The big screen at Jazz Fest's Acura Stage was not Brian Wilson's friend. Many found his stiff gestures and befuddled expressions hard to watch. In some ways, though, seeing Wilson sing Beach Boys songs was far more affecting than it would have been if he were a younger man -- or if he would have been able to act like one.
The distance between who he is and who he was raises the theme of distance -- between Wilson and others as a function of his emotional issues, and between the parties in the songs themselves. In 'Surfer Girl,' he's singing to a woman he has watched from across the shore, not one sitting on the beach next to him. Similarly, as much as 'Wouldn't It Be Nice' sounds like a celebration of a future together, it's a tentative one. In the final verse, he sings, 'You know it seems the more we talk about it / It only makes it worse to live without it / But let's talk about it.' With a 64-year-old singing these songs, they become beautiful, bouncy odes to longing and frustration.
Wilson's set was one of the few that gained something from the artist's advanced age, and in each case, it had as much to do with infirmity as anything else. Clarence 'Gatemouth' Brown's and B.B. King's shows were dramatic because of their illnesses. Otherwise, many of the best performances of Jazz Fest were turned in by younger artists (Zap Mama, Nelly, Old Crow Medicine Show, Morning 40 Federation) or artists in their prime (Wilco, Widespread Panic, North Mississippi Allstars).
Jazz Fest is an occasion to contemplate age because booking out-of-town talent has often seemed to have a young vs. old dynamic, one made plain when Quint Davis was once asked if the then-new Black Crowes or Counting Crows shouldn't be at the Fair Grounds, and he said they should -- watching the masters. This year's talent lineup was more balanced along age lines, and though the final attendance wasn't in at press time, it seemed like a successful festival musically and financially, having drawn 400,000-450,000 people.
Still, this year's Jazz Fest and Ponderosa Stomp raise some generational issues. It's nice to think that those of us who are graying and attended these events are particularly plugged in to the musical culture, helping to carry its core values forward. No doubt, that is happening, but it's hard to shake the sense that we're also trying to deny aging, using groovy T-shirts, trucker caps, retro wear and flip-flops as our weapons. After all, rock 'n' roll is associated with youth culture and rebellion, the music and lifestyle you embrace to stave off the unpleasant realities of aging.
This year, both events brought fans face to face with mortality. Gatemouth Brown performed while battling lung cancer, and at the Ponderosa Stomp, a frail Link Wray -- his head looking like a skull wrapped in rice paper with his wispy remaining hair pulled back into a ponytail -- had to be helped to walk anywhere. Even though he still sounded like a bike gang, you had the sense this was that gang's last ride.
Film and comedy legend Rudy Ray Moore had an autograph table where he sold merchandise at the Stomp, but he nodded off behind it in rhinestone-studded sunglasses, and hardly seemed like the Dolemite that kicked suckers' asses in his movies. The Meters' reunion at Jazz Fest was a celebration because, for one night, the band was resurrected.
It's tempting to attribute Dave Bartholomew's decision to perform the classic 'The Monkey Speaks Its Mind' with a stuffed animal and follow it with 'My Ding-A-Ling' as evidence of aging. Both decisions seemed at odds with the artistry evident in his signature song. Similarly, it's hard to believe Archie Bell wedged a lengthy version of the oft-covered 'Mustang Sally' into his Ponderosa Stomp set between 'Showdown' and 'Tighten Up.' More likely, though, it's a sign of something else.
A consciousness of popular culture artifacts as art is a modern phenomenon. Many artists working in what were once thought of as lowbrow forms of entertainment have resisted thinking of their work as art. For so many musicians working before the '70s, success was measured by how full the dance floor was, and the means were less relevant than the results. At the Fais Do-Do Stage and the Economy Hall Tent, older groups play their genres' hits regardless of how hoary because they start the dancing. The Ponderosa Stomp often backs those stars with musicians young enough to appreciate their work as art and treat it as such. Putting the elder statesmen of rock and soul among younger artists at Jazz Fest ultimately serves both well. Quint Davis was right years ago -- young bands should see their forerunners -- but the influence of a Buddy Guy is easier to appreciate when Henry Garza of Los Lonely Boys shows his formidable blues chops on the same stage a week later.