Jazz Fest does it again in The Big Easy

Written by Bob Adamek / Photos by Bob Adamek

June 2, 2012

 

New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is all about anticipation. Acts are announced in December, when tickets go on sale, and more talent signs on through the winter. Web sites like jazzfestgrids.com start to announce night time shows.

The week before the fest, it is nearly impossible to think of much else. But, no matter how great expectations are, they’ll be exceeded!

Senses are assaulted from every angle; from the tastes and smells of world class food to the sounds of 100s of bands across 11 stages to the brightly colored, intricately hand-sewn suits of Mardi Gras Indians.

Held over two weekends – the last weekend in April and the first Thursday-Sunday in May – with three entertainment packed “Daze Between,” New Orleans is a city of moments, and excited music fans from across the country live them in abundance.

 

 

Grace Potter

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals stopped fans at the Acura main stage in their tracks on Friday, May 4. Grace came out dressed as sexy as a Rock-n-Roll front woman ever has. Gone were the straight hair and bangs, replaced by teasing blonde waves and a sheer silky body wrap that danced in the breeze. She stepped up to the mic and proved her mettle as a singer with the a capella title track of her 2005 debut album Nothing But The Water. The haunting version of this song was perfect for a city steeped in spirituality and surrounded by the great Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.

Potter and the Nocturnals tore through an energetic set that featured many songs from their new release The Lion The Beast The Beat like “Never Go Back,” “The Divide,” and the title track.

Upon hearing the sad news earlier in the day that fellow musician Beastie Boy Adam “MCA” Yauch had passed away, Potter and her band mates played an fitting and well-received tribute to him with “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” and “Fight For Your Right.”

 

Warren Haynes Band

The 2500-seat capacity Blues Tent was pushed well beyond its limits on Saturday evening, May 5 for a special set by the Warren Haynes Band featuring Dr. John. Tapped to fill the schedule spot originally held for Levon Helm until his untimely passing on April 19, Haynes had some big shoes to fill, and he called on some A-list friends to help.

Along with Dr. John, the band was joined by Ivan Neville, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Roger Lewis, Efrem Towns and Kevin Harris, and Herb Hardesty, the saxophonist behind so many memorable Fats Domino songs like “I’m Walkin’” and “Ain’t That A Shame.”

Haynes’ band rolled effortlessly through their own songs and some Dr. John favorites like “Such A Night” and “Walk On Gilded Splinters,” but the highlight came when the ensemble launched into The Band’s “The Weight.” Jazz Fest is regarded for its special moments, and this one may have registered on the Richter scale.

Haynes took the first verse, followed by Dr. John, Alicia Chakour and Nigel Hall, and each time the chorus came around, the crowd seeming took the lead, drowning out the band. Good people that love music and musicians were wiping tears from their eyes. The song ended and so did the set, except the band was pushed back into a reprise of the chorus, no one wanting the moment to end.

 

Preservation Hall’s 50th anniversary

The festival ended on Sunday, May 6 on the The Gentilly Stage with a celebration of one of New Orleans’ most enduring institutions, Preservation Hall.

Founded in 1961 by Allan and Sandra Jaffe, the parents of current director and Sousaphone player Ben Jaffe, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has toured the world as Big Easy music ambassadors, and has recorded with Tom Waits, Del McCoury and The Blind Boys of Alabama among many others.

For this special set, the guest list was long and star-studded, beginning with no less a figure in the festival world than George Wein, the brains behind Newport’s Folk and Jazz Festivals, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Playboy Jazz Festival among others. He sat in with P-Hall on piano, to the thrill of everyone on stage.

As Wein left the stage to thunderous applause, he was replaced by a litany of diverse and highly regarded guests such as recent Grammy winners the Rebirth Brass Band, Ani DiFranco, Allen Toussaint, Bonnie Raitt, My Morning Jacket’s Jim James, and Steve Earle.

Each guest was as grateful to be there as the next, and a very appreciative Jazz Fest crowd seemed thrilled to have made the decision to witness the set. At the end of the show, nearly all the guests joined the band on stage for a finale of “I’ll Fly Away,” cementing the memory in the minds of all, and closing Jazz Fest in style.

 

Highlights

 

  • The Food

Food at Jazz Fest is better than you will probably ever see at any other a festival. Reasonably priced, fest-goers feast on regional delicacies like crawfish bread, gumbo with duck, pheasant and andouille sausage, bisque with crawfish, spinach and zucchini, and diet busting desserts. The food alone can make the experience memorable.

 

  • Mavis Staples

The Gospel Tent holds 1500 people, and 20 minutes before Mavis Staples’ set, fans were standing 10-15 deep all the way around the outside; it was quite a challenge to get in. Mavis was scheduled perform and then join Levon Helm for his set as a special guest the next night. Considering the pair’s decades-long friendship, it was not hard to imagine her feelings when Helm passed away.

Looming heavy over Staples’ set, the singer brought out Swell Season/The Frames singer Glen Hansard for the second song, and the band began to play “The Weight.” The roar that rose from the crowd was deafening, and it became one of the defining moments of the festival.

Mavis took her time with the song, savoring each moment, as did her band mates as they took turns singing verses. By the end Mavis really wound out the tune with a long impassioned crescendo that left the crowd dizzy.

Over the roar of the faithful, Mavis began to shout “Levon! Levon! Levon!” It may be cliché to state “there wasn’t a dry eye in the house,” but in this case it was the truth, including Mavis as she said good-bye to her friend.

 

  • Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias

In 1964, Big Chief Bo Dollis took over as leader of the Mardi Gras Indian tribe, the Wild Magnolias. They were the first tribe to release music, beginning in 1970 with the single “Handa Wanda.”

Since then the group has continued to play and record music, and have been fixtures at Jazz Fest. Dollis is now very ill; he was released from the hospital on Saturday and yet there he was on Sunday, perched on a stool and surrounded by his family and friends at the Jazz and Heritage Stage, game for at least one more round in front of the people who love him so.

As he sang, his band positioned themselves around him, playing together again and savoring the moment. As Billy Iuso unleashed solos from his guitar, Dollis played air guitar next to him, both men smiling and laughing, a scene repeated so many times.

While the band played “Smoke My Peace Pipe,” Dollis rose with the help of a cane and his son and yelled “I love you” to the crowd over and over before being helped back off  the stage. The weight of the moment was not lost on anybody. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is steeped in history, and this scene was a very real part of it.

 

  • Galactic

With 11 stages, Jazz Fest often causes some anxiety over what you see and what you miss. On Sunday, May 6, the schedule found Galactic and the Funky Meters staring at each other from opposite sides of the Fair Grounds. Thing is, whatever you choose is correct, because it’s all good music.

Galactic has been traveling with Rebirth Brass Band trombone player extraordinaire Corey Henry, and they have also added the high-powered voice from the 80s/90s sensation Living Color, Corey Glover. Glover is the perfect front man for the band. He stalks the stage with ease, occasionally climbing out to goad the crowd to sing along or call and answer with the band. He has embraced the wide variety of music that Galactic loves to tackle, from R&B to Mardi Gras Indian chants to hip hop.

Galactic’s Jazz Fest set included all of these, playing many numbers from their recently released Carnivale Electricos like “Hey Na Na,” “Out In The Street” and “Karate.”

A highlight of the set was the first song from the new album, “Ha Di Ka,” with Trombone Shorty and War Chief Juan Pardo, in full Mardi Gras Indian dress, on vocals. Another peak of the set was the band’s cover of Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality.”

 

Other dazzling acts

 

George Porter Jr. and the Runnin’ Pardners, Mia Borders, Anders Osborne, Bonerama and Rodrigo Y Gabriela also turned in stellar sets. The Runnin’ Pardners play with a veteran’s maturity but the playfulness of new friends excited to do another gig together.

Porter bounced around the stage with youthful exuberance, first playing with saxophonist Khris Royal, then over to play with guitarist Brint Anderson, and back across to play with keyboardist Michael Lemmler – all while locked in with power house drummer Terence Houston.

Mia Borders’ career is rising quickly as she plays more and more high profile gigs. Her voice has the deep quality of Southern soul and her songwriting is terrific. She speaks playfully and easily to the crowd, with a wink and wry smile, and her band is filled with pros that pounded out one song after the next.

Anders Osborne’s set was special. He has really incorporated his diverse song writing styles into his live shows. Although he still played powerful muscular songs with nicely extended jams, he also broke out acoustic guitars with Billy Iuso to play some of his more thoughtful, quiet songs. At one point everyone put their instruments down except for a string trio, and Anders just stood up front and sang the beautiful “Higher Ground” from his brand new release Black Eye Galaxy.

 

Wrapping up

The more days you can swing being in New Orleans, the more fun you can pile on. The assault on your senses blends with the haze of a lack of sleep, until it all becomes a constant state of pleasure. Most everyone you meet will be feeling it too, making the experience unforgettable.

 

Click the thumbnail(s) to view photos from the fest by Bob Adamek