By Andy J. Gordon
Jazzfest 2013 will be remembered for great music and food but mostly for some horrendously rainy weather. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrated the 44th year of the event with several big name acts, many of the regional bands that have been a part of the tradition and all of the amazing food vendors that make Jazzfest a unique experience. While the music and food lived up to expectations, Mother Nature was clearly pissed at someone because her barrage of wind, rain and cold made the Fairgrounds a seriously stinky, muddy pit.
It wasn’t all rain, all the time at this year’s Jazzfest. There were small chunks of nice weather and when the sun was shining, it was quite hot. Whatever the conditions, the music was outstanding. On the first Saturday, The Voice of the Wetlands Allstars brought their message of conservation and preservation to the masses at the Acura stage with a cast of great artists. Led by Tab Benoit, the group played a set of foot stomping tunes like “There Ain’t No Funk Like Louisiana Funk,” “Louisiana Sunshine,” and “Don’t Let the Water Wash Us Away.” These and other songs from the extensive catalogs of band members Cyril Neville, Anders Osborne, George Porter Jr., Stanton Moore and Johnny Vidacovich were highly entertaining.
Jazzfest at the Fairgrounds is a unique experience. One of the things that make it special is the abundance of amazing regional cuisine served throughout the venue. One highlight is the oyster bar located in the intimate courtyard area of the Grandstand. While oysters are being shucked and served, bands perform at the Lagniappe stage in the courtyard. While we slurped big, delicious oysters and drank refreshing, cold beer, The Panarama Jazz Band played energetic Klezmer music.
Later at the Gentilly Stage, Dumpstaphunk’s chest thumping, double bass attack had the crowd bouncing. Ivan Neville’s strong vocals and dynamic keys led the charge, while Tony Banks contributed additional vocals along with his stellar bass and occasional guitar playing. We took a circular route through the Fairgrounds to see Dwayne Dopsie, Rebirth Brass Band and eventually found salvation from the sun in the Blues tent for Jon Cleary. Cleary was joined by Nigel Hall and Terence Higgins. They put on a cool set of Cleary originals and some New Orleans classics. Hall showed some impressive vocal range and Derwin “Big D” Perkins blazed some sweet guitar solos.
The biggest star of the day had to be Billy Joel, who closed the Acura Stage with a timeless performance of hits like “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and “Only the Good Die Young.” Joel acknowledged his surroundings by blending Johnny Horton’s “The Ballad of New Orleans” into “Big Man on Mulberry Street,” and incorporated “Iko Iko” into “The River of Dreams.” The surprise guest appearance was the “second line” style march-in by Preservation Hall Jazz Band after Joel sang the line, “Drop a dime in the box, play a song about New Orleans,” during “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant.” Joel and his excellent band did a fine job of concluding the Saturday festivities.
Sunday’s highlights began with one of the local trombone heroes, Big Sam Williams and his band Big Sam’s Funky Nation. Big Sam is one of the best front men in town with a strong voice, amazing horn prowess and infectious stage presence. There was some morning rain that gradually cleared, but the early crowds were sparse. The band’s set had the Congo Square stage audience dancing and singing along while latecomers flocked to the area. Back at the Acura Stage, The Nevilles put on a spirited show. The group is what remains of the Neville Brothers since Aaron decided to go solo. The new act is a blend of first generation Neville family members (Art, Charles, Cyril) with next-gen members, Ivan and Ian Neville. Joining them is former member and current bassist with Dumpstaphunk Tony Hall, as well as Funky Meters guitarist, Brian Stoltz, who hadn’t performed with The Nevilles since 1990. “Mean” Willie Green, who has been the Nevilles drummer for years rounded out the ensemble. Their set included classics like “When You Go to New Orleans,” “Big Chief,” “Meet the Boys on the Battlefront” and “Brother Jake.” It wasn’t quite the same without brother Aaron’s unique vocals, but the music still shined.
Unfortunately the sun refused to keep shining for the last sets of the day. Over on the Jazz & Heritage Stage a super group called Midnite Disturbers kept the fans bouncing as the skies grew more ominous. No less than nine first rate horn players (Big Sam Williams, Corey Henry, Shamarr Allen, Ben Ellman, Skerik, Mark Mullins, Chadrick Honore, Matt Perrine, and Roger Lewis) blasted some insanely choreographed jazz and funk tunes. Over at the Acura Stage, The Dave Matthews Band put on a fun, lengthy set, but the skies really opened up and pouring rain blasted the crowd. The dirt, sand and grassy areas turned to mud, but the audience persevered and danced to the music. Making lemonade out of lemons, grown men could be seen diving head first into muddy puddles just for the joy of it. The inevitable encore was not to be as thunder and lightning caused the band to shut things down and send everyone home for safety reasons.
The days between weekends of Jazzfest are more relaxed, but there are a lot of things to do in New Orleans. Clubs in town have jam-packed nighttime schedules, all of the great restaurants are open and the historic sites throughout the city are easily accessible. One “days between” tradition is to hit Louisiana Music Factory, a well known local music store, for their free sets of live music by a variety of artists, both regional and those in town for the fest. On Monday Los Po Boy Citos, a latin/soul/funk band and Lil’ Freddy King, a Delta blues legend played fine sets while patrons shopped for music.
Later that night we made a stop at one of the newer clubs in town, the beautifully restored Little Gem Saloon in the warehouse district. The two story building has a restaurant on the ground floor with a piano and small stage for intimate music sets. Upstairs is a cozy night club with a full stage, tables, booths, bar and the full menu from the downstairs restaurant. Upstairs in the nightclub, Charlie Hunter did a solo set. He plays a unique instrument that is an eight string hybrid of guitar and bass. With distortion pedals and incredible finger dexterity, Hunter gets some amazing sounds out of his instrument and kept the audience mesmerized. Next up was a band out of Oakland, CA with a front man/vocalist from Poland. The California Honeydrops played an energetic mix of soul, R&B and hints of New Orleans second line.
On Wednesday evenings through spring and summer, the city sponsors free concerts in Lafayette Park called Wednesday At The Square. This Wednesday between Jazzfest weekends had The Meters Experience featuring Leo Nocentelli with Jamal Batiste and CR Gruver lending a hand. Nocentelli, the original guitarist and songwriter for The Meters always brings a dynamic, heavy funk sound to the stage. The Park concert was a big success as fans listened to the great live music, sampled local cuisine at booths situated around the park and met up with friends.
The second weekend of Jazzfest kicked off on Thursday, May 2. One of the great young talents based in New Orleans is a singer who is a throwback to a time when a beautiful, natural voice meant something in the music world. Meschiya Lake & the Little Big Horns played to an enthralled audience at the Gentilly Stage. Lake and her band play ragtime jazz and blues. With Lake belting out tunes, her band playing behind her and a couple of professionals swing dancing at stage left, the crowd was treated to a special show. Over at the big Acura stage, the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band showed the crowd why this group of horn experts have been successful for over 35 years.
The closing act at The Acura stage was Widespread Panic, a long time regular guest of the festival. Panic is one of the few acts that get an extra long time slot – two and half hours this year. It fits with their tradition of lengthy jams and improvisational explorations during their live shows. The long set gave the crowd of diehard fans and curious first timers plenty of music to sample while the dreaded rain turned the field into a series of muddy mosh pits. Their set included classics like “Rebirtha,” “Hope In A Hopeless World” and a tasty cover of Traffic’s “Dear Mr. Fantasy.”
Later that night, one of the best clubs in town, The Howlin’ Wolf, hosted the Royal Family Ball featuring Soulive, Lettuce, Nigel Hall & Alecia Chakour and The London Souls. It was a glorious night of nasty funk, fusion, sweaty soul and heartfelt performances. The set by Soulive included excellent support from the Shady Horns and a guest sit in by Warren Haynes who sang and played guitar on “The Thrill is Gone,” the blues classic made famous by BB King. Lettuce didn’t hit the stage until nearly 2AM but the place was still packed and the hard funk continued into the early morning hours of Friday.
The Fairgrounds were a mess on Friday, May 3 as the rains continued to pour down and the gates opened late. Crews tried to make the facility passable but big puddles, mud bogs and a nasty stink made things uncomfortable. The upside of the lousy weather meant small crowds and easy access to the front of stages. That was the case for an especially enjoyable Congo Stage set by Corey Henry & the Treme Funktet. Henry, an accomplished trombone player, has been an integral part of Galactic for the past few years and still does the occasional sit in with his previous group, Rebirth Brass Band. His Funktet is a new project that features a blend of funk, old school New Orleans music, brass band, and mainstream jazz. The emphasis is on getting people up and moving. Examples of the band’s range included covers of the traditional folk song “House of the Rising Sun,” Hendrix’ “Voodoo Child,” and the Meters classics “Hey Pocky a Way” and “Africa.” It was definitely worth trudging through the mud to get to the front of the stage for this set.
Los Hombres Calientes followed the Funktet at the Congo Stage. Bill Summers and Irvin Mayfield have led this on again/off again band that plays a fusion of Latin jazz rhythms flavored with Brazilian and Afro-Cuban soul. Summers is a master percussionist and Mayfield is one of the great trumpeters that seem to grow on trees in New Orleans. After their fine set we decided to get out of the nasty weather and go into one of the tents. For brilliant modern jazz, there is no better band than Astral Project who had an early afternoon set in the Jazz tent. This quartet is a modern jazz juggernaut. Johnny Vidacovich plays drums with incredible timing and soul. Steve Masakowski is a wizard on guitar and Tony Digradi, who formed the band more than 30 years ago, plays complex, warm saxophone solos. Rounding out the group is James Singleton, a modern master of the upright bass.
Things cleared up for a while so it was back to the Congo Stage for one of the last ever performances by Papa Grows Funk, the band led by John Gros who recently decided to call it quits and work on other projects. It is a shame because these guys are at the top of their game. June Yamagishi was incredible, as always, on guitar while Jason Mingledorff blasted great saxophone solos that complemented the band’s synchronous sound. Marc Pero on Bass and Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander on drums kept the rhythm and low end steady while the band played booty shaking funk that had everyone moving.
We ended Friday’s fest with one of Louisiana’s crown jewels, the great bluesman, Tab Benoit. Benoit put on his typical show – amazing blues guitar riffs, fine vocals and some talented guests. Michael Doucet, the founder of the band BeauSoleil sat in for some amazing fiddle playing and Benoit’s mother provided backup vocals and a few wild dance moves that belied her age.
Later that night a special co-bill was scheduled at the Louisiana State Museum’s Old US Mint facility. Papa Mali is the stage name for Malcolm Welbourne, a New Orleans based singer and guitarist who is a master bluesman that has collaborated with many fellow music legends. His most recent project, 7 Walkers, produced a brilliant debut album and exciting live performances. His co-headliner at the Old US Mint was Cheick Hamala Diabate, a king of the ngoni, banjo and guitar from Mali, Africa. Diabate opened the show and demonstrated his instrumental mastery. Papa Mali followed with a set of his solo tunes, a couple of 7 Walkers songs and a fine cover of Neil Young’s “After the Gold Rush.” Diabate sat in for a few songs and their combined talents made it a great show.
Saturday at the Fairgrounds brought more soggy conditions that made it a challenge to hike through deep muddy bogs in order to get to some of the stages. In spite of the obstacles, there were some great musical performances. One of the early sets at the Gentilly Stage featured up and coming New Orleans rockers The Revivalists. They play an edgy style that blends Americana, hard rock and electronic music. With the talented, strong voiced David Shaw as their front man, this band is going places.
We headed back to the Blues Tent for a dynamic guitarist named Kenny Neal. Neal can be described as a modern swamp blues master. He comes from a family of blues artists – his father, Raful Neal was a harmonica virtuoso and Kenny often performs with family members. His set in the Blues tent featured some amazing guitar playing, some screeching slide work and a guest appearance by his very young nephew, who performed a dueling harmonica solo with Neal.
One of the amazing things about Jazzfest is the chance to see performers come together as a band that have never been seen before and may never happen again. Such a rarity occurred in the Jazz Tent this Saturday. Calling themselves Fleur Debris, the superband featured Zigaboo Modeliste (drummer from The Meters), George Porter, Jr. (bass, The Meters), Nicholas Payton (trumpet, keyboards, Grammy winner), Derek Douget (tenor saxophone, Ellis Marsalis band) and David Torkanowsky (jazz piano, composer, ex-Astral Project). They crossed the boundaries between funk and jazz with some virtuoso performances. Payton’s solos brought to mind some of the genre busting work of Miles Davis. Torkanowsky pounded out riffs that were classic New Orleans jazz, yet incorporated elements of gospel and funk.
One of the finest songwriters of Americana and roots rock, Eric Lindell, had a packed house in the Blues Tent for his set. The band included a three piece horn section that enhanced some of Lindell’s catchy tunes. As the day was drawing to a close, we took advantage of the rare sunny weather for the highly anticipated set from Fleetwood Mac at the Acura Stage. Their two and a half hour set showcased many of the classic hits we’ve heard on the radio for years, but they also broke out some of their early, bluesy numbers. Mick Fleetwood, Stevie Nicks, Lindsey Buckingham and John McVie were in fine form (sorry, no Christine McVie). Sing-a-longs included “Don’t Stop,” “Go Your Own Way,” and “The Chain.” It was a great show and a fine way to close second Saturday of Jazzfest.
That night we hit one of the great, iconic clubs in town, Mid City Rock ‘n’ Bowl. The club combines a classic bowling alley with great live music, a full bar and fine regional food. The strong lineup this night was Royal Southern Brotherhood followed by Bonerama. RSB take their name from the fact that Devon Allman (guitar, vocals, son of Gregg) and Cyril Neville (percussion, vocals, The Neville Brothers) are family members of music royalty. The rest of the band has serious chops too – drummer Yonrico Scott (Derek Trucks Band, Gregg Allman and the Allman Brothers Band), bassist Charlie Wooton (Bonerama) and guitarist Mike Zito (Blues Music award winner). Their set included originals from their successful debut album and a sweet cover of The Grateful Dead’s “Fire on the Mountain.”
Bonerama followed with their special style that takes traditional, horn based New Orleans music and throws in heavy doses of classic rock. Mark Mullins and Craig Klein handle most of the vocals. When they aren’t singing, they are laying down intense trombone solos and amazing arrangements with Greg Hicks, the third trombonist in the group. They played several originals and New Orleans classics, but the show stopper was their version of The Allman Brothers Band’s “Whippin’ Post.” Hearing that familiar riff and solos performed with trombones was a mind blowing experience.
After the raging late night at Mid City Rock ‘n’ Bowl, it was tough to get rolling for Sunday, the last day at the Fairgrounds. One incentive to get there at a reasonable hour was the special set by The Meter Men at the Acura Stage. The band is three quarters of the original Meters (Leo Nocentelli, George Porter Jr., Zigaboo Modeliste) with Phish’s Page McConnell subbing in for Art Neville on keyboards. This combination was expected to create some fireworks and they did not disappoint. The members from the original Meters haven’t lost a step musically and McConnell has a firm grasp of the old school funk that The Meters were instrumental in creating. The set included classic Meter’s hits like “Fiyo on the Bayou” and “Hey Pocky a Way.” For “People Say” both Nocentelli and McConnell took off on extended solos. Nocentelli ripped while mostly avoiding the excessive noodling he is prone to. When he took a break to let Modeliste and Porter lay down a steady rhythm for McConnell, the piano trip went off in directions that may not have channeled Art Neville, but were deliciously engaging. The set was another example of remarkable collaboration rarely found outside of Jazzfest.
The next artists on the Acura Stage were another example of the festival’s plan to bring contemporary, mainstream acts to the event. The Black Keys are a hot, radio friendly band who plays a modern version of garage rock with a heavy blues influence. Founders Dan Auerbach (guitar, vocals) and Patrick Carney (drums) performed with bassist Gus Seyffert and keyboardist/guitarist John Wood. They played hits “Tighten Up,” “Howlin’ For You” and “Lonely Boy” along with several other songs from their recent albums.
The honor of closing Jazzfest on the biggest stage historically went to The Neville Brothers. When Aaron Neville quit, the torch was passed to the widely recognized king of New Orleans’ musical youth movement, Troy Andrews, commonly known as Trombone Shorty. His band Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue has toured the world, performed at the Superbowl and wowed audiences everywhere, so it was fitting that they concluded the festival with a blow out performance. Shorty is a world class trombone and trumpet player with a very smooth, powerful voice. One of the things that make him special is his ability to grab an audience and bring them along for a musical ride they won’t forget. Shorty is also a savvy bandleader and he has put together a group of fine players – Mike Ballard and Joey Peebles on bass and drums hold down the low end; guitarist Pete Murano would enhance any first rate rock or funk band; the double saxophone onslaught from Dan Oestreicher and Tim McFatter deliver more than supportive horn expertise.
The excellent band played tunes from recent albums Backatown (2010), For True (2011) and Say That to Say This (2013). After a couple of instrumentals to start things off, Shorty sang and played his horns on catchy tunes like “On Your Way Down,” “Encore,” and “Craziest Things.” The crowd was already hyped up with collective energy, but when the band was playing the classic “St. James Infirmary Blues” and Shorty channeled legend Cab Calloway with the “hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho” chant, things reached another level. They also did an exuberant version of the Mardi Gras mainstay “If You Go to New Orleans” and drew loud applause from the crowd at the conclusion of an all inclusive drum circle around Peeble’s kit. After an epic “Show Me Something Beautiful,” Shorty introduced each band member. The crowd went crazy when Shorty hopped down from the stage (with a beefy security escort), microphone in hand, and sang “Do to Me” as he walked through the jam packed masses. After his long trek back to the stage, the show came to a breathless end and so did another amazing Jazzfest.
That night we went back to Mid City Rock ‘n’ Bowl for their annual post Jazzfest Tab Benoit and Sonny Landreth double bill. Benoit’s swamp blues and Landreth’s slide pyrotechnics are a great combination. Landreth went on first and ran through a number of his mesmerizing songs. Benoit followed with some of his catchy blues tunes that got the crowd dancing and singing along. The surprise of the night was a guest sit in by John Oates (Hall & Oates) who had performed with his old partner at the Fairgrounds earlier that day. Benoit sang the Otis Redding ballad “These Arms of Mine” and blasted a long guitar solo with Oates playing the rhythm part. They really challenged each other during Benoit’s “Why are People Like That,” trading licks and playing simultaneous lead – pretty impressive for what was clearly a non-rehearsed collaboration. When Oates departed, Landreth came out to join Benoit for some more guitar gun slinging. The show went well into the early morning hours and a surprisingly energetic crowd stayed for the duration.
Another Jazzfest is in the books. The amazing vibe that can only be experienced in New Orleans made this year’s event special. Although the weather was one of the major story lines, the music, food and collective good spirits of those that made the trek overcame any inconveniences due to the conditions. With a little luck, next year’s event will be dry and sunny. Mark your calendars – Jazzfest 2014 begins on Friday, April 25. It will surely be another glorious and memorable experience.
All photos copyright Andy J. Gordon 2013©