Jazz Fest featured six beautiful days of sun and fun at the Fair Grounds, perhaps shaded over briefly by a fast and furious downpour Friday afternoon on the second weekend. Crowds were full as Jazz Fest stretched its musical boundaries a little bit further this year.
One sad milestone, the passing of Alvin Batiste on Sunday, May 6 (See cover story), reminded us of the jazz legend's work, his family's roots in our community and the preciousness of moments when we can share music together. Batiste's family, friends and students offered moving tributes and hopeful words to commemorate his legacy.
The Fair Grounds had plenty of memorable moments to offer visitors this year. Count Basin™ looks back at some of the high and low notes.
T-Bone Burnett and band (including ringers Jim Keltner on drums and Marc Ribot on guitar) came out looking like mobster undertakers in black suits on a hot day. They played without a set list, consulting each other after each song to decide what to play next. Their last choice was a cover of Clarence Garlow's "Bon Temps Roulet." Usually a great party tune, their version was wild. Instead of the usual happy vibe, the song was dark and ominous, sinister and scary. Their take on it was a great but strange juxtaposition not only to the atmosphere at the Fair Grounds but to every other version of the song.
Despite shaky sound that plagued the Gentilly Stage throughout the Fest, Lucinda Williams' set started off great. The sound of a clear and piercing lap steel showcased front and center (an addition sadly not included on the recording on 1998's Car Wheels on a Gravel Road) on "Lake Charles" gave extra resonance to an already poignant song about traveling through Louisiana.
Williams worked through a lot of material off of Car Wheels on a Gravel Road and offered a little trip down memory lane, sharing that she spent 1967 in New Orleans and attended Fortier High School.
A plane trailing a banner reading "Joan will you marry me (heart) love Chuck" circled above the Fair Grounds as Lucinda Williams worked through her set of mostly love-gone-wrong songs, complete with some Elaine Bennis dancing at the microphone. She promptly launched into "Unsuffer me" off of her new album, which she introduced with the observation, "Sex cures a lot, right." Then she added, "This was actually inspired by Jim Morrison and Flannery O'Connor." Doesn't quite sound like a match made in heaven, but who knows. Perhaps the couple was at another stage. Good luck, Chuck and Joan.
Keys to a Successful Marriage
The Mose Allison Trio, with the ever-ready Johnny Vidacovich on drums, married country blues and jazz piano beautifully with a characteristically soft-spoken, hard-hitting set. The encore, Willie Dixon's "I Love The Life I Live," got the Jazz Tent crowd agreeing wholeheartedly.
Way Off Track
The Count didn't see it, but he heard tell of a new Jazz Fest tradition that, if nothing else, beats the infamous mudfest antics of yore. A few years ago, a group of friends started up their own Fest tradition to add some rigor to the fun -- the Jazz Fest Triathlon. The first leg is a bike ride to the fairgrounds, followed by a lap at a brisk pace around the track -- drinking a beer between rounds. After a day at the Fair Grounds, the final test is a swim across Bayou St. John. Watch for the dedicated athletes in '08.
The Planets and Havens
Richie Havens' searing guitar almost got less stage time than his meandering ruminations about the state of the nation -- although the latter were pretty interesting. Before a soaring, gentle and genuinely lovely take on "God Bless the Child," he regaled the packed Blues Tent with a monologue that touched on George Bush, the inferior quality of picks today and the suspect nature of Pluto's recently downsized astronomical status. He closed with the cryptic comment, "Please excuse the tuning. It's due to relativity."
The Sub-Saharan Stratocaster
If there are preconceived notions about what a band from the Republic of Guinea should sound like, hard rock isn't one of them. But when Ba Cissoko and his band took the Congo Square stage, the stack of Marshall amplifiers was a portent that his traditional koras would be put through nontraditional paces. The kora, a focal point of Cissoko's band, is an African instrument built from a gourd and strung with the complexity of a clipper ship's rigging. Normally, it sounds like a cross between an acoustic guitar and a sitar, but Cissoko and his bandmates treat it like the lead electric guitar at a Led Zeppelin concert. Plugged into that Marshall rig, run through any number of distortion pedals, the electrified kora rocked the Congo Square stage like Jimi Hendrix's ax just before it was put to the match. Solos were soaring, searing, screaming, punctuated by hard beats from the skins of African drums and the cheers from the crowd. Next year, maybe Ba Cissoko and Sonny Landreth can hook up for a cross-cultural jam.
We Eat Alligators for Breakfast
Jazz Fest visitors must think alligator is a staple of the local diet. The toothy, latter-day dinosaur lurks all over the Fair Grounds. It can be found wrapped up as a flaky alligator pie with a creamy, peppery sauce; or stewed with mushrooms, tomatoes, green peppers and tons of black pepper for alligator sauce piqaunte. Even the fried alligator, in a po-boy or on a plate from the same vendor, was better than any example you'll find at many local restaurants. Chewy but with a tempuralike batter, the chunks in the so-called Guil's Gator were mixed with fried onions and perfectly fried jalapenos, mellowed from cooking but still sharp. And just when you think the alligator orgy is all over and you've made it out of the Fair Grounds for the day, there's a guy with muscular, tattooed arms in a yard near the Asian Pacific CafŽ selling skewers of alligator sausage, hot and crisp off the grill.
Not to be Mist
Part of the Happy Talk Band's genius is the ever-changing, cleverly schizoid lineup and instrumentation. The folk/punk-rock band has done sweet, soft, weepy versions of singer/songwriter Luke Allen's bittersweet sketches of New Orleans life with pedal steel, stand-up bass and cello upstairs at Mimi's in the Marigny. It's also played fully electrified high-octane rock sets at the Circle Bar till the audience and the band was hoarse and ragged. The lineup at the Fair Grounds was all of the above and more, with Allen, Alex McMurray and Bailey Smith on guitars, Doug Garrison on drums, Steve Calandra on electric bass plus cello, pedal steel and organ. The rock got so intense, in fact, that in the middle of one song, the sprinklers in the paddock erupted and soaked the crowd. It took at least a song's length for Fair Grounds staff to turn them off, but the band continued while certain audience members cavorted in the spray.
Lost His Shirt, Not His Seat
The post-Katrina perspective has a strange way of asserting itself even in the midst of Jazz Fest good times. For instance, one festival goer was pointing out the highlights around the Louisiana Folklife Village to a pair of women when one of them asked her guide why her husband wasn't with them. "Al's worried someone will take the chairs," she replied. "Can you believe it? I mean, my God, we lost everything we owned in the flood, who cares about a couple of chairs?"
Something to Talk About
Longtime television journalist and 60 Minutes anchor Ed Bradley was fondly remembered from several stages and honored with his own painted likeness at the Jazz Fest legends Stonehenge-like assemblage of caricatures. Perhaps one of the more interesting dedications was Bonnie Raitt's sweet rendition of her song about gossip, "Something to Talk About."
The Fais Do-Do stage was rocking with all sorts of sounds during the first weekend, hosting everything from Bonerama's trombone funk to the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars' jam, amped up with old Klezmer friends Ben Ellman of Galactic and Jonathan Freilich on guitar. The stage raged even when the headliner didn't show up, as was the case with the Bobby Charles' set. With the allstar lineup of slide guitar wizard Sonny Landreth, Marcia Ball (who did "Jealous Kind"), Dr. John (who did "Walkin' to New Orleans") and Shannon McNally sitting in, the show rocked just fine. And host Parker James did an upbeat version of Charles' hit "See You Later, Alligator."
These go to 11 or 12, 13 ...
One of the great treats at Jazz Fest is how the contemporary brass bands seem to get bigger. Having a few extra horns never hurts, and many of the bands swell up to 12 or 13 musicians and fill the stages. There was even a guitar with one. If you didn't get enough of the New Birth on the first Saturday, you could follow Lil Rascals founder and trombonist Corey Henry over to the Rebirth's set on the Congo Square/Louisiana Heritage Stage, where the group reworked his original song to "Rebirth Got Fire." The crowd was packed to the back of the track, which made the new video screen at the stage a nice addition. Other supersized presentations that the Count caught included the Hot 8 and Soul Rebels' sets.
Going for Broke
Terence Blanchard's Jazz Tent set featured an astonishingly talented young band working through several long, beautiful elegies that they contributed to the sound-track of Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke.
Saxophonist Pharoah Sanders' Jazz Tent set ranged from more avante garde solos to bits of Coltrane's "My Favorite Things," to a playful "yeah, yeah, yeah" scat. The highlight of the set was long, dueling solos between himself and guest Terence Blanchard.
If the Jazz Tent's orange shag carpet wasn't enough to catch your eye, you should have checked out the towering bright peach-colored turban sported by Dr. Lonnie Smith. Facing the audience at the helm of his Hammond B3, the organ guru and his trio put out some mellow vibes.
Legendary arranger Wardell Quezergue has been back on the scene playing -- thanks to the efforts of the New Orleans Musicians Hurricane Relief Fund, Preservation Hall and the Ponderosa Stomp -- for the past few months, but as a bandleader, the Creole Beethoven doesn't say much onstage. So it was great to hear an assembled crowd, including legendary J&M recording studio founder Cosimo Matassa, the Dixie Cups, Irma Thomas and Sam Henry, an arranger for the Clyde Kerr Orchestra and one of Quezergue's contemporaries, reminisce about Wardell's glory days. One of the best moments in historian Ben Sandmel's interview was Quezergue himself confessing that the Mardi Gras Indians in his Seventh Ward neighborhood frightened him as a child. Also, when the Dixie Cups sang a few bars of "Iko Iko," ever the bandleader, Quezergue immediately began firmly clapping to get them on beat.
Long a Jazz Fest regular, Bonnie Raitt ended her performance with a New Orleans R&B medley. She was joined for most of the afternoon by longtime touring partner Jon Cleary on keyboards, but former bandmate Ivan Neville also sat in on the B3. Allen Toussaint's horns pushed up the final medley, and Irma Thomas split vocal duties with Raitt.
Soaking It In
Second Friday Jazz Festers who endured the monsoon were rewarded with a big, fuzzy blues and swamp pop romp from Tony Joe White. "Louisiana Rain" may have been a fitting inclusion in the set, but his "Polk Salad Annie" conclusion deserved the standing ovation it got.
What goes with a cochon de lait po-boy?
With everything from boudin to seaweed salad, the Fair Grounds has a full menu of intriguing options. Now the culinary set can find more palatable accompaniments to some dishes with the new wine and champagne offerings, Coppola in a can to be exact. For those with dietary restrictions, one T-shirt that the Count spotted offered the following help: Beer is technically vegetarian. Other more gratuitous advice was spotted on shirts reading, "The liver is evil and must be punished."
Galactic roared through a set on the Acura Stage with an interesting array of guests. Ivan Neville sat in on keyboards to sing a funky song about street life that sounded like a millennial update to the Superfly soundtrack. Also appearing on stage was saxophonist Donald Harrison, Bonerama trombonist Mark Mullins and the finale featured John Mayer, who followed with his own set on Acura.
Welcome to the Real World
Although John Mayer's lovely love interest, Jessica Simpson, was spotted backstage during his performance on Saturday, another woman seemed to monopolize his attention at the show. She was a markedly younger woman who managed to stand out from the singing and swaying crowd by brandishing a bold-lettered sign made specifically for the occasion, namely skipping her graduation to catch her favorite heart throb guitar star at Jazz Fest. Surely, it was a decision she did not regret, as Mayer, who appeared somewhat intrigued, addressed the would-be grad directly a couple of times, telling the rest of the throng about the sign and even changing the words to one of his songs to incorporate her story. For the money she saved on a cap and gown, she got a ticket to the fest and a lasting memory.
In Good Hands
Irma Thomas took the classic gospel song, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands" and made it her own during a tribute to Mahalia Jackson. Jazz Festers packed themselves in and around the otherwise airy, shady sanctuary of the Gospel Tent on Saturday to hear Irma Thomas' rendition of the timeless hymn, which included a special verse reminding the crowd "He's (also) Got the City of New Orleans in His Hands."
Donald Harrison has made an excellent tradition of bringing in his nephew Christian Scott, a 23-year-old and now Grammy-nominated trumpet player, to his Jazz Fest sets. But the extras piled up at the end of the show when Mardi Gras Indians from Harrison's Congo Nation entered the tent in magnificent white-plumed regalia. Harrison himself disappeared from the stage to don his own feathers, and the set jammed on with Headhunter co-founder and percussionist Bill Summers, Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer, Big Chief Bo Dollis and some young guests including a 14-year-old trombonist.
Please Be Seated
Some people have adopted a chivalrous approach to the quandary of how to bring a chair to Jazz Fest without becoming a land baron. One pair of folding chairs seen at the Jazz and Heritage Stage were left unattended by their owners with simple signs clipped to them reading "Feel free to sit in my chair while I'm out dancing! Happy Fest!"
No Holds Bar
Vendors will sell you a koozie with the Jazz Fest logo on it for $5, but one fest goer had his own idea for keeping his beverage cool. Army green and thick enough for heavy winter somewhere cold, a hiking sock completely swaddled his can of beer. "If you're drinking lager, all you have to do is fold the sock over the mouth of the beer and drink through it and suddenly it comes out like ale," he explained. "And if you fold it over twice the beer comes out like stout." The sock also makes a handy koozie, he said, because it comes in packs of two just in case one gets lost.
Stopped at the Border
Some of us were hoping against hope that Jazz Fest would see a visit from a taco truck -- one of those mobile vendors that have been feeding the city's suddenly surging population of Latino workers since Hurricane Katrina. Alas, there were none to be found on the streets outside the Fair Grounds, as we hoped, or parked inside by one of the stages, as we unrealistically dreamed. But the Latin American food offerings at the conventional vending booths were good nevertheless. The best among them was the tajadas, a tray of fried plantains piled with a topping of pickled cabbage, mild salsa and chunks of soft-fried, char-marked pork.
For those Fest-goers astute (or sunburned) enough to investigate, the air-conditioned interior of the grandstands offered more than mere relief from the Fair Grounds' scorching heat. Within the two buildings were several hidden attractions: stunning photo exhibits celebrating local musicians (including resplendent, watercolor-processed portraits of Fats Domino, Henry Butler and others); an information booth on the Mardi Gras Indians (replete with a magnetic, polyrhythmic drum circle); and, perhaps most moving of all, a collage of historical press clippings, some dating back to the dawn of the Civil Rights movement. Standing out from the last exhibit was a healthy dose of perspective: the obituaries of independent filmmaker Helen Hill and the Hot 8 Brass Band's Dinerral Shavers, two shining artistic lights felled by gunfire at the turn of 2007.
You could count on one hand the number of headlining tours Steely Dan's Donald Fagan and Walter Becker have undertaken since 1975, when the two moved the storied jazz/pop act to the studio, supposedly for good. But there were no apparent cobwebs as Fagan (seated on organ) and Becker (standing on guitar) took to the Acura Stage on Jazz Fest's second Sunday, cheered on by droves of shoulder-to-shoulder fans braving a sweltering late-day sun. The duo, backed by a four-piece brass section and three R&B singers, successfully replicated a number of familiar favorites, from the freeform noodling of Countdown To Ecstasy to the controlled songcraft of Gaucho. A faithful rendition of "Hey Nineteen" drew a particularly loud ovation.
The pocketful of gladiolas used to be a Morrissey signature. Taking a tip from the former Smiths frontman, Joss Stone thanked her adoring crowd with offerings from a clutch of purple flowers after a show-stopping Sunday afternoon set. The young Brit, seemingly relaxed and quite at home, pranced around the Gentilly Stage barefooted, coyly flirting with front-row fans in between wowing the audience with her adroit vocal gymnastics.
When Seafood Goes Bad
Best Jazz Fest T-shirt that we still don't understand: "If oysters were outlawed, only outlaws would have oysters."
Mind Blowing Sax
Wow. This was some music! The gentleman two chairs over described it as "listening to a Jackson Pollack painting." Saxophonists Oliver Lake, Hamiett Bluiett, Greg Osby, and James Carter started off with their usual opening march "The Hattie Wall" and then did versions of Jimi Hendrix's "Angel" and John Coltrane's bop-to-the-limit "Giant Steps." Angel was a sweet ballad that had all of them playing melodies that ran in and out of each other. But where they really got rolling was playing the theme to "Giant Steps" together, collectively improvising on Trane's famous solo with each player contributing no end to wiggles and twists on their saxophones, and then all coming back together to state the theme again. With no rhythm section, they were working without a net, but they pulled it off thrillingly.
Tonight's Special Guest
David Letterman sidekick Paul Shaffer backed up plenty of acts during the second weekend. He graced the sets of Zigaboo Modeliste's Funk Revue, Marva Wright's set, Donald Harrison's big finale in the Jazz Tent and closed down the Fest on the Jazz & Heritage Stage with Big Chief Bo Dollis and the Wild Magnolias as they finished the day with a big jam on the Meters' "Cabbage Alley."
Willie Harris probably didn't start the day thinking he would be front man for Anders Osborne's set the last Sunday on the Gentilly Stage, but that's what happened after the sound completely failed there. Harris was on stage playing cowbell when the amplifiers abruptly cut out in the middle of a song, but he kept on playing. So did Kirk Joseph on sousaphone and Tim Green on sax, playing as hard as they could to keep music coming from the stage without benefit of amps. Osborne put down his guitar and grabbed a tambourine, as did John Gros, who was sitting in on organ, but Harris seemed to be running the unplugged show for the duration of the set, dancing, jumping and generally whooping everyone up. Of course, it was difficult to make out the music at all, but even people far back in the crowd could watch the antics, which culminated with Harris taking a stage dive.
Snooks Eaglin may look frail getting on and off the stage, but if we didn't know he was blind, we'd swear he wore shades because of the white-hot, explosive glow of his pure rocking power. Spanking the hell out of his big red solid-body guitar, Eaglin lit up an incendiary version of Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City" that made us all wish we had sunglasses on.
The crowds packing the Fair Grounds during the second Saturday were pretty intense. Lines formed everywhere and even getting from one stage to another turned into something like a game of Asteroids. But one sure way to cut a swath of personal space was displayed by Big Chief Romeo and the Ninth Ward Hunters, who paraded around the Fair Grounds with the Mohawk Hunters Mardi Gras Indians. At the point of this colorful, exuberant procession of feathers, beadwork and brass music were a pair of men in charge of clearing the way. One carried a pair of club-like cow bones and was dressed in a skeleton suit with skull mask, while the other wielded an antler dipped in bloody paint, wore an outsized top hat and Halloween mask and had his legs draped in hairy-looking Spanish moss like some satyr of the bayou.
The Grounds were back to a beautiful well-manicured appearance. Churchill Downs management, however, had a lot on its mind as some Grandstand hospitality areas broadcast the Kentucky Derby on Sunday.
The surprise must-see act of the second weekend turned out to be Elder Edward Babb and his Madison Bumblebees. We caught the end of his first set of the weekend by accident on Saturday, while walking past a half-full Gospel Tent, and came back for both of Sunday's performances, which were packed after the previous day's buzz made it around the Fair Grounds. The South Carolina church group's worship music is a jumping, brassy gospel shout played with a corps of eight, nine or 11 trombones (depending on who you ask) plus cymbals and sousaphone. For the real Fest stamp of approval, even professional festival goer Beatle Bob and the ubiquitous and bizarre shredded white T-shirt man were both there, dancing in the aisles. When Elder Babb asked if we could feel the wheels of salvation turning, everyone was ready to jump on board the train. More than a few of the sanctified left the Fair Grounds wondering if the past millennium of religious art may have been wrong, and if it was in fact a trombone the angel Gabriel was playing.
On Top of Things
Like a baseball stadium full of fans trying to will a final third strike, the tightly packed crowd inside the Blues Tent began clapping in triplicate for Taj Mahal, who was running five minutes behind schedule for his Sunday afternoon, Fest-closing performance. Once the music started, the only evidence of the bluesman from the tepee's overflowing perimeters was a single, white fedora bobbing atop the dancing masses like a buoy on a wave. That, and the hundreds of unmistakable guitar refrains, of course.
Anyone with a superstitious streak knows opening an umbrella indoors is a great way to earn yourself some bad luck, but the rules for a parasol opened under the canopy of a tent are less clear. Many Economy Hall tent visitors seem intent on an exception. The muddied grass walkways between seats turned into a parasol-festooned second line as Don Vappie and the Creole Jazz Serenaders closed out the final Sunday. With energy he must have been storing up somewhere safe during the hot day, the parade leader in shorts and a T-shirt bearing a photo of himself led a train of a dozen others ranging in age from the Generation X to World War II homefront veterans. All around the tent they danced, jousting the hazy air above with parasols decorated with enough frills and lace to make a flamenco dancer jealous. It was good to see everyone get in on the act.
A Final Note
At the end of a very long and emotional day marked by the passing of unparalleled clarinetist and educator Alvin Batiste, Branford Marsalis introduced his last song, "Eternal" as "written for his wife and dedicated to Mr. Batiste." This slow, deliberate song featured his quartet's careful ensemble playing that was abstract and down-to-earth at the same time. Marsalis' alternating spiral or simple climbing and riffing saxophone brought tears to many people's eyes. It was as moving a performance as the Jazz Fest has witnessed.
In his Jazz Fest previews (Gambit Weekly, May 1), the Count misidentified a performance. Chris Burke and his New Orleans Music (pictured) played in Economy Hall on Sunday, May 6. Burke is a clarinetist who's played traditional jazz in New Orleans for more than 35 years. He was joined by a very impressive group of musicians including trumpeter Charlie Miller, Fred Lonzo on trombone, Dewey Sampson on bass, Frankie Lynn on guitar and banjo, Shannon Powell on drums and Jan Engerbretsen at the piano. The Count regrets the error.