By the end of Jazz Fest 2011, I estimate I'll have heard at least a few minutes of nearly 200 of the over 375 acts that will have performed over the seven sunny days of this annual one-of-a-kind music retreat. And as I look back at how many times the word "funk" turned up in my treatise on the first weekend, I figure that I could probably use that descriptive in some form for at least half of the performers here. So unless someone delivers a customized "funky" thesaurus, tout suite, you can expect more of the same in my wanderings of the next four days.
But first, there are some tear-steeped Cajun and country ballads a callin' at Fais Do Do, with lines like "If the whiskey don't kill me I'll live till I die." And here's something you don't see every day in a Zydeco-Creole band: Bijou Creole, led by former Pine Leaf Boy Cedric Watson, has a clarinet as one of the group's melodic centerpieces. On a few songs, the clarinet takes the place of the accordion next to the guitars and drums and adds some interesting Middle Eastern overtones when it duets with Watson's Cajun fiddle and a button box on loan from Steve Riley. When some American Indian warbling drifts over from the nearby Gentilly Stage, courtesy of Eagle and Hawk, to provide background vocals, well, it's an interesting mash indeed. Aahyee.
Next door at Congo Square, Kirk Joseph and his Backyard Groove are laying down brassy, big-band funk driven by Joseph's Sousaphone bass grooves, sharp percussion and guitar slashing on a Telecaster with a way-worn fretboard. Now that's a player. I slither back over to Fais Do Do to catch a perennial favorite, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. It's another great Riley set, a Cajun-roots rock blend featuring superfine material from the new "Grand Isle" album. "This is a wonderful country and we've all got a right to our opinion," Riley says while introducing the anti-BP Oil title track. "And if you understand French, you'll know ours." By the way, did I mention that this is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell?
I miss Lucinda Williams because I'm held hostage by Meters drummer Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste and his soul-funk growl, delivered by (another) big band which, like Dumpstaphunk, has two bassists, and double basses equal double good. Djakout of Haiti #1, prime exporters of jangly, rhythmic jump, are up next. I don't get a chance to ask what "#2" is like.
I've been happy to allow standouts at Fais Do Do and Congo Square to monopolize my time, back and forth, back and forth, with many extended listens. But I can't let today's other stages feel left out, so I check my Fest road map and tear away for a mid-afternoon lap of other offerings, including a personal serenade from Mr. Okra, the last of the great New Orleans singing street vendors.
Galactic, a standout at the all-day freebie shows presented by the Louisiana Music Factory (one of the best little record stores in the land) during the week, is again bubbling through a smart n' spacey jam at Acura. Nearby at the WWOZ Jazz Tent, Christian Scott is leading some explosive, Miles-y syncopations that include his paean to a run-in with the cops, "Ku Klux Police Dept." Same place, trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis leads his Uptown Orchestra in a Second Line parade through the crowd to exit from the stage.
As I breeze by Jazz & Heritage, the Paulin Brothers are slinking through brass band traditions.
Piano legend James Booker is getting a real mixed bag of a tribute at the Blues Tent, pushing me to the McDonogh #35 High School Gospel Choir, who are really ripping up the Gospel Tent. I make a note to buy the live recording of the set, one of dozens of CDs available at the Jazz Fest Live booth.
Cyndi Lauper? Oh yeah, she has that new Memphis Blues album, and a stroll by Gentilly confirms that she has the pipes to pull it off. Wilco's return to Jazz Fest is a puzzle, as they handicap their beauteous rock melodies by continuing to explore their inner rock'n'roll wanker. Too much noise. They really should know better, so "No It's Not OK." Even in the back, the mix is deafening, even for the deaf among us, and I'm pushed back over to Congo Sqaure.
Lucky me, because saxman Maceo Parker is passin' the peas with his old JBs trumpet buddy Pee Wee Ellis. The well-groomed, crackerjack, soul power show would have made their late boss James Brown proud. It's easily one the Fest's best sets.
Today's t-shirt: B AC ON, spelled out in symbols from the table of elements.
Friday's Group Efforts
One attraction of Jazz Fest is the collaborations that can only happen in NO LA, like Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli scorching a lead while sitting in with the Soul Rebels on "Save My Head," a cut from on the brass band's upcoming Rounder album. Another draw? Following a group like Souls Rebels from Thursdays at Le Bon Temps Rouler to "representing for the 504" on the big Acura stage at Fest.
I hang out at FDD to listen to Bruce Daigrepont's band sing about why they'd rather go to a Fais Do Do than a discotheque. I've all but forgotten the blister that's been pestering my foot since last Saturday. I fill up on pecan catfish with meuniere sauce and then on some of that old-time religion with the Electrifying Crown Seekers. Then I bounce across David Toranowsky's "Feur Debris" with George Porter, Jr., and catch some of Bonerama's hip riff-a-rama. You gotta love a band with all them trombones.
Kermit Ruffin's covers of Black Eyed Peas and Sly Stone are a bit ragged. Better Than Ezra's cover of Springsteen's "Born To Run" is amusing, I guess. But Buckwheat Zydeco, back on accordion again, is absolutely blistering the Gentilly crowd with his hyper-rhythms and he throws in a little Bob Marley "Peace Love and Happiness" for good measure.
It's about this time that I notice a now-yearly metamorphosis of Jazz Fest attendees is taking place. Right before my eyes, the music fans that have, so far, dominated are being replaced by music tourists. You know, people who waddle past stages like they're dragging kids around a shopping mall, texting and only half listening to the music for which they've paid the cost of admission. When the tourists start reacting to Roddie Romero & the Hub City as though the Cajun-leaning hard rockers are just another Yo Dude! Bar Band and then prevent me from hearing the Stanton Moore Trio over their jabber at Lagniappe... . Well, yeah, uh-oh, your Fest boy is getting cranky.
After some fortification via a tasty cochon du lait po'boy, I seek refuge in the air conditioning and acoustic laments of Yvette Landry and Richard Comeaux (Lil' Band of Gold) to be found in the grandstand. Ahhh, sanity. Taking a more Zen approach to navigation of the ever-thickening crowds around Gentilly (in anticipation of Willie Nelson) and Acura (Arcade Fire) helps my mood. As does a stroll through booths in the Crafts area, where I dote on Josh Cote's groovily gruesome wire creatures, Micheal Paul Coite's wildly-staged photographic works, and the slightly twisted paintings of John Whipple.
Mentally prepared, I set out for the overflowing Gentilly, where living legend Willie is working through semi-acoustic versions of just about every tune in the Honky Tonk Hits songbook. Sing-alongs like "On the Road Again," "Hey Good Lookin'," and "Always on My Mind" anchor the medley.
But it's over at Acura where the set that everyone will be tweeting about later is happening. Arcade Fire sound rich and wide. Humongous, really. Singer Win Butler is giving shouts out to the "cultural jewel" of New Orleans as well as the Haitian presence at Jazz Fest (Arcade Fire has previously shared a stage with RAM of Haiti). Meanwhile, I sort of wish I was lying somewhere in front of the stage, getting bathed in the sounds of "No Cars Go" and "Intervention." That ain't gonna happen, so I embrace my vantage point on the perimeter. It only gets better when Cyndi Lauper joins in for a few majestic encores, including a version of "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" that has her trading lines with Regine Chassagne and outshines Lauper's own band from the previous day.
Today's t-shirt: Lil Wayne for President
Do You Treme?
On the way into the Fair Grounds on Saturday, a minivan emblazoned with "Buffett or Bust" warns me of the crowd crunch I'm likely to experience about midday. Undaunted, I start another sunny, hot day with an extended stay at the Gospel Tent for the new-to-me "high praise" of the Veal Brothers organ combo. Over at Fais Do Do, D.L. Menard's country-Cajun two-step--"yeah, you right"--and Geno Delafose's French Rockin' Boogie feed into the elevated mood. There aren't many musicians who can rock a line like "I got a camel, he likes to ramble." Geno can.
I can make out Marcia Ball's knee-bouncing boogie, drifting over from Gentilly, before I shuffle over to the breezy, excitable dance and drum "mizik rasin" of RAM (the initials of lead singer Richard A. Morse, cousin of the new president of Haiti), one of several Fest appearances for the Haitian group, and then the jam-out of NOLA greats for the Voice Of The Wetlands All Stars. I fall into the second line parade behind the Pigeon Town Steppers Social Aid and Pleasure Club and follow them as far as the Native American Pow Wow over in the Folklife Village.
It's a short hop from there to Bill Kirchen, he of Commander Cody and hot-handed guitar fame, who is filling "Hot Rod Lincoln," the finale of his "sax-ual healing," rock'n'twang, truck-driving soundtracks set at Lagniappe with several dozen instant-homage guitar breaks that rip through stylists from Marty Robbins to Johnny Cash to Sex Pistols to Stevie and several other Rays.
HBO's Treme, filming all over town this week, including its own staging of a famed music festival, has made something of rock star of Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. And now, on songs like "Show Me Something Beautiful," he sings nearly as much as he blows trombone or trumpet on the big-time arrangements. But there's no getting anywhere close to a reasonable view of him at Gentilly, so it's off to Kirk Joseph's Tuba Tuba. "That sh*t was cold!" exclaims one of the five tuba/Sousaphone players after one particularly funky stroll, as though he was dumbfounded that Conn musical instruments hadn't yet signed them up for an endorsement deal.
Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries lets me know that "Ain't nobody there but the devil" as I pass through the Gospel Tent and then by the multi-layered party-gras rhythms and chants of the exquisitely primal 101 Runners to another group of perennial top performers, Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet. Beausoleil will remain Kings of Cajun until someone can knock them off the throne.
My, my, where has the time gone? It's already time for today's headliners. I'm not much of a Jimmy Buffett fan (understatement), and I'm even less of an admirer of Buffett's loud (in too many ways) parrothead fan base. Of course, today they're no more annoying than all the other spring-break types who can't walk the extra 20 feet to recycle their lite beer cans. In any case, "Cheeseburger in Paradise" sounds too thin to be ironic and it's over to the Blues Tent for me.
There, 81-year-old Bobby "Blue" Bland is still staking his ownership of "Stormy Monday." I love Aaron Neville's voice over at the Gospel Tent, but these days it reminds me of those depressing post-Katrina Red Cross commercials. Then I'm off to the Strokes, who are good and loud but maybe a little flat in an abbreviated set. I can't decide whether to "Take It Or Leave It" but I stick around for the obligatory faux encore. It never comes -- two points for the Strokes. So I'm back to Ms. Lauryn Hill, who has overcome some early set missteps and now is working her "black magic" vocal strut for an overflow Congo Square crowd. The day ends next door with a zydeco dance-floor par-tee hosted by CJ Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band.
It's an upbeat end to a tiring day. A look down at my protesting feet has me wondering if I'm not music, sun and funned out with one more Fest day still to go.
Today's t-shirt: Morgus (the chiller theater icon).
A Day for Muthas
Having marshaled my energies for the Fest's 2011 grand finale, I'm rewarded early on by Dee-1's socially conscious raps backed by a live band, though not as big as Mystikal's full soul revue from yesterday. Dee-1 and crew's jazz-rock improvs thoroughly hammer a set list that includes "One Man Army."
The happy rewards continue with Feufollet. There's a sophisticated backroads swoon to the young, Grammy-nominated band's modern-rockist songwriting and melodies. Their set list also benefits from the quintet's sense for re-discovering rarities in the Cajun tradition, one that matches a playfulness yielding little surprises like their Cajun-French adaptation of the theme for That '70s Show. The fare is a bit less innocent as I zag into the Congo crowd. "She like it like THIS and she like it like THAT," sings the Rebirth Brass Band, now 28 years young with a new CD on Basin Street, a premier New Orleans record label, as they stretch out on tight, hard-line jams.
A loop around the track that takes me by Anders Osborne, Henry Butler, Grandpa Elliot (Playing for Change) and Chubby Carrier reminds me (unnecessarily, really) how much unique music calls Louisiana home. By the time I stop back by Congo Square for a few minutes of the wind-blown "konpu" grooves of veteran Haitian group Tabou Combo, I'm feeling that I've already gotten my Sunday money's worth. Can't stop now, though. It's as if I need to stockpile as much of the buzz of Jazz Fest 2011's music highs as possible so that I don't run out before Jazz Fest 2012.
I don't mind that Kid Rock was signed up to play Jazz Fest as much as some, and the Kid's set is solid. But, except for a guest shot by the ubiquitous Trombone Shorty, I'm not feeling the cultural connections between the Gulf region and "Cowboy." After I look around to make sure I'm not attending Coachella by mistake, I move on to Mr. I-10 himself, Sonny Landreth, and his unmistakable slide guitar tone.
Michael Franti covers a lot of ground with Spearhead, roaming through appealing sunshine-rockers that are sometimes more anthemic (a la U2) than Afro-centric. The mélange builds to a shirt-waving finale of "I'll Be Waiting." Kinda cool. I'm moving kinda slow now, but not as slow as the waddlers blocking my path to Chris Thile and the Punch Brothers. At least the waddlers are moving; a large block of the Sunday crowd is spread out on blankets and lawn chairs, looking worse for the wear of their "when DID did I get home?" Saturday nights.
Impressively well-dressed bluegrass pickin is spilling from the stage at the Punch Brothers' set (the name is from a Mark Twain short story). The acoustic quintet can't fully extend their front-porch vibe to all the Fais Do Do listeners but it's an energized gem of a performance nonetheless. There's more top-shelf musicianship on display at the Jazz Tent, where percussionist Bill Summers joins buddy Irvin Mayfield and his 19-piece New Orleans Jazz Orchestra for masterful set that draws from Mayfield's new CD and book, A Love Letter To New Orleans.
A look at the watch reveals it's time for the "au revoir" lap to wrap up Fest 2011. The music marathon of just the past couple of hours has been dizzying enough, let alone the dozens of hours of music offerings over the past seven days. At this point, I'm operating on shrimp-n-grits fumes; I can almost hear George Harrison singing a chorus of "It's all too much" in my head.
I know I'll be at the Acura Stage around 7:15 for Aaron Neville's "Amazing Grace" concluding benediction, so first I pay my respects to singer-trombonist and "Treme" actor Glen David Andrews, whose preacher-man baritone is closing the Gospel Tent with help from trumpeter Irvin Mayfield. Then I take in RAM of Haiti one last time. (Hmm, I wonder if any of these RAM moves are fertility dances? It IS Mothers Day after all.)
I hop by manic, funked-out Pentacostal pedal-steel work by Robert Randolph & the Family Band and listen to Gov't Mule's Warren Haynes, Beausoleil's Michael Ducet, Bonerama's Mark and other friends help the Radiators say their Fest farewell, at least for their current lineup of 33 years, with a signature blast of funky "fish-head" swamp rock. I watch Mayor Landrieu don a scrub board vest for a cameo with Rockin Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters before planting myself at the Jazz Tent, where 80-year old sax giant Sonny Rollins is deep into exploring definitions of bop and cool with his backing quartet. Brilliant.
When I get to the Neville Brothers' revelry over at Acura, Irvin Mayfield is helping out on the old Meters chestnut, "Cissy Strut." "You are all Nevilles," Cyril Neville tells the audience when he's done introducing a few generations of his family onstage for Jazz Fest's traditional closing set. An intense "Indian Red" leads to the top-off, Aaron Neville's warm and soulful croon of "Amazing Grace." As another writer offered: "Aaron's voice has a way of making one feel homesick even when they're near home."
And I'm already homesick for Jazz Fest.
Phone camera photos by the author.