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Highlights of Jazz Fest 

Count Basin looks back on the best and weirdest moments of the 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

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Keys to the city

With his stellar playing in the clubs at night, two days in a row with The Absolute Monster Gentlemen and Dr. John on the Acura Stage, and with Bonnie Raitt on the Gentilly Stage, Jon Cleary proved he simply is the funkiest Englishman on the planet, and almost as smooth as James Bond.

Road show

Evan Christopher's Clarinet Road show celebrated National Jazz Appreciation Month (April). The band played "The King of Treme," which Christopher wrote in honor of drummer Shannon Powell, who finished the song with a very long tambourine solo. Christopher also wished him a belated happy birthday, which was earlier in April. The rest of the set ranged from Duke Ellington compositions to originals such as "Creole Wild West," which included a spoken-word interlude by Chuck Perkins in homage to the spirit of the Mardi Gras Indians and New Orleans. And though it was Christopher's set, one had to wait until the following New Orleans Jazz Orchestra set to hear him really sizzle on clarinet solos.

Chocolate city

In a fantastic set, the Carolina Chocolate Drops revealed a deep reverence for country and old-time music befitting the band's Fais Do-Do appearance with covers of Johnny Cash's "Jackson" and the traditional "Cornbread and Butter Beans," both highlighted by the soulful, classically trained vocal harmonies of Rhiannon Giddens and Dom Flemons.

Lindy conditions

Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Horns brought a pair of expert swinging, lindy-hopping dancers to dress up the modest Lagniappe Stage as Lake and the band performed their revival jazz from acclaimed album Lucky Devil. During a band break, Lake performed alongside pianist Tom McDermott for "Just a Closer Walk with Thee" and "Cupid."

Stomping grounds

On the Jazz & Heritage Stage, traditional brass band The Storyville Stompers played "The Old Rugged Cross" before the band presented its Big Easy Music Award, won several nights earlier, to band director and tuba player Woody Penouilh. As if a passing of the baton, the band brought out a roster of younger musicians to perform alongside the already stacked brass lineup. The band, now several trumpeters, saxophones and trombones deep, powered crowd-pleasing numbers like Hank Williams' "Jambalaya" and a solo-studded "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Sign of the times

Sound problems plagued rapper-turned-singer Cee Lo Green's set, with one side of the thick Congo Square Stage's crowd unable to hear well. Making the situation worse, the audience frequently chanted "turn it up," but that didn't seem to work. Apparently unaware of the sound issues, Green sang songs from his 2010 album The Lady Killer and from his Gnarls Barkley project. Late in the set, there was a reunion of his Atlanta hip-hop act Goodie Mob, who is releasing a new album soon. The crew performed hits like "Soul Food" from its eponymous debut, and World Party's banger "Get Rich To This." Although Cee Le mellowed for the all ages crowd — he left out some key words of closing number "F—k You," the sign language interpreter on stage left didn't get the memo and proceeded to flip off the crowd.

Damn the torpedoes

While his set offered FM sing-along gold such as "Free Falling" and "American Girl," Tom Petty gave hardcore fans of his gritty blues and up-tempo rock plenty to appreciate in several numbers, all highlighted by Heartbreakers guitarist Mike Campbell, who simply shredded on "Lover's Touch" (a deep track from Petty's often-overlooked 2010 album, Mojo), "Runnin' Down a Dream" and a cover of J.J. Cale's "Traveling Light."

Don't do me like that

Saying she appreciated her audience at the Gentilly Stage since, "If we weren't playing, we'd be over there watching Tom (Petty)," Canadian singer Leslie Feist performed her set with a trio of backup singers resembling escapees from a Martha Marcy May Marlene-esque cult (they are the Vermont band Mountain Man). Feist performed most of 2011's Metals, and some tracks from older albums had new arrangements more befitting the dark qualities of that album (the poppy "Mushaboom" had a moody tribal arrangement). Perhaps because the live band lacked a horn section, Feist didn't play her hit "1234" even during her encore, instead opting for an electric guitar-heavy version of the Texas Gladden spiritual "When I Was a Young Girl." Or perhaps the band was in a hurry to "go eat some shellfish," as Feist said near the end of the set.

He is experienced

Less than a year removed from a gig at The Parish at House of Blues and just a few months after performing at the White House during President Barack Obama's blues concert in honor of Black History Month, Gary Clark Jr., a twenty-something Texas native whose considerable hype has drawn comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, lived up to weighty expectations with a thrilling, skilled take on Hendrix's killer instrumental "Third Stone from the Sun," during which Clark wove in an improvised vocal jam preaching love.

Saxman

All hail Herb Hardesty, one of the few remaining alums of the J&M Studio Band whose talents helped create so many hits and classic songs for Fats Domino, Little Richard, Shirley and Lee, and so many others. His presence and fine soloing in Dr. John's sets this Jazz Fest added to the New Orleans feel in Dr. John's new songs.

Still in love with you, sorta

A cheesy call-and-response shouting of his name — set to the groove of a mediocre backing band — introduced Al Green's Congo Square set, eliciting little from the audience. Adding to an unfortunate appearance by an R&B legend who has nothing to prove, Green's voice, though capable as it moved through a medley of hits and covers, frequently hit piercingly shrill notes, detracting from such classics as "I Can't Get Next to You."

Iron & whine

Iron & Wine's Samuel Beam started his set by saying "I'm going to start with the best ones on top because I know you'll disappear in a half hour." The audience did thin out some when Bruce Springsteen started at the Acura Stage, but Beam and his band sang through his catalog for a small but captivated crowd, starting with favorites like "Naked As We Came" and "Tree By the River." He paid tribute to the recently deceased Levon Helm with a cover of The Band's "Long Black Veil," and his encore was his popular cover of The Postal Service's "Such Great Heights."

The Boss, Part I

During "Out in the Street," E Street Band guitarist Nils Lofgren tripped over a wire and went sprawling to the ground, actually falling out of the frame on the giant screens at Acura. "It's dangerous up here," Bruce Springsteen said after the song ended, and gave Lofgren a hug. A couple of songs later, Springsteen almost tripped as well. "We're used to playing in the dark. Seeing everything is completely f—king us up," he said.

The Boss, Part II

After welcoming Dr. John to the stage, Springsteen said, "We played together in Santa Monica back in the early '70s. That was in the middle of your gris-gris days, and you really scared me." The band then played a smoldering version of "Something You Got." "We can't make that groove back in New Jersey," Springsteen said. "Everybody says, 'It's too slow, it's too slow!'"

The Boss, Part III

Not a dry eye watched the band as it recalled its 2006 Jazz Fest appearance, playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" in the middle of Wrecking Ball ballad "Rocky Ground." Springsteen took a long pause while holding a sign reading "New Orleans Loves Clarence" during the closer, a jubilant "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," a tribute to the late "Big Man" Clarence Clemons.

Squatters

Anyone who remembers neo-soul singer Janelle Monae's set at the 2010 Voodoo Experience would have recognized her performance at the Gentilly Stage. Depsite the deja vu, Monae put on an energetic show replete with covers like Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" and Prince's "Take Me With U." With her The ArchAndroid track "Come Alive," her instruction for the crowd to "get low" had everyone squatting for quite a long time, prompting some audience members to complain about sore calves.

Big stars

A locals-studded Tribute to Alex Chilton featured trips through the late songwriter's excellent catalog, from The Box Tops' "Neon Rainbow" through late-career pop tracks like "Hey! Little Child," which guitarist Alex McMurray admitted was his favorite Chilton song. (He also said it reminds him of driving on Esplanade Avenue toward City Park — could Chilton's line about "a pretty little thing ... coming back from the Catholic school" be a nod to Cabrini High School.) A Neil Young-like Dave Pirner took lead on Big Star classics "Back of a Car" and "Down the Street," and the band, with solid vocals from Susan Cowsill, rocked a closing duo of that band's hits "Thirteen" and "September Gurls."

Once and only

Known for his band The Frames and acoustic duo Swell Season, and for starring in the film Once (for which he also won a Best Original Song Oscar), Irish singer/songwriter Glen Hansard was going to appear with Eddie Vedder, who canceled his Jazz Fest gig due to nerve damage. But Hansard's rousing early set on the Acura Stage turned out be a major highlight of the second weekend. He repeatedly and endearingly expressed his terror at being alone with a guitar in front of such a large crowd, but he easily won over the audience with a passionate mix of songs from all phases of his career. He had an early omen that things would work out. On the way into Jazz Fest, he stopped at a nearby coffee shop. "I saw Aaron Neville in the queue and I thought, 'It's a good f—king day,'" Hansard said.

Drum buddy

Before Hansard began his set-closing cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Drive All Night," he asked for some help from the audience. "I need a drummer and a bass player," he said. "C'mon, it's New Orleans, everybody plays." A member of the Acura Stage crew, who identified himself only as "Joe," sat down behind the drum kit that was set up for the Honey Island Swamp Band's upcoming set. Joe raised his arms triumphantly and hit the skins with John Bonham-esque authority. "Easy, you're playing the end of the song at the beginning!" Hansard said with a laugh. The pair eventually left the stage to chants of "Joe! Joe! Joe!"

Biting blues

It took guitarist Kipori "Baby Wolf" Woods 12 years to follow up his 2000 debut album with the recent Blues Gone Wild!, but his flashy chops haven't suffered at all. Woods opened the Blues Tent on Thursday with a no-nonsense big band that featured a three-piece horn section. He dedicated "That's Why I Play the Blues" to his grandfather, legendary New Orleans bass player "Luscious" Lloyd Lambert, who played with the great Guitar Slim, among many others.

Sound Cheik

Cheik Hamala Diabate plays a small wood-bodied stringed instrument known as the ngoni, which has an animal skin stretched over the body like a drum. For his set on the Jazz & Heritage Stage, Diabate switched between ngoni and acoustic guitar and ran both through a wah-wah pedal, fuzz box and other rock guitarists' gizmos. His six-piece band laid down a percussive yet hypnotic groove that was clearly connected to the North Mississippi blues of R.L. Burnside, Fred McDowell and others.

Improvisation

Cheik Hamala Diabate followed up his Jazz & Heritage Stage set with another full set on the Lagniappe Stage, and jammed with Little Freddie King during an interview with Larry Blumenfeld on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage. After the duo tackled King's "I Used to Be Down," Diabate explained that where he grew up in Africa, guitars were scarce and precious. That's how the left-handed Diabate wound up playing a right-handed guitar flipped upside down, with the bass strings toward the bottom, giving him his own unique sound.

The queen of jazz

Jazz violinist Regina Carter was awarded entrance to the MacArthur Fellows Program (aka a genius grant) to explore African music in a jazz context, and her set was one of Thursday's finest. Plenty of jazz artists have explored African music; Carter's performance established why she was worthy of the grant.

Bass camp

"You took half my voice," said Esperanza Spalding to the sound technicians. The set by the latest ambassador of jazz was plagued with technical problems and her trademark upright bass never hooked into the sound system. So Spalding played her electric bass through the entire set. As an intellectual exercise, it was fascinating hearing how different songs sounded with an electric bass. Some songs lost the authoritative baroque touch in what would otherwise be stereotypical jazz-light improvisations. Suddenly the choices Spalding made for her songs became more pronounced, and even through the sound problems listeners were left with a greater respect for Spalding's musicianship.

DiFolk music

Former Gambit columnist Alison Fensterstock guided independent singer/songwriter Ani DiFranco through a freewheeling discussion on the Music Heritage Stage. A huge and adoring crowd heard DiFranco discuss everything from her friendship with Pete Seeger to her struggle to adjust creatively to a contented life in New Orleans with her husband and 5-year-old daughter. "I've been trying to write happy songs — it's hard," DiFranco said to knowing laughter from her fans. "Getting older means renewing your muse."

Class action

The always-political DiFranco expressed respect for the fair and equitable policies of a certain New Orleans institution. "It really is a democracy," DiFranco said. "Showing up for morning meetings and playing for the students doesn't get your kid into Lusher," she said with a weary smile. The obviously local audience reacted with whoops and peals of laughter.

Multitasking

Who needs a band? Midway through their stellar set, guitar slinging duo Rodrigo y Gabriella gave their backing band C.U.B.A. a break and dazzled the audience by mingling duets with solo performances. Gabriella Quintero plays her guitar as a percussive instrument, rollicking her knuckles over the body, producing complex rhythms you'd expect of accomplished drummers.

click to enlarge Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews performs at Jazz Fest. - PHOTO BY CHERYL GERBER

The other brass band

Lafayette's talented indie rockers Brass Bed delivered a wonderfully loud and raucous set at the Lagniappe Stage on Friday. Echoes of Spoon, Pavement, Sonic Youth and 1960s-era psychedelia wafted through the air as the band worked its way through songs from its Melt White and Midnight Matinee albums.

Weedwhackers

Sam Doores & the Tumbleweeds made its Jazz Fest debut on the birthday of guitarist Riley Downing, who had several dollars pinned to his shirt, and the release date of the band's debut LP. The band kicked off with the country gospel of "I Got Found," and ripped through barn-burning ballads and shuffling country tales like "Depression Blues" (an original) and "Wrong Time to Be Right" by Alabama folk-countryman Cast King.

Hit parade

Allen Toussaint arrived on the Acura Stage in a bold black, yellow, baby blue and red jacket with purple and black pants and played a medley of hits, from "A Certain Girl" to "Working in a Coal Mine." He also resurrected Chris Kenner's "Something You Got," which Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band performed with Dr. John a week before. Guitarist Renard Poche got funky with a talk box for "Cissy Strut," and Toussaint's impressive band and backup singers took over as he made his exit during "Southern Nights."

At the helm

There were several tributes to Levon Helm, who was scheduled to perform at the festival. Bruce Hornsby & the Noisemakers paid tribute to Helm by singing "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The song is credited to Robbie Robertson, but Helm worked with him on it, and famously stopped playing it in concerts in the mid-1970s. Also paying tribute to Helm was Mavis Staples, who sang The Band's "The Weight" during her performance in the Gospel Tent.

Rock the Casbah

Desert-rocking Tuareg band Bombino, led by Niger's Omara "Bombino" Moctar, offered earthquaking, wind-whipping desert psychedelics inside the Blues Tent. The band's offbeat African pulses and non-Western electric guitar spell casting received standing ovations.

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