New Orleans — From the Treme Brass Band in full swing among the baggage carousels at Louis Armstrong Airport to small venues where performers sometimes outnumber spectators, the Big Easy is America’s easiest place to see music of every melodic shade. As a summer destination, it merits consideration: Satchmo SummerFest starts next week. But for me, NOLA sounds best during Jazz Fest.
Jazz Fest is the annual sonic smorgasbord that yanks in music afficionadi by their ears. Jazz Fest is a misnomer. While it highlights plenty of jazz, the “nomer” is that Jazz Fest showcases a wide musical spectrum, both at the New Orleans Fairgrounds’ official tents and stages from 11:00 A.M. until 7:00 P.M. (during April’s final weekend and May’s first) to the after- and before-hours spots that keep the bass clefts flying 24/7.
Mercifully, the one musical genre that perennially has been absent during Jazz Fest is opera. No big loss. And while a hint of rap has leeched in like toxic waste here and there, it has been limited to a hint during Fest. That is far too much, but better a hint than a hammering.
Some of the Fairgrounds’ highlights this past May included the unsinkable Carlos Santana from San Francisco keeping perhaps 100,000 people on their feet in the Southern sunshine. From the East Bay, Oakland’s Tower of Power celebrated their 40th year with a horn-rich, airtight set that featured such barnburners as “What is Hip?” and more mellow but beautiful fare like “You’re Still a Young Man.”
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews continued his rise as one of New Orleans’ most promising young stars by blending rock, soul, jazz, and funk with on-stage aerobics. This trombone and trumpet virtuoso leads a band that sounds like experienced 40-somethings, although they look barely old enough to take the SAT. Andrews performs twice on an excellent Putumayo Music anthology called New Orleans Brass that is well worth buying.
While Stevie Wonder made a welcome and rare appearance on the mighty Acura Stage – his first at Jazz Fest — it would have helped to hear more of his cherished songs like “Living for the City” and “Higher Ground” and a lot less speechifying about Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. Intermittent thunderstorms made this all hard to handle; hearing Wonder’s daughter break into a Nancy Wilson ballad was, for many, the cue to exit, stage right.
Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra was a more pleasant surprise. This eleven-piece ensemble performs fun, evocative, almost cinematic compositions. Mayfield explained that one piece was inspired by the day when, as a boy, he left the bathtub spigot running until it flooded the floor below. “You Forgot to Turn the Water Faucet Off” is a delightful work whose instrumentations recall cascading water, while high-pitched trombone shrieks suggest Mrs. Mayfield berating her errant son.
The Hot Club of New Orleans also pleased the crowd at the Economy Hall Tent with a set of 1930s-era traditional jazz. This quintet seems influenced by Louis Armstrong as well as legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt and his collaborator, violinist Stephan Grappelli. To hear this group is to be swept up in the sounds of the Charleston, Prohibition, and perhaps the cabarets of the Weimar Republic. Woody Allen fans will find the Hot Club reminiscent of his film soundtracks. Their superb, new album, “Heavy Artillery” – recorded “January Somethingth, 2008” – should satisfy those who appreciate this kind of music, as everyone should.
John Rodli’s locomotive-like rhythm guitar and Matt Rhody’s classically trained, jazz-liberated violin are joy-inducing. This was true both at Fest and at an evening gig the Hot Club performed at the Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street, a tight strip of music venues, bars, and restaurants whose guests merrily fill the sidewalk and asphalt alike, bringing vehicular traffic to a full stop. The block party briefly took a bizarre turn when a nitrous oxide tank suddenly blew like an oil gusher, sending cold, white gas hissing straight up into the atmosphere. The laughter never stopped.
Such mirth continued – from Gentilly to Fauborg Marigny to the Warehouse District and beyond. Amid Friday night’s deluge, the Greyboy Allstars played aboard The Creole Queen, a paddlewheel riverboat afloat in the Mississippi. The Coast Guard forbade it to leave its berth, bowing before the big river’s tricky currents. But the show went on. The quintet, which hails mainly from the musical hotbed of San Diego, delivered a memorable and highly danceable set of 1970s-inflected funk and soul grooves. Many of their tunes recall the soundtracks of that era’s network crime dramas and blaxploitation films. Fittingly, their show was staged by Manhattan-based Superfly Presents.
In stark contrast to “Shaft” or “Baretta,” chief Allstar Karl Denson and his sidemen launched into a psychedelic, jam-band version of Burt Bacharach’s “Walk on By.” Even with none of these guys channeling Dionne Warwick’s vocals, this 1964 Brill Building hit was the evening’s high-water mark.
Later, a hot lunchtime tip paid off, courtesy of “Stormin” Norman Conerly, Master Shucker at the Acme Oyster House. About 1:00 A.M., a very gray-bearded George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic shook the thick, wooden beams of Republic New Orleans, a renovated mid-19th-century coffee warehouse. The ’70s funk mongers led an ecstatic crowd through its hits, including “Tear the Roof of the Sucker,” “Up for the Down Stroke,” and their masterpiece, “Flashlight.”
Clinton, 66, looks like the Jerry Garcia of funk. The leader of this 21-member troupe sang and bobbed his head, which is festooned with wild, rainbow-colored hair. His colleague, Carlos “Sir Nose” McMurray, wore fuzzy white pants, a matching hat, and a Pinocchio-like nasal prosthetic. He removed the latter two items to execute several handstands, revealing his giant, white platform shoes that dangled for a while over the stage.
Costumed in terry-cloth diapers, guitarist Garry Shider, 54, smiled approvingly as a confident-looking man in a casual, magenta Zoot suit sang backup vocals. Perfectly tropical, Jumpin’ Gene Anderson sported an impossibly wide, white Panama hat whose tight, black band restrained a bright, red feather. He looked like the hip foreman of a Caribbean sugar plantation. Anderson is cool beyond words. He’s got the funk – always has, always will.
As if this were not exciting enough, America’s most relaxed city soon went on alert: a tornado watch enveloped Orleans Parish from 5:00 until 11:00 A.M. that Saturday morning. Luckily, the twisters never materialized. Once the huge, intense downpours and bed-rattling thunderclaps subsided, an intense sun governed a cloudless sky.
A few hours later, intricate ceiling fans that date back to 1905 gently circulated the air inside Galatoire’s beveled-mirror-filled salon. At a waitresses’ suggestion, this entire restaurant of elegant diners stopped lunching on such delicacies as oysters Rockefeller, trout meuniere amandine, and pommes soufflé, and sang happy birthday to a young lady named Griffin, age 1.
Beyond this exquisite culinary landmark, past the pastel-colored daiquiri shops, notorious strip clubs, and congested bars rocked by cover bands, Bourbon Street’s relatively quiet eastern end hosts Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop. Thought to be America’s oldest continually operated bar, this National Historical Landmark was built between 1772 and 1791 by pirates Jean and Pierre Lafitte. They are believed to have used the establishment as a legal front for their more covert enterprises.
While Lafitte’s grog flowed freely that Saturday night, its musical talent resembled a pirate of the far-northern Caribbean. In fact, he looked like a low-rent Johnny Depp singing low-cal Doctor John tunes. He claimed to take requests. Asked to play something by Elton John, he snarled: “I don’t do his songs. I met him once. He’s a pr***.”
Be that as it may, this did little to endear him to the lackadaisical crowd gathered around the piano. Nor was it the zenith of musicianship for him to count, stack, and otherwise organize the greenbacks that bar hoppers’ had plopped into his tip jar that evening. He finally detached his microphone, grabbed his loot, and decamped for Oxford, Mississippi, a six-hour drive away.
Before Johnny Depp’s stunt double cleared the block, Woody Woodland – a Los Angeles attorney and Jazz Fest fan – came to the rescue. He sat down at the piano bench and asked for requests. But unlike the official act, Woodland riveted the previously unfocused room with “Piano Man,” “Rocket Man,” “Desperado,” “Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie,” and other beloved hits. Smiling drunks heartily sang along, ordered more and more adult beverages, and thoroughly relished the moment.
After about an hour, Woodland and his krewe of lost angels stepped out and called it a night. As they tumbled into a cab, birds serenaded the brightening skies as clocks throughout the Quarter struck six.
A dry, slightly cool, and very sunny Sunday eventually found the Neville Brothers triumphantly returning to Jazz Fest. This marked the first time since Katrina that the iconic Crescent City crooners reclaimed their traditional berth as Fest’s biggest closing act. They delivered a lengthy set that included “Brother Jake,” “Big Chief,” and “Shake Your Tambourine,” a polyrhythmic butt-shaker that opens their splendid concert album, “Live on Planet Earth.”
That evening, at Rock ‘n’ Bowl in Mid-City, the bill advertised on the front door simply said:
Tab Benoit played a high-voltage set of bluesy Louisiana electric guitar. He, a bassist, and a drummer generated an amazingly powerful blast of musical energy for a mere trio. Guitarist Sonny Landreth opened the evening and then pitched in on a few tunes, expanding Benoit’s bountiful sound.
This hybrid bar, music venue, and bowling alley seems untouched since the early 1960s, right down to the revolving plastic Clydesdales that pull a wagonload of Budweisers inside a promotional display that hangs from the ceiling. Demonstrating their own horsepower, Benoit and his band rode through a set of infectious, upbeat, Cajun-inflected rock and blues. One lady lapped up the music while a Hula Hoop twirled around her waist. Guests created their own second-line procession and paraded inside Rock ‘n’ Bowl beneath wide-open umbrellas. Four pink-clad gals gyrated atop the bar as other patrons blithely hurled bowling balls down the nearby lanes. Other guests nibbled on crawfish etouffe and bacon-wrapped, Abita-beer-battered shrimp with remoulade sauce on beds of spinach.
By the time Tab Benoit plucked his last electron-fueled note, all the souls wore wide smiles on their faces, eardrums, taste buds, brains, stomachs, livers, and perhaps more. As folks shuffled down the stairs – either to go home or chase the next thrill – a brass band erupted in the parking lot, to the patrons’ collective delight. As the dancing started anew, bawdy trombone, trumpet, and tuba wails pierced the sultry Southern breeze. Even at 1:30 on a Monday morning, this seemed perfectly normal around here — because it is.
– Deroy Murdock is a New York-based columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.