Jazz Fest kicked off its 40th anniversary festival with a weekend full of amazing acts. At the Music Heritage Stage, Wynton Marsalis talked of the beauty of music that both young and old can dance to together. Count Basin™ couldn't help but notice that the festival crowds and performers spanned the generations and enjoyed themselves for three beautiful sunny days, from now 90-year-old folk-legend Pete Seeger, who reminisced with George Wein about the founding of the Newport Folk Festival, to the barely teenaged Baby Boyz Brass Band playing the Jazz & Heritage Stage. Below are some of the many memorable moments of the first weekend.
Spencer Bohren started his set nearly unannounced and worked with nothing more than a chair and a lap-steel guitar. Mid-City's folk/bluesman played haunting bayou blues and near-ballads — one particular to Sterno drinking — filling the Blues Tent with a powerful blend of voice and guitar.
New Orleans' sissy rapping crew, Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby — along with transgender bounce mistress Katey Red — burst onstage with 20 minutes of nonstop bounce and booty shaking provided by several women in their entourage. Some front-row viewers turned their attention to a shirtless new fan and his arrhythmic wriggling and appeared to record it for posterity on their cellphone video cameras.
MyNameIsJohnMichael managed a Bruce Springsteen-charged blast of powerpop almost too energetic for the Lagniappe Stage bandstand. The band finished with a crowd-pleasing cover of the Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" and was joined by six members of the St. Augustine Marching 100, who added layers of dense polyrhythms and locked-in beats to "Thieves" and the anthemic finale "Misery Runs."
Spoon's slinky, minimalist rock 'n' roll is best suited to dark clubs, but the band was a breath of fresh air capping Friday's mass of funk and blues. The group was joined by three members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, which wasn't always the most harmonious combination but the horns were the highlight of "The Underdog." Spoon casually worked through some crowd-pleasing hits, but the droning piano strikes on "The Ghost of You Lingers," for which the band named its latest album Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga, were lost on some listeners.
Some of the affections that can come with rock stardom include pouty looks, moody behavior and high-maintenance personalites. The Fais Do Do Stage tends to be a safe haven from all that. No one personified a sunny disposition better than fiddler Sarah Jayde, who joined her grandfather Hadley Castille and his Sharecroppers Cajun Band on the first Friday. Whether sawing through traditional numbers by Castille's side or singing "Here Comes My Cajun Baby," the song for which Hank Williams wrote lyrics but never set to music, Jayde wore a beaming smile that made clear just how much fun she was having. It proved infectious.
We're All Closeted Swingers
While breaking down beats and rhythms at the Music Heritage Stage, Wynton Marsalis made a passionate defense of New Orleans-based swing: "The defining rhythm of the United Stages is swing, but we don't embrace it," he said. "Other cultures are not hostile to their national rhythm."
Also at the Music Heritage Stage, Wynton Marsalis said he was warned about some venues and neighborhoods while exploring indigenous music in South America. "We were in Brazil, and we had a bodyguard because everyone said people will rob you and stuff. I said, 'I'm from New Orleans; It's all right.'"
The Diva Will Sing for You Now
It's not easy to categorize Erykah Badu. She can display a diva-like impetuousness — she took the stage 15 minutes late for her set but still poured herself a drink before beginning her performance — and she can mimic Billie Holiday, singing in a high lilting voice that is powerful and self assured. But as she stands at the microphone conversing with the crowd, she makes you feel like you're listening to someone you've known all your life, who just happens to be a cosmic, high priestess of funk.
Suite Sound Down South
Both in an interview on the Music Heritage Stage and in the Jazz Tent with the Lincoln Center Orchestra, Wynton Marsalis spent a lot of time talking about and conducting the music of Duke Ellington. "Duke said he found his voice with New Orleans music," Marsalis said. Ellington filled his band with New Orleanians beginning in the 1920s and never gave up on the clarinet, even when late in the 1960s critics were complaining that it gave his music an "old-timey" sound. "Clarinet is central to the sound of New Orleans music," Marsalis said, citing Ellington's defense.
Seeger Sessions, Part I
Folk legend Pete Seeger proved he's got plenty on Bruce Springsteen, including several decades. With his 90th birthday approaching, Seeger was as inspiring singing protest and union songs as Springsteen was on the Acura Stage three years earlier.
Seeger arrived in town early to record three songs at Preservation Hall. Apparently the melding of folk and traditional jazz bands went well. At the Fest on Saturday, Preservation Hall creative director and tuba player Ben Jaffe joined the band for a few songs.
Seeger's set showed the point of folk music: everyone knows the words and can sing together. He led the crowd in inspiring versions of "Turn! Turn! Turn! (to Everything There is a Season)" and "This Land Is Your Land."
Seeger Sessions, Part II
Seeger doled out high praise for Bruce Springsteen during an interview on the Music Heritage Stage Sunday morning. The two combined to play an inaugural event for President Barack Obama, after which Seeger says Obama told him that his mother had started playing Seeger's albums for him when he was 4 years old.
That would have been a decade after Seeger was hauled before the Red-scared House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He told the packed grandstands, "I told them it's America and I have the right to do what I want and I don't have to talk about it. And they told me 'That's not good enough.'"
Seeger also addressed conspiracy theories behind the meltdown at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965 when Bob Dylan went electric. Seeger said he complained at the time that the electrification was preventing him from hearing the words to "Maggie's Farm." He was told that the band wanted the amplification handled that way. Seeger said he then cut the cable.
Ingrid Lucia had one of the best playing and best looking bands at the Fair Grounds. Her music was fun and recalled an era when genre didn't matter — incorporating jazz, jump, swing and rock. With drummer Simon Lott powering the group like a combination of Earl Palmer and a steam engine, the set sounded like the productions Dave Bartholomew put together in Cosimo Matassa's studio in the 1950s.
Junk in the Funk
With its mix of New Orleans funk classics like "No More Okey Doke" and inspired originals including "Meanwhile" and "Put It in the Dumpsta!," Ivan Neville and Dumpstaphunk are taking the mantle of the family's funk legacy. Ivan, son of Aaron, and rhythm guitarist Ian Neville, son of Art, along with funk veterans Ray Weber (drums), Tony Hall (bass, guitar and vocals) and Nick Daniels (bass and vocals) will release a full-length studio album later this year. It's already one of the city's most-anticipated recordings of 2009.
Dressed in a vinyl leotard that looked like a patchwork of auto racing flags, Chris Owens put together her typical medley of far-flung numbers, singing everything from Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras" to Neil Diamond's "Red, Red Wine." Late in her set, she pointed to a gentleman in the audience and said, "You are so cute. Whose daddy are you? Would you like to be my daddy?" He did, and he (identified as Smokey from Florida) sat in a chair at center stage while she sat in his lap and sang "My Heart Belongs to Daddy."
Etta James was ensconced regally in a quasi-throne at the center of the Gentilly Stage, looking like a cross between a voodoo queen and a particularly bluesy spaceship commander from Star Trek. The 71-year-old blues contralto couldn't get up and do her signature dirty dancing, but her suggestive hand movements (some below the waist) had the camera operators who were broadcasting her performance on the big screen moving fast to keep the performance moderately family-friendly. Those in the orch-grass-tra pit in front of the Gentilly Stage got a little extra out of their Jazz Fest experience.
Lost and Confounded
Stephanie Jordan turned her set in the Jazz Tent into a bluesy tribute to Lena Horne and the hits of the Rat Pack ("Lady is a Tramp," "Come Fly With Me," "Stormy Weather" "Just One of Those Things"). Jordan told the audience her father Edward "Kidd" Jordan once played in a band backing Horne, and she was able to get an autographed photo. Her sister Rachel then took the picture to school for show-and-tell and lost it. Jordan alerted the audience it was signed "To Stephanie," in case anyone runs across it, and then she brought her sister onstage for a song.
Pity the three girls who were stopped at the entrance toting an entire case of cold beer into the Fair Grounds (completely verboten; they must've been Festal virgins). Their choice: leave the brew behind or don't come in. They finally stepped out of line to figure out the dilemma.
Working The Jazz Fest
There were many people hard at work in the crafts area in the shady center of the Fair Grounds. A flurry of cypress shavings flew from the lathes of John Hartsock and Marvin Hirsch, two woodworkers who mill replicas of the carpentry elements common on old homes. Just around the corner, Darryl Reeves had one of the hottest jobs at fest. As owner of Andrew's Welding and Blacksmith, he worked over fiercely-stoked flames while showing visitors the techniques that go into crafting the city's signature metalwork.
Clancy "Blues Boy" Lewis was one of many performers to take the stage several minutes late, but when he sat down and plugged in, he ripped through an incredibly raw, nakedly emotional performance. Accompanied solely by drummer Ben Sandmel, Lewis addressed all the basic blues themes of love, lust, desire, doom and hope for redemption, infusing the desperate ballads of the Delta with the endless boogie of the Hill Country.
Blues With Bite
Guitarist Lil' Buck Senegal cut his teeth playing early R&B and zydeco. He is featured on more than 300 recordings, backing up zydeco legends such as Clifton Chenier and Rockin' Dopsie Sr. In the Blues Tent, he took a page from Jimi Hendrix and played a guitar solo with only his teeth.
On tour at both Festival International in Lafayette and at Jazz Fest, Ilê Ayiê of Bahia Brazil showed how his country does Carnival. Similar to the samba schools, the group showcased Afro-Caribbean polyrhythmic drumming, dance and the hard, almost menacing, vocals of its leader.
Robert Cray is a no-frills bluesman who ranks alongside stars like Eric Clapton and B.B. King, and it shows when he plays. Cray first tuned and then ripped into his Stratocaster, backed by a low-key drum and bass combo and Jim Pugh's tasteful, swirling blues organ.
Appalachia's answer to the Zydepunks, North Carolina's Avett Brothers, hit the stage with an extra cello (which was sometimes plucked like a guitar). Both powerful vocalists, brothers Scott and Seth (on banjo and guitar, respectively) led a set that was part Irish barroom sing-along, part bluegrass punk rock show. The group dipped into some saccharine folk pop, but the Avetts (and double bassist Bob Crawford) were at their best when stomping on a bass drum and high-hat cymbal and bouncing around with (sometimes literally on) their instruments.
The Fest always has its share of slide guitar masters, and the first weekend was no exception with Roy Rogers and Sonny Landreth. John Mooney put the New Orleans stamp on this technique, sliding up and down the neck of his hollow body guitar. Sitting down, Mooney brought the crowd to its feet with the opening, piercing familiar notes of "Sacred Ground."
Arthur "Mr. Okra" Robertson parked his colorfully painted pickup truck by the Jazz & Heritage Stage on Saturday. He sold a variety of fruits including strawberries and oranges to Fest fans. Among his customers was Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu, who bought red grapes for staff and guests in the state's fenced-off hospitality area.
Petals to the Metal
It's hard not to stop and smell the flowers at the Lagniappe Stage in the Fair Grounds paddock area. In fact, it's hard not to step on them when audiences grow for shows like Christian Serpas & Ghost Town, but Jazz Fest monitors are quite protective of the flowerbeds. Nevertheless, Mandeville's lanky, honky-tonk-Ric Ocasek look-alike lead his band through rowdy country romps and enjoyed the "yee haws" from the nearby oyster bar. Serpas and company punctuated their set with a Black Sabbath riff.
By the time Wilco neared the end of its set, playing Woody Guthrie's "Hoodoo Voodoo," it was like we had stepped back to the mid-1970s, or maybe a Saturday Night Live/Will Ferrell version of the decade. There was a shirtless John Holmes look-alike with a bushy mustache and tight jeans running around the stage playing that staple of 1970s rock: the cowbell. A feather-haired guitarist struck indulgent rock-god guitar poses, and it was all led by a shaggy-looking front man. Wilco shows that in this new music century of gimmicks, a band can still be popular by writing good songs, touring endlessly and rocking out — the old-fashioned way.
The Pine Leaf Boys had just returned from a tour entertaining the troops in Saudi Arabia and some had the sunburns to prove it. Frontman Wilson Savoy told a story about riding a camel before launching into a traditional Cajun French song about camels. (Who knew there were traditional Cajun songs about camels?)
Me and Mrs. Jones
The Blues Tent needed its misters to cool off the crowd during Sharon Jones' hot set. The torch may literally have passed from Etta James to Jones as many in the crowd moved from James' show and finshed the daywith Jones. In front of the eight Dap-Kings, the sweat-shined Jones put on a show to remember: hunching over her mic, right hand waving and pointing, shouting echoing soul to the rafters.
In Their Element
You know it's Jazz Fest when you're walking down Esplanade Avenue, listening to a passing car play Earth, Wind and Fire's "September" — and then realizing it's not a car, but EWF themselves playing a block away.
Jazzy Festy Gras
Just outside the Sauvage Street exit to the Fair Grounds, three partygoers were on their balcony, enjoying some adult beverages, blasting tunes and throwing beads to the crowds streaming out of the racetrack ... just keeping the party going for a few more minutes. Between them and the kids who had set up in the middle of the street with their instruments and a tip bucket, playing the opening bars of "Second Line" over and over again, the party continued into the streets.