My annual pilgrimage to New Orleans for Jazz Fest is often accentuated by post-festival nighttime concerts. You know, the concerts in every available venue in town…the ones that stretch until the morning light, the â€œearlyâ€ shows that start at 10 or 11, the late shows that start at 2 a.m., the riverboat shows, the sidewalk shows, the impromptu jam sessions and sit-ins. I remember a few years that one club was even promoting â€œbreakfast showsâ€ that started about 7 â€“ in the morning.
All of it is, of course, calculated to extend the revelry of the all-day festivities and provide an exuberant transition of the musical gluttony from one venue to another to yet another. Itâ€™s fun and exhausting, and Iâ€™m an eager participant in this ridiculous ritual.
Looking over the calendar year after year, itâ€™s often a case of the usual suspects offering hip-shaking funk, raucous rock and roll and various permutations of jambandery. These shows are typically a boisterous affair, with crowds of beer-soaked sweaty festivarians extending their benders with bad dancing and occasional whoops and hollers, yours truly often counted in that number as well.
But this year, I found a something else entirely in a small theater tucked into the back of the Always Lounge.
In the Marigny neighborhood, a few long blocks from the bustling Frenchman street clubs and alongside other tourist-resistant clubs like the Hi Ho, a hushed crowd sat (sat!) attentively as a young ingÃ©nue and her compatriots unearthed haunting and seductive songs rendered with steel and strings and voice. We were captivated.
The group was called Hurray For The Riff Raff, and their mesmerizing set was remarkable, not just for the fact that they managed to keep a roomful of music lovers utterly stunned in silence. After all, this crowd was not made up of 40-something jazzfesters wearing ridiculous floral print shirts and cargo pants (okay, maybe one of those); these were hipsters, and the silence and the attendant shushing of talkers is part of the hipster code.Â No, the remarkable thing was not just the reverence or the gravitas of the deliver. It was that just the week before they had graced the Acura stage at Jazz Fest â€“ the largest one reserved for the Jimmy Buffets, Bruce Springsteens and Neville Brothers of the world â€“ and won the crowd over with a stunning set that earned them rave front-page reviews in the Times Picayune.
Here was a group capable of captivating 200 people, or 20,000 people. At Jazz Fest, they did it with a sense of aw-shucks humility in the stage banter, a full band and some well-chosen ballsy cover tunes. At the Allways, they did it mostly with the ethereal voice of Alynda Lee Segarra and a cavalcade of instrumentalists who meandered on and off the stage during the course of the one-hour set.
In fact, Hurray for the Riff Raff is essentially Segarra herselfâ€”her vision, her voice. Sheâ€™s a true vagabond, a twenty-something Puerto Rican from the Bronx who traveled the American highways before landing in New Orleans. There, she released two solo folk records under the name of Hurray For The Riff Raff. She eventually met up with a group called the Tumbleweeds, whom she then assimilated into the Hurray for the Riff Raff alter-ego/band/collective.
After touring the country with the group, and earning adoration from the UK press (where a compilation of those first two records earned her media worship and a nod as one of the â€œtop albums of 2011â€ from The Times of London), sheâ€™s now completed a proper full-band debut release called Look Out Mama. The record includes the full band, and was produced by Alabama Shakes producer Andrija Tokic.
Look Out Mama is a gorgeous, timeless work of wonder. Segarra and company deftly mingle Americana sounds from all over the map, while hearkening to times gone by.Â The songs are seamless, like a singular voice, yet the parts are drawn from otherwise incongruous sources. The opening track â€œLittle Black Starâ€ incorporates fiddle, handclaps and a swaying freak-folk beat while â€œLake of Fireâ€ bounces on surf-guitar jubilancy. â€œLook Out Mama,â€ with Segarraâ€™s emotive high yodel, could be a dustbowl field recording even as the waltzy â€œWhatâ€™s Wrong With Meâ€ comes from another time and place.
Perhaps its the juxtaposition of folkie balladry and indie modernity that gives these songs and performances their punch. But whatever it is, itâ€™s old and itâ€™s new and Hurray For The Riff Raff occupies its own worldâ€”a mythical bohemian world where any time and any place is just around the corner and welcomed with open arms.