Jazz Fest | 04.24-04.26 | New Orleans, LA

Words by: Jim Welte | Images by: Adam McCullough & Tamara Grayson

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival :: 04.24.09 - 04.26.09 :: Fair Grounds Race Course :: New Orleans, LA

Second Line Parade
Jazz Fest 2009 by McCullough
From the moment you set foot inside the main gate at the Fair Grounds Race Course, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is like a music and food lover's "Choose Your Own Adventure" novel, with nearly every option inciting pure sonic and culinary bliss. A morning beignet in the Gospel Tent with Arthur Clayton & Purposely Anointed? A lazy afternoon perked up by some Crawfish Monica and the Drive-By Truckers joined by Booker T? How about a stroll to the Gentilly Stage for the sounds of Spoon and the Dirty Dozen horns, stopping for a quick bowl of gumbo along the way? Etta James and a Soft Shell Crab Po-Boy, anyone? All signs point to yes.

Musical and gastronomic possibilities abound, not to mention the cooking and craftsman demonstrations, displays from an array of artists from around the country, insightful interviews in the grandstand, and a level of people watching rivaled only by the train wrecks stumbling down Bourbon Street in the wee hours of the night. The likes of Coachella, Outside Lands and Lollapalooza certainly boast bigger names and budgets, but in an era where almost every major market has a blockbuster music festival to call its own, none can match Jazz Fest's authenticity, vitality and deep ties to the history of its setting.

Now in its 40th year, the 2009 edition of Jazz Fest continues to ramp up post-Hurricane Katrina, expanding to its full complement of 12 stages, up from nine last year, and seven days, up from six in recent years. The event's first of two weekends boasted music from nearly 200 acts, including the likes of Dave Matthews Band, Crescent City native Wynton Marsalis and his Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Joe Cocker, Erykah Badu, James Taylor, Earth Wind and Fire, Pete Seeger, Hugh Masekela, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Etta James and many more.

Friday | 04.24.09

You could hear the percussion from well outside the Fair Grounds. A full-fledged Brazilian Carnival parade was sauntering down the walkway leading onto the race course, and the mass of people surrounding it made it difficult to tell who - or, more to the point, how many - were making such fantastic noise. It was Casa Samba, a New Orleans-based samba school that was showcasing its diverse troupe of drummers and dancers and delivering a swift wake-up call to the just-arrived attendees that it was game time.

Booker T. and the DBTs
Jazz Fest 2009 by McCullough
Further along the walkway in front of a huge crowd at the Acura Stage, Bayou native son Marc Broussard was diving into a cover of Bill Withers' classic "Lovely Day," which proved about as euphoric a summation as any artist would provide on the day. After the soulful pop ballad "Hard Knocks," Broussard dove into the gritty, Delta blue-inflected "Home," which featured a bombastic segue into Led Zeppelin's "Whola Lotta Love." In doing so, and by closing out his set with a brief take on AC/DC's "Back in Black," Broussard and his band began a theme that would continue throughout the weekend of younger acts serving up their own takes on classic tracks.

Just a few hundred feet away, Northern California slide guitar master Roy Rogers was setting the Blues Tent on fire with scorching assaults on his own originals and covers of blues standards like Willie Dixon's "Built for Comfort" and Robert Johnson's "Terraplane Blues." Joined by longtime bassist Steve Ehrmann and drummer Billy Lee Lewis, the 58-year-old Rogers put on a virtual clinic on the slide guitar. Later in the set, with Louisiana legend Marcia Ball sitting in on piano, Rogers' playing was feathery on tracks like "River of Tears" and ferocious on "Walkin' the Levee," both of which are on his latest album, Split Decision. His set was easily one of the highlights of the weekend.

The pairing of the Drive-By Truckers and Booker T. on the Acura Stage was an intriguing one. Just as they did for veteran soul singer Bettye LaVette in 2007, the stalwart Southern rockers served as Booker T.'s backing band on his recent Potato Hole, his first solo album in 20 years. The group's 70-minute set featured music from both acts, with the Truckers' tracks proving most compelling and Booker's brief medley inciting the crowd to its feet. Truckers' co-founder Patterson Hood showed off his lyrical muscle on "Goode's Field Road," a timely and heart-wrenching tale of a guy contemplating blowing his brains out in the hopes that the insurance money will help his family get out from under a mountain of debt. "Honey, take care of the children, pay the house off when the salvage yard gets sold/ And you don't know nothing when the insurance man asks questions/ Bout what went down at the Goode's Field Road," he sang. Later in the set, Booker T. grabbed the spotlight for a run through several tracks off Potato Hole, as well as a funky take on the instrumental cut "Time Is Tight." Backed by the Truckers' vaunted three guitars, Booker's B3 organ built to a boiling crescendo and that had the Truckers sounding a whole lot more like the MG's.

Trombone Shorty
Jazz Fest 2009 by Grayson
Perhaps more than any other first weekend performer, Jazz Fest was a coming out party for Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews. The 23-year-old native of New Orleans' Treme neighborhood, who attended his first Jazz Fest in 1990 at the age of four, is featured on this year's Congo Square festival poster. Shorty famously played his trombone years before his arms were even long enough to reach all the positions of the slide, including one famous Jazz Fest photo in which he's doing so in front of Bo Diddley in 1990. In his afternoon set at the Gentilly Stage, Shorty was accompanied by his Orleans Avenue band, a six-piece outfit anchored by a tight rhythm section that gave his brassy sound plenty of funk. The Andrews family is chock full of musicians that have played in dozens of bands throughout New Orleans, but Trombone Shorty has shown himself to be a frontman. On "(You Got the) Same Thang On," Andrews sang, blew, and playfully nudged the crowd to sing along, and just minutes later picked up the trumpet and led his group through a soulful instrumental cover of Al Green's classic "Let's Stay Together." Shorty has come up.

If there was one performance that sonically captured the historical magnitude of New Orleans in American music culture, it was the late afternoon set by Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Ghanian percussionist Yacub Addy and his nine-piece ensemble Odadaa! The massive group played Congo Square, an epic 2006 composition that saw Marsalis and Addy attempt to bridge the rhythms of West Africa and the roots of jazz. The piece is based on the square in what is now called Louis Armstrong Park, where slaves gathered on Sunday afternoon in the 1800s, a place that Marsalis has called "one little desperate outpost of soul." Not surprising with such a massive undertaking, the music had its peaks and valleys in a live, open air setting. At times, the two groups seemed overly cautious of getting in each other's way. But when they found the pocket, with Odadaa! in full flight and the Lincoln brass surging in accompaniment, it was Basie meets Olatunji, a perfect marriage of big band jazz and West African percussion.

Nearby on the Gentilly Stage, Spoon was adding an entirely different flavor to the sonic stew. Built around sharp rhythms and frontman Britt Daniels' angular delivery, Spoon churns out concise blasts of compelling rock. A trio of horn players from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band joined in for a few tunes, adding even more rhythmic density to a band driven by it. "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" was downright funky, while "The Ghost of You Lingers" had a cinematic vibe. The band also unveiled several new tracks that didn't deviate from what this band does well. While Spoon rocked, Joe Cocker showed that he'll go into retirement kicking and screaming. The 64-year-old British rock-soul singer shrieked, grunted and growled his way through a set dominated by cover songs he turned into hits. On the biggest of them all, "With a Little Help From My Friends," the flush-faced Cocker wailed his way through the verses, leaning heavily on his outstanding backup vocalists. But when it came time for the chorus, he had thousands of friends to help him get along.

Joe Cocker :: Jazz Fest 2009 by McCullough

Continue reading for coverage of Saturday at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival...


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