Maximum Performance

Celebrating New Orleans’ Native Tongues: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – Weekend 1

Maximum Performance

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FRIDAY APRIL 26:

Henry Gray’s keyboards are first thing I hear upon arriving at my 27th (or is it 28th?) straight Jazz Fest. It reminds me of a time a few years back, at an early Ponderosa Stomp, when I leaned on Gray’s piano while listening to him reunite with other blues legends from Muddy Waters’ and Howlin’ Wolf’s groups. It was spectacular. “This is the sh*t that inspired the Yardbirds and Stones to pick up guitars,” I thought, “and I’m hearing it like they did.” Recalling that revelation reminds me that even as the number of big touring acts included in the Fest lineup grows and grows, I still make the annual pilgrimage for the Henry Grays among the 500-plus acts performing at the New Orleans Jazz Fest over seven days divided between two weekends, acts that provoke my annual mad darting from stage to stage around the Fair Grounds Race Course where the festival is held. And it’s time to Start The Dart.

I catch some of the Friendly Travelers, who are in the Gospel Tent churning out churchy grooves that have a Gil Scott Heron smoothness, and hear some of Jamal Batiste’s JAM-ALL, a soulful hiphop big band, “do the right thing, just like Spike Lee.” I catch a the zydeco -soul strains of Charmaine Nevilles’s “Green Juice Man” at Congo Square as I crash over to hear the Soul Rebels at the big Gentilly Stage. But I can’t get closer than a few hundred feet to hear the brass-band kings – in sharp contrast to their gig last night at Le Bon Temps Roule, an Uptown watering hole. So I make my way over to the Fais Do Do stage for the Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band.

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Corey Ledet & his Zydeco Band

Daigrepont’s crew, Tipitina’s Sunday house band for 27 years, is a Jazz Fest fixture. And today, their set reminds me that, while my goal is take home a handful of new-to-me musical experiences from Fest every year, encore performances can be just as satisfying. Daigrepont’s Cajun two-step party is rock solid, one of the best I’ve ever heard from him. And I’m happy to find that the set is one that is being recorded live and available on CD, for me to take home. Next up, Corey Ledet & his Zydeco Band keep up the heat with their own tight party-band grooves, and I’ve just heard two more Fais Do Do acts that could turn even a morgue into a dancehall.

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Doc McKenzie & the Hi-Lites

I figure I get a reasonable taste of at least 40 of the 60-70 acts that perform at Fest every day, and most of those bands are deserving of mention. But I could barely list ‘em all here, let alone write ‘em up. Do I talk about rapper Black Soul sitting in with Los Po-Boy-Citos for a wild Mex-hop version of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” and leave out Sonny Landreth’s “I-10 blues” slide guitar shredding? Do I include future-blues guitar man Gary Clark, Jr. and Donald Harrison, Jr., the King of Nouveau Swing, but ignore Doc McKenzie & the Hi-Lites and their hard-soul Holy Ghost party or jazz legend Eddie Palmieri? Tried-and-true favorites, or new possibilities? Like many true Jazz Fest fanatics, I ponder similar questions every hour as I try to decide, “Which stage next?” Do you go where you think you should be, or just “be” where you are?

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Le Vent du Nord

Right now, I’ve lucked out by setting my internal GPS for Fais Do Do, where Le Vent du Nord (North Wind) is laying down the day’s most memorable set. Call it Acadian high-brow Quebecois hillbilly music, romantic French-Canadian folk with ear-opening textures, some provided by a hurdy-gurdy man. Duly impressed, the stage manager allows two encores, unheard of at Fest. Dr. John is in fine form, as usual, over at the mammoth Acura Stage, where he’s featuring the keyboard -centric voodoo-funk from the Dan Auerbach-produced CD Locked Down. But his new band of Nite Trippers hasn’t yet settled into the gris-gris mindset.

I do walk-bys of the day’s finales by Band of Horses, George Benson and John Mayer (and his army of guitars) on the way to my own Big Three. I slide into The Mash-Up’s smackdown of “The Thrill is Gone” at the Jazz Tent with Terrence Higgins, Ike Stubblefield, Grant Green, Jr., and Ron Holloway before being energized by the Campbell Brothers’ raise-the-roof Sacred Steel, which includes a gorgeous instrumental of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” next door at the Blues Tent. Back over at Fais Do Do, easily the stage of the day, seminal zydeco superstar Queen Ida, who in 1982 became the first zydeco artist to win a Grammy and hadn’t played in Louisiana for 25 years, is presented with a governors award during a guest shot in Terrence Simien’s set. “It’s my 28th Jazz Fest in a row,” says Simien, who provides the ending prayer for Day 1: “Peace, Love & Zydeco.”

SATURDAY APRIL 27:

Saturday starts like a mini Ponderosa Stomp – the highly recommended annual New Orleans festival known for its celebration and re-discoveries of sometimes-forgotten music greats. Today’s first three Blues Tent acts are Classie Ballou (who played guitar on the first zydeco recording (Boozoo Chavis’ “Paper in My Shoe”), Herb Hardesty (the man who put the sax in rock and roll but today is “Making Whoopie” in smoky-jazz jams), and L’il Buck Senegal’s Blues Band (which has backed up many of Ponderosa Stomp’s re-discoveries with their swampy rock and roll). It’s all great, including an electric bass solo of the “Star Spangled Banner,” by L’il Buck’s bassist. “All stand, please.”

I wander over to perhaps the wildest stuff I’ve ever heard coming from the Gentilly Stage. There, the three laptop/turntable DJs of A Tribe Called Red are generating techno/triphop beats and mixing in samples of American Indian drumming and powwow chants of the untamed variety. Not sure if it fits at Fest, but it’s got the Quebecois genes to belong here. And much to my disco-averse surprise, I’m digging it, like the rest of the crowd. Over at the Gospel tent Tyrone Foster, after a dedication to Boston Marathon victims, hands out little US flags and slips into “America the Beautiful” for another “all stand” moment. Hmm, look like it’s going to be a very USA! USA! day.

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Apache painter Douglas Miles

Possibly prodded by the devastation that the BP oil spill dealt (not to mention decades of man-generated erosion) to the Mississippi Delta swamplands, home to native tribes in the regions, there’s an expanded presence of Native American art and culture at Jazz Fest this year, with a village dedicated to the culture, dance and crafts where I find paintings in progress and the Yellow Bird Indian Dancers moving to poundings of a real drum circle. So it’s appropriate that the annual Voice of the Wetlands all-star jam gets a spotlight on the mammoth Acura Stage. The amalgam of musicians -- including Tab Benoit, Beausoleil’s Michael Doucet, Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux and many others -- is so uniquely talented that together they can make a tired song like “L’il Liza Jane” sound like the Beethoven’s “Fifth” of swamp rock. And they do.

Last year, I first fell in love with the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ gristly, howling, red-lined rock remodelings of traditional Cajun music (they’ve got a drummer named Death Wish, y’all). And this year they continue the sonic affair as they remake an Eddie Ledet nugget, take a funereal-drone approach to interpreting Daniel Lanois, and end with Cajun French smackdown of the Who’s “My Generation.” Perhaps this is a good time to mention my growing distaste for the frat-boy beer circles and coed cacklers in attendance, especially the ones who mosey on up to the front of the stage so that they can LOUDLY ignore the artists performing there. If your mouth can be heard over these Ramblers, it’s a mighty big one. (What a time to abandon texting as a preferred mode of communication.)

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Charles Bradley

I doubt Billy Joel will perform anything from his top-shelf solo piano CD from a few years back, and I don’t want to spend nearly two hours finding out if he will, so I ignore that Acura nation altogether. Instead I hang out longer than expected at Gentilly for the teaming of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite, which proves to be quite a prolific blues-rock union. I move back over to Fais Do Do to hear Andrew Bird work his fiddle and xylophone into the gentle quirkiness of his songs and the heady percolations of his band. The gorgeous, breezy restraint of Bird’s set is turning into my favorite of the day, and I think it would be a great way to float home. But I decide I really do have to see what Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires are up to over at the Blues Tent, and I’m so glad I did.

I was sorry to have to run by strains of the Dynamic Smooth Family Gospel Singers and the brass-band bounce of 101 Runners on the way over, but Mr. Bradley’s set is a King Records-era soulfire revelation. Delivering an incendiary “Confusion,” the singer roams the stage with hot-footed struts that would have made James Brown jealous. And on his bluesy, panty-wetting ballad “Victim of Love,” the electricity spreading throughout the tent is palpable. Bradley’s eight-piece backing crew looks more like a Govt. Mule cover band from Brooklyn than hot-shot soul dudes, but they deliver like they’re the chosen successors to the J.B.’s funk-band throne. “Where you at, C.B.?” the crowd chants, demanding an encore. Bradley obliges to close out the day.

SUNDAY APRIL 28:

Nasty. There’s nothing “scattered” about these thunderstorms that are messing up the first weekend’s Sunday finale. I contrast the storm’s thunder with the smooth, invention-charged air of The Sessions. One of the Fest groups building bridges between rich traditions and modern inventions and now holding court in the Jazz Tent, The Sessions are spreading a calm vibe colored with blasts of musicianship in an update of “Moonlight in Vermont” and a heap of brassy originals.

Meanwhile, I’m realizing the rain delay – and my continuing need for consolation since finding that my favorite NO LA frozen daiquiri shack has been shuttered – has thrown me off my Fest game. It doesn’t help that the Zion Harmonizers follow their nicely gospel-fied “If I Had a Hammer” with a nod to the Boston Marathon victims and yet another rendition of “America the Beautiful” and some proud-to-be-American sermonizing. I was in Beantown during the bombings, and I appreciate the sentiment. But I don’t understand why such a tragedy should make us want to pound our national chest, especially at a music festival. Guess I’ll have to look for uplift elsewhere.

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CJ Chenier [Photo: WWOZ]

Luckily, Big Sam’s Funky Nation didn’t wait for us sleepy-eyed fans to wake up to start their Congo Square rock-out. Thanks to Big Sam, I’m now sufficiently primed for C.J. Chenier & the Red Hot Louisiana Band’s old-school/real-school zydeco dance-along next door at Gentilly, setting the stage for my Sunday highlight – Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys. As an incurable stage-darter, I’ve listened to a complete set maybe a handful of times out of the (literally) thousands that I’ve heard in my Jazz Fest career. Riley’s set today -- strong, deep, encompassing -- is one of them.

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Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys

Riley’s funky-genteel Mamou Playboys are equal musical parts class and grit. “Let’s Go Drink a Little” is their translation of a song that was a radio code, a signal to listeners for where to do to drink alcohol during Prohibition. The set list includes the backroads wit of “Chatterbox” and pays tribute to Cajun godfather Canray Fontenot with a sing-along. “If you sing badly, even better,” guitarist Sam Broussard implores in his invitation. Afterwards he recaps: “That was awful. Awesome!” It’s the band’s 25th year at Fest. And for this northern boy, the simultaneously relaxed and hi-energy vibe of Steve Riley’s band embodies the best that Jazz Fest has to offer.

I don’t know if The Nevilles -- who along with the Marsalis crew make up the cities first families -- have _ever_ played Jazz Fest without closing out the second weekend. Whatever, their deep-funk rhythms seem re-energized in their mid-day slot at Acura, as witnessed on a ferocious reggae stomp (“Crazy”!) and the Ivan-led chestnut “Big Chief.” “Close your eyes and imagine you're at Tipitina's in 1979,” they say from the stage. Yes indeedy, the legend lives on.

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Calexico

The early rains seem to have subdued Fest Day 3 into a lazy Sunday, just right for Calexico’s often-striking rock cumbias. Their genre- and era-crossing songs -- not to mention their sharp crew of musicians, today expanded by an extra half dozen or so -- make Calexico a perfect fit for Jazz Fest. Recording their latest CD just across the river in Algiers, they seem to have perfectly assimilated the Crescent City zeitgeist.

It’s a quick bounce over to Fais Do Do, where the Honey Island Swamp Band, hot with the release of their imminent release of their “Cane Sugar” CD, are pounding out their spiky brand of Louisiana-style Southern rock, and then to the fab Midnight Disturbers, a super-funk Mardi-Gras Indian/brass band hybrid. Just as they implore us to “Party in the Rain,” the skies unload for the second time today. I dash to the nearby Gospel Tent, where attendance has instantly tripled for Bishop Sean Elder electrifying vaults with the Mt. Hermon Baptist Church Mass Choir. Unfortunately, the born-again newbies who have sought shelter here appear to have left their Sunday manners behind. I try to ignore them as we all groove to a hot sacred revision of Rufus’ “Tell Me Something Good.”

The newly arrived swampland in front of Fais Do Do has limited the audience of Little Joe y La Familia. Fortunately, Little Joe and kin could care less, delivering sweet, Latin-rolled ballads and Tex-mex funk-pop with a big dose of laid-back style. Joe is also sporting the day’s best T-shirt: “I just look illegal.”

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Earth, Wind & Fire in the rain

The steel-grey sky is still spitting, generating mudfields that most non-Fest attending humans may never experience. But, against my better judgment and desire for somewhat dry feet, I decide I’ll venture into exactly ONE of the big-stage finales. Dave Matthews and the Gipsy Kings lose out to Earth Wind and Fire. Good choice, I tell myself as they funk-up my head with early set highlights that include “Shining Star,” “Morning Glory,” and a number of “Top Tens in our hearts” as well as on the charts. Why they relegate “September,” possibly the most infectious tune ever written, to a medley of hits is beyond me. But at least the skies wait until the song-bit is over to unleash a new deluge.

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Parade dancers

Seeking a roof over my head, Economy Hall, already bursting with the Treme Brass Band’s Tribute to Uncle Lionel Batiste, seems the logical – i.e., closest – choice. Inside, I’ve been forced, pretty much, to accept that I will not be enjoying the touted Next Generation Big Band, BB King, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, or the Franklin Ave. Baptist Church Mass Choir as part of my planned personal first-weekend climax. Instead I’m having fun staying out of the way of the second line parade that is worming is way through the aisles as these lyrics reverberate from a closing song: “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” Luckily, I won’t have to for another week. After Jazz Fest, part two. ~

Photos by author unless otherwise noted.

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