The 41st New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
A Russ Agdern Perspective: Part I
What a week! My third trip to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest) was nothing short of incredible. The surprises were many, the disappointments were few, the food was awesome, and when you get to hear some of the best music in the world in one the most important musical towns in the world, you’re in for a good time.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place over the last weekend of April and first weekend in May at the New Orleans Fairgrounds, but, like most parties in this town, can’t be contained in one venue, so Fest spills out in the clubs, halls, restaurants, bars, record stores, boats, coffee houses, laundromats, Carnival float warehouses, street corners and empty lots of the Crescent City. Two things set Jazz Fest apart from other festivals in my mind – the musical diversity and the food.
While heavy metal, pop, opera, classical aren’t there, and quality hip hop is not so represented (The Roots and Chali 2na were both here in 2008, haven’t seen a hip hop group I like since at the fairgrounds), some of the very best in Jazz, Funk, Blues, Gospel, Zydeco, Cajun, Folk, Rock are all over the place at the fairgrounds and in the venues around town. Ani DiFranco and Gift of Gab played club shows, members of REM sat in with Bonerama, Pearl Jam, Elvis Costello, Simon and Garfunkel, Van Morrison all played at the fairgrounds, so don’t be fooled into thinking this is solely a Jazz festival, because it ain’t. Sure, there are 3 different jazz stages at the fairgrounds (one for general jazz, one for traditional New Orleans Dixieland Jazz, and one split between brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians) but there are also two main stages, a gospel and blues tents, a zydeco/Cajun stage… you get the idea.
The food at the fairgrounds is tremendous. It is freaking delicious and goes way beyond “best festival food you’ll have” into some of the best you’ll ever have…period. I wait all year for Prejeans Pheasant, Duck, and Andouille Gumbo. Their Fried Chicken and Jambalaya combo is one of the best ways to spend $8. And I’m not even talking about all the things most folks seem to like, like the crawfish monica, the shrimp po boys, the cochon de lait sandwiches, the mango freezes… trust me when I say you should budget yourself 20 bucks per day for food at the fairgrounds. You’ll thank me.
This being my third Jazz Fest, I tend to have a rhythm I like to follow, things I like to do. Some of my favorite moments of Fest have happened during the in between days or extra days, so I tend to do second weekend with an extra day or two on either end of the weekend. This gives me time to actually see the city, something I don’t really do as much while the music is in full swing. This also gives me a chance to catch additional great music at various places, including the Louisiana Music Factory which hosts many in store sets during the days surrounding Fest. I think this review works best chronologically, so let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
Wednesday: April 28, 2010: Day One
Arrive at airport, no traffic on Bronx/Queens Expressway and breeze through security line… only to find a gate full of ANGRY people. Why so serious? You see, the airlines don’t apparently know that it is Jazz Fest, even if millions of people do. So they oversell flights, and are shocked when they need 5 volunteers to go later, but folks already have reservations and concert tickets. I considered getting bumped, but wanted to get to town.
I don’t normally do House of Blues shows, would rather support local clubs. But today, they had Kermit Ruffins of the Barbecue Swingers, doing a “Treme House Party” on stage with Walter Wolfman Washington, Dr. Michael White, Henry Butler, and Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews. This sounded awesome. Plus, Fesshead Krewe (represented by a metal bust of Professor Longhair) was hosting a party in an empty lot, with The Rebirth Brass Band and an all star band of Neville-related project alums (Band called “Never Was Brothers”), which sounded great. So no flight credit for me. Really excited about this House of Blues‘ show. So excited that I call after I land to see if I should get tickets early or just walk up. The box office suggested coming early so I head right from my host’s place towards The French Quarter. On the way, pass by Fesshead Fest, and never have a received a look of utter betrayal like the one I got from the man waiving people in to Fesshead Fest. The guy was shocked that I kept driving, how could I do this to him?! But I stopped long enough to hear The Rebirth Brass Band rock out one tune and was it hot!
Park on Decatur, run to the box office, snag a ticket, stop by Café Du Monde for some beignets (French donuts with powdered sugar) and some Café Au Lait (coffee with milk). Great couple musicians jamming on some folk and soul music out front, a sister with dreads on guitar, a youngish guy on guitar, a drummer… another guitarist walks up and joins them, as does a singer, who starts singin’ the hell out of some Bill Withers. I love Bill Withers. Hey, apparently, so does Cyril Neville, who’s suddenly standing five feet from me, also checking them out. I decide not to say anything to him, even though he’s an amazing musician who’s done some amazing stuff, most recently touring with Galactic and burning down The Brooklyn Bowl after The Saints won the Super Bowl. Another woman walks up and starts singing Aretha Franklin‘s “Chain of Fools” and is fantastic. This is gonna be a good week.
Go hang with my host for a few moments before I head over the House of Blues, he’s an old friend through social justice work and is a good dude trying to good work in a city that needs it. Off to HOB!
This show had all the makings of an epic, but some things worried me – like why call it a “Treme House Party” when people can go see Kermit Ruffins playing in the Treme tomorrow night? It’s Jazz Fest. My guess is that lineup doesn’t need to piggy back off the show, even if it is popular. Great opening act, singer and a guitarist accompanying. Great voice, insane Mariah Carey-like upper range. But the main event was a disappointment, for a few reasons:
1) The curtain opened and we were watching a ‘Treme House Party’. The stage was set with couches, chairs, a bar, and random non musicians hangin’ out, having drinks. Weird. The House of Blues brings you a fake version of something that exists for real a couple miles away tomorrow.
2) I had hoped there would be some real interaction between the guests, with each other, with Kermit. But the show was a lot more of Kermit plays one song, special guest X leads The Barbeque Swingers for a few numbers, maybe Kermit joins on one, then special guest X leaves. LAME. Don’t get me wrong, this wasn’t actually lame, the musicianship was fantastic, but the vibe was off, and Kermit having a drink on stage, trumpet in hand, while someone else leads his band and doesn’t get in on it? Weird stuff.
3) Because of 1 and 2, things were low energy for the first half, which is a shame b/c Walter Wolfman Washington and Dr. Michael White were great. But Henry Butler really kicked things up a notch with his cover of “Mustang Sally.” Then Trombone Shorty’s mini set was also great and he brought his brother James Andrews out to do “Skokie” and “Oop Oop A Doo.”
4) I’m sure Treme is awesome. I can’t wait to see the series, actually. And I very much dig John Boutte, the guy who wrote the song that became the theme. Still, it sounds a lot like the beginning to “Do Whatcha Wanna“, and I got very excited the four times I heard it this weekend, only to be disappointed. My guess is musicians in NOLA will be as tired of that song as they are of “The Saints” very soon.
I know folks say that bad sex and pizza, even when they’re bad, are pretty good. But whoever said those things must clearly not know good pizza and good sex, because pretty good doesn’t freaking cut it when it could be mind blowing. While pretty good, and probably great for folks who didn’t know they could expect more, this show was probably the disappointment of the weekend. It could have been one of those crazy moments of synergy when brilliant musicians make something happen, but instead it was a weird, gimmicky thing that was more like an all-star review than the party I had hoped for.
Next up, I stopped by the Jam Session at Irvin Mayfield’s new place, called a “head cutting session.” For y’all don’t know, cutting heads is not just jamming, but is actually competitive combat. Kinda how a poetry slam is to spoken word and performance poetry. So, to hear it billed like that, I was hoping for some folks spitting fiyo. What was going down there was a bunch of younger cats playing some charts together.
It was great to see them finding their feet, but again, not quite what I expected. Still, the players was solid, lotsa horn players getting their groove on to “Straight“, “No Chaser” and whatnot. Good times. Caught several songs then felt my energy start to flag a lil bit. While I was enjoying the jamming, it wasn’t worth starting the week off sleep deprived. It was too late to hit The Megalomaniac’s Ball, featuring Garage A Trois, Stanton Moore Trio, Dead Kenny G’s, Mike Dillon and Earl Harvin Duo, at The Howlin’ Wolf, so I decided to head back towards the rental car. A good but not great start to the week, was starting to feel a little bummed. Thing is, some of the best shows I’ve seen at Fest have been the night before, so expectations were great and not met.
So…it’s 2am and I’m driving down Elysian Fields and about to turn onto my friend’s street…when I hear a brass band. I immediately park. Last year there were brass band battles on Frenchman, a block away. I head towards Frenchman and sure enough there are two small groups going at it, with a frenzied group of dancers between them. More and more players join up, including Clarence ‘Trixzey’ Slaughter, formerly of Trombone Shorty’s band. It’s getting crazy. The crowd is getting larger. For the second time today, Cyril Neville bumps into me. I decide again not to say anything. A guy shows up with a baritone (smaller version of a tuba) and another guy with weird saxophones. A shorter Latina woman is dancing like crazy. Cyril bumps into me again and I thank him for such a great Super Bowl show at The Brooklyn Bowl with Galactic.
Cyril: Aww, thank you man. You know, that night… we were Doin Work! You know?
Me: Yeah you right. And brother, you sure were.
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews has now shown up and though half the crowd is spraining eyeballs trying to notice it is him without staring, he’s unarmed and just there to watch. The band is taking it up and up. Two drunk dudes are doing their best to ruin it by stumbling into the band but thankfully not succeeding. Clarence ‘Trixzey’ Slaughter is KILLING on his horn. Hell yeah! Finally, the band busts out “Saints” for a while, then second line and it’s a wrap. Instead of bed by 2am, it’s more like 4:30am now. And while still a little disappointed about the first show, I went to sleep real happy. Seen some great musicianship and showmanship, and Jazz Fest hadn’t even restarted. This was gonna be an awesome week.
~ Article by: Russ Agdern ~