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Weekend One: Reveling In New Orleans’ Jazz Fest, Again

Maximum Performance

For those unaware, let's review why people like me think the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell is one of the world's premier music experiences, one that has broken many a jaded attitude with its sensory carnival of all types of music, food and art--all largely drawn from the region's built-in talent pool. In this, its 41st year, Jazz Fest once again features 400 acts on 11 stages from 11 am to 7 pm on 7 days over two weekends at the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track. We (from 50 to 135 thousand people per day) can also expect dozens of cultural exhibits, a few dozen parades, American Indian pow wows, over 100 food specialties (no burgers), a few hundred artisans, and temps in the 80s on sunny, breezy days.

OK, not this time. Thunder, lightning, hail and tornado warnings can make for a good Woodstock-style "I was there, dude" story down the line. But really, downpours and downspouts are not prime conditions for listening to music or the stage-to-stage dodge that is the New Orleans Jazz Fest. And, despite a brief dry respite around lunchtime, the weather that opens the first weekend of Fest is a bit severe for prancing among the raindrops like it was the Summer of Love.

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t's bad enough that King Sunny Ade was forced to cancel his second attempt in the past decade to play his wondrous ju-ju jive at Jazz Fest.  Now the equally fab Afro-beat of Senegal's Baaba Maal is being drowned out, in more ways than one. Many of the loud speakers are turned off for safety, and it's hard to hear what's actually going on at the outdoor stages.

On the other hand, the deluge isn't deterring thousands of fans who hang around to brave the elements .... or the acts themselves. Only one performer--Cajun accordionist Bruce Daigrepont--actually has to cancel his whole set. Others, like Lionel Ritchie feed off their soaked but energized admirers, who reach back to their childhoods to view the rains as an opportunity for fun.

New Orleans rap princesses Mobo, Cheeky Blakk and Ms. Tee get in some bawdy, empowering, Fifth Ward booty shaking before the rains. Dr. John and his Lower 911 Band do their best to help fans ignore the ankle-deep water and "Accentuate the Positive." Singer Kendra Smith joins George Clinton in guiding the P-Funk Mothership through their soggy party. And the brothers Robinson scorch the kick off of what is said to be the Black Crowes' farewell. But today pretty much ranks as a wash out.

SATURDAY: Considering the day-after disaster I expected, the Fair Grounds are in pretty good shape, amazingly dry after the liquid drubbing they got yesterday. Blind bluesman Grandpa Elliot, recently featured singing "Stand By Me" in the movie-music project Playing For Change that aired on PBS, sets the day on a good course at the Blues Tent. A musical tribute to Fest regular Marva Wright, who passed away in March, follows, with her BMV band joined by Davell Crawford, Tara Alexander and Papa Grows Funk. In between, there's a bit of New Orleans Bounce with Big Freeda, Sissy Nobby and others over at Congo Square.

But after that strong start, I'm drifting. I know I just heard some memorable bits from Treme Brass Band, Cajun oldtimer D.L. Menard, and bluesguy L'il Buck Senegal. But mostly I'm just thinking how "Who Dat" has replaced "Iko Iko" as the most overworked standard at Jazz Fest, and that isn't such a bad thing. So maybe my disorientation is because I'm unknowingly part of one big Super Bowl victory lap for the New Orleans Saints. Or maybe it's the mud.

I take back my earlier proclamation that we had avoided a full-on muckfest. The personal baptismal pools have turned into swamps of primordial ooze featuring the remnants of several species (this is a horse track after all) and various personal items swallowed up by the mudbeast. The Foundation could make up any shortfall caused by Friday's weather by selling the several hundred pairs of sandals left behind on eBay; slighty used, need a good rinse.

At this point, I'm still a little disoriented, so I just let stages pull me in. Davel Crawford & One Foot in the Blues reward me with a triple organ faceoff--Crawford, Dr. John and Jon Cleary.

Headhunters percussionist Bill Summers adds a jazzy sizzle to Jazalsa's "Who Dat" battle cry before inviting everyone over to his address for a party. I get caught up in Native Nations International's pow wow dance. And I watch Karma Kitchen's Ann Hitchcock run through one of the recipes she'll cook on the Dave Matthews tour this summer, but I'm too antsy to wait around for a taste of her mushroom specialty.

The R&B of Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis Grammy girl Ledisi is a bit too much of the slick variety, so I re-ground myself with some of clarinetist Dr. Michael White's Original Liberty Jazz Band over at Economy Hall. Then it's just a short walk to listen to the Midnight Disturbers brass band prove why they are the horn kings.

Any remaining fog is cleared away by the funky Meters' brawniest and groove-happiest Fest appearance in years. I'm only temporarily distracted by the squeaky-clean outgoing mayor Ray Nagin (how do politicians do that) as he moves through the mud to get a closer listen to "People Say." Around 4 pm, during the funky Meters set, hundreds of late-arriving fans--kept away early by forecasts of more t-storms and twisters--pour through the gates and make their way over the residual slime (I'll resist the urge to use "Slip Slidin' Away" in some kind of joke) to the Acura stage, where they search in vain for a un-muddied spot to plant themselves for Simon and Garfunkel.

The Simon and Garfunkel songbook is one of the strongest in the business, chock full memorable tunes, and the songs carried the show. The much-anticipated reunion set was solid enough but didn't generate much musical excitement--even with a setlist of "Hazy Shade of Winter" (the opener), "I Am A Rock," "El Condor Pasa," "Scarborough Fair," "The Boxer" and more to work with. And I'm sure that morphing "Mrs. Robinson" into "Not Fade Away" sounded like a good idea in rehearsal. (The Grateful Dead S&G are not.)

Garfunkel's high tenor struggled mightily, but the crowd saw his effort as nothing less than heroic and responded ecstatically. I can understand yearning to relive that special junior high slow dance to "Sounds Of Silence" (one of two encores) that resides in many memories. But I'm pretty sure my friend has a Greatest Hits torrent I can listen to. So let's hear what's happening at other stages instead.

So far, my new waterproof boots are as advertised; next time I'll see if I can add mud-resistant to the mix. The crowds that pack the main stages have now forgotten they're surrounded by the sludge, soothed by nice breezes that include My Morning Jacket's expansive pych-folk atmospheres wafting from the Gentilly Stage. These Kentucky boys strike me as better heard than seen, at least for Fest; while the music fits the vibe beautifully, I want them to ship their black cape and rock scruff to an indie cellar somewhere. Nice stuff, though.

I set out for the rest of my final lap. Sax For Stax is more a smooth blues-jazz fusion slap than Staxified soul, but impressive nonetheless, with rhythm-feeding saxophone work from Gerald Albright and Kirk Whalum and keys by Jeff Lorber. I bounce over to Kirk Joseph's Tuba Tuba--where else am I gonna see eight tubas and sousaphones play something outside of marching band standards? Rockin Dopsie Jr. makes me want to stop my trek and end my day with a zydeco stomp, which is what I do after a quick visit next door at Congo Square, where Little Wayne's hip-hop buddy Drake is pumping up the sultry R&B quotient of his raps.

SUNDAY: If severe storms killed Friday--which looked to be my fave first weekend day of music--then the surprises of Sunday--which had looked the least enticing--make up for it. It's also a gorgeously sunny day, and it's a good sign that neighborhood and Food Channel celeb Mr. Okra and his truck are here. Coupled with Grandpa Elliot's Saturday set, it's already been a good Fest for local street corner heroes.

Only recently had I caught my breath after last year's marathon stage-to-stage sprints. So maybe this is the day to try a different approach and plant myself at one of the smaller stages. The Gospel Tent (it is Sunday, after all) turns out to be a great choice for this, as a string of religious groups rises above for my secular enjoyment. The Gospel Soul Children's raising-the-roof grooves lead into veteran testifying from the Electrifying Crownseekers (and for this year's set they truly are) to grand contemporary praises by the Watson Memorial Teaching Ministries mini-mass choir to (now a few hours later) the never-say-die Blind Boys of Alabama, who smoke through an encore of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground. " This could be the biggest surprise of the day: how the Blind Boys never lose a beat no matter how few original members now perform with the group. (No, wait, the biggest surprise will come later.)

Who am I kidding? I can't sit still that long at Jazz Fest, no matter how top-shelf the offerings. So I weave in and out from my Gospel base to catch a bit of Donald Harrison, Jr. (a member of New Orleans jazz saxophone royalty as well as the model for two characters of HBO's Treme), Latin pop giant Juan Luis Guerra y 440, a bopping Marcia Ball, the big band blues of James Andrews' Crescent City Allstars, and some more of what we might call "Tab Fest."

Tab Benoit, who delivered bright swamp-blues riffs in his Saturday set, is back for more, guitaring with his old Baton Rouge band Louisiana Leroux and then joining the annual Voice of the Wetlands superjam with Cyrille Neville, Dr. John, George Porter, Jr., and a dozen others. After his Wetlands cameo, Big Chief Monk Boudreux leads his own highlight-filled set at the Jazz & Heritage stage, including an impressively beat-heavy, "never heard it done that funky before" version of "Shoo Fly."

It's freakin' hot for this northern boy. And the strawberry lemonade, lovely as it is, ain't doin' the trick. So it's over to the grandstand to cool off inside with the AC and drum solos at the Alison Miner Stage with the Allman Brothers' Butch Trucks and Jaimoe Johanson. I stick around for Keely Smith, the one-time partner of and singer for the late bandleader Louis Prima, featured on this year's Fest poster. Smith is a bona fide hoot as well as a gifted ultra-lounge veteran of the Las Vegas scene. "I didn't like Howard Hughes," she says in an interview before her Jazz Tent set, touching on celebrities that frequented the Sands Hotel. "If I did I would have been Mrs. Howard Hughes."

Sufficiently revitalized, I mosey outside to find what is probably the weekend's most curious set (not in a good way), Shawn Colvin's hour-plus stint with her acoustic guitar at the Fais Do Do stage, the Cajun-zydeco shrine. Even when she blows the lyrics to her Crowded House cover, I'm still thinking the set would work at Newport Folk. But it loses its way here.

I wander away and stroll by Levon Helm. I like Levon, but typically avoid the crunch of the Acura crowd. Today, his country-honk cross between Dr. John and his old Band are particularly on, and I surprise myself by hanging around long enough to hear Stanton Moore and Ivan Neville join in. Next, the irresistible dance beat of Ivory Coast balofon player Seguenon Kone and L'Ivoire Spectacle kick my mood even higher. Perfect, it's just about time for my final lap.

While I can't get anywhere close to the Allman Brothers Band, it's really no problem checking them out. There's an added giant video screen in the middle of the field, blocking the view of the main stage for half of the crowd but providing a close-up, fret-by-fret riffage report on Derek Trucks (on crutches) and Warren Haynes.

The sound system blasted "Whipping Post" far enough to have the gravel of Gregg Allman's vocals overpower Anita Baker's sharp soul-sister set for the rear quarter of her sizeable Congo Square crowd. (Liking Baker's set as much as I did was the biggest surprise of the day.) I notice that the Allman Brothers jams sound just as fired-up from a half-mile away, though their sonics do not ramble as far as the other end of the racetrack. So Darius "Hootie" Rucker is free from competition for the easy sway of "Don't Think I Don't Think About It" at the Gentilly Stage.

Looking over the schedule, it's no contest where I'll end my first weekend of Jazz Fest--at the Jazz & Heritage Stage. Again. It's a wise decision. The funky-as-hell Hot 8 Brass Band is tearing it up, just like they did at the Domino Sound Record Shop after-party last night.

I don't remember the dogs in my shoes barking this loud at the close of first weekend last year, even though my notes tell me I did more laps around the track then. Time to man up for the Fest Finals next weekend.

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