Not that there weren't some surprises and "coup" bookings, but really, this was simply about getting another New Orleans cultural institution back up on its feet and showing off the best our city has to offer the world. And I, Count Basin (sm), the world's foremost authority on all things Fest, was there to chronicle -- and listen, and eat, and drink -- the Festivities. Herewith is a look back at a Jazz Fest for the ages. All ages.
Bruce Springsteen's epic, heartfelt performance to close out the first weekend was one that will long be remembered. In a nearly two-hour performance featuring material from his new CD, We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions, Springsteen encapsulated the resiliency, anger and determination of hurricane victims like no other performer. When he wasn't keeping the crowd dancing with up-tempo favorites like "Open All Night" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," the Boss sang to and for New Orleans, illuminating every poignant nuance in the lyrics of folk classics like "O Mary Don't You Weep," "We Shall Overcome," "Jacob's Ladder" and "Eyes on the Prize."
Midway through his set, he took a pointed jab at President George W. Bush's response to the hurricane, dedicating "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live" to "President Bystander." The set's watershed moment came when he dedicated "My City of Ruins" -- a song he originally wrote for Asbury Park -- to New Orleans. A hush fell over the crowd as Springsteen sang the second verse:
"Now there's tears on the pillow
Darlin' where we slept
And you took my heart when you left
Without your sweet kiss,
My soul is lost, my friend
Tell me, how do I begin again?
My city's in ruins."
By the end of the song, Springsteen transformed the song from a wake to a call to action, imploring the crowd to "C'mon, rise up!" When he delivered a hymn-like version of "When the Saints Go Marching In" as his final encore, he accomplished what no local or national politician has done since the hurricanes: He provided a message of comfort, hope and inspiration to a state hungry for it.
U2 guitarist The Edge was an early supporter of Louisiana musicians affected by Katrina, lending his time and money to the Music Rising benefit project. At Jazz Fest, he showed that his devotion to the cause wasn't a one-off gesture. The Edge was everywhere throughout the first weekend of Jazz Fest. First, he attended a Grammy Awards-sponsored event on Thursday, then spent part of Saturday at the Fair Grounds dancing and taking pictures during Snooks Eaglin's set. Later that night, he sat in unannounced with New Orleans harmonica wizard Jumpin' Johnny Sansone at Liuzza's by the Track, then capped the weekend on Sunday by sitting in with the Dave Matthews Band. Matthews, meanwhile, donated $1.5 million to Habitat for Humanity's Musicians Village currently under construction in the Crescent City. And finally, Elvis Costello sat in with Allen Toussaint and performed songs from the duo's upcoming June release, The River in Reverse, which should help keep New Orleans and Louisiana in the national spotlight this summer.
Wee Lads Got the Funk
New Orleans' Imagination Movers played a triumphant set on the main Acura Stage to a packed crowd, proving that the band's engaging children's songs are reaching parents and kids alike in wide numbers. Three of the four band members lost their houses after Katrina, but they've channeled their energy into a high-energy stage show that just landed the Movers a television production deal with Disney. And the group's Jazz Fest set was augmented by Galactic members Stanton Moore and Jeffrey Raines, parlaying kids' anthems like "Clean My Room" into funk showcases.
Gotta Serve Somebody
On the beer line next to the Acura Stage, as several dozen people waited patiently to fortify themselves for Bob Dylan's set, a man leaped out of line to chase down a friend (?) he noticed passing by. They hugged and high-fived. The first man returned to his place in line and explained, "That's my insurance adjuster."
It Ain't Me, Babe
Three middle-aged, well-fed-looking good ol' boy types spent most of Bob Dylan's set talking about a women's rally a friend of theirs had attended. "Yeah, you know, it was like a women's ... women's liberation kinda thing," says one. "Hoo! And then there's Mike standing out there, with this big sign that says, 'Iron my shirt, bitch!" says another. All three enjoy a good laugh and turn to their festival schedules. "Y'all know this Ani DiFranco?" None do. "Let's go check that out." And off they go -- to see the bisexual feminist folksinger.
Didn't the Hard Rain Fall? Right Here?
Bob Dylan, clad in white Stetson, shades and white cowboy suit, starts up 15 minutes late and plays a typically inscrutable set that varies from bizarre takes on his classics -- like the opening, keyboard-heavy version of "Maggie's Farm," which sounds as if it has been cross-pollinated with Van Halen's "Jump" -- to serious rockers like the killer mid-set version of "Highway 61 Revisited." Dylan's well known for eschewing the between-song banter, but overall points are deducted when he breezes into and out of "High Water Everywhere." The track, off of 2001's acclaimed Love and Theft release, describes a nightmarish fantasy in which dead blues greats are trapped in a catastrophic flood that devastates Mississippi and Louisiana. Considering the land on which the Acura Stage stands had only recently been submerged in toxic sludge, maybe he could say something -- anything?
Potty Mouth, Part I
Ani DiFranco broke a nail, delved into some scat poetry while she repaired said nail and sang a great vengeful love tune from her back catalog called "Untouchable Face" that had DiFranco diehards and curious newcomers all screaming passionately after she dropped the line, "F--k you for existing in the first place." Her performance that day was as righteous as her record label.
Potty Mouth, Part II
Trumpeter and New Orleans Cultural Ambassador Irvin Mayfield was overheard closing his New Orleans Jazz Orchestra set inside the Jazz Tent with some pretty fiery invective vis--vis the musical repopulation of New Orleans. "If anyone says this city doesn't have what it takes to get back on its feet -- that's bullshit!" shouted Mayfield, who lost his father to the flood. "If anyone says that New Orleans musicians are happier where they are, and they don't want to come back -- that's a hundred percent bullshit!" he continued. Walking past, two college-age guys paused to listen. One to the other: "Dude, is that the Gospel Tent?"
All Too Contemporary Art
A birdbath stopped traffic at the contemporary-crafts area thanks to a dose of contemporary history. Local ceramics artist Pat Bernard placed her birdbath at the edge of her tent and, sure enough, few people passed it by without comment. That's because the basin of the birdbath looked a lot like a flooded New Orleans neighborhood, with ceramic people stranded on the roofs of ceramic houses, ceramic telephone poles lying over ceramic cars deep underwater and more ceramic people clinging to floating twigs. The birdbath made its debut earlier this year at Barrister's Gallery in Central City as part of a group show called Katrina, You Bitch, but Jazz Fest gave it an extra degree of realism. That first windy Saturday, dust and sand were blown into the birdbath to form a film on the water not unlike the floating filth that accompanied our floodwaters. "People tell me I need to suspend a little helicopter over it, so maybe I can rig something up on a coat hanger," says Bernard.
Power of Imagination
D.L. Menard is nothing if not honest. The 74-year-old guitarist and bandleader -- who was long ago dubbed the Cajun Hank Williams by a New York music writer -- welcomed the crowd at his first Sunday set at the Fais Do Do Stage with this greeting: "I might not love you, but I sure do like you a lot." Later, an interview he gave with American Routes radio host Nick Spitzer in the horse paddock of the Lagniappe Stage is peppered with similar Cajun bon mots. When Spitzer asked him to describe his creative process for songwriting, Menard declined, cautioning, "If I started to explain it, my voice would hit a tree stump." About the lyrics to a particular song, he allows, "It's not that I forget, I just don't remember." And when asked how he fared during Hurricane Rita, which devastated his hometown of Erath in Vermillion Parish, Menard put words to the plight of many storm-stricken people these days: "The only thing holding my bones together is my imagination. Without my imagination, my bones would come apart." Then he plays a waltz from the interview stage that pulls a couple together for some slow dancing by the horse stables.
All Together Now
Since its building was devastated by floodwater, the far-flung members of the Franklin Avenue Baptist Church have been worshipping along with other congregations in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Houston. But on the first Saturday, its choir was together again -- all 70-plus singers and the band -- for its annual attempt to blow the top off the Gospel Tent with the combined voices. The choir members were in fine form and high spirits and responded like a well-tuned machine to the exhortations of the choir director as he dashed from one end of the long stage to the other. The audience responded in kind. Even the NOPD officer ushering people away from the front of the stage took a break from her work to give some hand-claps and shout-outs as instructed by the choir director and dance in place a bit -- her holster belt swaying to the rhythm.
Check Under the 'Hood
Shell Fest features hamburgers for $6, cans of Bud Light for $3 and regular unleaded gas for $2.999 a gallon, though no motorist can get at the fuel because of the crowds dancing, drinking and smoking around the gas pumps. Shell Fest isn't the work of Houston-based Shell Oil Co. -- the presenting sponsor of Jazz Fest this year -- but rather the after-party thrown by its local franchisee on Bayou St. John. People have been parking at the filling station for years on their way to Jazz Fest. Many of them wanted a beer on their way in to the Fest or two on their way out, so, naturally, a party developed. Shell Fest now has its own line of merchandise -- including shirts and beer koozies -- and many devotees set up their camp chairs by the gas pumps and dance to the DJ's frat-rock tunes where on normal days motorists would be lined up for brake-tag inspections. The DJ convenes a high-bounce contest while playing House of Pain's "Jump Around" -- a toddler wins, with an assist from dad -- and inspires a woman in a bikini top and mermaid sarong to grab a windshield squeegee as her dancing partner to the late, great Rick James' "Super Freak."
The hurricane did a number on the lush landscaping at Caf Degas, but the diminished foliage led to a new music venue on Esplanade Avenue just outside the Fair Grounds. Dubbed the Caf Degas Stage, the little outdoor perch is occupied Sunday night by gypsy jazz wiz Tony Green playing guitar as patrons eat soft-shell crabs at a caf table where trees had been. As Jazz Fest clears out in a commotion of buses, sun-burned motorists, bicycles and clattered camp chairs, Green holds the lucky bistro diners entranced with his performance while the sunset paints a pink corrugated sky behind him.
The best line of the first Friday came as the Hard Headed Hunters were finishing their set at the Jazz & Heritage Stage. The tribe was going through a spirited encore rendition of "Li'l Liza Jane" when, to finish the show, the tribe's Big Chief dropped the following couplet, "I'm the Big Chief and I got a joke / I paid for this suit with FEMA support." The entire audience burst out laughing as the chief smiled and the band ended its set.
Funky piano player and Church's Point evacuee Eddie Bo provided one of the many moments of raw emotion on the first Saturday at the Fais Do Do Stage. Bo, no stranger to hard times, was in the midst of his set. While playing Ray Charles' "Drown in My Own Tears," the band dropped out to leave Bo pounding on the piano and singing, crying, screaming plaintively the chorus, "Don't let me drown don't let me drown don't let me drown!"
Leigh "Little Queenie" Harris offered more than one poignant moment with her stirring set inside the Jazz Tent on the first Sunday. Her wild range and hard-charging falsettos instilled a fury into versions of "I Put A Spell On You" and "I Am the Walrus," backed by a stellar band. But it wasn't until she dedicated "Every Time We Say Goodbye" to her three late friends she didn't have a chance to say goodbye to post-Katrina -- Stevenson Palfi, Brian O'Neill and Barry Cowsill -- that she brought a whole other emotional dimension to a song. To top it off, her son proposed to his girlfriend several songs later.
Classy as Ever
Allen Toussaint displayed his usual poise and grace -- and tact -- during his second Sunday set on the Acura Stage. Toussaint had invited Las Vegas singer Ed Roussell to sing a tribute to King Floyd, but the guest started singing in a different key from the band. Toussaint politely stopped the band, brought back out the singer, told them to play it in B-Flat, and started the song over again. Most of the audience didn't realize that anything had gone wrong. Imagine if that had happened during Etta James' set.
At one point during her set on the first Sunday inside the Jazz Tent, Leah Chase seemed embarrassed that the audience might think she could be the inspiration behind her next rendition: "Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody's Home." Nobody from the Chase family would do such a thing! But then she recovered with a suggestion by bassist Don Vappie -- that if you are gutting your house, you are breaking up someone's home. The audience cracked up in laughter.
Best of the Yeast
The always-popular crawfish bread sold out early at the Panaroma Foods stand once again this year, as did its other offerings. The newly added shrimp bread was good, with more seafood than the crawfish bread usually packs. But the sleeper hit was the sausage and jalapeno bread, with generous portions of sliced sausage embedded in the cheesy dough. Linda Green's ya ka mein soup served at the other end of the food area is purported to be a restorative for hangovers, but one woman slinging sausage bread for Panaroma claimed her product can give it a run for its money. "Best hangover cure ever," she asserted. "And I should know, it's been my breakfast every morning I've been working out here, and every morning I've had a hangover."
The cochon de lait po-boy was another item that sold out early and often, but the other offering at the Love at First Bite stand was tasty enough to smother the disappointment of any palate denied its pork. In addition to smoking the cochon de lait, the Walker family and its crew fried thin disks of eggplant and covered it with a creamy, spicy crawfish sauce. The pork is available year-round at the family's Walker's Southern Style BBQ on Hayne Boulevard, but that eggplant is a Jazz Fest-only choice.
Leave Your Hat On
Jazz Fest means different things to different people, and to Joan Arnold, one part of what Jazz Fest means is her hat. She wore the same straw hat to Jazz Fest for 15 years, and in that time it evolved into a gallery for all the pins, buttons and ornaments attached to it -- each one meaningful in its way. Her eastern New Orleans house flooded after the levees failed, and her Jazz Fest hat was part of the "everything" that she lost. "I picked up the hat and it just fell apart," she said, recounting her first salvage trip home. "But I took it with us anyway because all the pins were still on it." And all those pins made it to Jazz Fest again this year -- albeit on a different hat -- and each one still has its own story for anyone who asks.
Location, Location, Location
The Lagniappe Stage was much reduced this year, doubling as the Alison Miner Music Heritage stage for interviews. But it proved to be a fortuitous booking for the Washboard Chaz Trio, whose second Sunday show started just before a heavy rainfall. The slate-colored clouds sweeping across the Fair Grounds also swept hundreds of people into the covered haven around the Lagniappe Stage -- so many that staff was soon obliged to seal the area off by shutting the big barn doors to the entryway. So the Washboard Chaz Trio had a more-or-less captive audience for their set as the weather washed down around them. Some people danced through the deluge, and when the sun came out before the rain had stopped falling, harmonica player Ben Maygarden intoned the universal Southern explanation for the sun shower. "Looks like the devil's beating his wife with a frying pan," he said. "And it must be a big frying pan."
Shelter From the Storm
When the sky opened up in the same storm, the Jazz Fest crowd underneath scrambled to find some kind of shelter from the rain. Haley Davis, a Mid-City resident, thought she'd found a dry oasis when she spotted a big white tent with hardly anyone underneath it. "I ran in and, of course, it was the mist tent," she said a little later, more or less dry again. "But I stayed because it was better than standing under big Louisiana rain drops."
Traditional Louisiana music reigns at the Fais Do Do Stage, but some of the traditions are newer than others. The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, for instance, have a raft of musical traditions all their own that they shared with audience members on the second Sunday. They introduced one mournful song as an example of "Jew blues," and also gave the crowd a taste of the even less well-known tradition of "Yiddish surf guitar" music. "What's next, rabbi 'n' roll?," asked a man in the crowd. But what came next was another of the Klezmers' Jazz Fest traditions -- the solo dance extravaganza by Henry "Red" Griffin, the grand marshal of the Julu Mardi Gras marching organization and a friend of the band. Wearing a "Lord of the Dance" T-shirt, Mr. Griffin did a swirling, exuberant dance at the very edge of the stage, at one point flapping his arms so furiously to the beat of the drum behind him that his hands look looked like they might come flying off. "I'm not double jointed," the writer-director-DJ said offstage when asked about it later. "It's just an optical illusion."
Visitors from around the globe comprise the Jazz Fest crowd, but one Australian relaxing at the sarong stand near Liuzza's by the Track attracted particular attention. Matilda, a 6-month-old kangaroo, was cuddled up in a purse and held in the lap of her owner, who brought her down for the weekend from an animal reserve in central Louisiana. She can grow to be 6 feet tall and 200 pounds and bound around at great speed. But on that final Sunday evening, Matilda seemed perfectly content to sit still and be pet and stroked by fascinated children leaving the festival as she munched her favorite snack: barbecue-flavored potato chips.
Inside the Grandstand, the Backstreet Cultural Museum's exhibit of local grassroots tradition features everything from the breathtaking workmanship on an old Mardi Gras Indian suit to the ubiquitous and unintentionally funny funeral T-shirts. Two on display commemorate late, great Big Chiefs Donald Harrison Sr. and Allison "Tootie" Montana. Local artisan Ashton Ramsey's collages of newspaper headlines attached to men's suits were unexpectedly powerful -- the suit looks like a Mardi Gras costume, but a closer look reveals each headline describes a new Katrina-related insult or atrocity, that the costume's wearer literally will carry on his back.
The Yonder Mountain String Band added a jam-band quality to their traditional bluegrass instrumentation, wringing lengthy explorations out of their songs. A quartet of hippies twirls blissfully in the fresh mud, and nearby a folding chair stands empty, adorned by this sign: "Please feel free to enjoy my seat while I'm off dancing -- happy feet!" The good vibes were slightly overpowering.
Spotted by the craft tents between the Jazz and Gospel Tents: the sign for official Fest vehicles on the track that runs behind the tents reads "Two Way." Underneath it, a wag with a Sharpie scrawled, "Pocky Way."
Bridging the Gap
Paul Simon liberally sprinkled his set with classics, including "Diamonds on the Soles Of Her Shoes," "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," and "Love Me Like a Rock." But it wasn't until he was joined onstage by Irma Thomas that his set kicked into high gear. It was Thomas who delivered such a soulful "Bridge Over Troubled Water" that the song's gospel undertones really came to the forefront. It will go down as one of the most emotional moments of an emotional Jazz Fest; many in the crowd wept openly.
In the Gospel Tent, without an introduction, 50 plus members of the McDonough 35 Choir filed into the bleachers with smiles on their young faces. The keyboard player, bassist and drummer took up their instruments, and choral director Veronica Downs-Dorsey took her place. They went right into it, with the announcer shouting over them a rushed introduction while parents sporting the Mac 35 colors of yellow and red immediately stood up. With vocal builds, handclaps and their youthful energy driven by Downs-Dorsey, they cooked through the first three songs. Downs-Dorsey then turned to the audience and said, "We never thought we would be back in the Gospel Tent here at the Jazz Fest. But we are glad to be back." Indeed, this was Downs-Dorsey's first trip to New Orleans from Houston, where she evacuated. She introduced the student choir leader who had returned so recently that she didn't even have her choir uniform on. As the band started, Downs-Dorsey proclaimed, "I may have scars, but I'm healed. Are you healed?" The choir then went into a joyful 10-minute version of the song, "Healed."
The second Saturday was Warren Haynes Day at the Southern Comfort Blues Stage. The "ceremonies" started with the Allman Brothers and Gov't Mule guitarslinger's solo set, which included a stunning and soulful take on Elmore James' "It Hurts Me Too." Then Haynes helped Robert Randolph & the Family Band conclude their set with the Doobie Brothers' "Jesus Is Just Alright." And then Haynes finished his day at Jazz Fest by guesting with the Radiators, the band that he hired for his wedding back in 1997. No word yet on whether he put in for overtime.
Sound problems plagued the first half the Robert Randolph & the Family Band set. While for Randolph one frustrated eye on the soundman and the other focused on the crowd is better than most, it wasn't his A game. Finally, in a gesture of frustration, Randolph flung his hat off his head while his hands remained wailing on his pedal steel guitar. This seemed to free them up as they hit their stride when Haynes came out and did a rendition of Jimi Hendrix's "Voodoo Child." They carried that energy with them through the set, and many newcomers to Randolph's music walked away with a newfound appreciation for his music.
The final day of the Fest may have been rife with cancellations, but it in no way sputtered out. Trumpeter Nicholas Payton cancelled his closing slot at the Jazz Tent due to a lip injury, but the spot was more than ably filled by the New Orleans Brass Band Allstars, which featured members of the Dirty Dozen, Hot 8, Rebirth and more onstage. Trumpeter James Andrews whipped the band and the tent into a foot-stomping stationary second line for more than an hour, ending with a resolute "When the Saints Go Marching In." We heard a lot of testimony that New Orleans music was back throughout the Fest, but somehow it meant a lot coming from this group -- the New Orleans natives who came up playing their instruments in high school bands and in the streets.
(PRODUCTION: BELOW IS ONLINE-ONLY CONTENT!)
The Krantz family of the Fair Grounds Racing Museum picked a winner with its introduction to Jazz Fest this year of andouille calas, a new version of the old Creole rice cakes from a recipe whipped up by chef Frank Brigtsen. The chef consulted on the menu for the family's new restaurant, Calas Bistro in Kenner, and its Jazz Fest booth provided a good preview of his reinterpretation of the Creole classic. Instead of the traditional sweet preparation with powdered sugar and syrup, these rice fritters were studded with sausage, well seasoned and served with an excellent green onion sauce.
Book vs. Cover Dept.
How's this for a fashion statement: 14-hole Doc Martens, cut-off black cargo shorts, resplendent foot-high green Mohawk, spotted heading into the Economy Hall Tent during Lionel Ferbos and the Palm Court Jazz Band's trad-jazz set. When we passed by a minute or two later, he was on the dance floor.
Who Stole the Soul?
Mayor C. Ray Nagin was spotted visiting behind the counter of a jewelry stand in the Congo Square craft vendors' area on the first Sunday. Afterward, Henry Osaygefo, the stand's proprietor, was asked what merited the personal audience with C-Ray. Turns out Nagin family members are longtime customers of Osaygefo's, who's sold his work in Congo Square every year since the Fest's inception, and whose stand bears four "Best Vendor" plaques. But jewelry wasn't what the confab was about. Osaygefo was sounding off about a Fest real estate decision: Apparently this year, the African altar that usually stands in Congo Square has been replaced by (white) mayoral hopeful Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu's Louisiana Rebirth hospitality area. "It's an insult to black people and an insult to Mayor Ray Nagin," Osaygefo says. "It's an insult to anyone. Congo Square isn't multicultural; it's African. The whole concept of jazz comes from black people."
During Li'l Band O' Gold's set on the Fais Do-Do stage, Warren Storm got up from behind the drums to sing the bluesy ballad "Irene" in memory of King Karl, who had performed with them at last year's Fest. Karl, who co-wrote the swamp-pop classic "This Should Go On Forever," died in December 2005.
Stranger Than Fiction
Serendipity romps through the Fair Grounds, and it visited the Book Tent Sunday morning when novelist Ace Atkins came to promote his new crime novel White Shadow. The book, which had just come out the day before, is fiction, but it is based on real events and organized crime figures from the 1950s and uses as a key character Santo Trafficante Jr. -- the reputed Florida mob boss from that era. Mr. Atkins was signing copies of this new novel under the canopy of the Book Tent when a squat man in shorts with an armful of books asked for his autograph. He introduced himself as Trafficante's son. "Most of us from those days, you know, we don't do nothing no more, but the feds are still watching us because they don't want to believe it," the man said. "That's why I live in New Orleans. This is the best place to hide out in the country. A lot of us are incognito here." He added that he had never been to Jazz Fest before -- "I'm always working for Jazz Fest," he said -- but when he heard Mr. Atkins would be there with a book about his father, he made a point to come. The novelist turned to a page in his book with Mr. Trafficante's picture, which showed a clear resemblance to the man standing before him. "I hope he likes the book," Mr. Atkins said as the other man disappeared into the Jazz Fest crowd outside the tent.
Don't Get Me Started!
The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra announced it has "single-handedly, over the past 34 years, restored popularity to the Oriental fox-trot." Between every note-perfect traditional rag -- introduced as "pieces" -- the walrus-mustached bandleader George Schmidt stands and gives a short dissertation on the song's provenance. Before "Maple Leaf Rag," with a rueful grin, Schmidt says, "Now some people attribute this song to Arthur Marshall, and some people insist it was Scott Joplin. But ... we certainly won't get into that here," as if the audience were likely to erupt into fisticuffs over this longstanding trad-jazz feud.
Damn This Traffic Jam
Ever get sick of waiting at a pedestrian crossing while a Jazz Fest staffer putts by in a golf cart? Well, so do some of the people whose jobs it is to hold you back with their orange warning flags and sharp voices out there on the track. Early on during the final day, two women were keeping a tide of people at bay for a staffer who approached the intersection only to stop short and chat with someone in another golf cart headed the opposite direction. "Look at that!," said one of the flag wavers to the other. "He's just sitting there talking. I hate that." "Me, too," said the other, as the dozens of waiting pedestrians stacked up in front of her flags. "But we'll fix him; just watch how long I make him wait to stop these people next time he wants to come through in his buggy."