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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!"
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Front row seats
In the Gospel Tent, Mavis Staples didn't stick to just gospel, but she did preach a little. At one point she invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and not long afterward, she delved into contemporary politics. During an extended version of "Freedom Highway," she said, "They passed around the Kool Aid and called it tea!" She stopped in the middle of The Impressions song "This Is My Country" to ask, "What's with all these people disrespecting the president. Saying he isn't a resident. You see the president's face painted like a clown. You hear people saying 'We're gonna take our country back.' Back to where? The '50s and the '60s. No. No. No. I ain't never going back to the back of the bus."
Zac de la Rocha?
Country sensation Zac Brown is an excellent guitarist, blending both Appalachian and Flemenco lines into his guitar solos. He and his band launched into a peculiarly masculine version of "America the Beautiful." But the band finished with an aggressive cover of Rage Against the Machine's "Killing in the Name."
Full metal jacket
My Morning Jacket opened its set with the pulsing "Victory Dance" from its 2011 album Circuital, the first of several long, heavy and down-tempo extended cuts from the band's recent output. "This is very beautiful," said singer Jim James. "Like I'm inside a painting," and noting, several times, how the crowd looks "pastel." Preservation Hall's Clint Maedgen joined for experimental saxophone riffing, and trumpeter Mark Braud was game to keep up. The rest of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band followed on stage for "Holdin' on to Black Metal."
Known for his gentle R&B pop like "So Sick" and "Sexy Love," it makes sense that Ne-Yo's sign language interpreter looked like a male model (it turns out "sex your body" is pretty easy to understand in American Sign Language). Before singing his hit "Miss Independent," he asked women in the crowd to "make some noise" if they could pay their own rent and car note. "Men," he said, "take note of the women not making noise. They're not the ones you want."
Swamp pop quiz
Local swamp pop act the Creole String Beans reference all sorts of arcane local lore, especially on its recent release Shrimp Boots and Vintage Suits — shrimp boots of course being the fancy term for Chalmette Reeboks. Rick Olivier also lauded the St. Gabriel Women's Penitentiary, the Bonnet Carre Spillway and drive-thru daiquiri shops in his lyrics and stage banter. Perhaps the deepest dive, though, was a tribute song to local horror show host Morgus the Magnificent and his obscure, campy New Orleans-shot 1962 movie The Wacky World of Dr. Morgus, the plot of which the Creole String Beans reprise in the song "Instant People."
Fans of the Red Stick Ramblers may have been confused when they arrived at the Fais Do-Do Stage and read the sign for "Annie Tee and Her Bayou Cadillac." Fans of HBO's Treme probably figured out the deal quickly. Annie Tee (Lucia Micarelli) is the name of the show's fiddle-playing character, and the Red Stick Ramblers have served as her fictional backup band Bayou Cadillac. After two songs heavily laden with Katrina references, Tee took her bows, and the Red Stick Ramblers' stage placard was revealed. The Cajun swing band tore into its regular set, including up-tempo rocker "Made in the Shade" followed with their country nod "Drinkin' to You." In the crowd: Micarelli, Steve Earle and That '70s Show's Kurtwood Smith.
Galactic's show on Acura Stage featured a Carnival parade of guests as it played many of the songs on its recent release Carnival Electros. Living Color's Corey Glover handled vocals on many songs, including "He Na Na" and Living Color's "Cult of Personality." Other guests included Trombone Shorty, Shamarr Allen, Pedrito Martinez, Casa Samba and Mardi Gras Indian War Chief Juan Pardo.
Grohl with it
"I thought we were going to have to play some jazz," said Foo Fighters frontman Dave Grohl before the band's powerhouse two-hour set. "That shit is hard, man."
Following opener "Times Like These," the band hit several tracks from its latest album Wasted Light ("Rope," "White Limo," "Arlandia") and revisited early hits like "Big Me," "Monkey Wrench" and, the closer, "Everlong" — but not before singing "Happy Birthday" to guitarist Chris Shiflett (he's 41) and chugging through Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers' "Breakdown."
Grohl switched places with drummer Taylor Hawkins, who then sang "Cold Day in the Sun." Overheard in the crowd: "He can play drums, too?"
What do you get when you cross one of the world's best jazz organists and a sultan of sax? A virtuoustic performance full of shimmering solos, good-natured one-upmanship and musical conversation, all adding up to a joyful journey through twisting, Byzantine lines of improvisation. A few brave souls stood up and boogied when David Sanborn held impossibly long wails. For an encore, Sanborn and Joey DeFrancesco played a song called "I've Got News For You," its ruminative keyboard passages leavened by Sanborn's sultry saxophone. The number built to a tumultuous climax featuring organ chords as mighty as any stadium rock power chords, and it left everyone breathless.
Anyone looking to the Blues Tent for refuge from the afternoon heat on the final Sunday was out of luck — Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings turned in one of the day's hottest shows. The sunset sendoff was reflected in two outfits: conga and bongo drummer Fernando Velez's dress shirt, whose lavender hue quickly saturated to a deep purple; and Jones' cocktail dress, its sparkling pink-fringe trail resembling a shaken bottle of rose as she paced the stage, rattling off motormouthed commentary — new news: she turned 56 this week; old news: she's a world-beater — between soul lessons from 2010's I Learned the Hard Way like someone who might spontaneously combust if she ever were to stop moving.
He was cocky, but he was good
Rolling Stone's David Fricke interviewed Ernie K-Doe biographer Ben Sandmel, Allen Toussaint and Walter "Wolfman" Washington about the late Emperor of the Universe. Toussaint, who penned "Mother in Law," revealed that the recording was almost scrapped during rehearsals because K-Doe initially took the lyrics too aggressively, essentially just shouting them into the mic, Toussaint said.
"He was like that," Toussaint said. "It wasn't that he was rude, he just had a spirit that was driving all the time and he wanted to shout and preach like a preacher."
Sandmel described K-Doe's spirit and tenacity this way: "In his mind, he never failed. It was just that the rest of the world hadn't noticed. 'I'm a millionaire, I just haven't gotten paid yet,' that was one of his mottos."
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band closed the Gentilly Stage on the final Sunday and presented its own parade of guests, including Ani DiFranco, Bonnie Raitt, Allen Toussaint, Steve Earl and Jim James of My Morning Jacket. The Rebirth Brass Band also came onstage to play several songs, and in case anyone wanted to have a look at the Grammy the band just won, it was prominently displayed during the band's appearance.
As Preservation Hall again marked its 50th anniversary, it offered an appropriate finale. Joining the band for the final songs were trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, who turns 101 in July, trombonist Wendell Eugene, who is nearly 90 years old, and the next generation, the Preservation Hall Junior Jazz Band. There were several generations of musicians playing on "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "I'll Fly Away." It was as joyous as it was fitting close to the Jazz & Heritage Festival.
For more of Count Basin's Jazz Fest notes, visit www.bestofneworleans.com.