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The first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival of the Millennium was quite a memorable one. There is not much one can say to try to put into words. The most lasting impression? The people. The folks that you meet down there are truly amazing. They come from all parts of the country and all converge on New Orleans for the greatest party in the world ( I hear Carnival is a hell of a rival). You could go down to New Orleans alone and come out of there with a whole new batch of friends. They place is the best place in the world and I would be hard pressed to find some place that can boast a better time had during the last week of April-first week of May period. With no further ado, here is the best recap of what that this author could extrapolate from four days of fun and games.
Even though the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival receives a lot of praise for its vibrant, never-ending nightlife, one cannot deny the catalyst for all of these activity the fairgrounds. With 12 stages, an endless supply of food and beer and all the arts and crafts that one could empty their wallets on, the fairgrounds is eight hours of fun and games. This year, like all the previous, the fairgrounds schedule covered the breadth of musical styles. Over the course of the weekend, there were headline acts like Lenny Kravitz, Ani Di Franco and Lyle Lovett. These stages were expectably crowded but well worth the sardine sensation. The second tier of acts brought in the likes of John Hiatt, Big Voodoo Daddy and Jean Knight. New Orleans legends were represented by Ernie K-Doe, the Neville Brothers, and the Radiators. One of my personal favorite sets was performed by pianist Eddie Bo, who has been playing R&B New Orleans earthy funk since the late 1950s. Like fellow Nawlins pianists Professor Longhair and James Booker, Bo plays the junker style on the keys which combines the jazz be-bop styling of Art Tatum with the R&B of Fats Domino. Born and bred in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, Bo has been a fixture on the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festivals fairgrounds since the events inception.
New Orleans legends-in-the-making was represented by Michael Ray & Cosmic Krewe, Iris May Tango, New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, Marcia Ball and Anders Osborne. The jazz tent brought out national figures like Sam Rivers, Diane Krall, McCoy Tyner and Joe Sample; but the tent's energy belonged to New Orleans own Astral Project, who may just be one of the finest sounding jazz bands around. Consisting of the backbone of New Orleans jazz scene bassist James Singleton, saxophonist Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski, pianist David Torkanowsky and drummer Johnny Vidacovich Astral project has been together as a group since 1978, and after listening to their latest album VoodooBop, you will discover that they show no signs of letting up.
The best aspect of this years fairgrounds schedule was the international flare. New Orleans has always been a melting pot of cultures and there is no better place to see this melting pot than at the Congo Square stage at the fairgrounds. Throughout the weekend Congo stage featured musicians/bands/dancers like Ile Ayie of Bahia, Chico Cesar of Brazil and Tanably of Cote dIvoire (Ivory Coast). The Tanably set was highlighted by a series of ritualistic dances and accompanying percussion. At one point, one of the ensembles members wearing nothing but a grass skirt played the percussion between his knees while holding a wooden chair in his teeth high above his head It was quite the visual and aural experience. In addition, to these lesser known acts, international legends like King Sunny Ade and his African Beats and Hermeto Pascoal of Brazil also played memorable sets at the fairgrounds.
The weekend in New Orleans was constituted be a plethora of impromptu or one-time jam sessions. The most notable was the performance of Oysterhead at the Saenger Theater. This all-star band consisted of the Polices Stewart Copeland, Primus Les Claypool and Phishs Trey Anastasio. They played primarily originals that they put together in the days leading up to the event as well as some choice covers of tunes by Primus, the Kinks and Led Zeppelin. While Claypool is accustomed to moshers and Anastasio gets his twirlers, Copeland was probably most out of his element during this show. He has not played the live circuit since Polices Synchronicity hey-dey, but it did not seem to effect them one bit. The reviews were mixed after the show. Some felt it was some gratuitous jam session that lacked any substance. Some felt it was an incredible jam session that highlighted Claypools showmanship. Some felt that they should have stuck to tighter songs since they never spent any real lengthy time jamming together. For others, the sound of Trey striking an overly effected chord is the equivalent of a musical wet dream. The only constant amongst the fans during the evening was the appreciation of the Saenger Theater. The beautiful 70 + year old, 2,500-seat hall was adorned like some Bacchanalian oracle taken straight out of Donna Tartts "The Secret Garden". The sides of the hall were laden with re-creations of Greek figures and busts while the ceiling was illuminated to resemble the night sky. For this evening the hordes of freaks were paying homage to their musical gods. In my opinion, Oysterhead would have kicked ass in just about any other town than New Orleans. There was little doubt in my mind that, although the Oysterhead show had historic value, there was a band playing elsewhere in Nawlins who was putting on a tighter, funkier show.
The Oysterhead show opened with another supergroup, Garage A Trois, which consisted of drummer Stanton Moore, saxophonist Skerik and guitarist Charlie Hunter. Unlike Oysterhead, Garage a Trois had some familiarity with each other. Skerik has played with Moore in Galactic on numerous occasions, while a few years earlier, the three recorded together for Moores solo album, All Kooked Out. During those recording sessions, the three decided to record an album on the side, Mysteryfunk. This album has lived up to its name, as it was only available on a limited release vinyl, so for the groove fans of the CD/MP3 only generation, the trios funk remained a mystery. At least until this evening ( and the evening before at the Maple Leaf bar). Through Moores amazing New Orleans influenced polyrhythmic/second line beats, Skeriks avant-garde blowing excursions and Hunters eight string guitar blasts, Garage a Trois easily got the crowd psyched up for Oysterhead. Even more importantly, the crowds response to Garage A Trois performances in New Orleans hopefully acted as an indicator that the trio should indulge again in future collaborations.
The Oysterhead/Garage A Trois concert was promoted by the ambitious Superfly Productions who also put on shows by Galactic, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Medeski, Martin & Wood, Jazz Mandolin Project, DJ Logic, Deep Banana Blackout, String Cheese Incident, and many, many more. One of Superflys hardest workers was Karl Densons Tiny Universe who put on show stopping performances at the Howlin Wolf, the House of Blues and the Parish on three successive nights. Although Superfly did a great job at bringing in fantastic national acts, I feel that New Orleans is all about the home grown flavors. For this, I thank Superfly for keeping the hordes of jam band loving fans away from the smaller venues where the local bands were ripping it up. Thanks to Superfly, I had the funk of Egg Yolk Jubilee and All That all to myself. Thanks to Superfly, I had room to dance at Smilin Myron. Thanks to Superfly, I enjoyed John Cleary with ample space. Good job Superfly.
Egg Yolk Jubilee is one band deserves further recognition. Although their presence was noticeably absent from the daytime fairgrounds schedule, they definitely made themselves known in the nightclubs. One such venue was the Mermaid Lounge, which is an out of the way bar located deep in the cavernous warehouse district. The lounge specializes in promoting some of the more alternative sounds that come out of New Orleans. In the past, I have seen bands such as Royal Fingerbowl and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars at the Mermaid, which are two bands that stray from the standard New Orleans R&B funk. Egg Yolk Jubilee, who dub themselves as playing "heavy Dixieland", is a sextet that recently released an excellent album titled Breakfast of Champions (Spatula Productions). Their sound at times sounds like the garage/surf bands of 1960s California and at other times they sound like Dixieland/Klezmer with an attitude. If New York Citys CDGBs was too open up a club in New Orleans, Egg Yolk Jubilee would be the logical opening act. With songs like "Reefer Man", they touch on the honky-tonk blues and "Please Dont Talk about Me When Im Gone" is reminiscent of the Louis Armstrong/Louis Jordan blues. "Brazil" is a samba gone pleasantly awry. Once again, the Mermaid provided an excellent look at the other side of New Orleans music scene. The funny thing about New Orleans though, is that no matter how much you stray form the Nawlins musical formula, one cannot hide from the brass. To me, thats a good thing.
New Orleans is a city of many institutions. These physical institutions are locales like Tipitinas, Preservation Hall or anything along Bourbon Street. These institutions may also can be actual musicians. Great institutions of the past have been musicians like Louis Armstrong or Professor Longhair. Some of the present day institutions are Dr. John, Ernie K. Doe and pianist Eddie Bo. One such institution is the Meters. Ever since backing Lee Dorsey in the 1960s, sharing a tour with the Rolling Stones and serving at the McCartneys house band for a personal party, the Meters put R&B influenced funk on the map. Unfortunately, legal/personal disputes have sent the band in different directions. Thankfully, their music lives on in many different incarnations. Bassist George Porter Jr. and keyboardist Art Neville keep things alive and well with their recreation of the band, now called the funky Meters. Porter does his own thing with Runnin' Pardners while Neville keeps occupied with yet another New Orleans, institution, the Neville Brothers. Both the Neville Brothers and Running Pardners were around all week long.
Original Meter drummer, Zigaboo Modeliste was a major participator in this years Jazz Fest tomfoolery as he was the headlining act at the Snafunk Party at the Howling Wolf. Sponsored by the industrious Henry Petras, the Snafunk party serves as a post party for the already wild and crazy Snafu party which features the Radiators in action. For the longest time, the Zigaboo experience was strictly a live phenomenon but now you can bring it back to your own home with the release of the album, Zigaboo.com (You can figure it out for yourself in terms of what website to order the album from). Three days after the all night Snafunk Party (Henry Petras thanked all the attendees for "ruining their Fridays" in order to party all night on Thursday), Zigaboo graced the stage at one more time at the Howlin Wolf. This time around he was joined by Merl Saunders, the Astral Projects Dave Torkanowsky and members of the Radiators.
As the Meters, the Neville Brothers, Eddie Bo and Ernie K-Doe represent the old guard of New Orleans musical institutions, there is also the new wave. The onslaught of new music that is actually mired in tradition is undoubtedly led by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins. Dubbed as the successor to Louis Armstrongs New Orleans trumpeter throne, Ruffins keeps the swing alive and well in a city buried in the funk. Although playing throughout the city of the course of the two week Jazz Festival, there is nothing quite seeing Kermit in the close quarters of Vaughns. This unassuming neighborhood bar is one the smaller venues in town but it does not bother a soul. The place embodies the New Orleans spirit as hordes of people flood the bar and surrounding streets to enjoy some traditional acoustic jazz. For the thirsty, Vaughns heavy-handed drinks will humble any cocky swizzler while the au gratis Red Beans and Rice is must have during the set breaks.
Speaking of close confines, neighborhood bars, institutions and anything New Orleans, a discussion of the Crescent City would not be complete without mentioning the Maple Leaf Bar. During my last visits to the Maple Leaf, I was strictly passenger in a car. After long and circuitous roots throughout the city, I felt that the Maple Leaf was like some Mecca located on the edge of sanity. After doing some driving this time around, I realized that the bar may be a little remote, but in reality it was "only a right and two lefts" away from my hotel. What did remain true was this bar, located far away from the craziness of the French Quarter or the Warehouse District, provided a real taste of New Orleans. The Maple Leaf is traditional home to yet another two New Orleans institutions, The Rebirth Brass Band and Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the Roadmasters. With Rebirths "In Your Face Party All the Time" brass sounds and the Wolfmans "I will play funky chords until you drop your jaw in awe", these two bands have been bringing down the Maple Leaf for years.
The Maple Leaf is definitely a place known for its elongated, cozy, tin plate ceiling, dance hall and its liberal street dancing, but one of the clubs under-noted characteristics is its rear outdoor patio. While the front of the house is sunk in the sweating funk, the rear of the house features quite a cast of characteristics. From Northeast Ivy Leaguers to New Orleans locals, the patio represents the whole cross section of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Here you will find individuals seeking a well-deserved rest from the nights dancing, people looking for some socializing or folks searching for a secluded spot for a little nooky or what have you.
A personal Maple Leaf favorite experience of mine was Smilin Myrons early morning show on Saturday morning. The band has been off and on for the last couple of years but that has not stopped them from providing the best of times. There could not be a better feeling than dancing in the streets to a vibrant band as the sun rises high above. Nothing better than having to make way for the milk delivery truck as you hip shake with your favorite dancing partner.
If shaking your rump while churches are opening the doors for Sunday mass does not create total physical & mental exhaustion, New Orleans offers even more alternatives for the insomniacs. One such place is Igors, which boasts to be a 24-hour laundromat/bar/grill/game room. This place serves as the final meeting point for all of New Orleans late nighters. As people begin their morning jogs, revelers start pouring in from all points in the city. They may have seen Smilin Myron at the Maple Leaf; they may have caught Galactic at the House of Blues; they may have danced the night away to Zigaboo at the Howlin Wolf. As the night turns to morning, the choices become less plentiful and all cabs point to Igors. This is the only bar that I know where the prime making shift is from 2 AM to 10 AM and things dont really get bust until about 7 AM. Who needs a nightcap when there are morningcaps to be had?
As I started with this story, describing New Orleans is an indomitable task. The sensations and feelings are abundant, but the ability to translate them is near to impossible. All I can say, for every year that I have been there, a new musical discovery and at least one new friend has resulted from the visit. Could you ask for anything better than that? I think not.
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Interview with Henry Butler Interview with James Singleton