By Rob Johnson
Saturday, April 28, 2001
My 24 hour musical odyssey begins at one of New Orleans' finest clubs, the Howlin Wolf on S. Peters, with the futuristic trance fusion sounds of Sound Tribe Sector 9. While I have often admired the uniquely New Orleanian spirit of sheer excess that inspires clubs like Tipitina's and the Howlin Wolf to schedule special late night shows during Jazz Fest, I had never attended any of these after-hours blowouts, and I was excited to finally do so :)
STS9 seemed to me to be perfectly suited to the task. Their psychedelic blend of rave-style dance beats and open-ended improvisation is custom built for the late night crowd. They opened with a driving groove that prompted my friend Mike to comment that they appeared to be "in touch with the New Orleans vibe," which he defined as "get your ass out on stage and get funky with it."
However, by the middle of the set the band had drifted into some fairly aimless noodling, and my friends and I were growing restless. A righteous version of "Hubble," from STS9's first album Interplanetary Escape Vehicle, was right on time and kicked the show into interstellar overdrive, providing the first great jam of the night.
"Hubble" often segues into a tune called "Moon Socket," but this time the band opted for a medley of "Otherwise Formless" and "Kamuy" from Offered Schematics Suggesting Peace. While very pretty and atmospheric, once again I felt that the music lacked the urgency of the best Sector 9 shows. My girlfriend, who had never seen the band before, had this to say: "I found them monotonous and boring after a while, but it does make you move."
The first set closed with what could either be new song or an uncommonly well-composed improvisation. Either way, it was easily the highlight of the set, with a deep, powerful groove and some excellent keyboard work by David Phipps. However, as always this band belongs to bassist David Murphy and drummer Zach Velmer. Murphy's driving, rock-solid bass lines combined with Velmer's astonishing live-action breakbeats to create a mesmerizing rhythmic foundation, but too often, I felt that the rest of the band wasn't maximizing the potential of Velmer & Murphy's potent grooves. Even so, this is a band with a great sound and much potential for musical growth, and there was a lot of good music this night, even if it wasn't up to the standard of the best Sector 9 shows I have seen. We left shortly after the beginning of the second set, seeking to grab a few precious hours of sleep before the Fairgrounds.
When Theresa Anderssen's high lonesome voice and bluegrass-tinged fiddle came floating across the Fairgrounds, I thought she would be too country for my tastes. However, I was delightfully surprised by her band's jam-oriented sensibility, and Theresa herself can play the hell out of the violin. I particularly enjoyed "He Wants It," a sweaty, sexy workout that wittily turns sexual cliches upside down. Those of you who enjoy some country-fried flavor with your jamming should seek her out.
If I were to list my top favorite live acts, a lot of familiar names would be there, such as Santana, Phish, and the Allman Brothers. Los Hombres Calientes are not a household name, at least not yet, but make no mistake, they are one of the hottest live acts out there, as their name would indicate (roughly, it translates as The Hot Men). The potent combination of N.O. youngbloods Jason Marsalis on drums and Irvin Mayfield on trumpet would be enough to drive most groups, but percussionist Bill Summers, who played with Herbie Hancock's legendary Headhunters, pushes this band to the next level.
A windy day at Jazz Fest can wreak havoc with the sound quality, but Irvin Mayfield showed that he was up to the challenge on this blustery Saturday. During his first solo, he seemed to harmonize with the wind itself by producing windy sounds from his trumpet. Once he was fully synched up, he let loose a powerful trumpet blast that let the crowd know that Los Hombres Calientes were in the house. Soon the entire Acura Stage area was moving and grooving to their powerful, swinging sound.
Bill Summers was next in the spotlight, hammering out complex polyrhthyms that brought the band's Latin flavor to the forefront. As a percussionist, Summers' performance elicited a mixture of inspiration and despondent thoughts of "I'll never be THAT good." After a truly inciendiary tune that featured a spirited exchange between Mayfield and the keyboard player, the band brought it all home with a second-line New Orleans jam. Once again, Los Hombres Calientes had shown why they are the top seller at the CD tent every year: tremendous chops, passionate and intense interplay between players, and the incredibly dynamic rhythmic team of Marsalis and Summers.
The funky Meters are my favorite band. If you want to know why, you should read my story about them in jambands.com in May, but for now, let me stick to this show, which was a doozy! Powerful, funky versions of "People Say" and "Just Kissed My Baby" let the crowd know that the band meant business, but it wasn't until the Meters classic tune Africa that the band really took flight. Guitarist Brian Stoltz was playing with some of the nastiest tone this side of Hendrix, and the rest of the band was never lazy as they subtly morphed and shifted around Stoltz's screaming licks. Finally, the band dropped out of hyperspace into "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," the old Sly Stone classic, and continued through a medley that concluded with a vigorous performance of "Look Ka Py Py."
"Fiyo On The Bayou" is usually one of my favorite funky Meters jams, and this one was smoking, right up to a somewhat botched ending that had Art Neville playfully teasing George Porter for not maintaining eye contact. After that, the band got right back on it with a fantastic version of Cissy Strut. However, the real meat of this set was the final combo of "Funkify Your Life/Ain't No Use." George Porter was playing aggressive lead bass on this phenomenal half hour jam, directing the band in and out of some of the best jams I've ever heard. As good as the rest of the band is, (and there are times when I wonder if drummer Russell Batiste could really be human) today George showed me something.
To be fair, the rest of the band has gone up a notch since the last time I saw them, and George has always been my favorite. Of course, with a band like the funky Meters, it isn't just the individual playing, it's how they play together that counts, and just when I thought this band couldn't get any better in that regard, they have. I can't wait to check out their new live CD, Fiyo at the Fillmore, and if it is as good as what I saw this weekend, you should too!
Starting to get tired and sunburned by this point, but a nice spot under a shade tree was just the ticket for the James Brown of zydeco music, Buckwheat Zydeco. I have seen Buckwheat many times, but the amazingly beautiful weather and good vibes seemed to inspire him to play at a level I had never seen him reach before. As always, his band was fantastic as well, cranking up incredibly danceable high-energy grooves for Buckwheat to lay his trademark accordion riffs on top. I was having a great time, and didn't necessarily want to leave, but there was one more act I had to see...
I only got a chance to see a few minutes of legendary jazz drummer Max Roach, but that was enough for me to recommend checking out this national treasure. Max still has chops of steel and a great feel for the drums, and his band was very tight and polished. Their hard bop style seems a little dated, but as an example of that particular type of jazz, it doesn't get any better. By the end of the day, I walked out of the Fairgrounds thinking that I had never seen a better day of music at Jazz Fest, a heavy statement if ever there was one. And I STILL wasn't done!
After much-needed showers and food, my buddy Mike and I headed back to the Howlin Wolf for Karl Denson's Tiny Universe. There aren't many bands in the world that could compare favorably with with the music we had already seen that day, but luckily for us, KDTU is one of them. From the opening blast of Dance Lesson No. 2., the title track of Karl's new album, the whole band was exploding with funky energy. Mike, who had never seen Karl Denson before, was absolutely blown away by the raw power and big sound of the man and his band.
To be honest, so was I. I have seen Karl several times, but it was immediately obvious that he has taken his music to a higher level. The band was SO tight, the material was SO good, I remember thinking to myself that someday soon, it might not be possible to see KDTU in such a small room. Family Tree was especially fantastic, going off on an awe-inspiring improv jam before dropping seamlessly back into the groove.
As it turned out, by the time the day was done, so were we. After an hour and a half of non-stop dancing, Mike and I simply ran out of fuel. It pained us to walk out while Karl Denson was still jamming hard, but sometimes you just have to admit defeat. Jazz Fest, you win! Next year I'll be back, and maybe I'll be able to do it ALL...