The Voodoo Experience music festival in New Orleans, now in its eleventh year, is a nicely maturing event. It draws some of music’s top acts while featuring much of the local musical flavor that makes New Orleans one of America’s chief home bases. The festival itself shuts down at roughly 11:00 PM each night of the Halloween weekend, but when it does, the party is just beginning because as the festival grounds close, the city rest of the city swells open with a heap of "A list" shows, forcing fans through a process of elimination until they choose the one show that they simply cannot miss.
On Friday night, one of New Orleans’ most legendary venues, Tipitina’s, played host to a sold out show which, even by New Orleans’ standards was special: native sons Galactic were recording a live album. The band’s standard lineup of Ben Ellman on sax, Robert Mercurio on bass, Jeff Raines on guitar, Rich Vogel on Hammond B3, and percussion genius Stanton Moore on drums were joined for the night by Cyril Neville on percussion and vocals, Corey Henry on trombone and vocals, and Shamarr Allen on trumpet.
Tipitina’s is a classic music hall. Fans are greeted just inside the door by the well-worn bust of the patriarchal spirit of Tipitina’s, Professor Longhair. Tradition demands a quick rub of his head, summoning another night of great music. Ancient show posters hanging from the rafters reflect a long tradition of amazing shows, firing the imagination of club-goers to ponder how great those nights must have been. Galactic did not let down any expectations on this night.
Taking advantage of the two extra pieces of brass, the gang serenaded the audience in Big Easy style by opening with brass band standard, "Blackbird Special." Having closed the WWOZ/SOCO stage at Voodoo Fest just hours earlier, the band was in a hard grooving pocket right from Jump Street. Galactic’s grooves are like a freight train, powerful and unstoppable, muscling through any obstacle with unwavering force. Mercurio, Raines and Moore lay down an unshakable foundation while Rich Vogel wraps everything in a warm blanket of tones from his Hammond, providing a solid backdrop for the horns and vocals. Neville and Henry brought their own style and personality to the songs they sang, and the band reacted perfectly by following the New Orleans R&B and hip-hop stylistic leads set forth by guests respectively. They meshed so well it was as if each of them had been with Galactic since the band’s inception
Typical of a night in New Orleans, home to some of the greatest artists that the improvisational music scene has to offer, there were several sit-ins. First up was the explosive talent, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. Shorty was fresh off a plane from Europe where he spent time opening for Jeff Beck, and played two songs on trumpet, giving the band an impressive four horn front line. A few songs later rapper Boots Riley came up to do a couple of songs and the night finished with Ivan Neville taking the B3 and leading the band in the Meters classic "Africa," with the changed refrain to be "New Orleans." The show was a funky, fun, and solid way to top off the first day of music- providing two and half hours of pure enjoyment as a nightcap.
One of the main events on Saturday night was at the Blue Nile on famed Frenchmen Street, where Tab Benoit and Dr. John teamed up to headline another great night. Frenchmen Street is ground zero, if you will, for Halloween in New Orleans, and though this night was October 30 and not the 31, the location was already in top deranged form. With so many people flooding the street and two large headliners sharing the stage, the club was packed beyond reason. This didn’t really dampen the ability to enjoy the gig and fans got all for which they had came. Billed as "Swamp Tripper," fiddler Michael Doucet, trumpeter James Andrews, and eventually, vocalist and New Orleans legend Big Chief Monk Boudreaux would join Tab and the good Doctor on stage.
The band started with a number of hushed and pretty songs with beautifully striking and tasty solos shining a light on the brilliant playing of Doucet. Then they went into a haunting version of a Halloween classic, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ "I Put a Spell on You." Dr. John turned away from the Hammond B3 and played a funky blues infused melody on piano with Doucet on fiddle to the words of "Livin’ on Borrowed Time." Andrews added a delicious muted trumpet solo, and finally Tab came in with a tone so sugary it might make BB King blush. These guys are legitimate pros to the pros and the focus on tone and melody in their playing was not lost on anyone.
Benoit made his way to the drums as Big Chief Monk Boudreaux joined the ensemble, taking the gig to an even higher level. Like wheat in a heavy swirling wind, the crowd simultaneously swayed as the band rocked into "Little Liza Jane" and then rolled into the Jimi Hendrix tune "Who Knows." When the gig wrapped, Tab made his way into the mass of sweaty costumed fans for a session of mingling with his primary purpose being the promotion of his wetlands restoration cause, Voice of the Wetlands.
With Voodoo Fest and a hard weekend of clubbing fading away, Tipitina’s hosted the grand finale, The New Mastersounds featuring Art Neville. The Halloween-costumed crowd started out light but managed to bring the place to near capacity by the time the gig was in full stride. The Mastersounds paid their own homage to the holiday spirit and came out with costumes of their own, donning the look of the A-Team, with bassist Pete Shand pulling off a stunning and hilarious Bad Attitude "B. A." Baracus, better known by his stage name, Mr. T.
Funk is a music that creates immense feeling and there are many good bands that play great funk. So the question is: what separates the good funk bands from the great? The answer is the writing. The iconic New Orleans band, the Meters, is at the top of the heap because their instrumentals have strapping melody contours that are conversational, simple, and memorable. The New Mastersounds’ talent in writing and playing puts them in this same province. Eddie Roberts’ solos are a thoughtful blend of groove oriented chord playing mixed with scorching linear note runs. Likewise, Joe Tatton’s B3 solos fill the room with warm and fat tones through dexterous playing. Drummer Simon Allen, who, in rarely takes his eyes off of Roberts, enables the band to take the groove wherever the guitarist wants to go and is in lock step with the solid in the pocket play of Shand’s bass.
Meters founder Art Neville sat, listening carefully, off the side of the stage for the first set, then pointing at the band, declared "they are some bad mother fuckers!" After a couple of songs in the second set, Roberts told a story about being 16 years old in Leeds, England and being handed a cassette tape of the Meters by a friend. He described it, in short, as an event that changed his life. And now here he was, bringin Art "Poppa Funk" Neville himself up onto stage to play with them. The excitement that shot through the crowd was palpable.
They ranged through many classic Meters songs with the band, rarely taking their eyes off of their musical hero, Mr. Neville. Later in the set, Art’s son Ian Neville joined them on guitar. It was difficult to tell who was more excited, the crowd or the band. When Art finished, he resumed his seat off the stage and sat for another hour enjoying the show in a somewhat "passing of the torch" move. Big Sam Williams of Big Sam’s Funky Nation, who also happens to play one of the funkiest trombones in New Orleans, joined the post-Art stage for several songs, making this gig an even bigger treat than its billing had suggested.
New Orleans is Disneyland for the music fan. Voodoo Fest is a great event to attend for many reasons, but primarily because it combines a festival that’s well supplied with national talent with one rooted in a city that is the birthplace of so much American music. And in extra special taste, it occurs on Halloween to boot. For any who have never attended, the planning should have already begun for next year. If not, it should begin now.