Checking out the lineup, I think there's a chance to finally carry out a long-running idea of mine--to hang out all day at the Gospel Tent. The Coolie Family Singers, Jackson Travelers, and Mississippi Mass Choir will keep me in very good company. But 15 minutes into the experiment, will power to continue it disappears. Little Freddy King's blues beckons, and I wonder what the master Senegalese drumming of I'Voire Spectacle sounds like.
I need to catch some of the Louisiana music travelogue of Steve Riley's Mamou Playboys and figure that it will be great to see Fest founder George Wein jazzing it up on piano, swinging with Lew Tabackin, Jimmy Cobb, Randy Brecker, Esperanza Spalding and the rest of his Newport All-Stars. King of the sousaphone Kirk Joseph and his Backyard Groove have a party goin' on at the Jazz and Heritage Stage. And how could I miss the Meter Men (original Meters Leo, Zigaboo and George minus Art Neville), funk masters sampled on hundreds of hip-hop sides?
Having completely deserted my original "plan," I end the day with a stroll past sweet Emmylou Harris (with Patty Griffin sitting in); rock and soul legend Solomon Burke (with Blind Boy Clarence Fountain sitting in) singing from throne (really); the ice-cube cool modern blows of trumpeter Nicholas Payton; and rub-board zydeco bounce of Rosie Ledet, whose brother Corey opened the day on the same Fais Do Do stage.
Relax? What's that?
As big-money touring acts have attracted more casual fans, a growing segment of the crowd has come to treat Jazz Fest more as an extended spring break than a music pilgrimage. Weekend one had continued the unfortunate trend of all-ages dancing shouldered out by frat buds standing in irritatingly loud beer circles directly in front of favorite stages. But today there are signs (that will continue into the weekend) that the two-steppers may have regained their dance floor. Hoo-rah!
Today, the "gotta hear" moments include, but certainly aren't limited to: the gritty bayou elegance of Beusoleil's Cajun waltzes; the Ori Culture Danse Club, a drum and vocal group from the small West African nation of Benin, telling stories of the culture through dance; Glen David Andrews, who proclaims that "there ain't no sittin' down at the Gospel Tent" while his brother Trombone Shorty helps him blow the top off the same; the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth joining for the Glass House reunion, feting the tiny neighborhood joint where I got a lot of early brass band schooling; and bassist and soprano Esperanza Spalding, whose saluted Weather Report while pushing jazz in new directions.
Time to see what all the Sugarland hubbub is about. Very rarely do Jazz Fest acts really suck. Well, there was that String Cheese Incident set a few years back. But that's preferable to pop-stars-of-the-moment Sugarland, who sound like a mediocre adult-country music equivalent of the Disney Kids channel. They march offstage with 35 minutes left in their set so they can manufacture a faux encore. Yuk. Parents who regularly cart their kids to Miley Cyrus (whose lyrics are better) events may have a different take on Sugarland, but they're not my cup of moonshine.
Note to self regarding second Saturdays at Jazz Fest: throw away all planned Fair Grounds itineraries.
I'm able to catch some of former Pine Leaf Boy Cedric Watson's Bijou Creole set, but it's hard navigating the stages. At 1:15, the recycling bins are already overflowing with beer cans, a bad sign. Pushing over to Acura, Creole soulman Buckwheat Zydeco's health problems have forced him to put down his accordion for a seat at the Hammond organ. But that doesn't stop him from celebrating the 30th anniversary of his jump into zydeco music with help from Rockin' Dopsie, Jr., and a finale reunion with his 15-piece 1971 James Brown-style crew, the Hitchhikers. Everest, one of the smart NOLA rock bands at Fest this year (another was the neo-psychedelic Rotary Downs), sound like the offspring of Neil Young, who'll play tomorrow.
I circle back around to the Johnson Extension (went for the name, stayed for the music) who play the sharpest gospel set I've heard this year. That gets me up again, and I force my way to Kings Of Leon.
Last weekend, Wilco overplayed their distorto guitars card. Not so with the pretty boys of Kings Of Leon, who are generating just as much buzzsaw but have a better handle on it--crisp, crunchy (or was that this morning's breakfast?) and, dare I saw, hummable.
I say I come to Jazz Fest mostly to hear bands I won't hear anywhere else. So, technically, that includes Bon Jovi. Festival founder George Wein says Jon Bon Jovi has one of the best voices around. That's enough for me, so I make the effort to check out the act largely responsible for what seems to be the biggest one-day attendance in Fest history. One thing's for sure, even though he's a New Jersey boy, he sings with more country heart than Sugarland--even if some of his band's best moments sound like a cover of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." I had figured being transported back to the 1980s would make me feel younger; instead I get the urge to dress funny.
As I back out of the Acura stage masses, I land in a spot that sounds like a live mash-up tape: Bon Jovi, the O'Jays, Midnite Disturbers' brass band swing, and a little John Mayall's "Room to Move" blues with Kings Of Leon bouncing in off the grandstand. Interesting.
No set demonstrated the Fest's ability to gather musicians in one-time-only bands or showed off its fusion of styles better than the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars. Tab Benoit, Dr. John, Cyrlle Neville, Waylon Thibodeaux, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux gathered to jam and tell us of the dire threat to their southern Louisiana homes as erosion eats away at the natural protection provided by Mississippi delta swamplands, a man-made loss caused by development and drilling. "We all grew up in the swamp," is the message from the stage, "that's why we sound like this."
On my way to Neil Young I stop to take in some thump-hop from Chuck Brown, the party groove godfather of go-go. Filling the extra time created when Aretha Franklin cancelled, Young stretches "Down by the River" into 18 minutes of crazed Crazy Horse guitaring and finishes with an over-the-top cover of the Beatles' "A Day In The Life" that inspires Neil to let out his string-ripping inner punk.
There's still a huge throng around Congo Square for R&B heroes Maze, and I navigate past all the electric slide dancers to set up shop before the Soul Rebels, a premier NOLA brass band. A few dancing homeboys are putting on a spectacular display of their moves as the Rebels roar through their local anthem, "504."
It's time. There's no getting around it. The Neville Brothers have assembled for their traditional close of Jazz Fest set and begin a polyrhythmic ride through New Orleans funk chestnuts "Iko Iko," "Brother John Is Gone," and "Jambalaya." Just after 7 p.m., when brother Aaron sings his "Amazing Grace" prayer, Jazz Fest 2009 is officially over.
George Wein says his favorite part of the Jazz Fest is knowing it will be back next year. Let the training for next year's marathon begin.