If you've never been, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival presented by Shell sounds like just another festival. Yeah, a jazz fest, big deal. Then, like I did 23 years ago, you find out. It's one of the world's top music experiences, one that has broken many a jaded attitude with its sensory carnival of all types of music, food, and art, largely drawn from the region's built-talent pool. In most ways Jazz Fest has stayed true to its hardcore, multi-cultural roots and origins in New Orleans' Congo Square four decades ago. Big touring acts featured in recent years (Dylan, Springsteen, Plant and Krauss) have realized that the festival isn't just another date on the itinerary and have risen to the occasion. Let's get our guided tour of this year's event started, shall we?
Jazz Fest by the numbers: Fortieth anniversary year, 400 bands, 12 stages, 11 am to 7 pm, on 7 days over 2 weekends at New Orleans' Fair Grounds Race Course (1 mile track), 75-125 people thousand per day, 5 cultural exhibits, a few dozen parades, over 100 food specialties (no burgers), a few hundred artisans, temps in the 80s, mostly sunny, breezy.
Some set a blanket and their krewe pole near one of the big stages and settle in for the day. But really, at Jazz Fest it's best to get your ADD on and sample as much as you can. First things first: a dish of Crawfish Monica washed down with an iced café au lait. Suitably fueled, we can begin criss-crossing between stages. Highlights come early with hi-wire testifying from the Gospel Soul Children and the young Lost Bayou Ramblers, who unleash an energized Cajun blitz with hero Hadley Castille looking on. Next is the welcome discovery that the Foundation has reinstated the Allison Miner Music Heritage stage, a great place to hear artist interviews, inside the (air-conditioned) grandstand. Ghana's Yacub Addy, who will later join Wynton Marsalis' orchestra, is demonstrating his five-hand technique for drumming there. Also happy news--the Gospel Tent's parking lot floor has been covered with absorptive carpet for improved sound. It's already a good Fest.
Some standouts from the rest of the first day included DJ Hektik blurting beats from his Chopper City mixtape, followed by gay-and-proud hi-jinx from sissy rappers Freedia and Nobby and, later, pianist Henry Butler's fired-up set of honky-tonk piano funk. There was a lot to like in Donnie Harrison's neo-swing jazz, and Irma Thomas and Mavis Staples' tribute to gospel icon Mahalia Jackson, Marcia Ball sitting in with Roy Rogers & the Delta Rhythm Kings, the zydeco-flecked gospel of Donnie Bolden, Jr. & the Spirit of Elijah, and sets by Trombone Shorty and Booker T. with Drive By Truckers. The winner of day came with Marsalis performing his "Congo Square" suite with the Lincoln Center Orchestra plus co-composer Addy and his Odadaa ensemble, a perfect blend of raw and sophisticated. At one point, a strategic spot offered a convergence of sound from Spoon, Joe Cocker, Real Untouchables Brass Band, Wynton Marsalis and Terrence Simien's Zydeco Experience. Is your head spinning yet?
Feet having survived the Friday marathon, they're enlisted to ferret out Saturday's highlights, which I have a hard time fitting into the notepad. Any one of them proved worth the price of admission.
Del McCoury and his band of picking virtuosos filled an audience request for Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins celebrated a new CD by reuniting with the Rebirth Brass Band, in its 27th year, to smoke the Congo Square stage, while the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club marked its centennial with a colorful exhibit inside the grandstand. DJ Jubilee, a leading practitioner of New Orleans bounce, previewed a few tough punches from an upcoming album, occasionally stopping mid-tune so that "no one could steal his words" ahead of time. Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk proved why they're one of the deepest funk bands in the country (with two bassists, how could they not be?) even though too few people outside of NOLA know of them. And 90-year-old folk legend Pete Seeger's 1960s Hudson River protests were inspirational, even if they did sound quaint compared to the lively edge of New Orleans traditions emanating from Henry Gray's piano, brass bands, and Economy Hall's Bourbon St. struts.
Your northern boy is starting to wilt in the Louisiana sun when he's saved by becoming a "witness" for the Cork Singers... and by the misters spraying cool air down from the above in the Gospel Tent. On to Irma Thomas, who retains her title of Soul Queen of New Orleans at one end of the track while Third World is dubbing down through some brawny reggae in the middle.
It's already 5:50, there's just about time for one last lap around the track ... after grabbing a plate of crab and crawfish stuffed mushrooms for fuel. First up on the Jazz & Heritage Stage is Ilê Ayiê, a Brazilian drum and dance troupe pounding out an incredibly crazy beat. Your loyal reporter is tempted to stay and scrap the last lap, but soldiers on to St. Joseph the Worker Music Ministry, a good New Orleans youth choir. I'm thinking they'll be lighting it up later with their finale as I arrive at an overflowing Blues Tent for Johnny Winter's set, where the albino guitarist is supercharging riffs as he sits at the front of the stage. Next door in the Jazz Tent is a repeat of Wynton Marsalis' suite, still impressive but a bit contained compared to Friday's energized outing. I stop briefly at a few crafts booths, bemoaning that there is absolutely no budget this year for Kreg Yingst's blues kings and queens linocuts or John Gutoskey's "upcycled" mixed-media assemblages.
It's already 6:25, so I step up the pace to the Acura stage, where James Taylor floats pretty harmonies ("Carolina in My Mind") over a band that's fairly rocking, at least for a mild mannered folkie. Down the track, there's barely enough room to squeeze between bleary-faced beer drinkers in line for porta-potties and the 15,000 or so massed around Congo Square, where Erykah Badu is holding court with her golden neo-soul voice. By the time the Gentilly Stage is in view, Wilco is sounding good, sparkling through "Box Through of Letters." I'm thinking Jeff Tweedy's boys might brush aside reservations that they don't actually belong at Jazz Fest, like the Raconteurs and Calexico did last year. Then the three guitarists unravel a feedback fiesta that peaks with "Outta Mind" and, when I arrive at Economy Hall, is just about drowning out Don Vappie's trad jazz banjo solo with the Creole Serenaders. I'm a fan of distorted blare, but not at Jazz Fest. So, within the space of about an hour, I've heard 10 top-shelf bands; guess that works against my arguments that the $50 admission is too stiff. It would have been 11 acts, but the Texas Johnny Brown interview was over by the time I showed up. Maybe I shouldn't have stopped for stuffed mushrooms? ... Nah.
Although on this day there appear to be thousands who disagree, one does not come to Jazz Fest to see the Dave Matthews Band or other regularly touring bands. That's like traveling to Paris to shop at Target. There are just too many Gulf Coast jewels at NOJF, some rarely on display elsewhere. Sunday's lineup offered a big helping of locally grown music, including the unmistakable tone of Sonny Landreth's electric slide work, Big Chief Boudreaux & the Golden Eagles' stellar hard-and-heavy Mardi Gras chants, and the Mighty Chariots of Fire, still kickin' it for the Holy Ghost in the Gospel Tent. Jazzy rolling rhythms from guitarist Javier Gutierez's Vivaz! and Locos por Juana's Caribbean hip-hop filled the space nicely when Orishas was scratched due to visa problems, while Kinky's pumped out some alt-Mex boom rock. This increase of Latin acts at Fest reflects the growth of the Mexican community since Katrina.
Properly timed, one can catch at least 5-10 good minutes of upwards of 25-30 bands per day. Today, however, I'm having trouble keeping up with planned zig-zagging as crowd gridlock is doubling the travel time between stages. And often, the great unexpected, the musical moment, derails the itinerary by extending the stay in front of certain stages for longer than expected. A few of Sunday's culprits: the swamp-jazz thump of Papa Grows Funk; great young Cajun band the Pine Leaf Boys; Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band with their mix of trad jazz sass with ethnic African and Caribbean influences; and the creative vocal moves of Craig Adams's Higher Dimensions of Praise. The day's two real finds (aka schedule disrupters) were the real-deal soul swagger and sharp horn lines of Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings and the hot-wired neo-bop of NOLA drummer Herlin Riley in his first Fest appearance.
It's now 3:50, and the Dave Matthews legions still haven't migrated to the massive Acura stage, which would help to thin the throngs at other stages. Conflicting set times mean that Mavis Staples, seen recently (great show), has to be sacrificed for checking out the Ebony Hillbillies' family-style string band trance, the Avett Brothers' busker pop (which grew on me, some) and an encore of Brazil's Ilê Ayiê, who impressed again. With DMB now on stage, I figured I could sneak close to hear Earth, Wind & Fire's horns blow out their three decades of funky hits. No such luck, but I can hear "Shining Star" as I stroll by Etta James and Hugh Masekela on my way to the great massing. There were 30,000 or so enthusiastically crammed in for DMB's set. I got close enough to hear their nifty cover of Talking Heads' "Burning Down The House," but that was it. You couldn't pay me enough to venture deeper into that DMZ. Really.