Words by: Tom Speed | Images by: Adam McCullough
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival :: 05.01.08 – 05.04.08 :: The Fairgrounds :: New Orleans, LA
As the t-shirts being proudly worn by many festivalgoers proclaimed, "Soul Is Waterproof." Indeed, three years after Hurricane Katrina and the resultant floods that devastated most of the city in 2005, New Orleans is still damaged, but determined. For the last three years, a cornerstone of the city's culture, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, has served as a means to reaffirm that determination and confirm the city's spiritual commitment. Doctors of terminally ill patients often refer to the "will to live" as a determining factor of survival. If New Orleans was once terminal, she isn't now. The city is wounded but her soul is strong, and that unsinkable spirit was on full display during the second weekend of Jazz Fest this year.
Stevie Wonder :: Jazz Fest 2008
While torrential rains marred the first weekend, the second weekend was bookended by two beautiful, blue-sky days that featured the return of two Jazz Fest mainstays. The days between were washed with rain and mud but only slightly so. Widespread Panic headlined on Thursday (the first time the festival had returned to its four-day second weekend format since '05) and the Neville Brothers returned to their traditional festival-closing slot on the same stage Sunday. Neither band had played in the city since Katrina, and their returns marked a welcome homecoming, a reclamation of some normalcy and a needed sense of healing.
The main stage also featured stellar performances by legends like Jimmy Buffett, Santana and Stevie Wonder, while the smaller stages and tents celebrated the best of New Orleans music and performers from around the world. Most of the big touring acts wisely brought out guest performers from New Orleans and Louisiana. The Wild Magnolias played with Widespread Panic, Irma Thomas with Stevie Wonder, Sonny Landreth and Allen Toussaint with Jimmy Buffet and Carlos Santana guested with the Neville Brothers.
Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has taken place in New Orleans for 39 years now. It's one of the world's leading music festivals. But for many, it's far more than a mere music festival. It's a celebration of a culture that helped form America's musical identity. It's notable that "heritage" is part of the name of the festival, because as the "Cradle of Jazz," New Orleans' importance in the cultural fabric of American music cannot be overstated. Here, where the Mississippi River spills out into the Gulf, is where our collective music fermented and sprung forth, as if all of the detritus of the soul in the soil of our nation deposited here and stewed together in a melting pot reflected in song. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, or simply "Jazz Fest" as it is most often known, is something akin to a pilgrimage for some and the pull is due to the intangible uniqueness of New Orleans culture. It's the place where happening across a half dozen dancers in feathered headdresses is not at all unusual, where you may be pulled into a second line almost against your will, where being dirty, grimy and exhausted can actually be a cleansing experience. Stepping across the racetrack that encircles most of the festival grounds has the effect of stepping into a different, magical world. It's as if all of New Orleans' eccentricities were concentrated in one magic potion and poured liberally into one mud puddle that you get to splash around in.
Glen David Andrews :: Jazz Fest 2008
The festival originated downtown at Congo Square, but after just two years moved to its current, larger digs. Commonly referred to as "The Fairgrounds," the fest location has nothing to do with Ferris wheels and cotton candy. Rather, the festival takes place mostly on the infield area of a horseracing track. There are three large performance stages (Acura, Gentilly and Congo Square), two smaller ones (Fais Do Do and Jazz & Heritage) and two tents (Economy Hall and the Kid's Tent) on the racetrack infield. They surround a marketplace of Louisiana's world famous cuisine and craftsmanship. On the tarmac next to the racetrack grandstand, three more performance tents - The Blues Tent, Jazz Tent and Gospel Tent - also host musical acts from all over the globe.
In the last decade or so, the throngs of people flocking to New Orleans for the Fest have sparked a wellspring of nighttime concerts that target this music-loving crowd. New Orleans has always had an active nightlife, but on these weekends the options are simply overwhelming. Every club in town features shows until sunrise it seems; concerts take place on riverboats, in warehouses and in little nooks and crannies that are many things other than concert venues the rest of the year. Many of the gorgeous venues that have played host to some of the most legendary of these shows, such as the Orpheum and Saenger Theater, are still shuttered, as they have been for three years, which has necessitated some of the improvised venues, which only underscores the still-damaged nature of New Orleans' infrastructure. That all happens at night, and that's all well and good and fun and debaucherous and all that. But, it's not Jazz Fest. Jazz Fest takes place at the Fairgrounds from about 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. on the last Friday, Saturday and Sunday of April and the following Thursday through Sunday. Every year.
Michael Franti :: Jazz Fest 2008
Most Jazz Fest-goers are repeat offenders and each has their own approach. While some studiously examine the lineup, also known as "the cubes," to meticulously map out every act they want to take in, others are content to merely float from one stage to another, maybe jumping in a second line parade along the way or falling prey to the siren call of gastronomical delicacies drifting through the air.
Me, I'm a floater. The best memories I have of Jazz Fest are being floored by folks I'd previously been unfamiliar with but have since come to love - Donald Harrison in the Jazz Tent, Olu Dara at the Congo Stage or Keith Frank at the Fais Do Do Stage. The list goes on. If something doesn't suit me, I float to another stage and wherever I land is where I usually find that unexpected epiphany. Things changed this year for me, though, and I went into the weekend unsure of my ability to float around on a whim. That's because it was the first time I would be attending the Fest with a new festival companion whose wants and needs supercede my own - my ten month old son Jack.
A Ribbon In The Sky
More than 70,000 people per day sometimes show up for this celebration. Many of them congregate around one of the large stages. The largest, now called the Acura Stage for its current corporate sponsor (though you might hear old-timers still refer to it as the "Ray Ban Stage," though it hasn't been sponsored by Ray Ban in years), features JumboTrons and bleacher seating and stretches the full width of the infield. Festival goers stake out property with blankets and chairs and mark them with high-flying flags to help them find their way back to home base. It's where the big names hold court. This often includes many of the legendary figures you might be able to see at other festivals, but always includes the most legendary of New Orleans performers, too.
Dave Schools - WSP :: Jazz Fest 2008
The second weekend of this year provided a flawless illustration. Acura was home to headliners Widespread Panic, Stevie Wonder, Jimmy Buffet, Alejandro Escovedo and Santana, but also played host to New Orleanians The Neville Brothers, the subdudes, Papa Grows Funk, PBS, Bonerama and Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes.
Widespread Panic has been a regular player in the Jazz Fest schedule rotation since 1997 when they first played an abbreviated set on what was then the Sprint, now the Gentilly, Stage. When they returned in 1999, they drew the ire of locals when they were awarded two full slots on the main stage. Those were slots that could have been given to other artists, the locals argued. Widespread Panic argued that they needed their normal two-set format to give their fans what they wanted, and it's not debatable that they bring their own ticket-and-beer-buying fans in droves. Panic returned two years later and over time seems to have forged a compromise. They'd play a one set format, but were afforded a two and a half hour slot, more than most. It was enough time to do their thing, without pissing off the locals. They stayed on an every-other-year schedule until their last performance in 2005, three months before Katrina.
Both Widespread Panic and The Neville Brothers had been hounded in online message board communities (because that's the kind of thing online message board communities do) for the fact that they had not played in the city since the storm. The Neville Brothers have long been considered ambassadors of the city. Like many others, some band members relocated to other parts of the country after the storm and have not returned. Worse, some members of the Nevilles have made some controversial statements about the city in the press. Some fans perceived this to be a slap in the face to the city, a betrayal when they were needed most.
Similarly, the Widespread Panic fans that inhabit the dark crannies of the Internet cried foul when Panic failed to return to New Orleans shortly following Katrina. Widespread Panic isn't from New Orleans, but many feel they are inextricably linked to the city. Their sound is heavily influenced by New Orleans music (whose isn't?), and more importantly, they made the city home to their legendary run of multi-night Halloween performances for several years at the University of New Orleans Arena. Their three year absence from New Orleans was the longest since they played in New Orleans for the first time, in 1990. Some Gulf South Spreadheads felt slighted when Panic didn't find a way to come back and play and help lift the spirits of the wounded city. They contributed tracks to two benefit albums. For some that wasn't enough.
Page McConnell with PBS :: Jazz Fest 2008
But, this past weekend, bygones were bygones for both the Neville and Panic camps as bands and fans engaged in an orgy of make-up sex.
Panic's Thursday set started off somewhat mediocre and predictable, but by the time they worked their way into the funky strut of longtime staple "Love Tractor" they were firing on all cylinders and only let off the gas on a few occasions. Guest Page McConnell came out and they had playful fun transitioning into the old Bukka White tune "Fixin' To Die," which has become a staple since ARU-alum Jimmy Herring has taken over the lead guitar spot. The Wild Magnolia Mardi Gras Indians joined them during the "drums" segment, resplendent in feather headdresses. Keyboardist Jojo Hermann led them through "Big Chief" before the remainder of the band returned. Hermann and vocalist John Bell would later participate in a block party benefit for the Wild Mags in New Orleans' Central City. It wasn't the best set they've ever played at Jazz Fest, but it was a welcome return, and one that saw them incorporate some new stuff that worked ("Angels on High") and didn't ("Her Dance Needs No Body"), revisiting some old classics of both the heavy variety ("Impossible") and the feel-good party anthems ("Porch Song") on which they've built their reputation.
Festival organizer Quint Davis referred to The Neville Brothers set on Sunday as a "family reunion" and it was in the literal and figurative senses. Whatever animosity existed between the Nevilles and the thousands of New Orleanians huddled at the Acura Stage was seemingly forgotten as they worked through the best of their extensive soulful, funky repertoire - "Yellow Moon," "Fire On the Bayou," "Iko Iko" and others. They brought up next generation Nevilles Ivan (keyboards) and Ian (guitar) along with fellow funskter George Porter Jr. and then Carlos Santana for a ripping rendition of "Ain't No Use."
The Neville Brothers :: Jazz Fest 2008
Friday's Acura headliner was the legendary Stevie Wonder, who wowed the crowd by mining his old-school catalog, too. Getting funky with "Livin' For The City," "Boogie On Reggae Woman" and other '70s-era grooves, the incomparable keyboardist only occasionally dipped into the cheesier ballads in his repertoire. He brought out New Orleans R&B legend Irma Thomas for a set-closing rendition of "Superstitious."
Saturday headliner Jimmy Buffett played his hits to his normal Parrot Head contingent, quipping before "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere": "Usually this song refers to five o'clock in the afternoon but I know for some of you people it's five in the morning too!" Slide guitar wiz Sonny Landreth sat in for some tunes and hometown hero Allen Toussaint joined them for a closing interpretation of "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?"
Of course, at the other end of the grounds an entirely different party was happening all weekend. The Gentilly Stage, nee Sprint Stage, featured equally excellent if perhaps sometimes lesser drawing acts all weekend. Randy Newman opposed Widespread Panic, John Prine played while Stevie Wonder did and Sunday featured an all-out onslaught. It's tough to pick your poison when you have such nice conundrums. You can't see it all (trust me, I've tried) and the old adage of judging a festival by how great the acts were you had to skip to see the ones you saw was never more true than this weekend. I set aside Sunday for my Gentilly Day and the sequence of at least some of the following sets: Sonny Landreth, Galactic, The Raconteurs and The Radiators. Each of these shows was amazing in its own way. Sonny Landreth gets my "Most Unheralded" award of the weekend. Whipping wicked slide guitar into blues stomps, Landreth's mild demeanor stands in contrast to his ferocious playing, but his skill is unmistakable.
Jack White - The Raconteurs Jazz Fest 08
Galactic was next up on Gentilly and they started in with the guests spots pretty quickly, inviting sousaphone player Matt Perrine on for several songs. Perrine has been a longtime collaborator with this group, having been a member of drummer Stanton Moore's side project More and Moore. As is indicative of their (everybody's?) current Zeppelin obsession, they squeezed in a cover of "Immigrant Song" before bringing up Jurassic 5's Chali2na, one of many hip-hop artists to appear on Galactic's recent CD, From The Corner To The Block.
The Raconteurs blazed through their set with selections from each of their two albums, featuring searing retro-rock including the expected "Steady As She Goes" from Broken Boy Soldiers and "So Many Shades of Black" from their recent Consolers of The Lonely. Jack White commanded the audience decked out in a dark red vest adorned with bones.
The Radiators and their fans never cease to amaze me. This proto-jam band have been flying slightly under the radar and putting on a hell of a party for 30 years, mining the American Songbook to present soulful tunes and blistering improvisations to their adoring Fish Heads. For years, as the Nevilles closed out the Fest on the Acura Stage, the real down and dirty party has been on the other end of the field with The Rads. It was no different this year. Proving that everything is better with horns when you're in New Orleans, they invited Bonerama's Mark Mullins up to play trombone on "Ring Of Fire" and worked their way through a plethora of their own gems.
A few days earlier, Jack and I spent some time at the Gentilly Stage, too. As it turns out, he's a floater, too (whew). Thanks to a nifty backpack contraption, Jack - who at only ten months old and not very ambulatory - was able to sit on my back and visit the smaller stages. We took in the Cajun sounds of DL Menard and the Louisiana Aces (sung in English and Cajun French) at The Fais-Do Do. After a swing around the Congo Square Market to pick up a nifty little drum for Jack and a trip to the Louisiana Jazz & Heritage stage, we wound up at Gentilly for the John Butler Trio. We spread out on the grass to hear Butler and his trio play their mostly genial feel-good grooves, but when it came time for the Katrina-invoking "Gov't Did Nothing" the tone took a more ominous turn. The drumbeats became more menacing, and Butler produced an enchanting sound by screaming the lyrics into the sound hole of his dobro. As if called in by incantation, the rains began, hammering hard and heavy. Normally, I might have stayed to revel in the synchronicity of musical expression and climate but my wife gathered the baby and I gathered the gear and we sought refuge in the Kid's Tent.
Bettye LaVette :: Jazz Fest 2008
There, we were treated to the glorious sound of the Rodean Choir from South Africa, an unadulterated and pure music that spoke of joy. It was a girl's school choir that performed traditional South African songs alongside everything from Broadway hits to Queen's "We Will Rock You." Children danced in the grass (Jack mostly rolled around) as the rain pummeled outside. During a respite, I slipped outside to assess the situation. The rain had ceased. I looked toward the Gentilly Stage and saw the unmistakable mist of a rainbow arching over the Fairgrounds. I ducked back in and we enjoyed the last of the choir as they sang an inspiring version of "When The Saints Go Marching In" and the girls left the stage to come dance with kids of all ages. As it happens every year, so it happened this year. I was floored by an act I would have otherwise never seen had I not happened across it. And in the Kid's Tent of all places! We made our way to the Acura Stage just in time to hear Stevie Wonder singing, over and over as if it were a mantra, about the "Ribbon In the Sky." I couldn't help but wonder if he had felt what I had seen.
Everybody Needs Somebody
Our experience in the Kid's Tent was one of many spine-tingling moments that occurred during the weekend. Whether seeking a respite from the sun or the rain or just grabbing a seat in a chair for a change, slipping into one of the tents usually results in a happy accident.
Zydeco Jam featuring Buckwheat Zydeco :: Jazz Fest 2008
The Carolina Chocolate Drops, a retro jug band, thrilled the Blues Tent on Thursday with banjoes, kazoos, foot-tapping and actual jug blowing. Though some might think the band's approach borders on minstrelsy, there's nothing but sincerity and respect in the way they breathe life into this nearly forgotten pre-rock 'n' roll music. It was awe-inspiring, foot-stomping fun. The next day, The Lee Boys brought the Blues Tent house down with Solomon Burke's "Everybody Needs Somebody to Love" and a "Lovelight" jam to end their set of sacred steel glory.
Elsewhere, Chick Corea and Bobby McFerrin reportedly dropped jaws in the Jazz Tent, but I missed that. In fact, I missed more of the tents than I normally do for whatever reason, maybe the weather, maybe because I made a point to put more emphasis on the Fest than the nighttime revelry this year. I missed Snooks Eaglin, Keb 'Mo and Bettye LaVette in the Blues Tent; Donald Harrison, Irvin Mayfield and The Bad Plus in the Jazz Tent; and Aaron Neville in the Gospel Tent. Perhaps that is part of the pull that brings people back year after year, the chance to experience things they missed.
Jambalaya, Crawfish Pie and a File' Gumbo
In Louisiana, food is religion. You can be cast out of the family for the heretical action of adversely altering the family gumbo recipe. Food determines friends, family, even social status. It's not an afterthought. It's a raison d'etre. It's art. That's why food is equally as important to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival as music. It's one of the things that sets Jazz Fest apart from just about every other music festival out there. At Jazz Fest, you aren't reduced to subsisting on corn dogs, pizza slices or the other county fair-type food that you find at most fests. Food here is an endless attraction and crucial component.
Storyville Stompers Brass Band :: Jazz Fest 2008
Food vendors come from all over the state of Louisiana (and only from Louisiana). They include unique and creative new concoctions and longtime favorites. The Crawfish Monica, The Natchitoches Meat Pie and Alligator Pie are always relished. A recent favorite of mine has been the combo Oyster Pattie, Crawfish Sack and Crawfish Beignets from Chalmette's Patton's Caterers. And I rarely attend a Jazz Fest without sampling the Crawfish Strudel from River Ridge's Coffee Cottage.
But, there are also new delights to discover each year. This year, Slidell's Cajun Duck Po-Boy was a particularly fine discovery. The duck breast meat was sliced almost like a pulled pork sandwich and served with a pickle and onion on soft po-boy bread. A combo plate of Spinach Artichoke Casserole, Seafood Au Gratin, and Sweet Potato Pone from Covington's Ten Talents Catering was also a new favorite. The Sweet Potato Pone has a dense, almost brownie-like consistency. The Cochon De Lait from New Orleans' Love At First Bite was a new winner. Jack particularly liked the Mango Freeze, which was a new one for him, but probably only him. Thankfully, all of the vendors offer portions sizable enough to get a good taste but small enough to be able to sample several tastes.
Though New Orleans is world-renowned for its fine restaurants, I find it ludicrous to try to work in dining visits while in town for Jazz Fest, because you do so at the expense of the fine food at the fest. A New Orleans restaurant trip is a vacation unto itself.
The 2008 Jazz Fest was reaffirming, invigorating and, most of all, fun. But it wasn't all unicorns and rainbows. The rains on the first weekend were sufficient enough to make even the sunniest days muddy ones, despite the brand new sod trucked in between weekends. And despite the fact that attendance topped 400,000 over the two weekends, the largest crowds since Katrina, it still appears as though Jazz Fest is struggling financially. Since Katrina, Shell Oil has stepped in as a primary sponsor. The official name of the festival is now The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, presented by Shell. On Sunday, a small plane banner flew overhead taking Shell to task for their offshore drilling practices. It read: "Shell. Enjoy The Music. Fix the Coasts You Broke." Politics aside, their involvement has meant more and more corporate VIP areas. The festival is selling more VIP packages, alienating the haves from the have-nots at a festival that's always been a binding force that brings together people regardless of economic background. On top of all that, the one-day gate ticket price was increased this year to $50, a sum that is probably a tad too princely for many of the still down and out denizens of still damaged New Orleans.
Aaron Neville in the Gospel Tent :: Jazz Fest 2008
But something this strong, this unique and this committed cannot be drowned or forgotten. Jazz Fest can be emblematic of a city unique in its cultural import and influence, a city that remains steadfast and strong in the face of an unspeakable disaster that it has only just really begun to recover from. Or it can become another event overcome by the sameness of corporate Generica. That line may be thinner than ever before, but by most accounts and my own observations, the former happened this weekend. Once again, magic was spun. In New Orleans, the soul is strong and can't be drowned.
Continue reading for more images from the Second Weekend of Jazz Fest...