It’s an annual pilgrimage. Each year, the comfort of familiarity imbues the proceedings. The same great food (crawfish strudel!), the same meeting places (gate 21, Gentilly!) and the same yucky beer (canned Miller Lite again?).
Yet every year, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has its very own flavor and personality—a confluence of sounds, smells, tastes and senses.
Jazz Fest occupies the same space on the calendar year in and year out, so anticipation builds at an expected but still frenzied pace. The cubes, those neatly packaged schedules that tell you who is playing when, where, and who you’ll have to miss to see them, come out and in a rush of excitement, you studiously examine them. You weigh the options. You calculate distances between stages and tents. You devise the perfect plan.
Then when the day comes, you completely ignore it.
If there’s anything you don’t need when you’re at Jazz Fest, it’s obligations.
The second weekend of the 2010 edition of Jazz Fest was thus met with a carefully constructed itinerary that was duly discarded. Yet on the first day, Thursday, not much of a schedule was seemingly needed. It looked like a prime day to camp out near the Acura Stage for an all day lineup of Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove, Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Gov’t Mule and Widespread Panic.
Sousaphonist Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove showed some promise with a slinky sound. However, the instructions to dance from the back-up singers came across more as a incessant badgering rather than a good natured urging, especially so early in the morning (11 AM!). Anyway, it’s the music’s job to compel one to dance. If you have to ask a crowd to dance you aren’t doing your job.
Besides, even though the environs are familiar, it’s good to reacquaint yourself with the surroundings upon arrival. After a brief tour of the grounds, it was time for Dumpstaphunk, who laid down a neck-snappingly fierce funk set. As the true torchbearers for New Orleans funk, this group relentlessly delivers the goods. Over on the Congo Stage, Sunpie Barnes was inspiring dancing the old fashioned way: suffusing his Zydeco soul with inspired energy and a delightful rumination on tomatoes.
There was an all-star group of sorts (as is common at this type of thing) over at the Heritage Stage. Dr. Klaw featured jazz/groove guitarist Eric Krasno and Lettuce bandmate Adam Deitch along with Ian Neville and Nick Daniels from Dumpstaphunk. Their take on the funk canon suggested a sophistication that is usually absent from the full-throttle attack of bands like Dumstaphunk; however, in the wake of said Dumpsta set, Dr. Klaw sounded tame.
By this time, Gov’t Mule’s set was over and Widespread Panic was holding court. While the throngs always turn out for Panic’s sets at Jazz Fest, their performances have lost some luster in recent years. The current incarnation of the six-headed monster seems too often to rest on the shoulders and prowess of guitarist Jimmy Herring. Their rehashing of old chestnuts like “Love Tractor” and “Walkin’” showed the band still possesses some power, but their once intricate musical conversation seemed more like a dialogue between the rest of the band and the guitar solos on this day. Verse, Chorus, Solo. Repeat.
Fortunately, there are a dozen different stages at the festival. At the other end of the fairgrounds, Elvis Costello was busy putting on one of the best sets of the weekend. His band for this gig, The Sugarcanes, sported all acoustic instrumentation and included headliners in their own right Jerry Douglas on dobro and Jim Lauderdale on guitar.
Costello and the Sugarcanes performed selections from Costello’s most recent, roots-based, album, Secret, Profane and Sugarcane, along with stellar cover selections like Lou Reed’s “Femme Fatale,” The Grateful Dead’s “Friend of The Devil” and The Stones’ “Happy.” They also delved into the Costello canon to dust off rearranged versions of classics like “What’s So Funny Bout Peace Love and Understanding” and “Everyday I Write The Book.” For the end of the set, he brought out New Orleans legend Allen Toussaint, who he collaborated with on the 2006 album The River in Reverse, and his Steinway grand piano for a rousing finale with a touch of local color. It was the best kind of Jazz Fest sets—one that catches you by surprise and gives you a much deeper appreciation of the performer.
And with that, the denizens of Jazz Fest spilled out into the sultry New Orleans night, this glorious Thursday deeply entrenched in their collective memory.
While Thursday was characterized by a picture-perfect day of sunshine, rain clouds threatened the festivities on Friday. But while the overcast skies cast what seemed to be an imminent threat, the rains were held at bay, providing a nice cooling effect over the proceedings.
Since he moved to New Orleans from the west coast a decade ago, Eric Lindell’s popularity has surged and continues to do so each year. This year, his annual set at the Blues Tent officially outgrew its venue. Buoyed by increased radio play and song placements on television, the once-best-kept-secret is out. Lindell’s swaggering brand of soulful blues rock hits all the right notes that keeps people dancing in the aisles and beyond. It’s time for him to move to one of the bigger stages next year.
Having seen the first few episodes, it was nearly impossible to visit New Orleans this year and take it all in outside of the context of HBO’s “Treme.” The show, produced by David Simon of “The Wire” takes place in New Orleans just a few months after Hurricane Katrina and features several New Orleans musicians, including Trombone Shorty and Kermit Ruffins among many others.
That exposure undoubtedly led to more people than normal turning out for the Kermit Ruffins & The Barbecue Swingers set at the Congo Stage, and those who did were treated to the fun filled jazz swing of the entertaining trumpeters showcase.
The Fais Do Do stage sometimes seems like a hidden oasis. Nestled in between the much larger Congo and Gentilly stages and specializing in zydeco, Cajun and various brands of Americana and roots, this rustic stage is always a sure-fire bet for lesser known but always phenomenal performers. If you can’t make a decision, the Fais Do-Do almost always comes through. Cajun band Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys graced the stage on Friday and as is often found at this sacred spot, dancing erupted from people aged five to 85.
But the day belonged to Allen Toussaint. He’s New Orleans royalty for a reason and his set on the Acura stage showed off his considerable talents and repertoire, not to mention his unmatched professionalism and class.
With many acts performing in the nightclubs all over town, the Jazz Fest revelers shuffled out into the drizzly evening to imbibe their aural inclinations even more.
With the big name acts like Pearl Jam, Galactic, Band of Horses and others drawing huge overflow crowds to the main stages, Saturday proved to be a fantastic day to hang around the oasis of the Fais Do Do. It kicked off early with Lynn Drury, a local gal who delivers a sultry racket with just her guitar and voice. Later in the day, it would play host to fantastic sets by Honey Island Swamp Band and Old Crow Medicine Show.
Honey Island, in particular, is a band whose popularity and momentum is gaining steam. Named after the actual swamp on the Louisiana-Mississippi border, these New Orleans vets sound like it—blending country with soul and funk. They first got together in their Katrina exile of San Francisco. Guitarists/songwriters Aaron Wilkinson and Chris Mulé were in the backing band for Eric Lindell at the time. Seeking to fill out their gig schedule, they hooked up with two like minded musicians and later returned to Louisiana. At Jazz Fest, the foursome was rounded out by a horn section and keyboards that helped deliver a powerful wallop on the more soul-tinged tunes.
But with all the great acts on the small stage, one of the best performances came on the mammoth Acura stage. Anders Osborne has seen his ups and down. With his new album American Patchwork, and his new backing band, The Stanton Moore Trio, he has taken another leap in a storied career. His band blazed through a blistering set that highlighted the new material and included a guest appearance by Pepper Keenan on guitar.
Pearl Jam closed out the Acura Stage, broadcasting live to a group of US Soldiers in Afghanistan, a fact Eddie Vedder referred to often as they showed the soldiers on the video screens. They played a raucous if predictable set, blasting through their hits and closing with MC5’s “Kick Out The Jams” before quitting, inexplicably, 15 minutes before their allotted time was up. A strange move indeed for a band known for extended performances.
With just one day to go, the Jazz Fest departed for the day, tired but still wanting more.
And then the rains came. They’d threatened all weekend but just as surely as Jazz Fest comes in late April so does the rain. Just as rain is a metaphor for cleansing, it has that actual effect too. The massive crowds dispersed at the first slight downpour, providing the die-hards more room to move and meander, and to enjoy a great set by Trombone Shorty who brought out the fresh-from-prison New Orleans rapper Mystikal.
Meanwhile, Van Morrison proved why he is “Van the Man” over at the Acura Stage during the downpour. Deftly navigating his catalog, he bounced from piano to guitar and violin, leading a band that was professional on every level.
The Jazz Fest experience wouldn’t be complete without the Radiators closing it all down at Gentilly though, and they pummeled the happily drenched crowd with patented fish-head music that made one feel grimy and cleansed all at the same time.
The same as it ever was, yet completely different, Jazz Fest 2010 was in the books.
And with that, the Jazz Fest faithful, those that braved the rain, the heat, the mud, and the countless impossible decisions on where to be and when, dispensed into the wet night, eagerly anticipating the party’s return next year.
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