Jazz Fest 2011: Heritage reigns supreme

Photographer/Writer: Bob Adamek

Having the time and tickets to come to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is like winning the musical lottery. Jazz Fest is a music festival at its core, but it is much more than that.

galactic_1.jpgIn a city typified by magical moments, Jazz Fest will assault your senses. There is an amazing array of specialty food items which are surprisingly reasonable in price, from crawfish Monica, to crawfish/spinach/zucchini bisque, to duck/pheasant/andouille gumbo and bread pudding with white chocolate sauce.

There are an abundance of Mardi Gras Indians in their stunning hand sewn suits of multi-colored beads and feathers. There are several daily second line parades roaming throughout the fairgrounds, drawing in scores of people following along.

And there are 11 stages filled with music played with remarkable skill, teasing you over as you walk the circuit.  Emotions flow as deep as the nearby Mississippi River, heartfelt by fans and musicians alike at this festival rich in unique experience.

Hard core music fans are well-rewarded from groups of musicians on a two-week music bender. It is a chance to see your favorite players recombining on stage after stage backing headline acts. Players such as keyboardists John Gros and CR Gruver, guitarists June Yamagishi and Billy Iuso, drummers Stanton Moore and Eric Bolivar, web_048.jpgbass players George Porter Jr. and Chris Severin, sax players Jimmy Carpenter, Jason Mingledorff and Roger Lewis and trombone player Big Sam Williams play multiple gigs day after day. You simply can’t escape the feeling of seeing something special as you move from stage to stage.

Sprinkled on top are the moments festival-going music fans live for, the sit in. If you missed seeing Trombone Shorty’s set, not to worry, he’s about to hit the stage with Kid Rock or the Neville Brothers. Cyndi Lauper is going to sing with Arcade Fire, and Jimmy Buffett will sit in with Allen Toussaint. Amanda Shaw will get down with Michael Franti and Pepper Keenan will rage on guitar with Anders Osborne.

Heightening this year’s fest was the weather, as perfect as anyone could ever remember, cloudless with temperatures in the high 70’s and low humidity for all but the last two days, when the temps and humidity rose to more seasoned levels. The vibe was strictly New Orleans here, with a distinct go-with-the-flow attitude, relaxed pace and good wishes for all the other fest fans. This, combined with a monster lineup, contributed to 400,000+ festival fans being treated to a most memorable festival.

Headliners

The Neville Brothers

aaron_neville_2.jpgNew Orleans’ best known musical ambassadors once again found themselves closing the festival at the Acura main stage. Lead by the four brothers – Art, Aaron, Charles and Cyril – the band started with such staples as “When You Go To New Orleans,” Hey Pocky A-Way” and “Fiya On The Bayou.” Then they brought out jazz trumpeter Irvin Mayfield to play their twist up of the Meters classic “Cissy Strut,” bringing a beautiful energy and refreshing arrangement.

New Orleans is a living musical tradition, being actively passed down through generations, and the Neville Brothers pushed that along next with sit-ins by their children and grandchildren. Taking the stage were Dumpstaphunk-ers Ivan and Ian, and singers Omari and Damon, putting three generations of Nevilles on stage at the same time. Omari called out Trombone Shorty and the band ran through a couple of highly energetic songs.

The set closed with a haunting version of the Mardi Gras classic, “Indian Red,” after which Aaron Neville came back out to encore his soul shaking version of “Amazing Grace.”

Kid Rock

Kid Rock’s set was explosive. Kid carries the weight of a true rock star like Roger Daltrey or Robert Plant. His band was filled with people that looked like rock stars from LA, and were killer players. The crowd was buzzing and seemed to like all sides of Kid’s musical personality, eating up his crotch grabbing arrogance in songs like “Rock n Roll Jesus”  and settling down to enjoy quieter songs like “Care.”

Michael Franti

It is easy to see why Michael Franti has such a large and devoted following; his energy is explosive, contagious and filled with a positive vibe. His feet seem to spend nearly as much time in the air as they do on the ground, and he easily whips the crowd into jumping up and down in a frenzy. The Gentilly stage, Jazz Fest’s second largest, proved to not be big enough to contain Franti as he frequently jumped off and ran into the crowd, wireless mic in tow. He would stand on top of the crowd control barriers and get the whole crowd singing and dancing with him, high fiving people as he ran past. He had Amanda Shaw, the Louisiana fiddle playing prodigy, join him for a highly energetic solo in a string of highly energetic songs. Franti and his band come prepared and flat out bring it.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue

michael_franti_1.jpgTrombone Shorty and his long time friends and band mates absolutely shredded the Gentilly stage on Saturday. They tour relentlessly as headliners and as opening acts for the likes of Dave Matthews and Jeff Beck, and all of that work has honed their show into a can’t miss set. They seamlessly go from hard driving funk to rock to jazz to ballads and back, paying tribute to their forefathers along the way to carving their own niche in the city that has spawned so many great talents. They danced and bounced their way all over the stage under Shorty’s leadership and left the crowd spent by the end.

Voice of the Wetlands All Stars

The Acura stage played host to this collaboration of band leaders on Saturday afternoon. Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, George Porter Jr., Cyril Neville, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Johnny Sansone, Johnny Vidocovich, Stanton Moore, Waylon Thibodeaux and Mitch Woods (who sat in for Dr. John,) worked their way through songs that they wrote for this project as well as songs from their personal catalogues.

Tab is a ceaseless advocate for Louisiana’s wetlands, and enlisted all these other great Louisiana musicians to help preach the word. “During our hour set we have lost an acre of wetlands,” Tab said, reminding us that the government works for us, not the other way around, and we need to be heard on this.

Michael Doucet sat in on a tune and played into the loose vibe on stage when he posed for a picture mid-song with Anders, taken by Thibodeaux. The gumbo that is New Orleans is ever so apparent when a group of musicians from such different musical disciplines can get together and play funk, Cajun, blues or shuffles with ease.

Galactic

Corey Henry, trombone player on semi-permanent loan from the Rebirth Brass Band, percussionist Mike Dillon and Corey Glover, lead singer from Living Colour, joined Galactic in what turned out to be a stellar set from one of NOLA’s favorite sons.

Glover came out relaxed, yet still in charge as he walked on the bass bins in front of the stage, finally sitting down on them to sing. Glover stretched out on hip hop jams as well as solid R&B songs like “Heart of Steel,” and the band was in great shape considering their insane schedule during the fest.

web-018.jpgThe set’s highlight was during Stanton Moore’s drum solo, when he took his snare drum off its stand and walked to the front of the stage, never dropping a beat. The other members of the band gathered around, each holding something to pound on (including Jeff Raines guitar,) and let Stanton play a surprisingly melodic solo that lasted several minutes. By the time Stanton carried his snare back to his kit – still not dropping a beat – the Acura stage crowd had seen something truly special.

Willie Nelson

Willie is a national treasure and was treated as such by a capacity crowd for the Gentilly stage’s Friday closer. Willie opened with his usual “Whiskey River,” then moved through his remarkable catalogue of hits – many in medley form – including “Time Slips Away,” “Crazy,” and “Night Life” before inviting Jamey Johnson and the Blind Boys of Alabama up on stage for a version of “I Saw The Light.”

Willie then played a song he recently wrote while recovering from a carpal tunnel operation called “I Ain’t Superman.” At 78 years old, Willie put on an energetic set, giving the crowd just what it had waited for.

Highlights

The New Orleans Bingo Show
This show is like a living, breathing version of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, completed on stage with the addition of the Fleur de Tease burlesque dancers.

The creative force behind the writing is Clint Maedgen. He writes wonderful verse about life’s marginalized characters, freaks and cast offs, set on stage in the atmosphere of a carnival sideshow with choreographed vaudeville hijinx.

Three constant characters that accompany and often act out the music are Ronnie Numbers, Mr. The Turk and Trixie Minx, adorned in makeup and eye popping costumes. The Fleur de Tease girls appear intermittently, adding to the over stimulating fray. This is a hard to miss set, well worth your time if you like a show to go with your music.

Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste

joseph_zigaboo_modeliste_2.jpgThe original drummer for the Meters is perhaps the most respected of all funk drummers. Legions of today’s top funk drummers such as are quick to point to Zigaboo as the inspiration behind what has become a legitimate genre.

Zig’s set pulled out all the stops including two guitarists, two bass players, two keyboard players and three background singers. The set was incredibly funky and featured such New Orleans luminaries as Renard Poche, Joe Krown and Chris Severin in the band. Zig’s voice was as strong as ever, and his playing was off the charts funky.

The Setting

The festival is held on the site of the Fair Grounds Race Course, containing a one mile oval horse racing track. Most of the 11 stages have a character all their own, and it is worth checking them all out. Acura and Gentilly are huge, adorned with large video screens on their sides and carry the day’s headliners; the Congo Square stage is a smaller version of these, still carrying national acts. The Fais Do-Do stage features some of the best Cajun and Zydeco music in Louisiana amongst other similarly flavored acts.

Two stages not to be missed are the Jazz and Heritage stage, which runs a steady diet of Mardi Gras Indian bands as well as modern brass bands, and the Lagniappe Stage, located in the courtyard of the racing grand stands. This stage features many of the smaller New Orleans acts in a garden setting with plenty of shaded seating. Stanton Moore Trio, Paul Sanchez and the Rolling Road Show, Ingrid Lucia and the New Orleans Klezmer All Stars were featured this year and offered beautiful intimate sets.

In a line near the main gate are the Gospel Tent, Blues Tent and Jazz Tent. Many festival goers park themselves in these tents for the day, confident that the lineups will be worth seeing from start to finish. Gregg Allman, Robert Randolph and the Family Band, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ruthie Foster were headliners in the Blues Tent, with great support acts like Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Eric Lindell, Sonny Landreth and Little Freddie King. These tents have a water mist slowly cascading over the crowd, helping to keep everyone comfortable.

mardi_gras_indians_1.jpgAt 80 years old, jazz giant Sonny Rollins headlined in the Jazz Tent, still playing brilliantly – he seemed to have the stamina of a 25-year-old. A special Jazz Tent set was delivered by David Torkanowsky’s Fleur Debris, which featured the first ever appearance of George Porter Jr. and Joseph Zigaboo Modeliste as players in the Jazz Tent.

Lowlights

To speak the plain truth, there weren’t many lowlights to this festival aside from overpriced drinks and impossibly priced official Jazz Fest merchandise. The sound crews often had trouble at the start of sets, but that is typical fare for large festivals.

Moments to Remember

Jazz Fest is a marathon of moments. One of mine came on Friday morning, with low humidity and the sun-drenched Jazz and Heritage stage hosting the Red Hawk Mardi Gras Indians, making the perfect backdrop. There were about eight children with the band up on stage, all dressed in full Mardi Gras suits and brightly colored head dresses, beating on drums and tambourines, tutored by the caring hands of their parents and grandparents. I was taken by surprise that, with so many great A-list bands around, the raw beauty of this little moment swept me away.

In the Blues Tent, a man in his late 50’s who had saved up to travel from Belgium specifically to see his hero, Tab Benoit play, worked up the courage to walk over to where Tab was standing, waiting to watch Bobby “Blue” Bland’s set, and talk to him. Tab leaned against the near-by fence and talked to this man for over 10 minutes, as if he would rather be nowhere else in the world. The man walked past me back to his seat in a daze, stunned by his good fortune.

These moments happen with regularity at Jazz Fest, and that is why so many people are proud to tell you how many years they have made the Fest.

In Conclusion…

Jazz Fest is relentless. There are multiple bands at any one moment on the 11 stages that are really worth seeing. It makes for a day filled with bittersweet decisions, but you can see 14 to 16 bands a day and even include a couple of complete, or at least mostly complete sets in there.

If you get in early, you can grab some food and have some great tastes already in your mouth as you look around the Fair Grounds anticipating the great day of tunes you are about to experience – again and again.

Click the thumbnail to view the photo gallery From jazz Fest by Bob Adamek

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