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Jazz Fest Weekend One: New Orleans Lets It Shine

Maximum Performance

Ahh, the 42nd Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, just like I pictured it. Music wafting on the tails of a Gulf breeze, a blue sky painted above ... and everything (apologies to Steve Wonder). I'm all set for seven days of the sensory overload of music simultaneously pouring from 11 stages (12 if you count the Kid's Tent) along with the food, art, and people watching that have become part of this annual pilgrimage.

Overpowering just about everything else here--except for maybe the one-year anniversary of the BP oil disaster that decimated nearby parts of the Gulf coast--is that this Jazz Fest is the largest presentation of Haitian music since last year's earthquake rocked the island nation. Kompa singer and newly elected president of Haiti Michel Martelly will be represented here by his cousin Richard Morse, a presidential advisor as well as a member of the Haitian vodou drum troupe RAM, which will be featured several times at the Fest over the weekend. "Haiti and New Orleans, twin sisters separated at birth," Morse tweeted last week.

Speaking of overpowering, over the last few years, as ticket prices have tripled, the Fest has sometimes become top heavy with big-name touring acts that can block the spotlight on the region's rich talent pool. It's interesting to see which of the acts plays to NO LA and Fest traditions and which just drag along their normal shtick to the Jazz Fest's bigger stages.

Time to start this year's ascent into music heaven, but first things first: an ample helping of Crawfish Monica. Duly fortified, my time at individual stages quickly becomes a blur, but I know that Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk and Los Hombres Calientes, with Irvin Mayfield and Bill Summers, kick rhythmic butt.

A glance at the schedule shows the giant Acura Stage with a line-up boasting above-average appeal. The smaller stages are generally more inviting, and more likely to generate musical surprises for Fest veterans, than the larger stages that bookend the one mile Fair Grounds track. But with Meters bassman George Porter, Jr., and salty piano man Jon Cleary warming the stage for a return performance by Jeff Beck and Robert Plant's Band Of Joy, it looks like I could settle in at Acura and get comfortable for the day. Except for my well-documented Jazz Fest ADD; there's too overwhelming an amount of stuff going on to make any one act or stage a focus.

More than one fellow critic describes Jeff Beck's hour-long set as a master guitar clinic, and they're right: Beck's six-string heroics on rock standards like Hendrix' "Little Wing" and the Beatles "A Day In The Life" make me forget how overplayed they are. Beck's guitaring isn't really part of any NOLA traditions. But he gives a nod to the locals when Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, a ubiquitous and welcome figure on the Fair Grounds, joins Beck for an improbable encore of Sly Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher."

On the Gentilly Stage, at the other end of the track from Beck and Plant, are budding heroes of another generation, Mumford And Sons and the Avett Brothers. West London's Mumfords won me over with the absolute glee they displayed for their chance to jam with Bob Dylan on the Grammy Awards. The same, to a lesser extent, for the Avett Brothers. On this day, the Mumford crew's resonant multi-instrument folk is a clear winner over the Avetts' rootsy pop fusion.

On the way back over to Plant, a weave of hiphop and reggae connections from one of Haiti's more famous exports, Wyclef Jean, is swaying a Congo Square crowd rivaling the one at Acura for Plant. At that stage, the Celtic-Appalachian country tunes of Led Zeppellin singer's splendid Band Of Joy, which includes singer Patty Griffin and guitarist Buddy Miller, seem tailor-made for his Jazz Fest appearance. The song list offers samples from all three acts of Plant's career--highlights of which include Led Zep's "Ramble On" with a bouzouki solo and "Gallow's Pole," "Please Read The Letter" from the Raising Sand sessions with Alison Krauss, and the cluster of country harmonies that round out the current Band Of Joy. OK, so I'm warming to hanging out at the Acura Stage, but don't tell anybody; I don't want to damage my small-stage cred.

 

Sun Still Shining

On Day 2, I vow to hang out more at the Haiti Pavilion and catch the vodou drumming, exhibitions, and ceremonies, even though they're sometimes shut down by the sheer volume of Congo Square's speaker stacks, which are pointed directly at the pavilion and kicking out sounds like the New Orleans sissy-bounce booty rap of Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby. But the Haitian masks, artwork, and displays are enough to keep me coming back on my darts between stages.

I breeze by the Lagniappe ("a little something extra") Stage just long enough to catch a little of Po' Henry & Tookie's broom-wire guitar on my way to the time-machine echoes of Rhode Island's the Low Anthem and their smart 1960s-style folk-rock  harmonizing and bowed banjo. I miss a tenor sax workshop at the Jazz Tent when I'm distracted by the down'n'dirty, brass-band Sousa funk of drummer Stanton Davis and his way-fabulous Midnight Disturbers.

My internal GPS is no match for the holy-ghost hallelujahs of the two dozen ever-energetic Gospel Soul Children, which draw me into a regular haunt, the Gospel Tent, where I also succumb to the no-nonsense beat of the Word as conveyed by four generations of the Johnson Extension (insert joke here) and then allow Gospel veteran Rance Allen Group to lay some hard-funk praise "down in my soul." It would be easy to bask in this un-churchy spiritual sanctification all day. That is, if it weren't for serious competition from the Fais Do Do (fay doh doh), and Jazz and Heritage stages--and, IF I could sit/stand still for more than 15 minutes. Plus, while it's easy to get drawn up into pew-pounding praise, I generally get bored with sweeter hymnal reverence. And when I find myself contemplating my idea of "what God is," I know it's time to move on. Whooo, that was close.

I weave past trumpeter Jeremy Davenport's big band and Alvin Young Hart's blues whammy to consider some earthly royalty: Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans.  Irma is a vocal revelation, and as her band is rocking the Acura house with "Look Up" and "It's Raining" I note how behaved and into the music the audience is. Not like two years ago, when Bon Jovi fans booed impatiently at the act preceding their idol. Damn those louts, why couldn't they have been more like... hey, wait a minute. Bon Jovi is up next!

Happily bewildered--the considerate behavior does not compute--I wander to Amos Lee at the Gentilly Stage, where he's dropping hard-stomp blues washed with a subtle halo of spirituality and then John Boutte, at the Jazz Tent, where I hope to catch a little of the theme he wrote for HBO's Treme. But the midday heat, though relatively mild, is forcing this northern boy to sweat enough to seek a time out in the air-conditioned grandstand, where an Arlo Guthrie interview bubbles in the background of calming aural wallpaper.

Meltdown averted, I wander to Fais Do Do. After the Pine Leaf Boys' fine new-Cajun set, I find a couple bandmembers up front with me, digging on Ricky Skaggs's music. Last time Skaggs was at Jazz Fest, he was a country boy. This time it's furious hills-and-hollers bluegrass picking, a la Bill Monroe, that dominates a convincing set.

Over at Congo Square, Haiti's Emeline Michel is showing off some truly dazzling vocal chops. By the end of her set, I notice that the ladies are already claiming good vantage spots for catching a better glimpse of upcoming headliner, and American Idol alum, Fantasia. But first, DJ Bombshell Boogie spins a few cool hip-BOOM-bah tunes that rattle Skaggs' set next door. "Kinda reminds you of that annoying neighbor with the Escalade," grumbles one Skaggs fan.

For her part, Fantasia commands her audience in a way that, say, Clay Aiken could not have, jumping into the crowd to belt tunes that include one of her Idol hits, "Summertime."

Over at Acura, Bon Jovi's fans note that guitarist Richie Sambora decided to made a last minute detour to a rehab facility, leaving the tour just before the band's Jazz Fest date... not that it made a difference in my decision to skip the two-hour show and the chance of hearing "Living On A Prayer."

My reaction to a few seconds of Jason Mraz's bleached pop for sorority girls frees me to seek out some driving synco-swing from Ahmad Jamal's modern jazz quartet and then end the day with DJA-Rara from Haiti. The DJA-Rara ensemble--which includes Haitian envoy Morse and has recorded with Wyclef Jean--is the kind of "discovery" that Jazz Fest does best. Blowing through primitive "metal kone" horns (rough long trumpet-like constructions) and puffing through PVC drain pipes for low end smack over the RAM drummers' heavy syncopation, the troupe creates unique call-and-answer structures and brassy circular trances that approach acoustic electronica.

 

Two Down, One To Go

A Sunday-morning look back on the previous days' schedules alerts me to how much I've missed. Preferring a relaxed end to Weekend One, I decide to focus instead on how much I've already been able to see and hear and attempt to carry a more laid-back approach through the day. So far the Fest's tone has been at least a partial return to the kinder, gentler civility of years gone by, maybe I can follow suit. Easier said than done, because Sunday's lineups are rich with surprises that just make me want to rip open the next present, a la Christmas morning.

First up is James "Sugarboy" Crawford, whose guest slot with Jo "Cool" Davis includes a version of "Iko Iko" delivered with the same energy that Crawford might have injected when he wrote and recorded the song way back in 1953.

On this Sunday at Jazz Fest, Sugarboy Crawford and so many others--like Frankie Ford ("Sea Cruise") and Jean Knight ("Mr. Big Stuff") in the classic New Orleans R&B Revue on the Gentilly Stage; the Driskill Mountain Boys, who melted "cold hearts" with their Jimmie Rodgers-era acoustic country; the resilient Dixieland flavors of 80-year-old clarinetist Pete Fountain or the New Leviathan Foxtrot Orchestra; the Dirty Dozen sounding as vital as they did (but way more accomplished) before they launched a few new generations of brass bands; guitarist Lil' Buck Sinegal and his 50 years in the business as one of the best R&B bandleaders in the land--help to redefine the idea of "golden years" for veteran performers. A musician is as young as his or her music sounds.

Though Sherman Washington passed away in March, his music lives on with youthful vigor. At the Gospel Tent, which Washington founded, his Zion Harmonizers lead an upbeat tribute highlighted by a sure-hearted rendition of a Sherman favorite, "Down By The Riverside," as commemorative white balloons fall from the ceiling. Ain't gonna study war no more, indeed.

It's a nice moment in the middle of a great day of music.

I briefly try to set up camp at the same Acura stage where Trombone Shorty had joined the Dirty Dozen's jumpin-jive reading of "When The Saints Go Marching." But the now-impenetrable throngs turn the Dr. John-Dave Bartholomew collaboration of Crescent City giants into a 10-minute funky swamp-pop walk-by for me. Similarly, an attempt to git me some of that there jazz--it is called Jazz Fest after all--turns into a Jazz Tent walk-through during Terence Blanchard's set when all the apparent empty seats turn out to be "saved."

Undaunted, I rehash a couple great earlier sets in my head, including the deep-bottom hip-hop slam of 5th Ward Weebie and Partners-N-Crime and the driving dub-rock and dance of Haiti's Boukman Eksperyans at Congo Square. Then there was the extended Rock'n'Bowl zydeco-night style grooves smoked by Lil' Malcom and the House Rockers at Fais Do Do, followed by the Southern roots-rock hybrid of Honey Island Swamp Band. And its seems like every time I pass by the Jazz and Heritage Stage, the Storyville Stompers are providing their own reminders that they can still raise the proverbial roof with their old-school brass band swing.

I look down at my tired ankle-top Hush Puppies and those dogs are barkin'! But after a pit stop in the grandstand, where I take in Herman Edwards' one-of-a-kind photos of jazz greats, I rally my happy but aching bones for one last victory lap around the track to top off Jazz Fest Weekend One.

The traditional jazz tribute to Mahalia Jackson at the Peoples Health Economy Hall Tent with Barbara Jones and others is just what it sounds like it will be: edifying. Kenny G's glossy soprano sax soundtracks aren't enough to hold me at the Jazz Tent. A sharp band helps Arlo Guthrie through a set of seasoned hippie charm (yes, he encores with "The City Of New Orleans").

John Legend and the Roots pump out a mostly solid reggae-bumped groove, but overall it's a little lite, especially when they play an original tune that sounds like it was lifted straight from the 1960s pop chestnut "Stormy." John Mellencamp uses his gravelly growl to good effect on "Jack And Diane" as well as a protest against anti-people government.

The sparkly, charismatic, thumping, newvo folk-rock buzz of the Decemberists blends well with the Jazz Fest's zeitgeist. Even when Colin Meloy thinks they get "too dark" with "The Rake's Song," the audience turns the "all right's" of the chorus into a sing-along. Tom Jones, in remarkable voice and backed by a remarkably balanced band, turns the Gentilly field into his own ladies-night honky-tonk. I'm tempted to see how many of his song titles I can stuff into a punny sentence, but better judgment stops me before I can add to "It's not unusual to leave your hat on when mama tells you not come."

Back at the Jazz and Heritage stage, it's hard to untangle what the heck is really going on with Red Baarat's Middle Eastern-Bollywood-ska-funk mélange and six-piece horn section, but who cares? It's incredibly infectious.

Victory Lap Victors: The Decemberists, with Tom Jones a close second.

Now THAT was fun. This could be the best New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival since Hurricane Katrina. Next weekend will tell.

 

PHOTOS: Fantasia, Colin McCoy, Rance Allen, Driskill Mountain Boys by Neal Trousdale; Phone camera shots by Tristram Lozaw.

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