Fest reveals enduring vitality of New Orleans
“The young get old, the old get cold,” sang the leader of the Last Straws two weeks ago, launching the second weekend of Jazz Fest. Formed 57 years ago to play music already antique then, these vaudevillians sang that even in New Orleans, where the past isn’t gone and isn’t even past, change happens.
It was the 44th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival — my third. And for the first time, neither the Neville Brothers nor the Radiators closed on the festival’s (biggest) Acura stage. Frail Frankie Ford (74) could barely croak his 1959 hit “Sea Cruise” in a disheartening revue of local super-veterans who probably couldn’t gig elsewhere.
Yet, octogenarians Wayne Shorter, Willie Nelson and D.L. Menard and youngsters Ellis Marsalis (78), Irma Thomas (72) and Aaron Neville (also 72 and singing without his brothers) played vibrant sets. Rockers my age — Los Lobos, Patti Smith and Hall & Oates — also hit home runs.
If the wonderfully named 80-year-old blues belter Drink Small took his time to get going, so did Jazz Fest, rain-battered Thursday and Friday (May 2 and 3) before nice days on Saturday and Sunday. Unpaved areas became mud. Fans wore shrimp boots or bare feet and down jackets to dance to zydeco and Cajun at the Fais Do-Do stage, others clogged paved areas and tents so the place felt more crowded than it was.
I hit the Acura stage just once, on Sunday to see the Meter Men play “Fiyo on the Bayou” through Jazz Fest’s biggest speakers. (The Meter Men are New Orleans’ feisty 1970s funksters the Meters, Phish keyboardist Page McConnell subbing for Art Neville.) Otherwise, I went small, and saw and heard all this.
Joe Ashlar and Kyle Roussel faced off on B-3 organs early in the Jazz Tent; both won, especially on Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.” Zydeco queen Rosie Ledet noted her small stature at Fais Do-Do: “I ain’t got much, but what I got’s real nice,” smacking her butt to buttress her claim. Dee-1 rapped “It’s My Turn” at Congo Square but didn’t do quite enough to prove it.
Native American trio Pura Fe — guitar, percussion and a tiny woman playing slide guitar and singing like Bonnie Raitt if Raitt were raised on the rez with a BIG voice transplant — rocked the Blues Tent, calling for equality and tolerance. “We didn’t cross the border; the border crossed us!” Then at Blues, Glen David Andrews showed big charisma and ambition to entertain, a huge performance.
Patti Smith — the most New York artist possible? — closed out Thursday at Gentilly (second largest stage) with fierce punk rock plus a gentle Neil Young tune uncorked as their set was running short: Duration, maybe; but not on power or conviction.
Strong blues came from Spencer Bohren — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”! — and David Eagan early in the Blues Tent, elegant singer Luella dueting in Eagan’s set. Trombonist Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet, one of many superb horn bands, brought out Mardi Gras Indians and nailed the chant “Hey Pockey Way” at Congo Square, where trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and percussionist Bill Summers next led the agile Latin jazz combo Los Hombres Calientes: beats and horns, deluxe.
Another all-star crew, Astral Project, ripped up the Jazz Tent, where Nicholas Payton next arrived in an immaculate old white Rolls-Royce to play trumpet and keyboards at once — really well! — with drummer Lenny White and bassist Vicente Archer. Standards “Days of Wine and Roses” and “Frankie and Johnny” got good workouts from those three, or four — count Payton as two.
Greatest hits sets by Willie Nelson and Jimmy Cliff (Gentilly and Congo Square, respectively) drew big crowds with masterly shows. Nelson’s “Help Me Make it Through the Night” had couples slow-dancing in the mud, 20 feet from 20 portalets and 200 yards from Willie.
Homegrown Kenny Neal sang and played compelling blues early. The Fleur Debris Superband (bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste of the Meters, Payton and pianist David Torkanowski) fused jazz and funk as ably as Astral Project had on Friday. They were light and fleet compared to the heavy-duty rocking of Galactic at Gentilly and the pink-haired piano-pounding Davell Crawford with a huge band at Congo Square.
Singer-pianist-big-star Norah Jones was just one of the guys at Fais Do-Do in the Little Willies, a rootsy country band that charmed and rocked. R&B hero Frank Ocean (25!) got a great welcome in his first hometown show since his album “Channel ORANGE” went huge, and earned it. Simultaneously, pop-sters Phoenix from Paris rocked for real at Gentilly, but I headed to Los Lobos in the Blues Tent where the LA rockers charged from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” into “Dear Mr. Fantasy” to awesome effect and got a rare encore: “Not Fade Away,” Grateful Dead style.
Cajun D.L. Menard (81) said, “I’ve got a good memory, but it’s short!” at Fais Do-Do, but he remembers how to make fans waltz and two-step in the mud. Balancing the horn power of the New Birth Brass Band and James Andrews (Congo Square and the Blues Tent, respectively), the soul power of Irma Thomas shone bright simultaneously at Gentilly. Proclaiming “It’s Raining” as “the national anthem of New Orleans,” she romped through Mardi Gras chants “Iko-Iko” and “Hey Pockey Way” after mixing fast and slow soul and blues with great command and conviction.
Next up at Gentilly, Hall & Oates in their New Orleans debut managed not to let down Thomas’s big crowd, their Philly soul sounding right at home. Wayne Shorter’s muscular quartet showcased the mercurial saxophonist in the Jazz Tent before the natty New Orleans Jazz Orchestra showcased singer Dee Dee Bridgewater there.
But while Trombone Shorty closed Jazz Fest at Acura, I went to see Aaron Neville close Gentilly, singing doo-wop with a quintet featuring saxophonist brother Charles. Great songs — “Fever,” “Knock On Wood” and “Tell it Like It Is” hit beautifully — culminated to everyone’s surprise with the Mickey Mouse Club theme!
Iron Man Irvin Mayfield played with almost everybody including Glen David Andrews, Los Hombres Calientes, Aaron Fletcher and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra in just the sets I saw. Drummer Jamieson Ross got around, too; so did Corey Henry.
The food at Jazz Fest was as good as remembered, especially crawfish sausage (the crawfish is right IN the sausage!) and cochon du lait (suckling pig) po’boys (French bread sandwiches). But the cold drove many to hot food: gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp or crawfish etouffee.
Most-played songs: New Orleans classics “Ooh Poo Pah Do,” “Iko-Iko” and “Hey Pockey Way.” Several artists dedicated songs to Boston, expressing concern for a city far less battered than New Orleans, where many neighborhoods are still recovering.
For now, Jazz Fest may be the single most convincing, and fun, display of its vitality — a vast yet manageable panorama of music where authenticity and energy are prized above all and where fans who danced to obscure Cajun bands early in the day will marvel in rapt silence at the soulfulness of a big star at the end. All get equal respect, attention and awe, if they earn it — and artists at Jazz Fest work for every clap, whoop and dance step.
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.