During the first Blues Tent set of the 2016 New Orleans Jazz Fest’s first day, guitarist Mason Ruffner expressed what many hardcore early arrivals were thinking: “You’ve been waiting since last year’s fest for this one.”
As much joy as Jazz Fest’s opening day generates – especially when early clouds give way to sunny skies and mostly mud-free ground – this year comes with a bittersweet undercurrent. The shocking death of Prince cast a metaphoric purple pall over Friday’s proceedings.
The Prince tributes came early and often, from the Deslondes’ dedication of the hymn "What Are They Doing in Heaven Today," to the Topcats’ cover of “Let’s Go Crazy,” to Kermit Ruffins’ stab at “Purple Rain,” to Janelle Monae's emotional celebration of his impact on her career.
This is also the first Jazz Fest since the loss of New Orleans icon Allen Toussaint and blues legend and Jazz Fest favorite B.B. King. Hanging high above the stage in the Blues Tent was a banner-sized photo of the late Toussaint sharing a moment with King.
Beneath that photo, during Friday’s second show in the Blues Tent, drummer Shannon Powell powered a tribute to the late local drum titan Smokey Johnson -- a memorial in the shadow of a memorial.
Johnson defined much of the sound of New Orleans drumming, with its syncopation, big bass, stuttering, strutting street beats, and humor. He spent decades backing Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino, and appeared on myriad classic New Orleans recordings, working with the likes of Professor Longhair, Eddie Bo and Snooks Eaglin.
Powell also epitomizes the sound and spirit of the New Orleans beat, and learned many of his tricks from Johnson. That was apparent during his treatment of the fundamentally funky “It Ain’t My Fault,” the 1964 instrumental that Johnson co-wrote with arranger Wardell Quezergue. Powell navigated the intricate pattern of kick drum strikes, hi-hat flurries and pregnant pauses with aplomb.
As he settled in behind his drum kit at the show’s outset, Powell attempted to greet the audience – but his vocal microphone was dead. He shrugged, smiled, and counted off the first song, rolling with the punches Big Easy-style.
His all-star New Orleans band consisted of bassist David Barard, guitarist Cranston Clements, keyboardist David Torkanowsky, saxophonist Roderick Paulin and trumpeter Kevin Louis. All are fluent in the various New Orleans dialects, even the unconventional ones – as when Powell introduced Johnson’s “Did You Heard What I Saw?” He relished the intentionally goofy song, as he shares Johnson’s sense of fun.
It carried over to the Fats Domino classic “I’m Walkin’” and the Jessie Hill hit “Ooh Poo Pah Doo.” During the latter, Powell demanded members of the audience stand up and move. It wasn’t hard to convince them.
Prior to Shannon’s set, Ruffner took care of business at the Blues Tent. He was a last-minute addition to the schedule, after Eric Lindell’s family-related cancelation.
Ruffner, a Texan by birth, spent many years grinding away on Bourbon Street before hitting the road. He’s now reestablishing himself in New Orleans.
Initially backed only by drummer Kerry Brown, Ruffner, in pinstripe charcoal slacks, white shirt, and black jacket, fired off a succession of lean, driving blues guitar passages. He roughed up his 1980s hit “Gypsy Blood.” “We’re in the Blues Tent, let’s sing some blues,” he said. And he did.