The 42nd annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival marked several milestones. The ever bigger and more diverse array of headliners included not unusually good sets by first-time Jazz Festers Tom Jones and Cyndi Lauper. Haiti added its own irrepressible carnivalesque spirit to the festivities. And on the home front, the time has come to pass a torch. The Radiators' farewell show concluded a final closing slot on the Gentilly Stage. One can only speculate who will assume the slot, but among the New Orleanians coming into their own are rising stars like Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews, who was everywhere during the festival.
Below, Count Basin™ shares his high notes and low notes on a notably good Jazz Fest.
Happy Talk Band
Luke Allen and company shared a laugh when the Lagniappe Stage manager introduced the group as "the Happy Band," but they quickly agreed they are, indeed, a fairly jovial bunch of guys. From the rollicking opening chords of "Ash Wednesday" to the slow-burning perennial set-closer "You Are My Sunshine," Allen showed a rapt crowd what the whole "Bard of the Bywater" thing is all about.
Like father, like son
He may never fully escape the long shadow cast by his father Steve Earle — or that of his additional namesake, Townes Van Zandt — but Justin Townes Earle's set on the Fais Do-Do Stage revealed a young artist who's found a voice. He gracefully covered songs by Lightnin' Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb and dedicated his own "They Killed John Henry" to his recently departed grandfather. Earle also talked a lot between songs. "I am my father's son. I never know when to shut up," he said.
Blues with Soul
Coco Robicheaux and his eight-piece band opened their slot at the Blues Tent with a shoutout to tornado victims across the South. Steel guitarist Dave Easley channeled Duane Allman to complement lead guitarist Mike Sklar's Dickey Betts as the whole band bridged the gap between swamp blues and classic Southern rock. Soulful background vocals from Irene Sage and Dorian Rush — collectively known as The Burning Bushes — echoed the sweet sounds emanating from the Gospel Tent just across the pavement.
Those who arrived at Jazz Fest hungry for something more like breakfast than lunch had an interesting option this year thanks to Marie's Sugar Dumplings. This longtime pastry vendor by the Congo Square stage offered an excellent sweet potato turnover, with a crust as moist and rich as a brownie, a mellow, spiced filling and a sweet, melted glaze over the top.
It was a battle of the bands that could only happen in New Orleans when a traditional jazz group led by Dr. Michael White traded songs with a small orchestra led by Jean Montes (plus famed Haitian singer Emeline Michel) at the Economy Hall Tent. Playing music from multiple eras to explore the ties between Haiti and New Orleans, the musicians came together at the end in a convincing demonstration of musical and spiritual connections.
Carolina on Their Minds
The "punkgrass" Avett Brothers did not disappoint the crowd at the Gentily Stage. As much fun to watch as to hear, the Avett Brothers rowdily danced and jumped around on stage, even to the slower songs such as "The Ballad of Love and Hate." Playing a mix of old favorites and new songs, the band energy never faltered. Before returning for an encore, the band sang crowd favorite "I and Love and You."
Making its festival debut, Hurray for the Riff Raff received a standing ovation at the Lagniappe Stage after performing tracks from the country-folk outfit's Young Blood Blues and It Don't Mean I Don't Love You, as well as a few classic covers grabbing audience approval. Sam Doores riffed wild slide guitar lines, while singer Alynda Lee's whispering pipes charmed the crowd.
Billed only as Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby, the noon Congo Square Stage set also welcomed Katey Red, who emerged in a flowing white sundress, blonde hair and red heels. Nobby didn't like not having the booty-shaking audience closer to the stage and spent the rest of the set in the pit, inviting crowd members to shake it. Closing the set, Freedia strutted onstage wearing a Janelle Monae-inspired pompadour with a red ponytail/mullet, and closed with her version of "Rock Around the Clock."
Satisfaction Will be Hers
It may be too much to ask, but the first order of business for Quint Davis should be booking the Rolling Stones for Jazz Fest 2012 — less for the rock 'n' roll legends' headline power than for a proper defense of the lambasting the band took at the hands of Irma Thomas. "You never know what happens at Jazz Fest," the Soul Queen of New Orleans said in response to Allen Toussaint — "The writer!" she exclaimed — interrupting "It's Raining" during her first-Saturday Acura Stage set, a towel-waving, finger-wagging mix of the spiritual ("Look Up") and the secular ("[You Can Have My Husband But] Don't Mess With My Man"). The biggest surprise, however, came when she finished by dedicating her last song, "Time Is On My Side," to herself. "This is for me. For years I wouldn't sing this song. ... I don't care how he laughed all the way to the bank," Thomas, 70, jabbed at Mick Jagger. "Time is truly on my side."
Talking About a Revolution
Playing to a large crowd peppered with waving Haitian flags and signs at the Congo Square Stage, the politically outspoken Port-au-Prince band Boukman Eksperyans performed a breezy set of danceable pop-rock mixed with a few a cappella numbers. A pair of dancers dressed in matching outfits which they changed at least three times, periodically emerged to perform what could be described as elevated booty dancing.
A profusion of signs prohibiting street vending outside of the Fair Grounds did little to dampen the ambitions of countless bootstrap entrepreneurs this year. The stretch of Fortin Street just outside the festival's Sauvage Street entrance was a bazaar of beverages, from college students proffering Jell-O shots to folks hawking bottled water to the pre-school set staffing adorable lemonade stands. While the going rate for a Dixie cup of kid-made lemonade was 50 cents, one stand upped the ante to a dollar but also employed the farm-to-table culinary trend by adding sprigs of "garden-fresh mint" to the mix.
For some, the only thing better than ice cream on a hot day is ice cream on a hot day served by cute girls on bikes. La Divina Gelateria dispensed gourmet ice cream sandwiches from full-sized tricycles under the shade of market umbrellas.
The Threadheads have become a force in the New Orleans music community, and the presence of the group of music boosters was impossible to miss at Jazz Fest this year. Begun as a loose affiliation of music fans who met on chat room "threads" on the Jazz Fest website, the Threadheads created a nonprofit music label that has, since 2007, used members' pooled contributions to fund dozens of new albums by New Orleans artists.
Bandleader Deacon John Moore joked about his nepotistic hiring practices for his big band and New Orleans R&B crew, which features extended family members like niece Kathleen. She stole the show before Moore ran back on stage (sending his straw hat flying off his head) to sing "There Is No Greater Love" and a crowd-pleasing, groove-heavy rendition of "Deacon Blues," as if written for him.
Seated center stage at piano, John Legend led The Roots through a grooving two-hour set jumping from one classic to the next from 2010's Wake Up!, a covers collection of socially conscious soul anthems. An opening sledgehammer trio of "Hard Times," "Compared to What" and "Little Ghetto Boy" packed the Congo Square Stage. The Roots also broke out jams like How I Got Over's "Dear God 2.0," and the "You Got Me," featuring the powerhouse vocals of Jessica Wilson.
Although its set was infringed upon by bass vibrations emanating from John Legend & the Roots' performance at the neighboring Congo Square Stage, The Decemberists' crowded set at the Fais-Do-Do Stage went off with only a few jokes about the situation by lead singer and funny frontman Colin Meloy. He led the band through everything from 2004's "Billy Liar" (which he says is about school truancy), 2005's "The Sporting Life" (about the 1989 soccer season at a Montana YMCA) and newer tracks. The set closer "The Mariner's Revenge Song" involved a request for the audience, at one point of the song, to scream as if being swallowed by a whale. Meloy also implored, "You're a musical people. Please sing louder."
Linens and Things
The underwear started flying about seven to eight songs into Tom Jones' set, when he started singing "Delilah." Jones smiled and nodded when he caught a glimpse of the first pair to land near him. The flurry was strongest during that tune and almost as heavy later when he sang "It's Not Unusual." Even past the age of 70, he's as suave and cocky as ever, and his signature deep voice is no worse for the wear. He sang some of his old hits (unfortunately not "What's New, Pussycat?" or "She's a Lady"), some blues, some country tunes ("Green Green Grass of Home") and then a few surprises. Perhaps "St. James Infirmary" wasn't a stretch for the Welshman, and Prince's "Kiss" was to be expected, but you know Jones is comfortable in his skin when he offers "Hey Pocky Way" as an encore, and not only that but tells a New Orleans audience what part it's to sing.
Walker This Way
Duck-walking like Chuck Berry in an immaculate zoot suit with red pinstripes — not to mention the wildest hairdo of Jazz Fest 2011 — 74-year-old Robert "Bilbo" Walker cut a truly arresting figure in the Blues Tent. He took the crowd on a journey from Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee" up to Chicago for J.B. Lenoir's "Mama Talk to Your Daughter," with a side trip to Texas for a slow-burning version of Freddie King's "Hideaway."
Bounce & Beyonce
5th Ward Weebie assembled a full live band (dubbed the Big Easy Bounce Band) for a high energy, fully fleshed-out bounce party. Weebie was later joined by Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and Ms. Tee before Partners-N-Crime held down a set backed by the band, which also threw in second-line rhythms and brass band swagger. Weebie, a former hip-hop dancer, later demonstrated some of his dance moves at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. Weebie also discussed the origins of bounce, linking the street music of second lines and brass bands with bounce, and said Beyonce stole bounce's "swag."
Shrine After Shrine
The return of Bon Jovi heralded the reincarnation of the Sacred Shrine of Jon Bon Jovi, first assembled to mark his 2009 Fair Grounds appearance. This year, the colorful dedication was joined by the new "Girls Just Want to Have Fun Shrine" just across Maurepas Street. This display, lauding Cyndi Lauper's Jazz Fest appearance, was a more modest affair of posterboard, feather boas, garters and beads.
The '80s may be back all over the country, but nowhere more so than the Lagniappe Stage when new wave flashbacks The Help played on Thursday. Lead singer Barbara Menendez-Ganucheau — who fronted New Orleans sensations The Cold throughout the early '80s — earned a sizable ovation for her micro-skirt and long blonde hair before the band played a note.
An adoring crowd took in Lucinda Williams' set featuring fresh songs from her new Blessed album with a generous helping of shoulda-been-hits from her entire catalogue. She surprised the crowd with a cover of Fats Domino's 1954 hit "I Lived My Life." A rousing version of Williams' "Joy" segued into an unmistakable New Orleans beat for a set-closing "Get Right with God."
A broken button on his accordion couldn't put a dent in zydeco kingpin Cedric Watson's momentum on the Fais Do-Do Stage. "Man, this thing is big," he said of the borrowed squeezebox he used to lead his Creole Cowboys through a spirited set, highlighted by signature tunes like "Cochon de Lait."
Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures still get some mention at Jazz Fest, and Paul Sanchez offered his solo guitar song "Where Are the Bodies?" — from the musical Nine Lives, which Sanchez and writer Colman deKay adapted from the book by the same name by Dan Baum. The tune references Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard awaiting the arrival of Katrina victims at a temporary morgue established during the earliest days of disaster recovery. Sanchez performed it at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, where he, deKay and Baum were being interviewed about the work. The interview ended on a happier note when Nine Lives collaborators Debbie Davis and Arsene DeLay joined Sanchez to sing "Rebuild Renew" with all the jubilation of a three-person gospel choir.
Lots of people have gotten married at Jazz Fest, and many have proposed. But Christian Scott may be the first musician to bring his beloved onstage for a public proposal — just after he played he dedicated the lovely ballad "Isadora" to her. He got down on one knee, popped the question, and judging by their embrace afterward we can assume she said yes.
On the postcard-perfect Thursday, Wilco reveled in the 78-degree weather. Often-cantankerous frontman Jeff Tweedy had on his Jack Black outfit — Ray-Ban Wayfarers framing a scruffy round face — and a sense of humor to match, flirting with a girl in the front row ("She winked at me! That's never happened") and claiming to have posed for the festival's second-lining logo ("That's actually us — those are our silhouettes"). The Chicago band ceded to guitarist Nels Cline's sublime three-minute monologue on "Impossible Germany," the rare revving on 2007's subdued Sky Blue Sky. But it leaned most often on 2002 masterwork Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, performing no less than half the album: "Heavy Metal Drummer" closed out a three-song encore, and the 90-minute set crested with "Jesus, Etc.," its dusky refrain "Each one is a setting sun" foreshadowing a gorgeous Fair Grounds sunset.
Even if you missed Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue, there were plenty of opportunities to hear Troy Andrews. Andrews appeared with the Midnite Disturbers, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Neville Brothers and with Glen David Andrews in both the Blues and Gospel tents. He played a song with Kid Rock and dueled with Jeff Beck on the Acura Stage, where, as one WWOZ DJ put it afterwards, Andrews took his trombone and "wrestled him to a draw."
Before his set started in the Blues Tent, Glen David Andrews worked the crowd, going up and down the aisles like a politician. As soon as he hit the stage, Andrews held the crowd in the palm of his hand and didn't let go for the duration of his set. Cheers erupted as he introduced guests Amanda Shaw, Paul Sanchez and Marcia Ball. They powered through stirring renditions of "I Walk on Gilded Splinters," "Should I Stay or Should I Go" and his unreleased jam "Rockstar (Like Mike)." Then Andrews got the crowd standing and — in what may be a Blues Tent first — crowd-surfed some 20 rows into the audience. The real treat, though, was at the end when he introduced Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews and they played another version of "Rockstar (Like Mike)."
The Full Booker
The James Booker Tribute in the Blues Tent featured Josh Paxton, Tom McDermott, Joe Krown and Tom Worrell brilliantly showing the wide range and facets of Booker's playing. But many in the audience were wondering if they would get a "Booker moment" — in which the piano falls over or something crazy happens and the spirit of James Booker asserts itself. They didn't have to wait long. The final pianist, David Reis, came on and started complaining about the sound onstage for long enough to compel many in the tent to head for the exits — just like some Booker performances gone awry emptied the Maple Leaf Bar.
Shocked and All
At the Fais Do-Do Stage, Michelle Shocked shared hilarious stories of her misspent youth to commemorate the 25th anniversary of her debut Texas Campfire Tapes album. Joined by Paul Sanchez and Charles "Washboard Chaz" Leary, the three traded verses on "Can't Take My Joy" before she called her boyfriend on her cell phone so the crowd could shout a big "hello" to close the set.
Here Come the Girls
Who would have guessed Cyndi Lauper's "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" would become the unofficial anthem of Jazz Fest 2011? The Original Pinettes Brass Band delivered a joyous version of the tune over the course of a strong early-afternoon set on the Jazz and Heritage stage. But they merely warmed the crowd for the Arcade-Fire-with-Cyndi-Lauper version presented at the end of the day.
Harmonica-playing singer Andy J. Forest brought a tight three-piece backing band to the Blues Tent to serve up choice licks inspired by Little Walter and both Sonny Boy Williamsons, I and II. The band even pulled off some accordion-free zydeco with Forest donning a washboard and deftly substituting harmonica for squeezebox.
David Torkanowsky's Fleur Debris included first time sets in the WWOZ Jazz Tent for former Meters bassist George Porter Jr. and drummer Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste. And pianist Torkanowsky wanted to be prepared for any musical explosions or fireworks, so he brought along Professor Longhair's original Civil Defense Helmet to protect himself.
Baton Rouge's answer to Blondie woke up a sparse first-set crowd at the Acura Stage with big melodies and an unmistakably '80s new-wave vibe. We Landed on the Moon's lead singer Melissa Eccles didn't even try to hide her sincere pleasure at "opening" for Arcade Fire, no matter how many hours distant the Canadian band's set may have been.
With her honeyed voice and memorable songs, it's hard to believe Breaux Bridge, La.'s Yvette Landry started playing country music only two years ago — something she revealed in an interview at the Allison Miner Heritage Stage. Landry recalled how she couldn't believe it when someone gave her money after her much earlier first gig playing bass with a Cajun band. "You mean they give you money to do this?" she exclaimed.
Insane Clown Posse
To exit Jazz Fest is to be courted by amateur street performers and entrepreneurs. Children play trumpets and man lemonade stands, folks hawk beer and water out of coolers and drunken left-footed dancers abound. Pedestrians exiting at Mystery Street were treated to a singular, unsolicited festival encore: Leslie, Gary and Les, the "Krewe of Mystery" clowns whose balcony karaoke carried as much enthusiasm and spectacle as any 2011 roster artist. The trio of pro-bono Bozos — outfitted in what looked to be patchwork polka-dotted shower curtains and lemon, lime and cherry sno-ball wigs — lip-synced standards like "Rock This Town" replete with wild gestures and dance moves and gonzo facial expressions. The average time a passerby is subjugated to this aural assault is 20 seconds, a kind of slow-motion ice-cream-truck drive-by — without ice cream. Stopping briefly, a minor horror set in: 1509 Mystery St. doesn't quit when the Doppler effect fades away. They rock this town around the clock, night after night, over and over and over again.
A Sno-Ball's Chance
Plum Street Sno-Balls was on hand serving its refreshing treats — and catering toward an unfamiliar audience. "That's ice cream flavor, right?" a server warily asked a customer when she requested an ice cream.
It's hard to imagine the look on Terence Blanchard's face when he learned he would be opening up for Kenny G in the WWOZ Jazz Tent. But come festival time, he had better things to think about. He brought his soon to be 14-year-old daughter Sidney Bechet Blanchard up to play piano subtly and beautifully in a duet from one of the ballads from A Tale of God's Will.
Blinded by the Light
Though the large crowd waiting in the hot sun for Willie Nelson seemed a little impatient at first, '70s outlaw-country throwback Jamey Johnson eventually won them over with the astute observations in his songs and a baritone drawl that virtually drips authenticity. Johnson surprised the crowd not only by nailing jazz standard "Moonlight in Vermont," but by bringing out the Blind Boys of Alabama for a stirring version of Hank Williams' "I Saw the Light."
That's So Unusual
The biggest moment in Arcade Fire's set came during the encore, when the band started playing "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and Cyndi Lauper came on stage to sing. She stuck around to duet on the '80s-pop-esque "Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)" with band member Regine Chassagne, with Lauper playing the dulcimer with a shot glass. The band closed with the triumphant "Wake Up," but leading up to the encore was a gratifying set, culminating with the songs "Month of May" and Funeral favorites "Neighborhood No. 3 (Power Out)" and "Rebellion (Lies)."
That's a Stretch
The rule for Jazz Fest fashion seems to prioritize function over form, and it can be very hot out there. Ill-fitting Hawaiian shirts are one thing, but onesies and faux pas like sneakers and black socks (or worse, sandals and black socks), and bathing suits worn as outerwear are over the second-line. Props to those who managed to dress comfortably and fashionably: maxi dresses, seersucker shirts, broad straw hats and oversized sunglasses were wardrobe staples of this set.
Replacing Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs for a mid-set break was the group's junior squad, The Upset, composed of tween and teen horn players and singers jamming through a New Orleans-twist on Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." Allen later returned, without a shirt, and gave the crowd his phone number (504-799-8147, also the title of his upcoming album), then crowd-surfed. He probably has more than one phone.
In a New York Minute
Between arriving 15 minutes late and finishing 15 minutes early, New York post-garage millennial rockers The Strokes barreled through hits from the band's four-album, decade-long career. Following an opening trio of hits (2011 Angles tracks "Gratisfaction" and "Under Cover of Darkness" and Is This It standout "The Modern Age"), singer Julian Casablancas snapped at the band to keep playing otherwise he'd just ramble — which he did, a few times, with an oblique compliment to New Orleans: "I stopped listening to jazz in the '40s." Squeezed against the barriers, super-anxious fans all wore disappointed looks when the band bolted from the stage after closing number "Take It Or Leave It." Many waited for an encore that never came.
On the Fais Do-Do Stage, the Lost Bayou Ramblers played a spirited set of contemporary Cajun music. At the end of the set, bassist Alan LaFleur launched his upright bass into the crowd for some unmanned crowd surfing.
The Treme Brass Band drew a packed crowd to the Economy Hall Tent, so much so the stage manager had to instruct the crowd twice about appropriate Jazz Fest behavior. "Please keep the aisles clear," he said before introducing the band. "This is the Economy Hall Tent and second lining isn't optional, it's mandatory."
Ending on a High Note
At 81 years old, Sonny Rollins shows no sign of slowing down. He opened his set with a 25-minute song, in which he continually returned to and elaborated on a phrase, and he maintained his beautiful tone throughout the set. Draped in a flowing black shirt and with his silver hair escaping a hat pulled low, he ambled about the stage, often holding and playing his saxophone with one hand while vigorously swinging the other fist with the tune. And though he finished an inspired set visibly breathing deeply, a long standing ovation compelled him to offer an encore.