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New Orleans Jazz Fest Pt. 2: The Music Marathon Continues

Maximum Performance

By the end of the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz Fest's 40th Anniversary--counting the first Jazz Fest weekend, Ponderosa Stomp, free in-store appearances at Louisiana Music Factory, shows at the new Rock'n'Bowl and other nightlife--I'll have seen over 200 performances in 10 days. I need to relax the frantic pace, I tell myself, for Jazz Fest's last four days. We'll see how long that works. In any case, I think I prefer following Allen Toussaint's lead: "Everything I do will be funky from now on."

 

THURSDAY

Your faithful reporter had a late night at Ponderosa Stomp and took the morning to write and file that review. So I miss the 11 a.m. opening bell for Jazz Fest's second weekend. The Thursday quietly nestled between the two weekends is my favorite day--manageable crowds, more emphasis on the "easy" in Big Easy, more local focus. "It's the Louisiana bands who bring people back year after year," says Mark Samuels, president of New Orlean's Basin Street Records, home to Kermit Ruffins, Irvin Mayfield, Henry Butler and Jason Marsalis. I agree with Samuels, since I'm one of those people.

Checking out the lineup, I think there's a chance to finally carry out a long-running idea of mine--to hang out all day at the Gospel Tent. The Coolie Family Singers, Jackson Travelers, and Mississippi Mass Choir will keep me in very good company. But 15 minutes into the experiment, will power to continue it disappears. Little Freddy King's blues beckons, and I wonder what the master Senegalese drumming of I'Voire Spectacle sounds like.

I need to catch some of the Louisiana music travelogue of Steve Riley's Mamou Playboys and figure that it will be great to see Fest founder George Wein jazzing it up on piano, swinging with Lew Tabackin, Jimmy Cobb, Randy Brecker, Esperanza Spalding and the rest of his Newport All-Stars. King of the sousaphone Kirk Joseph and his Backyard Groove have a party goin' on at the Jazz and Heritage Stage. And how could I miss the Meter Men (original Meters Leo, Zigaboo and George minus Art Neville), funk masters sampled on hundreds of hip-hop sides?

Having completely deserted my original "plan," I end the day with a stroll past sweet Emmylou Harris (with Patty Griffin sitting in); rock and soul legend Solomon Burke (with Blind Boy Clarence Fountain sitting in) singing from throne (really); the ice-cube cool modern blows of trumpeter Nicholas Payton; and rub-board zydeco bounce of Rosie Ledet, whose brother Corey opened the day on the same Fais Do Do stage.

Relax? What's that?

 

FRIDAY

As big-money touring acts have attracted more casual fans, a growing segment of the crowd has come to treat Jazz Fest more as an extended spring break than a music pilgrimage. Weekend one had continued the unfortunate trend of all-ages dancing shouldered out by frat buds standing in irritatingly loud beer circles directly in front of favorite stages. But today there are signs (that will continue into the weekend) that the two-steppers may have regained their dance floor. Hoo-rah!

Besides their continuous trawling for new discoveries, my ears are on the prowl at Jazz Fest for music and one-time-only ensembles I'm not likely to hear elsewhere--the brass bands, the often brilliant ensembles from faraway lands (I call it the Fest's cultural exchange program), the Cajun and zydeo groups, the small church gospel choirs--even when that means occasionally repeating myself from year to year. What if this is the last time I CAN hear [fill in blank], I remind myself, remembering regular Fest heroes Eddie Bo and Snooks Eaglin, who recently passed away.

Today, the "gotta hear" moments include, but certainly aren't limited to: the gritty bayou elegance of Beusoleil's Cajun waltzes; the Ori Culture Danse Club, a drum and vocal group from the small West African nation of Benin, telling stories of the culture through dance; Glen David Andrews, who proclaims that "there ain't no sittin' down at the Gospel Tent" while his brother Trombone Shorty helps him blow the top off the same; the Dirty Dozen and Rebirth joining for the Glass House reunion, feting the tiny neighborhood joint where I got a lot of early brass band schooling; and bassist and soprano Esperanza Spalding, whose saluted Weather Report while pushing jazz in new directions.

After buying the 40th anniversary poster featuring Allen Toussaint for a friend and avoiding the cardiac arrest potential of some cracklin's (super deep-fried pork fat) by opting for a tray of sweet potato chips, I join the second line parade behind the Original 4 and Big 7 brass bands to cut over and check out Tony Bennett. Listening to him sing Duke Ellington's "In A Mellow Tone," it's easy to hear why he's the music-for-lovers go-to guy on playlists everywhere. Lulled by his dulcet tones, I hang out longer than expected. "Sing you sinners," he croons. "OK, if you won't sing, how about keeping time with us... yeah, that's it."

Time to see what all the Sugarland hubbub is about. Very rarely do Jazz Fest acts really suck. Well, there was that String Cheese Incident set a few years back. But that's preferable to pop-stars-of-the-moment Sugarland, who sound like a mediocre adult-country music equivalent of the Disney Kids channel. They march offstage with 35 minutes left in their set so they can manufacture a faux encore. Yuk. Parents who regularly cart their kids to Miley Cyrus (whose lyrics are better) events may have a different take on Sugarland, but they're not my cup of moonshine.

A quick antidote of Cajun Chicken & Tasso and a run to catch the tailend of the Driskill Mountain Boys, an AARP-eligible hillbilly bluegrass quintet who are as refreshingly genuine as their 50-year-old jokes are comical, end the day on an up note.

 

SATURDAY

Note to self regarding second Saturdays at Jazz Fest: throw away all planned Fair Grounds itineraries.

The traffic patterns resemble downtown Saigon--that is, there are no patterns. Much of it is close to crowd gridlock. Where the crowd does move, it's a pace slower than a mall waddle. Your reporter was there a few years back when 160,000 showed up on a day headlined by Dave Matthews. This is more stifling than that. Flapping flags means there's a breeze, but the place is so crammed with people I can't feel it. So, it's hot. But compared to last year--monsoon-ish rains and backed-up drains--I'll take the heat any day.

I'm able to catch some of former Pine Leaf Boy Cedric Watson's Bijou Creole set, but it's hard navigating the stages. At 1:15, the recycling bins are already overflowing with beer cans, a bad sign. Pushing over to Acura, Creole soulman Buckwheat Zydeco's health problems have forced him to put down his accordion for a seat at the Hammond organ. But that doesn't stop him from celebrating the 30th anniversary of his jump into zydeco music with help from Rockin' Dopsie, Jr., and a finale reunion with his 15-piece 1971 James Brown-style crew, the Hitchhikers. Everest, one of the smart NOLA rock bands at Fest this year (another was the neo-psychedelic Rotary Downs), sound like the offspring of Neil Young, who'll play tomorrow.

It's 2:45, I'm hungry. And thirsty. Judging from the lines, so is everyone else. The Cajun duck po'boy will have to wait, 'cause I ain't gonna. Instead I chew on some eclectic swamp funk from Dr. John, who always seems to deliver. Feufollet show incredible breadth for Cajun teens. The Treme Brass Band leads a parasol parade through Economy Hall. Chris Thomas King's electrified blues, Preservation Hall Band's classic sassy brass, and Irvin Mayfield's sharp and hi-brow New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, and a tribute to Miles Davis with trumpeter Wallace Roney, drummer Jimmy Cobb and others jamming on Kind of Blue provide some more of the day's highlights.

Seeking rest and shade near the grand stand, I land at the Lagniappe ("something extra") Stage for the Crocodile Gumboot Dancers of South Africa, who play a looping Africanized counterpart to Appalachian hills trance music, with complex tap dance rhythms stomped out by heavy rubber boots with shells attached for shakers. Yeah! They're my fave "new" group at the Fest.

Newly energized, I set out to fight traffic. At 4:30, Aaron Neville in the Gospel Tent, Chris Thomas King at Blues, and Irvin Mayfield at Jazz all sound great -- at least as close as I can get to them, which isn't very. Refuge is sought in the Louisiana craft tents where Tana Barth is busy working on a Mardi Gras float, Priestess Ava Kay makes potions and gris gris bags, a smithy is firing iron, an ornate Dia de los Muertos altar has been constructed, and a member of a Social and Pleasure club tells me the story of why coconuts are decorated for Fat Tuesday as a Native American Pow Wow happens nearby. Over at another bay of crafts booths, I spot this weekend's gotta have and can't afford artwork, paintings and steel sculpture by Beth Bojarksi and Mark Winter.

I circle back around to the Johnson Extension (went for the name, stayed for the music) who play the sharpest gospel set I've heard this year. That gets me up again, and I force my way to Kings Of Leon.

Last weekend, Wilco overplayed their distorto guitars card. Not so with the pretty boys of Kings Of Leon, who are generating just as much buzzsaw but have a better handle on it--crisp, crunchy (or was that this morning's breakfast?) and, dare I saw, hummable.

I say I come to Jazz Fest mostly to hear bands I won't hear anywhere else. So, technically, that includes Bon Jovi. Festival founder George Wein says Jon Bon Jovi has one of the best voices around. That's enough for me, so I make the effort to check out the act largely responsible for what seems to be the biggest one-day attendance in Fest history. One thing's for sure, even though he's a New Jersey boy, he sings with more country heart than Sugarland--even if some of his band's best moments sound like a cover of U2's "Where the Streets Have No Name." I had figured being transported back to the 1980s would make me feel younger; instead I get the urge to dress funny.

As I back out of the Acura stage masses, I land in a spot that sounds like a live mash-up tape: Bon Jovi, the O'Jays, Midnite Disturbers' brass band swing, and a little John Mayall's "Room to Move" blues with Kings Of Leon bouncing in off the grandstand. Interesting.

 

SUNDAY

The music side of my brain is starting to realize that its yearly Jazz Fest fix is nearing its end and directs me to stock up on local color before the forecasted scattered thundershowers hit. I get into some serious churchin' in the Gospel Tent with the Electrifying Crownseekers (they get funkier as their bones get more brittle), Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries and Sherman Washington & the Zion Harmonizers, who have been shouting out for Jesus over nearly seven decades. I catch as much of the trad jazz offerings at Economy Hall as I can --New Leviathan Foxtrot Orchestra, the Original Tuxedo Band, clarinetist Dr. Michael White's tribute to Sidney Bechet. And I sway next to the dancers at Fais Do Do for Red Stick Ramblers' Cajun fiddle and Western swing from their new CD, the Cajuns' answer to Hank Williams D.L. Menard, and the hard swamp kick of Nathan & the Zydeco Stompers. For a hit of Ninth Ward-style street cred, I catch TBC Brass Band and the Mardi Gras beats of the Wild Magnolias. Of course, no one says New Orleans more than Allen Toussaint, one of the few acts that can draw me to the big Acura stage, whose set explores a songbook of tunes he wrote or otherwise made into hits ("Yes We Can Can," "Mother In Law," Workin' In A Coal Mine").

No set demonstrated the Fest's ability to gather musicians in one-time-only bands or showed off its fusion of styles better than the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars. Tab Benoit, Dr. John, Cyrlle Neville, Waylon Thibodeaux, and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux gathered to jam and tell us of the dire threat to their southern Louisiana homes as erosion eats away at the natural protection provided by Mississippi delta swamplands, a man-made loss caused by development and drilling. "We all grew up in the swamp," is the message from the stage, "that's why we sound like this."

On my way to Neil Young I stop to take in some thump-hop from Chuck Brown, the party groove godfather of go-go. Filling the extra time created when Aretha Franklin cancelled, Young stretches "Down by the River" into 18 minutes of crazed Crazy Horse guitaring and finishes with an over-the-top cover of the Beatles' "A Day In The Life" that inspires Neil to let out his string-ripping inner punk.

Young's climax appears to have woken the gods, as storm clouds billow above. I've just taken a seat in the Gospel Tent when the skies outside unload. The downpour jolts the tent's cooling misters into something of a slow drizzle and we're all baptized while Rance Allen's fires up his funky proselytizing. The rain is gone in 15 minutes and it appears many in the crowd have called it a day. More room for the rest of us.

There's still a huge throng around Congo Square for R&B heroes Maze, and I navigate past all the electric slide dancers to set up shop before the Soul Rebels, a premier NOLA brass band. A few dancing homeboys are putting on a spectacular display of their moves as the Rebels roar through their local anthem, "504."

It's time. There's no getting around it. The Neville Brothers have assembled for their traditional close of Jazz Fest set and begin a polyrhythmic ride through New Orleans funk chestnuts "Iko Iko," "Brother John Is Gone," and "Jambalaya." Just after 7 p.m., when brother Aaron sings his "Amazing Grace" prayer, Jazz Fest 2009 is officially over.

George Wein says his favorite part of the Jazz Fest is knowing it will be back next year. Let the training for next year's marathon begin.

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