New Orleans – It’s so unfair!
Not even five years since Hurricane Katrina shoved America’s most relaxed city flat onto its back, the Big Easy has rallied strongly. Tourist bookings are up. A major medical convention recently sent Jazz Fest aficionadi scrambling for hotel rooms. Some longtime Fest lovers who normally stay in the French Quarter considered themselves lucky to secure lodging near Louis Armstrong Airport, 17 miles away.
“Who Dat?” ask posters and T-shirts everywhere, proudly reminding New Orleanians about their beloved Saints’ Super Bowl victory.
The sorrowful signs of storm damage are fewer and much farther between than on my earlier visits since 2005. FEMA trailers, previously as ubiquitous as Mardi Gras beads, now are as seldom seen as snowflakes. Where renovation and new construction do not exist, destroyed property largely has been leveled and removed. “An empty lot is progress,” says my friend Randy Boudreaux, a local attorney whose family moved here about 1760, when France’s King Louis XV counted the Crescent City among his baubles.
Suddenly, on April 20, British Petroleum’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, burned, killed eleven workers, sank, and began gushing some 5,000 barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico each day. An ever-growing oil slick has approached and slimed parts of the Louisiana coast that yield the oysters, shrimp, and other seafood that Orleanophiles jet in from around the world to savor.
Can’t this city catch a break?
While residents and visitors alike fretted about all of this in recent days, the music and cuisine here remained as reliable and comforting as ever.
Recently, I was fortunate enough to enjoy my 16th consecutive New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and my 21st trek to this most sublime destination. Also helpful was a generous invitation to address an early-evening happy hour hosted by the free-market Pelican Institute. We convened at the Avenue Pub, at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Polymnia Street. The latter is one of several Garden District thoroughfares elegantly named after Greek muses.
Before and after discussing The Obama Administration v. Free Enterprise, I quaffed a variety of fine and rare brews at this deceptively simple, 24-hour drinking establishment. (New Orleans’s bars are permitted to serve alcohol around the clock, and many do!) While luxuriating in a light breeze on the pub’s second-floor balcony, Pelican president Kevin Kane, his wife Lesley, several of this think tank’s supporters, and I relish such treats as crispy and rich Cabernet burgers with cheddar grits and bacon. This follows a small but splendid appetizer: deep-fried, goat-cheese-filled dried apricots wrapped in bacon. Yum!
Jazz Fest’s main events unfold at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, a racetrack on Gentilly Boulevard north-by-northwest of the French Quarter, not far from Treme, an ancient, music-filled district now gaining fame via HBO’s outstanding series of the same name. Across seven days encompassing April’s final weekend and May’s first, a cornucopia of musical acts relentlessly enriches the stages and tents erected in spaces usually reserved for horses and the gamblers who cheer them on.
Sprinkled among the headliner-filled Acura Stage, the goosebump-inducing Gospel Tent, the Zydeco- and Cajun-oriented Fais Do Do Stage, and nine other performance venues, food stands offer small-to-medium-sized portions of local specialties, including alligator pie, catfish almondine, and trout Baquet topped with crabmeat. The ensuing harmonic and culinary bliss suggests that the path to a man’s stomach runs through his ears.
Those taking in these sounds and flavors enhance the fun and games by wearing colorful, vivid outfits as well as smile-inducing T-shirts. While the racier ones cannot be described here, others promote microbrews such as “Polygamy Porter: Why have just one?” Another states: “Growing Old Disgracefully.” One NOLA cop’s shirt showed the local crescent-shaped police badge emblazoned with the words: “Chocolate City Police — We’re bitter.”
This year’s second-weekend Jazz Fest highlights:
‐ Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers are the second weekend’s greatest treat. The über-talented comedian, actor, and author is also an accomplished banjo player. Martin and his first-rate, North Carolina–based ensemble play 75 minutes of stellar bluegrass while he repeatedly applies his pick to the crowd’s funny bones.
“For years, it has been my dream to play the New Orleans Jazz Festival,” Martin says as he takes the stage. “I feel that by being here today, I am one step closer to that goal.”
Steve Martin on the Gentilly Stage at New Orleans Jazz Fest.
Martin skillfully and cheerfully plays multiple banjos. “Why are there four banjos up here with me, you wonder? It’s an ego trip.”
Martin explains the joys of being on a bluegrass tour: “The road is great fun,” he says. “After each gig, we play cards on the bus and tell stories. Sometimes we laugh. Sometimes we cry. I know this because the band calls me and tells me about it while I am on my private plane.”
Martin and his merry men mainly deliver original tunes, including several from their album The Crow. “A few weeks ago,” Martin notes, “I walked off with the Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. Later that night, I learned that I actually won it.”
Martin & Co. round things off with “Orange Blossom Special,” the “Stairway to Heaven” of bluegrass. Nicky Sanders, his superb fiddler, embosses this tune with quick quotes from the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and, here and there, a few symphonic notes amid the Appalachian splendor.
This wholly satisfying set culminates in Steve Martin and his group presenting a bluegrass version of his 1970s novelty song “King Tut.”
A few minutes later, a young man chats into his cell phone while walking past the alligator-and-piquante-sauce stand.
“Hey, man!” he smiles. “I just saw one of the ten best acts I ever have seen at Jazz Fest: Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. I never stay for a whole set. This time, I didn’t move!”
‐ The Average White Band fills Congo Square with its 1970s jazz-pop and soul hits, including “Cut the Cake.” This group has a particularly rich and full sound for just five members. Of these, two are black, so it’s not really an average white band. Since only three of its five members are white, this should be the On-Average White Band.
‐ Singer, songwriter, and producer Allan Toussaint graces the Acura Stage. This NOLA-based national treasure sparkles like a sapphire in the sunshine, never mind the canopy of clouds. He mainly plays his own upbeat tunes, such as “Mother-in-Law” and “Southern Nights,” with the help of a muscular backup band, including a horn section whose five artists step forward to belt out several brass interludes around a single, downstage microphone. Among this quintet, Big Sam Williams dominates with his brick-wall physique and ferocious trombone.
Toussaint also unveils a beautiful rendition of the deeply moving “City of New Orleans.” This gentle tale of faded glory along the Illinois Central Railroad was written by Steve Goodman and turned into a haunting classic in 1972 by Arlo Guthrie. Goodman’s lyrics include this evocative passage:
Dealin’ card games with the old men in the club car.
Penny a point, ain’t no one keepin’ score.
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle,
Feel the wheels rumblin’ ’neath the floor.
And the sons of Pullman porters
And the sons of engineers
Ride their fathers’ magic carpets made of steel.
Soon after his set, Toussaint changes out of his on-stage cobalt-blue suit and slips into something equally elegant, albeit more subdued, in brown. He slowly drives away in a two-toned tan Rolls Royce. His Louisiana license plate reads: “PIANO.”
‐ “A lot of you were conceived to Earth, Wind, and Fire music, so that makes us your musical godfathers,” singer Philip Bailey declares during EW&F’s high-voltage set on the Acura Stage. This ’70s soul hit machine was a last-minute replacement after Aretha Franklin canceled for the second consecutive Fest. This year’s excuse? Rumor has it that Franklin feared throat irritation due to smoke wafting in from the flames atop that giant oil slick. That story might hold water if Franklin were booked in Port Sulphur, 48 miles south. Instead, patrons laugh off the Queen of Soul and get busy grooving to her substitutes.
As they approach their 40th anniversary next year, EW&F’s three remaining co-founders and seven newer members play with the stamina of twentysomethings. Their rich, thick, brass-inflected sound and gold-plated material are heightened by the constant dancing, spinning, and on-stage movement of everyone save the drummer. If his job description did not require sitting down, he, too, would be in motion.
“Got to Get You into My Life,” “September,” and “Sing a Song” are just a few of the mega-hits with which they delight their audience of some 50,000. To dismiss none of that, a real surprise is “Night and Day,” a rare blues tune on which Greg Moore ignites a guitar solo as long and searing as a magnesium blaze.
Earth, Wind, and Fire also feature two different sets of congas, timbales, and other percussion instruments. This gives their set a distinctly Latin hue that glows most brightly on “Sunny,” Bobby Hebb’s 1966 one-hit wonder. Close your eyes, and you’re at a Santana concert.
‐ A local band called Los Po-Boy-Citos packs and pumps up the normally restrained Lagniappe Stage with an excellent, energetic, and enthusiastic serving of Latin soul. Their fun sound is smooth and mellifluous, with a heart of salsa and hints of west-African guitar, à la Johnny Clegg. Occasional whiffs of ska waft through the jubilant, twirling throng.
“Los Po-Boy-Citos” is a clever pun involving New Orleans’s signature po-boy sandwiches (available at Fest with cochon de lait, or suckling pig) and pobrecito, Spanish for, more or less, “You poor thing, you.” This terrific band recently released a 45-RPM performance of Archie Bell and the Drells’ “Do the Tighten Up.” What a glorious throwback! Where does one even find the equipment to press vinyl singles?
Meanwhile, Jazz Fest impresario Quint Davis speaks the truth at dusk Friday on the Acura Stage: “The best thing about Jazz Fest is that when you leave here, you’re in New Orleans.”
When the Fair Grounds go quiet at 7:00 p.m., the rest of the city comes alive as locals and visitors play rock, jazz, soul, blues, Latin, and virtually every other musical genre imaginable — with the merciful exception of opera. This happens in bars, in night clubs, on street corners, and even at a nearby gas station. Just as booze flows at all hours, so does the music.
The New Master Sounds take the stage at the French Quarter’s House of Blues on Decatur Street. The clock strikes 2:45 a.m. The place is sold out and filled with a hardcore horde who jump and sway to high-energy funk-jazz generated with infectious enthusiasm by this Leeds, U.K.–based quartet.
While their instrumental tunes are propelled by a universally embraceable groove, these super-talented lads address the audience with accents as thick as the bricks in the walls. Drummer Simon Allen manages a moment of decipherability to American ears when he introduces two guest horn players. “Please welcome Nick and Mark from London. They’re the south of England set.”
These first-rate performers produce simple, melodic ripples that build into powerful rhythmic and sonic waves that lift listeners to multiple and much appreciated musical climaxes. By the time they chime in with their rendition of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin),” it is 5:45 a.m. on May Day. Uninterrupted music has cascaded from the stage for three hours.
And the band plays on.
Half an hour later and a mile away, the Den and its denizens are wide awake. These are not morning people powered by coffee and bagels. These are late-night revelers energized by free-flowing draft Abita Amber and restorative cheddar-and-brisket quesadillas.
Steps away, the Monophonics play that funky music for a room full of fanatics. As their hip-shaking riffs stir the Warehouse District, fluttering birds chirp reveille. Sleepless Festheads sip and snack alfresco. And on either side of St. Joseph Street, two gentlemen who have been partying since dinnertime greet a 6:30 sunrise by chasing after a flying piece of plastic. It’s morning in New Orleans. Why not fling a Frisbee back and forth?
– Deroy Murdock is a nationally syndicated columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.