THURSDAY: Typically, Thursday of second weekend is the Jazz Fest aficionado's fave day: local focus, comfortable crowds, a real hit of Louisiana color. However, somebody didn't get the memo. Today's attending throngs make is seem more like a wall-to-wall-people Saturday. Ugh.
Kirk Joseph's Backyard Groove and Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk--undeniable funk machines both--along with the veteran zydeco guitarist Classie Ballou lift the mood early. It's about then that weird sounds pour over from the Gentilly Stage where Amanda Shaw is supposed to be performing; is that teen queen Demi Lovaro chirping "Should I Stay Or Should I Go?"
Here's something you don't normally hear at Jazz Fest: "Turn it up!" Last Friday it was thundershowers drowning out bands, today its drunken fans. The sound system is uncharacteristically anemic for Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers' set on the giant Gentilly field, today resembling an inland beach covered with sand brought in between weekends a muck deterrent.
The music I can make out is classy, inviting, well-played bluegrass. Martin is a sharp banjoist and he's hooked up with great band of players. "Here's a sing-along with no lyrics," he says to introduce one of the hoedowns. I can only assume the between-song banter is full of chuckles, maybe the Fest's best repartee. Time for a mid-day break and an in-house pep talk.
Antsy, I make a stab at a final lap. Pine Leaf Boy and Cajun fiddler Cedric Watson is doing a nice job with tracks from his new solo CD. I decide Average White Band's "Pickin' Up the Pieces' is dang catchy for AARP funk. Blues Traveler is doin' it to it at the Blues Tent, but not for me. And rumors that the Fest's burgeoning spring break vibe has inspired a wet t-shirt contest over at Acura prove unfounded--though Widespread Panic, jamming respectably, look like they could serve as judges.
Elvis wins another listen and serves up "Every Day I Write The Book" as a lullabye, covers the Grateful Dead's "Friend of the Devil," and revs it up for the George Jones country classic, "The Race Is On." Later tonight, Elvis will sneak into the House of Blues to join CC Adcock and Warren Storm's swamp pop all-stars, the L'il Band of Gold--"8 members, 6 livers, 25 egos"--in a tribute to recently departed Louisiana songwriting hero Bobby Charles. LBoG's new CD is brilliant, but the band was left off this year's Fest schedule.
Environmental reality suspended for the moment, Friday is full of small pleasures early on. The crowd surge has retreated from Thursday's numbers. Threatening rain clouds are holding back. Mr. Okra is again selling his fruits and vegetables out of his truck. And It's good to see Buckwheat Zydeco (Stanley Duval) back on his feet with an accordion strapped over his shoulders, leading his band in a brassy slide of indigenous melodies.
So I join the Congo Square crowd for a searing mix of new and trad NOLA brass with Rebirth Brass alumnus trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, another of the New Orleans musicians who plays himself on the HBO series Treme. Kermit almost gets way with a version of "I Can See Clearly Now" that moseys close to TV commercial territory. He does much better with a 9th Ward breakout of the Ying Yang Twins' "Halftime (Stand Up and Get Crunk)."
But the Gospel Tent is where it's goin' on today. That's where Rev. James Landrum & The Ebenezer Baptist Choir are shaking off the shackles with some prayer-tent bounce. Then, after the New Orleans Spritualettes' infectious rave for God, we raise our hands with the Voice of Peter Claver (Catholic!) youth choir, stomp with St Raymond / St. Leo-the-Great Choir, and sweat with the big mamas of the Selvys while they wave towels and belt out "Oh Happy Day."
Not Aretha Franklin. She has backed out at the last minute for the second year in a row, leaving Earth, Wind and Fire to sub. For a second I think, great, maybe I'll get to hear "September," my all-time favorite EW&F song. I quickly regain my bearings. Though others here have a different idea, Jazz Fest shouldn't be approached like some generic classic-pop jukebox.
I'd like to catch the Susan Tedechi-Derek Trucks collaboration, but I ain't getting' near the Blues Tent mess. So after a pleasant walk by Gipsy Kings, I'm off to hear Kirk Franklin churchin' it up at Congo, Nicholas Payton's classic modern trumpet, and bassist Stanley Clarke's harmonic love affair with Japanese pianist Hiromi. Louis Prima Jr. is channeling the shows his dad--who would've been 100 this year--used to deliver over at the Saenger Theater on Canal. And the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra turns "Little Liza Jane" into an extended rent party. I never do hear "September."
Today's question: Is loading the headlining slots with nostalgic acts that are as old as Jazz Fest's 41 years really the best way to develop a new generation of fans for New Orleans music? I'm just sayin'.
SATURDAY: There's a clear trend over the last few years here at Fest. The higher the price of admission, the more infuriatingly slow the tour-bus crowd's waddle becomes ... and the more endangered my ability to sprint from stage to stage. Today's schedule is this year's biggest logistical challenge. There are no less than 28 acts that I must get to today. So what better way to start than to ignore this imperative, temporarily, and take a free ride on a Creole carousel near the mid-field flagpole?
Likewise, the day's lineup spins around me. It would easy, maybe even advisable, to just bounce between Gospel Tent and Fais Do Do. Deep-soul dimensions of praise from First Emanuel Baptist Choir; Betty Winn & One-A-Chord; a quarter-century celebration of the Johnson Extension family, dressed in white; Craig Adams; and others rock the Fair Grounds' soul-fired revival tent. To quote Winn, "This is how we praise the Lord down in New Orleans."
Meanwhile, Lafayette's Pine Leaf Boys, even better every year, charge up the Fais Do Do stage so that zydeco meister Chubby Carrier, who follows, can get it on like a bayou Family Stone. Beausoleil's earthy classic Cajun waltzes are especially vibrant this year; there's no room to dance, but many in the crowd try anyway. Another go-around by Roddie Romero and the Hub City All-Stars, the first weekend's most memorable Cajun-zydeco group, would make it a perfect Fais Do Do day.
I could just stop here, satiated; it's been a full day. Good time for a breather while checking out the dozens of artisans' booths. This weekend's offerings provide more than the usual share of artwork I'd like to drag home when I win the lottery, including Connie Kittok's brass band and Treme paintings and Lewis Tardy's metal man sculpture that features a working camera inside the head. Emerging from the art tents, I notice that the crunch of this Fest's biggest crowd is becoming a real nuisance. Would Pearl Jam or Jeff Beck or whomever these people have massed to worship please start their set already so we can clear the aisles at the other stages?
By this time Pearl Jam are opening their 2010 tour with a set over at the Acura stage, a show being broadcast to troops in the Middle East. Pearl Jam has at least one legitimate tie to the Crescent City: they recorded Vitalogy here back when Daniel Lanois had his Kingsway studio. And I like that they throw covers of the Byrds' "So You Want To be A Rock 'n' Roll Star" and the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" into the blistering set, even though Pearl Jam's grunge feast is probably the farthest the Jazz Fest lineup has ever strayed from its local heritage.
I'm also impressed that the audience is singing along, "she dreams in colors, she dreams in red," even at the farthest reaches of the 50,000 or so fans. But it all feels thoroughly detached from the New Orleans Jazz Fest. To a point, so does Kenny Wayne Shepard's big-bang blues. Listening to Marcus Miller reinvent Miles Davis' classic Tutu album as a bass player's masterpiece helps some. So does Banu Gibson's nod to Josephine Baker. But I only fully get back on the train with Nashville roots-and-youthgrass phenoms Old Crow Medicine Show.
SUNDAY: The skies never let go on Friday or Saturday, but they've been spitting all morning and don't look to be letting up much today. After yesterday's musical royal flush, I'll be content to just say a leisurely goodbye to Jazz Fest 2010 by catching a few NOLA musical friends.
This truly has been a Treme festival, and no one associated with the HBO hit has been more ever-present than Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. Shorty and his Orleans Avenue band just finished a late-night show at Tipitina's a few hours ago but they have no problem living up to the hype surrounding their new Backatown CD. Trombone Shorty's set matches the intensity of the in-store show during the week while easily filling the more massive space at Gentilly with sound.
The rain has thinned the crowds for this year's finale, but not their enthusiasm. And the showers can't stop Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars' afro-beat shine; Chouval Bwa of Martinique from emerging from under their carousel's canopy to hop up on the Jazz & Heritage Stage; nor Feufollet from playing Cajun tunes with a wisdom well beyond their years.
A little rain can't stop the Jack White / Kills alliance Dead Weather from previewing their upcoming album (is that a West Coast Art Pop Experimental Band cover I heard?), nor BB King's from playing with some product placement for Cialis.
But what the rain can't do, the schedule does, and Jazz Fest 2010 is about to expire. It's time to hear the Neville Brothers sing "Indian Red," "Fiyo On The Bayou" and the rest of their Fest-closing set which, even savored for the zillionth time, is still a sappy but necessary and most-comforting tradition. With the weather gods cooperating, a final deluge holds off just long enough for "Amazing Grace" followed by "One Love," the traditional final benedictions from Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril. All is good. At least until next year.