Suffering a severe groin pull at the outset of Jazz Fest is a peculiar kind of purgatory. But the staff at Tulane Emergency has plenty of experience with fest-going limb injuries. Before I was wheeled out to the cab armed with a week's worth of pain control medication and a strict admonition to stay off the leg, I was assured by both the admittance physician and a nurse practitioner that I wouldn't have to miss Jazz Fest -- as long as I rode through it in a wheelchair.
Once you find somebody willing to push you around from place to place (Jazz Fest is not the place to learn how to wheel yourself), it's a pretty good way to check out the fest. The Fair Grounds is really well appointed for wheelchair access. All of the stages are accessible -- except Economy Hall and the Native American Village -- via the meandering asphalt path that circles the infield. And while the dirt track was too muddy to negotiate with a narrow-wheel chair Sunday (the all-terrain wheelchairs I saw tooling around are definitely hot machines), the main crossings have rubber matting over the dirt that allows for a smooth trip. The Grandstand has wheelchair-access elevators and rest rooms. It's probably easier taking a wheelchair to Jazz Fest than to some trendy restaurants, and a whole lot easier than climbing the stairway to heaven at Mid City Lanes. The chair is also useful for your traveling posse to drape, hang or store things on.
As the baby boomers age, we may end up seeing as many wheelchairs surrounding the Popeyes Blues Tent as those Jazz Fest folding chairs that have proliferated in recent years. Come to think of it, can Jazz Fest logo wheelchairs be far from development? -- John Swenson
Best Unplugged Set
Rain? So what? Big Chief Peppy and the Golden Arrows Mardi Gras Indians opened up the Congo Square Stage the first Sunday in full regalia for a sparse crowd of true Jazz Fest warriors. Due to safety concerns, there were no microphones or electricity. This didn't stop the Big Chief, who dedicated the set to his son, who had died tragically during the last year and whose portrait in his Navy uniform was on beautiful patches worn on the costumes of Big Chief Peppy and several of his tribe.
Best Race Against the Elements
Dr. John's Lower Nine Eleven band put in one of Mac Rebennack's better recent Jazz Fest sets. Lightning flashes seemed to prompt the band from "Right Place Wrong Time" into a hypno-funk "Soulful Warrior." The elements took an active part in the performance the first Sunday afternoon, so as Rebennack sang about putting his feet on Rampart Street in "Back to New Orleans," thick black clouds rolled across the sky in dramatic counterpoint to the band's surly rhythm. The wind picked up as the band raced through an electrically charged finale of "Big Chief" and a sultry encore of "Such a Night." As the band finished, drummer Herman Ernest exclaimed, "We beat the rain!"
Best Minimalism in Shrimp Boots
"I can't speak English," said the maestro of South Africa's Crocodile Gumboot Dancers with a wide smile, but he had no trouble communicating with the audience. The whistle-tooting leader and his five-man team strutted with emotionally charged precision, the rubber boots providing a stirring rhythmic pulse as they struck the Fais Do-Do and Blues stages throughout the first weekend in unison. But the mesmerizing minimalist drone, played by violin and acoustic guitar, was otherworldly in its effectiveness. As the guitarist worked a rudimentary figure, the violinist alternated a starkly different pair of tones on the up and down strokes. This simple phrase, played repeatedly, produced a spellbinding effect. Of you closed your eyes, the drone evoked a lost album by German proto-electronic rockers Can, then some secret Stereolab outtake, then the late Creole fiddler Bebe Carriere.
First Sign of the Apocalypse
At 11:40 a.m. of the first Friday, the crawfish bread tent was already out. Overheard: "I starve myself of crawfish all year so I can eat all the crawfish bread I want out here and not get sick of it."
Emmylou Harris' voice has become more Appalachian and interesting with the passing of time. Now there are notes she has to change registers to reach, and that sonic evidence of age made her sympathy in "Pancho and Lefty" on the first Friday more meaningful as it was obvious she knew its importance. Her take on Lucinda Williams' "Sweet Old World" was similarly resonant. Williams' song, written about poet Frank Stanford's suicide, is itself heartbreaking when she sings, "Didn't you think you were worth anything?" and in Harris' hands, it's also easy to hear it addressing her old music partner Gram Parsons and his self-destruction.
Best Game of Crack the Whip
A Snooks Eaglin set that includes a slow blues version of Bad Company's "Ready for Love," an instrumental take on Allen Sherman's "Hello Mudduh, Hello Fadduh" and closes with the traditional gospel "God Will Take Care of You" sounds nutty, but it never did on the first Saturday, perhaps because George Porter Jr. is Eaglin's most sympathetic accompanist. He seems ready and able to follow Eaglin's whims and helps the band -- in this case, Herman Ernest, David Torkanowsky and Derek Huston -- go with them.
Least Symbolic Costumes
The first Saturday was both NFL draft day and the day of the LSU Spring Game, so it was tempting to view the members of ReBirth Brass Band wearing receiver Michael Clayton's No. 14 jersey as a tribute to the 15th pick overall. But tight end Demetri Robinson's No. 88? "We were honoring LSU's national championship," Philip Frazier corrected. "Last year we wore the Hornets jersey." The significance of the two numbers? "They were the only two left in stock."
Most Cynical Comment
Overheard in the Blues Tent: "The blues is a scam."
Not Just for Jazz Fest Any More
Perhaps the most thrilling food discovery this year wasn't a new vendor or an innovative dish, but rather the business cards discriminately circulating from Love At First Bite's booth announcing the pending opening of Walker's Southern Style BBQ in New Orleans. Fest food devotees will feel the heart-stopping effect of this announcement: Cochon de lait po-boys dripping with pork fat and spilling cole slaw will be available year-round!
Best Backstage Endorsement
The surprise of Jazz Fest was Derek Miller, a Mohawk from the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario. His three-piece band was dressed in black, thrift-store suits and woke up the Lagniappe Stage the first Saturday -- now extra-staid, thanks to greenery forcing almost all the audience to the stage perimeter -- with the sort of exhilarating rock 'n' roll that's usually kept safely off the grounds. Classics such as "Mystery Train" and "So Lonesome I Could Die" were perfectly revved up, though people were already up dancing after a song about jazz guitarist Slim Gaillard with a chorus that ended ". . . and a shot of cocaine!" When Miller paused to figure out what to do after breaking two strings, Theresa Andersson yelled from backstage, "You rock!"
World Leader Pretend drummer Arthur Mintz launched into the first song before the Acura Stage manager introduced the band. Flustered, the announcer hustled to a microphone to bark out, "World Pretend." The set itself on the first Sunday was typically nervy for the band, alternately finding out how quiet you can be on a Jazz Fest stage -- very, actually -- and raving up a la Sonic Youth, never forgetting the value of pop hooks.
Best Children's Theater Not in the Kids Tent
Before Supagroup's set the first Sunday, singer Chris Lee pointed to a bank of clouds over the Grandstand. "Those are going to blow in during our set," he said, and they did, suggesting a gift for meteorology. Onstage, the band did whatever necessary to win the crowd including re-enacting the scene from the children's theater version of Peter Pan when the kids in the crowd save Tinkerbell by believing in magic. After guitarist Benji Lee -- who can match Leo Nocentelli for most notes per second -- collapsed, he returned to his feet only after the crowd yelled, "Get up, Benji" at Chris' behest.
During a tribute to the late Anthony "Tuba Fats" Lacen at the Music Heritage Stage the first Saturday, local attorney Mary Howell rose from the audience to recall that local politicos had stated that they support putting a plaque on the Jackson Square bench where Tuba Fats regularly performed. Howell said she hadn't heard of any movement on the issue, and exhorted the audience to write to the mayor and their local city council members. Jerry Brock, who had moderated the panel, then led the crowd in raising their right fists in the air and chanting: "Tuba! Tuba!"
Best Conversation Between a Father and a 2-Year-Old Daughter at the Kids' Tent
Father: "Let's go hear Kermit!"
Daughter: "Is he Elmo's Friend?"
Takes One to Know One
Saturday's crowd at the Fais Do-Do stage the first Saturday seemed to enjoy Geno Delafose's red-clad uncle, Leo Thomas, when he took the microphone. But when Thomas exited and Delafose began to introduce yet another guest performer -- "He's my neighbor, and he comes by my house to practice" -- more than a few shoulders slumped. Then a bashful, 13-year-old Kyle Huval took the stage. The audience barely glimpsed the youngster's face from beneath a baseball cap, but everyone was whooping and heel-kicking by the end of his rocking execution of "Chere ici, chere la-bas." After Huval took a well-deserved bow, his proud mentor mused, "I've got him playing; now I just gotta get him to keep his head up. He's too good lookin' to keep it down."
Most (Deservedly) Immodest
Irma Thomas fluttered around the Sprint Stage in a flowing, yellow floral print dress on the first Saturday like a woman who knows her worth. And following a soul-stirring performance of "Time Is on My Side," she proved that indeed she does. "For all you youngsters out there who haven't done your homework, I did that before the Rolling Stones," she deadpanned. "And I gotta say, and I don't mean this facetiously, I look better at my 63 than he (Mick Jagger) looks at his 61."
Does She Drink Her Liquor From an Old Fruit Jar?
When a thirsty Odetta was offered a bottle of water during her interview Thursday, she turned it down. "I'm too old to suck on a bottle," she replied.
Best Safe Sex Lecture
Between songs, Odetta schooled the Blues Tent about careless love. "In my day when we were fooling around we could just go get a dose of penicillin for what we caught," she said. "But these days, this lovemaking is dangerous. So don't forget your condoms when you go out tonight." The crowd applauded in accordance.
Because He Can
Ever the piano wizard, Allen Toussaint tossed teases from "The Nutcracker" into one of his transcendental R&B solos Thursday.
A Study In Territoriality
As the warrior drummers of Soweto Street Beat pounded fierce rhythms, a band of frat boys stormed into the Congo Square area chanting, wearing blow-up dolls and plastic breasts on their heads. They lingered a few minutes before exiting to the track, where they took turns shotgunning beers.
"I had the best Jazz Fest ever," bragged a woman at the door of the Mayor's Hospitality Suite in the Grandstand. "I smacked Lenny Kravitz on the ass."
When he appeared on stage to lead the All-Star Tribute to South Africa to close Jazz Fest, Hugh Masekela said, "Hello, New Orleans!" Not satisfied with the crowd's response, he repeated, "Hello, New Orleans, goddamnit!" Later in the show, when technical problems caused a delay, he said, in his best New Orleans accent, "It's really good to be here with y'all, knowwhat'msayin'?"
The Second Sign of the Apocalypse
A fest-goer flossed.
It was so nice to hear anyone -- in this case, Clive Wilson on the second Sunday -- sing Louis Armstrong -- in this case, "If We Never Meet Again" -- and not try to do an impression.
On the second Sunday, seeing Jeff and Vida, Gina Forsyth and bassist Mike Kerwin grouped around one mic was a real throwback to the good old days of country, and watching them work in the small space became hypnotic. During "I Cried," Kerwin gently tilted his bass forward for a moment, then danced it back out to make room for Forsyth's solo. Then Jeff Burke took a short guitar solo, pointing the neck safely toward the sky before backing up and making room for Vida Wakeman to lean in and return to crooning.
These Boots Are Made for ... Something
When Kenny Bill Stinson sat down at his electric piano on the second Sunday, he told the stage crew, "The sustain pedal isn't working. No, wait a minute -- it's my boots."
Austin Leslie, longtime local chef and current fry impresario at Jacques-Imo's, apologized for not having come prepared with enough chicken to go around at Sunday's fried chicken demonstration at Zatarain's Food Heritage Stage -- but he didn't forget to pack his cell phone, which rang about midway through the demonstration. "My wife," he told the audience. Then, answering the call: "Hello, wife. I'm doing my demo. You called me at the wrong time I'm on the stage. They're laughing at us now."
Best Growth Spurt
Just four days removed from earning Best Emerging Artist honors at the Big Easy Entertainment Awards™, Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews proved the first Friday in the Jazz Tent that he's more than ready and capable of growing past his childhood nickname. During his swinging set, Andrews appeared as a mature front man in full control as he roamed the stage, engaged the audience, and flirted with the ladies with a tease of throwing his shirt into the audience. He played the trumpet more than the trombone and deftly mixed originals, New Orleans standards and new favorites such as R. Kelly's "Step in the Name of Love." After leading the Jazz Tent crowd in an intense round of "hidey-ho"s and playing a two-minute circular breathing solo, Andrews dropped to the floor, holding only his trumpet in the air while the crowd roared.
In an otherwise serene set the first Friday that combined a near-hypnotic blend of blues, jazz and world styles, Olu Dara confronted ear-burning feedback as he began "Harlem Country Girls." Staying cool and calm, Dara stayed rhythmically in sync as he said to the sound crew, "Rich! Rich! Put out that joint and deal with them knobs for a minute." The sound difficulties continued for a few minutes, during which Dara delivered stream-of-conscious ruminations, eventually recalling his only run-in with Miles Davis. "I saw Miles and went up to him, most enthusiastically, and said, Miles, man, it is an honor to meet you. My name is Olu.' And Miles glared at me and said, Get outta my way, motherf--ker.'"
Best Funking of the Vote
Jazz Fest tends to be apolitical, but while Reckless Kelly was playing the Beatles' "Revolution" on the Lagniappe Stage the second Sunday, Wyclef Jean announced, "I just don't like George W. Bush" on the Congo Square Stage. A proliferation of John Kerry stickers and T-shirts came courtesy of volunteers at the entrances to the Fair Grounds. In the spirit of reaching a captive audience, many Port-o-Lets were covered in signs for the non-partisan, non-profit Paddle for the Presidency (P4P), a group organizing canoe rides down the length of the Mississippi River to raise awareness, especially for young voters.
Most Spontaneous Offer of Real Estate
In a pre-Jazz Fest interview, Tommy Malone of the subdudes said he was thinking of putting his Jackson, Miss., home on the market and moving back to New Orleans. During the subdudes' Thursday set, he announced he had sold the house and needed a new place. The revelation was met with cheers, applause -- and a surprise offer from a fan. "You want me to move down there? Next to you?" a puzzled Malone asked, pointing to her spot near the front row. "Well, thanks!"
Weirdest Airborne Message
Along with the airplane banners advertising French Quarter drink specials and newly released CDs flew one inexplicable pennant: R. TODD IS A FAT HEAD.
Most Confused Music Legend
The clouds finally parted around 4:30 p.m. on the second Sunday, right in the middle of one of Smokey Robinson's more sultry R&B jams. A cheer erupted from the crowd as the daylight hit them. Robinson didn't comment on the burst of sunshine -- so he must have just figured he had just hit a very fine note.
Most Unlikely Set-Closer
After the Tin Men set the second Saturday, tourists learned what locals have known for a while: the band is one of the best and most distinct in the city. Whether singing boozy tales such as "Still Drunk" or ending its set with the crazy juxtaposition of Danny Barker "Palm Court Strut" (complete with rewritten lyrics in the ribald, Barker tradition) and Led Zeppelin's "The Immigrant Song," this trio of Alex McMurray (guitar), Matt Perrine (sousaphone) and Washboard Chaz showed that it is no novelty act. They looked cool, acted cool and rocked out.
Best Sign that Amanda Shaw is Becoming a Superstar
The teenage Amanda Shaw displayed her Dennis McGee-meets-Cyndi Lauper musical sensibility at her closing set at the Kids' Tent on the `first Saturday, stalking the stage and shaking the multi-colored ribbons in her mane, and putting down the fiddle to sling up her pink electric guitar for her anti-Britney anthem "I'm Not a Bubblegum Pop Princess." But perhaps to dampen her own star power, she kept her head down the first Sunday to play a tasteful Cajun fiddle when she sat in with Jonno's School of Cajun.
Best Chance to Say, "Teacher, Teacher, I Declare ..."
By at least one measure, Galactic's set at the Sprint Stage proved successful: Redheaded dance dynamo Henry Griffin took the stage, where he danced so hard his pants slipped open and fell down.
Best Unintentional Tribute to a Chevy on the Acura Stage
Quint Davis went beyond his usual stage banter and into a higher realm after the Neville Brothers ended Jazz Fest the last Sunday. After the music stopped, Davis said, "We are all one race, the human race. We are all Neville Nation. We are all New Orleans. We are the heartbeat of America."
Daniel Breaux 1946 - 2004
On Saturday, May 1, artist, dancer, craftsman and music lover Daniel Breaux was murdered shortly after he left the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Breaux explored his love for Louisiana music and musicians in a series of paintings and accompanying text that can be seen at the Holiday Inn Downtown-Superdome. The collection -- believed to be the largest body of Breaux's work in one public space -- rises like a totem from the eighth through 18th floors of the hotel; artists such as Beau Jocque, Bois-Sec Ardoin and the Doucet brothers each occupy a floor. At the 8th-floor base of this vertical gallery is a self-portrait of Breaux and his longtime dance partner Claudia Dumestre. The case of Breaux's murder is now a matter for the courts. To honor his life, we offer this self-portrait.
Image courtesy Holiday Inn Downtown-Superdome; photo by Scott Saltzman
"We 'play' on the dance floor, Claudia and I. Joy fills our souls and adrenaline drenches our bodies. From our first dances at 'La porte d'Arriére,' the Cajun back door stage of the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition and through all the 'Festivals Acadiens' since, we make music into movement. Or as my cousin Patti Lynn says, 'We pass a good pleasure, yeah.'" -- Daniel Breaux