Maximum Performance

Jazz Fest Weekend Two: How I Almost Lost My Jazz Fest Mojo

Maximum Performance

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43nd Annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell

Weekend II, May 3-7, 2012

Fair Grounds Race Course, New Orleans

I'm not even half way through Jazz Fest 2012 -- seven days of the sensory overload of music simultaneously pouring from 11 stages for eight hours a day, along with the food, art, and people watching that have become part of this annual pilgrimage. By 7 p.m. on Sunday, I will have seen at least some of the performances by over 150 of the 400-plus acts that will have appeared.

I know the routine, I've done it over two dozen years in a row. And by the Thursday that starts the second weekend, I've shaken off any aching footsies and lack of conditioning for the daily marathon of zigging from stage to stage. Usually. This year seems, well, different for no good reason that I can tell.

Owing to a dream I had last night, I briefly toy with setting up this blog review as a Facebook style timeline with location tags. Thankfully, I nix the idea when I decide that tracing my steps on the day's music schedule would make it  look like a Find Freddy maze. And potentially make recounting my Fest wanderings as boring as, well, as Facebook timeline.

Thursday, with its more manageable crowds and usual focus on local talent, has always been my favorite day of Jazz Fest. This year it's more crowded, and the spring-break beer brigades that usually wait until Saturday to take over are already here in, spades.

Washboard Chaz and the Palmetto Bug Stompers are singing of an "Eternal Second Line" when I get chased from Economy Hall for _not_ blocking the aisles, so I arrive at the Fais Do Do stage a little earlier than planned. There Steve Riley is sitting in, on drums, with his second cousin Mark Savoy and the Savoy Family Band. Mark has been making squeezebox accordions for over 50 years and has likely provided Riley with a few.

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Ann Savoy pays tribute to the great women of Cajun music as the band launches into one of the several great Cajun waltzes that fill the set, including "Goodbye Rosa" and the instrumental "Amedie Two Step," with the ding of a triangle keeping the beat just fine.

The Savoys have rustled poked my hunger awake and I grab some jalapeno and sausage bread on the way to the Free Agents Brass Band, who deliver some real-ass New Orleans street music while  "Keeping It Down Home." I pass through the contemporary crafts area and ogle a couple creepy-cool animal paintings by Joachim Knill from Hannibal, Mo.

Down the track, Little Freddie King is trawling the Muddy end of the electric blues with his guitar. Following Freddie's set, I'm convinced that my mustard-colored shirt is close enough to those worn by the Swinging Mustangs choir that I can fall in line with them as they head for the staging area at the Gospel Tent, where they performed earlier today.

My ruse doesn't work, as my shirt is proving more effective at attracting small black & yellow bugs that attempt to mate with it for most of the afternoon -- even though I keep insisting we don't swing that way.

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Rosie Ledet & Stooges Brass Band

I soak up hot riffs music as I stroll by a couple favorites -- master bassman George Porter, Jr., and zydeco rebel Rosie Ledet -- as well as a crackling cooking demonstration at the Cajun Cabin. I land at Congo Square where the Stooges Brass Band is on fire. Wait a minute, I scold myself. Why all these lazy "temperature's rising"-type adjectives all of the sudden? Because it's frikkin' hot, much hotter and more humid than the pleasant heat of the first weekend, which, I'm informed, was an aberration.

The Honey Island Swamp Band breezes through some electric jug band-style fun while Kirk Joseph sits in, adding some Sousaphone bottom on "Never Saw It Coming." "I had a heart, it got broke, had some money, went up in smoke." New York's Dayna Kurtz puts the day's swelter to good use on a string of sultry tunes, including Patsy Cline's "I'm Sorry," that keep the Lagniappe seats full.

It's almost 4 o'clock and, mentally, I still haven't landed in Second Weekend. And Ani DeFranco can't help me. Today, by the time her thoughtful songs deflect over way too many heads between the Fais Do Do stage and my ears, they sound too reserved, almost sullen.

I need a big hit of UP. I look to the tried-and-true: the diddy-wah dual basses of Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk; piano man Henry Butler's way-cool syncopations; and the veteran Dirty Dozen Brass Band, who are making like James Brown's Famous Flames as they tear through "Feets Don't Fail Me Now." As a bonus, I stumble upon Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, where they're giving the full Mardi Gras Indian treatment to "Sho Fly."

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Cheick Hamala Diabate

That might have done it, so I settle in for Cheick Hamala Diabate of Mali who, in his light blue robe, is owning the Lagniappe Stage. Diabate uses a phalanx of different instruments, including a modified banjo, to produce the sparkle usually provided by a traditional stringed-gourd kora. The hypnosis pushes trance-groove beats to new levels as it pays musical tribute to Ali Farka Toure.

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Esperanza Spalding

As I trod toward the end of the day, both Florence + the Machine and Esperanza Spalding (at least when her bass is working for her) are hitting high notes. In Florence's case, she glides through impressive vocal runs in the higher registers better than she can hit the pitches within her songs. Esperanza is a impressively gifted player and singer and a wonder to watch, but she needs modern material that isn't so typical.

"The only thing that makes a beautiful person more beautiful is singing," says Esperanza. I'm not feeling like singing, I'll need extra beauty sleep tonight. I take it home for the day with the thoroughbred jazz jamming of Astral Project, Norway's Magnolia Jazz Band kicking it with Topsy Chapman, and the girl-power brass band, the Original Pinettes.

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Original Pinettes

T SHIRT: "Confess."

FRIDAY #2: I Had (Another) Dream

Last I night I had another dream: that Facebook timelines are so last month. Relieved that I didn't succumb to irrational social media pressure yesterday, I head out to survey a few of Fest's early offerings.

I can't refer to Feufollet, who are showing off a few new tunes at Fais Do Do, as Cajun prodigies anymore. But they're too young to think of as skilled veterans. Let's just call 'em a damn good band with damn good songs. I linger briefly for Theresa Andersson's winsome set, about 50 yards away from the Gentilly Stage. Since I just saw her play from 10-feet away at the Louisiana Music Factory, catching the Forgotten Souls Brass Band over at the Jazz & Heritage Stage seems a better idea. There, all-stars from various New Orleans groups are dishing out trad-leaning cool-jive.

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Bruce Daigrepoint

The pre-show buzz on Yerba Buena  percussionist Pedrito Martinez has been substantial, and he and his group are now coaxing a maximum amount of groove from a minimum of instruments, all planted at the front edge of the Congo Square stage: keys, bass, congas, and miscellaneous percussion (with a spontaneous guest shot from the Stooges 'bone player). Next door at Fais Do Do (again), the Bruce Daigrepont Cajun Band -- the other BRUUUCE! -- is laying down a proud, graceful "Pas de Deux" and hard-times two-step, "Balfa Waltz."  Thanks to Pedrito and Bruce, my mood quotient has improved enough that I now feel equipped for a visit to Acura Stage.

In general, true Jazz & Heritage geeks like myself mostly avoid the crowds at the giant stages,  Acura and to a lesser extent Gentilly, on the outer edges of the racetrack where Fest is held, . Acura is where the most of the big-money touring "headliners" perform for audiences in the tens of thousands. And with few exceptions -- Springsteen comes to mind -- these acts bring with them shows that have little (if anything) to do with New Orleans, the region, or Jazz Fest. Besides, watching bands on what is essentially a humongous home theater is not my idea of live music.

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Grace Potter

Still I trek to the Forbidden Zone. I want to check out Grace Potter & Nocturnals and see how Grace is progressing in her transition from girl-behind-the-organ to leading lady. At Acura, (I mean, on Acura's megavision video screens), the budding star is proving a front-woman worthy of the huge crowd that has camped out to catch her set, jumping from her Hammond B-3 to the mid-stage mic and back through a set that visits various pop flavors. For the buzzy new "Turntable," Grace seems a pretty debutante who is trying to get her Courtney Love on. "I'll be your record and you can be my turntable. … Put your needle in my groove." Really!?! Don't make me take it all back, Grace.

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I backtrack to Congo Square, itself something of a behemoth, though more accessible, area to see if Mystikal can set things right. Mystikal and his sharp horn section are "Going Off" on some hard-smacked raps and boom-box bass beats. I get a whiff of Bonerama's feisty version of the Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" wafting over from Gentilly as I enter the Economy Hall tent, where Topsy Chapman and her kids are pounding out solid harmonies in their slink through an old-time vaudevillian blues, "Angel in the Day, (Devil at Night)," with Dr. Michael White on clarinet.

I'm on my way to the Gospel Tent to hear Ted Winn rip it up for the lord. "Shhh, y'all are in church," says Winn, trying to keep his faithful focused on his last song and not on Grande Dame of Gospel Mavis Staples, who is up next. Mavis proceeds to lead some old-school rockin' on "Wade in the Water" and other gritty hallelujahs that lead me next to The Revealers, who are doing a one-world live remix of the rasta-funker, "Gotta Make a Better Way."

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Rodrigo y Gabriela

After checking in with Mr. Okra, the last of the great New Orleans singing street vendors, at his produce truck, I cut through the grandstand to cool off in some air conditioning. I take in a few photo essays, including the "Faces of Treme" (the New Orleans district, not the HBO show) and "50 Years of Preservation Hall." Then, over at Rodrigo y Gabriela, enlarged by the Gentilly Stage, the Cuban flash of the duo's tightrope arrangements turns high drama -- at least until it all starts sounding too much like Miami Sound Machine.

For the day's Last Dance lap around the stages, I start with Little Anthony and the Imperials, whose voices are in fine form on a nifty revisiting of some of their original subway a cappella vocalizing. But then they start dipping into their corporate event songbook (ex: "If You Want My Body"; and a Tom Jones-y "Kiss") and I'm outta here.

Finishing out the day, I decide to protect what's left of my Jazz Fest mojo by operating in Safe Mode. The hip-funk of Hot 8 Brass Band; Wycliffe Gordon's "Hello Pops" tribute to Louis Armstrong; the gorgeous, swinging finesse of Delfeayo Marsalis & the Uptown Jazz Orchestra; and the cornbread and scrubboard raging of  Lil' Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers are just what my N'Awlins life coach ordered. "We gotta go hard before we go home," says Lil' Nathan. True dat.

T SHIRT: "Cook Some Butt." (BBQ joint)

SATURDAY #2: Hot, Hot for the Preachers

Saturday's lineup at the Gospel Tent provides a wealth of praiseworthy soul-funk trance-outs as well as some shade from another day of scorch. My friends have quipped, "Tristram, I didn't know you went to church." Only at Jazz Fest, I tell 'em.

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Mariachi Jalisco

But first I catch the nattily dressed Mariachi Jalisco inside a Folklife Village tent while looking over an alfombra, a decorative Guatemalan carpet of  colored sawdust, flower petals, sand, fruit and more. I "Feel Like Getting Funky," says Curley Taylor as he announces the next song with his Zydeco Trouble. I'm of the same mind, so I stay for a few hi-rev two-steps and a tribute to zydeco great Beau Jocque.

"We're a church that will make you rock, sing, stomp, and scream," announces the choirmaster for Voices of Peter Claver. "OK, as long as I don't have to confess anything," I think while my mind leans on the great 6-string bass line fueling "Fall on Me Spirit."

As I listen to a very cool reworking of "Ain't Too Proud to Beg" by Opaloosa zydeco man Jeffrey Broussard, I'm drooping again, beaten. It's as if the sheer VOLUME at most of this year's stages has also amplified the worst of the Jazz Fest's mindless and mercenary attributes -- the frat-party/spring break/cruise-ship vacationers/Disneyland  aspects that creep in more every year.

Reading the descriptions of Jazz Fest so far, my dear readers must be wondering, what's wrong with this guy? I can usually ignore the crank and crap, and breathe in the rejuvenation that Jazz Fest provides. So far, no go. Maybe I can I just  blame my mood on the supersize full moon scheduled for tonight.

Even though the Eagles Campground, formerly known as the Acura stage, doesn't officially "open" for a few hours, it's already "no vacancy," so I can't get close enough to NOLA king Allen Toussaint (or later, soul queen Irma Thomas) to make it worth my while.

It's just about then that one of the race track's crossing guards throws a comment my way: "Baby, you look like you're already finished!" That obvious, huh? I thought I was whining in my inside voice. A few seconds later I cross paths with Mariachi Jalisco for the third time today, this time at Jazz & Heritage. Well, if they can "La Bamba" again in the heat while wearing tight black suits and still look fresh as Mexican daisies, surely it's time for me to buck up.

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Kora Connection

I open some inner levees to allow some spring to flow back to my step. Then I tromp over to Gospel, where I'm immediately rewarded with some great testifying by Tyrone Foster & the Arc Singers. "Do I Need a Blessing?" Tyrone asks. Um, yeah, if you're talking to me. And a side of  renewed vigor, please. It's working. Well, something is working. The sweet Senegal-Guinea, kora-ballaphon grooves of Kora Connection give me another energy infusion. And by the time I walk in on the Pinstripe Brass Band and their great street-corner jive-down, I've got my Jazz Fest mojo back.

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Paulina Rubio

Sipping on a large frozen café au lait doesn't hurt, either, when I arrive at the caffeinated, stomp-box trances of one of Jazz Fest 2012's stand-outs, Bombino of Niger, whose band is floating rings of razor-edged electric blues. I even enjoy Paulina Rubio and her radio-ready Latin rock, despite the fact that I want to write them up as punk Runaways dressed up as Pussycat Dolls. "Is there any tequila out there?" Paulina asks.  None that I'm willing to give up.

I can never write about The Johnson Extension without feeling I should add [insert chuckle here]. But the group is one of the most  reliable deliverers at the Gospel Tent. "I refuse to get off the stage until see the roof shaking," one of the Johnson choirboys challenges.

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Black Feathers

Back at Jazz & Heritage, the Black Feathers are pumping out a call-response chant, one that I swear sounds like a new campaign song for the prez, "Handa Wanda, Obama." I know it's really just about Mardi Gras, but it provides an appropriate lead-in for Steve Earle, who is railing against extremist politicians who blame immigrants for our country's ills as he introduces "City of Immigrants." Backed by members of the Dukes and Mastersons, Earle and the boys sound at times like Crazy Horse.

Many in the Fais Do Do crowd recognize alt-country troubadour Earle as Harley Watt, his character in HBO's Treme. Harley was shot in the face, but Earle still writes music for the series, and he previews a tune from next season called "Is That All You Got?" Though Earle now spends most of his time in New York, he delivers some of the most NOLA-centric between-song chatter of this year's Fest. "When the economy collapsed after Katrina," he mocks, "there just wasn't enough money to f--- up New Orleans the way they planned."

After swaying to the nicely building orbital grooves Herbie Hancock is generating; a wild jam on "Superstition" by Warren Haynes and Dr. John that's filtering out of the Blues Tent; and a bit of cool-it-down, Barney Kessel-ish cabaret jazz by Hot Club of New Orleans, I have no desire to risk losing my re-found mojo to the crowds surrounding Ne-Yo, the Eagles, or even My Morning Jacket. Instead, I settle in to be blown away by the blare and bluster of a young string-banging outfit known as the Lost Bayou Ramblers, which features members from both Lafayette, La., and Austin. Helping me find a new appreciation for Cajun crunk, the Ramblers red-line Daniel Lanois' jaunty "O Marie" into an effective rumble of chords before killing off the day with a French-language version of a classic nugget by the Who, "My Generacion," complete with the famous John Entwistle bass break played on an upright.

T SHIRT: "A .jpeg is worth 1000 .txt's."

SUNDAY #2:  Going Out with a Legendary Bang

If I'm gonna watch Big Freedia's R-rated bounce babes later today, I figure I better get me some savin', right off. Jo "Cool" Davis" and guest James "Sugarboy" Crawford -- who wrote a song 59 years ago, "Jock-I-Mo," that became the basis of the Anthem of the Bayous, "Iko Iko" -- are in the Gospel Tent ready to accommodate me, later joined by grandson Davell Crawford, who adds a few flamboyant keyboard trills.

Following the heritage road, I stumble over to the Alison Miner Stage in the grandstand for a roundtable on the late Ernie K-Doe, best know for his hit with Allen Toussaint's"Mother In Law."  In between Toussaint's snippets of K-Doe's songbook, Ernie's cousin Walter "Wolfman" Washington recounts some of the juicier stories. "Ernie used to say, 'I'm a millionaire. I just haven't been paid yet.'"

Strolling the outer racetrack, I stop on a still-clear pathway through the Acura throngs (it won't remain that way for the next act to grace the megatron screen there, Foo Fighters). Galactic is leading their version of an all-star drum circle with ubiquitous percussionist Pedrito Martinez. By the time I enjoy some soaring lazy-Sunday grooves from the fabulous Funky Meters and some zydeco ssssizzle from Keith Frank, it's time for the Bounce Shake Down with Big Freedia, Katey Red, Keedy Black and DJ Poppa. Muthas, shield yo babies' eyes. With the serious booty shaking that's going on, it's hard to focus attention on the solid rat-a-tat raps, bass booms, and marching-band beats that are rattling Congo Square.

Pedrito has made his way over to the Jazz & Heritage stage where he's helping Irvin Mayfield, Bill Summers, and Los Hombres Caliente push their sharp, syncopated arrangements to freeway speeds. Giving props to Summers for his time as a Headhunter, they pull off a neat reading of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island."

I see another gaggle of young women carrying around this year's fad, hula hoops, and wonder when the hoops might be put to good use. I don't wonder very long. Perhaps the largest Congo crowd of the weekend is helping the Rebirth Brass Band celebrate the group's recent Grammy. Rebirth obliges with a command performance that peaks with a finale of Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody." The party is nearly crashed by some mega-amped, curse-a- minute racket from the Foo Fighters, performing nearly a quarter mile away. Some in the crowd are questioning who's great idea it was to bring arena rock to Jazz Fest? Well, the band certainly did help make this Fest the LOUDEST ever.

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Bryan Cunningham's

I drift through the art tents and dote on Bryan Cunningham's great shabby-gentile paintings, including "Carnivorous Flora," before landing at the perennially undeniable rhythms of Bo Dollis and Wild Magnolias; it's good to see the Big Chief recovering from recent illness. Then, quite by accident, I hit on the finest surprise of my weekend: the Chicago-based Stars of Heaven. Talk about god grooves! Fronting a crack rock-soul band, the five black-dressed women are singing and dancing up a storm for the lord like few I've heard in my years of Gospel Tenting. I notice that the animated man in the row in front of me, who is either Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore or his doppelganger, is also a happy new member of the Stars of Heaven congregation. At least for a few minutes.

The Stars will be hard to top, but soul dynamo Sharon Jones keeps the party rolling at the Blues Tent. Same for Michael White with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, while Rockin Dopsie & the Zydeco Twisters are remaking the Stones "Beast of Burden" into a swamp-dance classic  and Ruby Wilson leads her very cool Tribute to Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey

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Preservation Hall

It's the star power on hand for Preservation Hall's 50th Anniversary that truly knocks it up a notch. Introduced by the 86-year-old founder of Jazz Fest, George Wein, and joined by special guests including Trombone Shorty, Bonnie Raitt, Rebirth Brass Band, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, Maria Muldar, Allen Toussaint, and Mark Braud, among many others, Preservation Hall lets it fly with a full assault of sauce and swing on tracks like "It Ain't My Fault" and "Do What You Wanna."

It's a strong ending for Jazz Fest; the last couple hours have probably been my favorite time slot this year. With the official closing set by the Neville Brothers and benediction provided by Aaron's signature "Amazing Grace," Jazz Fest 2012 is done.

"Our music, our city, our Nevilles … y'all Nevilles!"

And as long as the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival keeps that notion front and center, I'll be back.

T SHIRT: "I'll be spontaneous… tomorrow."

All performance photos except Sunday by NEAL TROUSDALE.


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