Count Basin™ remembers an era when the banjo was the stringed instrument of choice in local music, but the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival found plenty of room for the guitar, and festival crowds seemed quite pleased. Headliners and guitar slingers included Bruce Springsteen, the Foo Fighters, the Beach Boys, The Eagles, Zac Brown Band, Glen Hansard, Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Steve Earle, Cheik Hamala Diabate and many others. But there was no shortage of trumpets, trombones and tambourines or any genre of Louisiana music, from Mardi Gras Indian chants to Bounce acts. So let me recount a grand year at the Fair Grounds.
Based solely on the hard-driving roadhouse blues of Henry Gray and the Cats, you wouldn't suspect that Gray performed at the very first Jazz Fest 43 years ago. Early sound issues were resolved at the Blues Tent's opening set for 2012, with Gray's four-piece band rocking their way through classics like Lonnie Johnson's "I Got the Blues So Bad."
Opening with "I-10 Westbound Blues" — about temporarily leaving Louisiana for Texas — Kim Carson and her crack band, featuring lead guitarist Ron Hotstream, transformed the afternoon Lagniappe Stage into a rowdy honky tonk. Mid-set the emphasis turned to the country archetypes of Carson's Classic Twang with songs like Loretta Lynn's "You're Lookin' at Country."
Ragtime piano master Butch Thompson celebrated the life and work of his hero, Jelly Roll Morton, with a professorial presentation of the New Orleans jazz pioneer's music. Prior to each song, Thompson walked to the mic and delivered a few notes of historical context. Before tackling "Jelly Roll Blues" — the first published jazz composition in history — Thompson spoke of the women Morton loved best in his life and how they inspired the classic tune.
After opening with "Get Miles," the first song from its classic debut album Bring it On, British indie rockers Gomez went on to explain, "It's weird playing New Orleans during the day." The band's three singer/songwriters' attack peaked with a brilliant cover of Junior Kimbrough's "Meet Me in the City." After the song, then band waited to see if their version of the North Mississippi blues classic went over with the Jazz Fest crowd. It did.
Bon Iver's front man Justin Vernon conceived its debut record For Emma, Forever Ago in an isolated cabin and it's characterized by eerie, restrained parts. But the band's set was certainly not quiet. Its self-titled follow-up has a fuller sound with to an expanded band, and the band, which included horns, violin and two drum kits, had an amplified Jazz Fest set befitting a stadium show. The band frequently built up to big moments and then broke down into noisy extended jams, especially on "Beth/Rest" which was heavy on 1980s sax and Vernon's vocal processor. The set included stand-outs from the latest release including "Perth," "Holocene" and "Calgary" plus cuts from the debut album, and "Skinny Love" prompted an audience sing-along.
Did you know John Stamos is president of the Beach Boys fan club? The Full House heartthrob said so in his introduction to the Beach Boys, whom he called "part of our country's musical DNA" and "representative of America at time when the world wanted to be American." Stamos has performed with the band since the 1980s and appeared in the video for "Kokomo." At the Acura Stage, he played drums and guitar.
Featuring a new, still-in-progress lineup, Empress Hotel opened to a large crowd at the Acura Stage. Singer-songwriter Julie Odell, formerly of folk outfit Giant Cloud, accompanied vocalist Micah McKee, dueting on sunny, power-pop and neo-soul tracks from the group's brief but expressive catalog. "Bells Ring" evoked 1970s AM vocal pop, while "Search Lights" offered a brooding dose of soul — McKee said it was his shout out to Al Green.