The 41st New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival:
A Russ Agdern Perspective: Thursday, April 29, 2010
(The Fairgrounds Reopen, Marisa Arrives, Let’s Zydeco!)
So after a five hour sleep, I shower, get dressed, catch up with my buddy for a minute, then it’s off to the Cake Café for a croissant and up the Fairgrounds for Day 1. It’s a little overcast, the perfect kind of Fest day, not too hot and sunny. Text my folks to let em know I’m on my way. Stop to buy water from the same lady I buy water from outside the fest every year, grab my cubes (slang, term to describe Jazz Fest schedule) and tell the nice lady hanging out to remember me and not be surprised when I sweat through them and come back every day. Get my stuff searched, my ticket scanned, and wow, I’m in. HAPPY JAZZFEST!
For those who don’t know about Jazz Fest, there are three stages you always need to make time to check out: the Gospel Tent, the Jazz and Heritage Stage, and the Fais Do-Do (pronounced Fay doughdough) Stage. Just do it; make the time. Because at each of those spaces, there’s a really good chance you’ll hear someone you’ve never heard of before making incredible music.
I learned this lesson really well in 2008 and I try to stick to it, so seeing as it’s the first venue on the way in, I grab a seat in the Gospel Tent to check out the McMain High School Gospel Choir. Local high school, apparently, I know nothing about them and sit down. WOW. Amazing! Unbelievable voices, poise, energy, showmanship. Just incredible! All kinds of soloists started doing amazing things, and their band, comprised of high school musicians, was incredibly tight! Texted my wife that the choir was so good I was thinking about converting, and the Gospel tent is so good it wasn’t the first or last time I’ve made that joke.
While there, I figured out roughly how my day was going to go, then made my way over to LB and her Krewe of folks at the fairgrounds. LB is a Jazzfest vet, having been many times, and I had the pleasure of bonding with her about Jazzfest at a Big Sam show last year, so we’ve been hitting great funk shows together since then. Her Krewe had a nice spot by the Acura (main 1) stage, and I went to check out Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove. Kirk Joseph is the original sousaphone player of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and is credited by many with taking Sousaphone playing into the realm of replacing an electric bass in a funk band. This style of Sousaphone playing, taken up by others like “Tuba Phil” Frazier of the Rebirth Brass Band, has become the standard for many Brass Bands around the world, and Joseph was one of the innovators, so I wanted to see what his new band was putting down. Nice lineup, multiple horns including what looked like a baritone horn (smaller version of a regular tuba), keys, guitar, and a couple of singers. Doing a nice mix of funky stuff, flirtatious titles (don’t let me have a taste if I don’t get to have the whole thing), and stuff with a message about living together.
Speaking of tastes, it wouldn’t be Fest without the food! Went off to get my first tastes of Fest, including the Pheasant, Quail and Andouie Gumbo from Prejeans that I look forward to every year, as well as the stuffed mushrooms that are just delicious. And the nice folks at Prejeans gave me a FREE BOWL! After I stopped to take a sip, I groaned at how good the stuff is. One of the folks behind the table asked me why I stopped, I told her it tasted just like I remembered it did last year, and she handed me another bowl without waiting. Awesome! Some to share with LB’s buddies of the Superchill Krewe. Yeah you right!
Nothing else grabbed my fancy, so I decided to stay put at Acura and give Dumpstaphunk a real chance. I always kind of a weird feeling about them- I feel about musical families the way I feel about royal families- having the name doesn’t impress me, you have to bring it. Being Art Neville’s nephew and playing keys made me a little wary- I’m a huge devotee of Poppa Funk, and didn’t want to see someone up there just b/c of the name. But Ivan really brought it on keys and with some great energy on vocals as well. By the second tune, “Turn This Thing Around” which was talking about helping folks that need a hand, I was really digging the groove. In some ways, Dumpstaphunk reminded me of a mix between the tight funk of the Meters and the cosmic slop of P-Funk. Nasty grooves and a good message? Sign me up. Ivan and the whole crew were serious business, and I’m sorry I ever had a thought that he wasn’t earning it, because Ivan is a monster on them keys.
But as the crew was rampaging through “Put it in the Dumpsta” I checked the time and realized it was time to see an old friend. Walter Payton, Jazz Bassist extraordinaire, music education giant of New Orleans, father of trumpet star Nicholas Payton, and longtime stalwart of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, was playing with his group, Snap Ppeas and Gumbo File, at the Economy Hall Tent. The Economy Hall tent is one of three Jazz stages at Jazzfest, the stage representing traditional, New Orleans Jazz. I had the pleasure of making friends with Walter on my first trip to New Orleans in 1999, and always try to get out and see him at Fest. This was especially important this year as he had a stroke at the beginning of the year, so I really wanted to see him. And it was tough. The musicianship was great, he had some tremendous folks playing with him, including guitar wizard June Yamagishi (from Papa Grows Funk, among other things) and a couple great singers and dancers. But he wasn’t nearly as gregarious as previous years, one could tell he wasn’t quite recovered from the stroke and it made me quite sad. When I spoke with one of the staff of Preservation Hall about Walter on Monday, she and I both started to tear up as she talked to me about him not wanting to slow down, wanting to keep going and pushing himself a little too hard to get back. I made her promise to tell him I send my best and she did. It’s a sad thing to see good people not quite at their best. Here’s hoping for a continued speedy recovery, Walter. The music world, and really the whole world needs you better. Readers, if you’re not sure you agree, check out this great video of Walter singing the Louis Armstrong classic, “Shimmy Like My Sister Kate”
Having a bit of time to kill before Dr. Klaw, my next must see, I headed over to catch Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots over at the Congo Square stage. On the way, I got caught in some second line fun with some Mardi Gras Indians and the Paulin Brothers Brass Band. Oh yeah, if ten stages of unbelievable music isn’t enough for you, there are often Brass Bands and Mardi Gras Indians parading through the fairgrounds at random times.
So after waving around a napkin and shaking it with the Paulin Brothers Brass Band, who were just great, went off to see Sunpie. Sunpie is impressive, multi instrumentalist, great singer, and a big presence. He apparently used to play football, he’s a tall dude. He’s also all over the place, playing WWOZ’s piano night, playing with his own band, later on that weekend with the Mardi Gras Indians Orchestra, and on the awesome new Ensemble Fatien disc. I was looking forward to catching him and the Sunspots later that night at the Mid City Lanes annual Legends of Zydeco show, but wanted to catch a peek now. He didn’t disappoint, romping through Louis Jordan’s “Choo Choo Ch’boogie” and a couple others before I danced my way back to the Jazz and Heritage Stage for Dr. Klaw. Some really great accordion work, and that band is awful tight.
Alright Dr. Klaw! Dr. Klaw is one of these bands that only exists in a few places like Jazz Fest and Jam Cruise, a mutant mash up of Chapter 2, represented by Eric Krasno on guitar and some vocals, Adam Deitch on drums, and Nigel Hall on Keys and vocals, and Dumpstaphunk, represented by Nick Daniels on bass and lead vocals and Ian Neville on guitar. It was kinda weird to see a guitar based band at the Jazz and Heritage stage, but I didn’t mind it. These guys were fantastic- Nick Daniels syncing up with Adam Deitch for some sick grooves, Eric Krasno letting it out and singing it out a lil bit, and Nigel laying down some tasty stuff on the keys. Ian was good too, but seemed content to let Kras take the lead. Ivan Neville was on the side of the stage most of the set, grooving and possibly chomping at the bit to get in the mix, but didn’t end up stepping in. My personal highlight was Nick Daniels and Nigel Hall sharing vocals on a tasty as hell version of “Higher Ground” by Stevie Wonder. It’s only halfway through Day 1 at the Fairgrounds, and I already got a “best covers of 2010” list brewing in my head. The fellas headed into Nigel Hall’s “Leave Me Alone” but not being in the mood to hear that particular track, I bounded towards the track side of the Congo Square stage to get a good spot for the Soul Rebels Brass Band.
The Soul Rebels are one of New Orleans’ many great second generation Brass Band outfits. I say second generation because you have older guard groups like the Treme Brass Band, the Paulin Brothers, and then, starting with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and of course, the mighty Rebirth Brass Band, you have a second wave of brass bands that combine the traditional music with Funk, R&B, Rock, and Hip Hop to make more contemporary flavored music. The Soul Rebels have been around at least sixteen or seventeen years. I got down with their groove for a bit before chatting a little with some folks that were set up near me, including a woman who asked me if I spoke Hebrew (in Hebrew). Ah, the surprises of wearing a Hebrew letter Yankees hat to Jazz Fest. She let me know there were actually a lot of Yids and Israelis at Jazz Fest, and that I should look out for the Krewe at, what else, the Israeli flag by Acura.
Someone bumps into me and it’s KD! KD is the person that finally went to Fest in 2007 and inspired me to get off my tuchus and go there, and she’s just good people. Starting last year, she’s been “living the dream” and spending 12 days in New Orleans for Fest. We catch up, she tells me where she’s been, who she’s been seeing and how she’s doing. We both grumble at the mediocre hip hop stuff that’s entered the Soul Rebels set. I’m sorry y’all, I’m from New York and I take Hip Hop seriously, so I’m kinda tough on folks dropping random things in. Y’all wouldn’t like it if Talib Kweli picked up a saxophone and started half ass-ing “Do Whatcha Wanna” either. Glad to see KD but feeling like a different energy, we hug and part ways, and I head back to the Jazz and Heritage stage to catch 101 Runners.
MAN! What a difference! These guys are pouring it out there, goin nuts over “Shallow Water” and whipping the crowd into a frenzy. I have to say, watching people discover this stage is a favorite of mine. People don’t know what to make of the Mardi Gras Indians groups but they get into them pretty quickly with their incredibly funky grooves and their catchy call and response melodies. Perfect. Off to snag a Loretta’s Praline and get a decent spot for Elvis Costello at the Gentilly Stage. Well, I didn’t head over soon enough, because I can hear strains of a killer version of “Hey, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” wafting skyward as I approach. The lawn is packed, no good spot for me. I unfold the chair and grab a seat.
He’s performing some great stuff, and the local crowd has some real love for him as he’s been around the city post federal flood. Does a few more great tunes I don’t know (I must confess to not knowing his catalog super well) and it’s great stuff… but for some reason, my soul is not there. This is one thing that’s difficult to manage about Jazzfest- restless ears. There’s so much good stuff happening at any one moment that it’s tough to stay in one place if you’re not feeling it. So even though this was my first time seeing Elvis Costello, and even though he was great, and even though my friends reading this will probably smack me for saying this… I left Gentilly to end my day at another tent.
On my way to the main gate, I passed the Economy Hall tent, where there was a great tribute to Louis Prima happening, as part of the celebration of his 100th birthday. One of Prima’s guitar players, Bobby Lonero, was leading a great band in a set of Prima classics. Who could go wrong? Great mash up of When You’re Smiling into Oh Marie, and then, when they asked the crowd for a request, everyone yelled for Just a Gigolo. For those who don’t know, the David Lee Roth version was ripped off essentially note for note from Louis Prima’s arrangement. Don’t believe me? Check this out:
Except Roth, the nice Jewish boy, leaves off my favorite part, when Prima is saying nobody/no one in multiple languages, including Yiddish at the end. In any case, the band is doing a fantastic version of it, and while I know they’re doing a tribute, it’s putting a big smile on my face. After they finish it, the band starts into “I’m Leaving You” Prima’s last song before he went into a coma and later passed, and not in a place to be down, I head towards the Blues tent where John Popper and the gents from Blues Traveler are closing out the day. The harmonica work is great, and they launch into a great version of Sublime’s “What I Got” which is a great way to end the first day at the fairgrounds. But, as you know from the previous post, this is not the end of the action, but merely half time, as it’s only 7pm and there will be music happening until sunrise tonight!
On the long walk to my rental car, I realize this is the only day I’ll be able to hit Upperline, an insanely delicious restaurant hidden between the garden district and the Tulane campus. Not wanting to wait another year to have their insanely good Roast Duck with Garlic Port sauce, on a whim, I call to see if they have room for one. If I can get there by 8pm, there’s a small table I can sneak into for an hour. PERFECT!
The Monsters of Zydeco (nb, Mid City, y’all should really call it that next year) doesn’t start till 9ish, M’s flight lands at 10, delicious dinner, half hour of music, get M, 4 more hours of music. Done! I fly across town and, using my handy map (remember those, people? Who needs a GPS when you can read a freaking map!?!), and in 25 minutes, I go from Fairgrounds traffic to Upperline deliciousness. As I sit down and order, I notice an African American gentleman heading towards the… holy crap, it’s DIESEL! Karl Denson is playing a late show at Tipitina’s with his solo band, the Tiny Universe, and he apparently made time for one of New Orleans’ best restaurants as well. Yep, 2 out of 2 funky sax players agree, Upperline is the place to be. I tuck in to my roast duck with praline pecan yams and, MAN, I am a happy camper. Except when I look at my phone and find out that M’s flight, after first text that they were boarded and ready to go, is delayed. NO! Just so y’all know, M is my wife of 2 years, and one of the first things we’ve bonded over is Zydeco music. Since the inception of the Monsters of Zydeco show in 08, I’ve been dying for her to get to Fest in time to see this show. Sated and pleased with the meal but grumpy about the news, I make my way to Mid City Lanes.
Night Show review: Legends of Zydeco, Mid City Lanes, Thursday, 4/29.
I’ve been to the first two Monsters of Zydeco shows, and it’s pretty much all you could ask for in an all star show. Four or Five of the very best artists in a style of music, playing full hour plus sets with their bands AND everyone is sitting in with each other as well. Imagine four of your favorite rock bands getting together and doing something like that. Awesome, right? Except, this ACTUALLY happens at Rock’N’Bowl each year, unlike the all star concert in your head.
This show, as it was the last two years, is an absolute blast. When you have Buckwheat Zydeco, CJ Chenier, Sunpie Barnes, Nathan Williams of Nathan and the Zydeco Cha Chas, and old school Zydeco legend Clayton Sampy rocking out together, with zydeco and blues guitar master L’il Buck Sinegal leading the band, you know it’s gonna be a good party. Sunpie was serving as the MC of the evening and doing a great job introducing everyone. It seems that in Zydeco, there’s a lot of love to go around with all the musicians involved, and it certainly comes to the forefront on a night like this.
This year, while players were moving in and out, it was mostly Buckwheat’s band that formed a house band, with L’il Buck at the helm, and man, were they on it. The people were on it, too, as the floor filled up with swingers and two steppers the second Sampy got it started. I’ve been in Pantera and Primus mosh pits, and I can tell you it gets a little dangerous on the dance floor at Zydeco night at the Rock’N’Bowl. Sampy played some great French language old school classics and the people were really feeling it.
Next up, Nathan Williams took a turn and he mixed a little more English into the songs and things got a bit more contemporary, there was the start of the mix of classic Zydeco and R&B, with Nathan leading the band in a rousing cover of “Hey Hey Hey Hey!” Nathan also put on quite a show, getting down on his knees at the front of the stage (he came right over to me several times, which was awesome) and hopping off the stage to play in the crowd. Want some Zydeco..take a listen…
The sets were a good hour or so, and the set breaks were pretty short as they kept rotating in players. Next up was Sunpie, and I was psyched to see the man take a turn- he got a serious groove going the dance floor was a frenzy! Too bad I wasn’t getting to frenzy, thanks to the fools that delayed M’s flight… but wait, the phone’s ringing! Hooray! M’s landed, and after Sunpie’s second song ends, I sprint to the car to go get her. She hops in and we drive right back to the show as quick as possible. We missed the end of Sunpie’s set, but CJ Chenier is getting started, and man, that guy can play. But hell, they all can play. And while the other leaders/bands are coming on, everyone else stays and listens, and takes their cher out on the dance floor. M and I would bump into CJ later on the floor during Buckwheat’s set. CJ is going bananas, as is the band and the rest of the place. CJ plays a good hour, dropping Hot Tamale Baby on us, and M and I twirl around the dance floor while trying not to get elbowed or body checked by another dancing couple.
We hit the set break, grab a drink, sit by an empty bowling alley and relax for a minute. I find out that M is a complete trooper, having been up till 2 packing, gotten up at 6 and is still standing now and waiting for Buckwheat to come out. What can I say, the girl loves her some Zydeco. And Buckwheat didn’t disappoint. We were especially psyched to cheer when the introduction of Buckwheat was no longer just about his Grammy nominations, but as a Grammy Winner! Buckwheat burns immediately into “Whatcha Gonna Do?” and the place is going crazy. CJ is dancing with someone and has a huge grin on his face. Sunpie is out dancing too. It’s fantastic- everyone is dancing, smiling and having a ball. It’s Jazz Fest. As the show winds down to a close, John Blanchard, Mid City Lanes Owner, asks everyone to clear a path, and one of the bartenders does ten or so back flips in a row! Insane! As the band is packing up, Sunpie decides we haven’t gotten enough, so he gives us a little Lagniappe (something extra) by firing up his accordion and singing some more. CJ Chenier sits down at the organ to join him but for the first couple of minutes there’s no power, which Sunpie found out the hard way when he said “you got it, CJ” to give him a solo, and CJ yells (no mic, but audibly) “got what, I ain’t got nothin!” but finally the power gets back on and a washboard player jumps on stage, and they gave us another half hour of music!
Again, this is exactly what you want your All Star shows to be like- everyone doin their own thing and also doing it together. For nearly six hours. Yeah You Right!
I drove us back to our buddy’s spot, quieted the very energetic dog and helped M into bed. After considering joining LB at Tips for KDTU’s show, I decided Fest is a marathon and I have many late nights still to go, so I climbed into bed with my baby at 3am instead of going back out- though not before predicting to LB that Robert Walter would sit in with KDTU that night and asking her not to tell me about it till the next day. With my sweetie in town, and her fam due in the next day, and the alarm clock going off in 6.5 hours, Friday is going to be a fun day…