Got," and the Boss leads a sort of working-class sing-along with tunes like "Pay Me My Money Down," "Born to Run," and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out." It is an impressive, draining set, even by Fest standards. But it's still a bit disconcerting to be so far from the band that the Acura Stage blends into the NOLA skyline in the distance. And the monster-vision video towers flanking the stage look like flashing postage stamps.
If this wasn't Jazz Fest, I might have been one of thousands who camped out all day to get a better view. But it is, and I didn't. And I'll be glad to be back in a few days for Fest's second weekend and another go-around.
T shirt: Trust in the Lard.
Springsteen & Little Steven from nola.com. All other photos from trusty cell phone of the author.