Words by: Amanda Anderson | Images by: Adam McCullough & Tamara Grayson
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival :: 04.30.09 - 05.03.09 :: Fair Grounds Race Course :: New Orleans, LA
After four straight days of live music in the Louisiana sunshine, sweating among crowds of thousands, swallowing Cajun delights, wandering through booths of cutting-edge visual arts and dancing in the dirt at Weekend Two of the 40th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, I feel like I've been up the magic beanstalk, adrift in a mystical, all-ages playland. Now that the Fair Grounds, the horseracing track where Jazz Fest is held, is silent again and I've been rudely dumped back onto the ground, I console myself with the knowledge that as a New Orleans local, I can enjoy spicy food and live music any day of the year. My heart goes out to our guests who came for the experience and now leave us, a little looser and a little dirtier. It's never easy to leave New Orleans, and even harder after the senses have been bombarded with all things Louisiana, which encompasses Africa, France and Spain, Voudou, gospel and the Catholic Church.
|Jazz Fest 2009 by McCullough|
My predecessor from the first half of Fest did a splendid job at describing this event in a linear fashion; I offer here an alternate approach – flashes from the front lines, a montage of musical moments to simulate the Jazz Fest experience, where you're listening to R&B and can hear Zydeco off in the background, eating a mango freeze while smelling fried chicken, thinking you're still in America but feeling as if you're outside its borders. And you are.
You get hexed at the small stages, which usually offer local acts such as Mardi Gras Indians and brass bands. These folks grew up on gris-gris and know how to cast a spell. Mardi Gras Indians, a tradition which started when escaped African slaves found refuge with the local Houma Indians, continue to pay homage to native cultures by hand-sewing full-body suits of feathers and beads, then joining other tribe members in the streets, parading in their handiwork. As their name suggests, Mardi Gras morning is the classic time to see the Indians out in full regalia.
|Fi Yi Yi :: Jazz Fest 2009 by Grayson|
Heavy on the tambourine and bass drum, Indian music drove hard, forcing the audience to chant along to "Wild Man Hurt Nobody." An Indian with the name of Fi Yi Yi (the "i" sounds long, like "eye") danced onstage in his suit of feathers, accented with long bundles of straw hanging down from the sleeves and down the back, like a giant Voudou doll. He wore an African mask under a hat made from sticks, reminding me of Legba, the guardian of the crossroads between the spirit realm and the real world. There might be something to this: it wasn't even noon and I was already caught in the music, unable to leave the stage. We chanted "Hoo Na Nay" as Fi Yi Yi sang of Mardi Gras morning adventures. We stood transfixed as he related a tale of visiting the Lakota in South Dakota, his backup chanting, "I feel spirit everywhere." Later, I stumbled upon Fi Yi Yi being interviewed. He explained how he came up with his name – he just grunted it out one morning and realized it was his spiritual name. He offered it up to all of us to use when we're feeling down. Just say, "Fi Yi Yi," and it all gets better.
Oh The Agony
Don't wait until you get hungry to start eating. You do not want to decide between all of the regional delicacies with low blood sugar – the mind needs to be powered up to attempt such a decision. At just one of many food stations offerings included Fried Crab Cakes with Smoked Tomato Jalapeno Tartar, Seafood Mirliton Casserole, Fried Green Tomatoes, Crawfish-Stuffed Puff, Seafood Au Gratin, Spinach Casserole, Fried Eggplant, Alligator Pie, Hot Sausage Po-Boy, BBQ Chicken, Cajun Duck Po-boy and Cochon De Lait. If you don't like fried food, seafood or meat, your choice becomes easier; though you still have to consider dessert choices of Mango Freeze, White Chocolate Bread Pudding, Apple Turnover, Sweet Potato Pie, Hand-Scooped Ice Cream, Cannoli, Gelato, Strawberry Shortcake and so forth. Now, if you don't like dessert, either, not much we can do for you.
|Aaron Neville :: Jazz Fest 2009 by Grayson|
I stand by my choice of the Crawfish Beignets. The French version of our donut, a beignet may seem like an odd place for crawfish – nowhere else I know puts seafood inside donuts - but some things simply transcend common sense. Crispy on the outside, the warm nuggets had a dense, doughy middle, punctuated with flavors of hot peppers, onion and, yes, crawfish. A tangy remoulade sauce added the perfect amount of creaminess to the dish, which I ate standing up. Another Jazz Fest phenomenon: most food is consumed standing, not only due to a lack of seating near the food vendors, but because it's too delicious not to shove immediately into your mouth.
Every Shade of Blue
Day Two started in the Blues Tent with Washboard Chaz, a local musician famous not only for his washboarding skills, but for his namesake music festival. (In its fourth year, Chazfest happens the Wednesday before Jazz Fest Weekend Two, and primarily hosts acts that showcase the breadth of local talent outside the Jazz Fest lineup.) With the tent's overhead misters gently wetting my notebook, I noted Chaz's calm, sly smile as he ran his pick up and down his metal washboard, tapping the tin cans wired to the bottom, accompanied by guitar and harmonica. He played "Don't Leave Me Here," a breezy, rolling melody, and the sort of song that fills the sails for the day ahead.
|Buddy Guy :: Jazz Fest by McCullough|
I'd never heard of Kenny Neal, but his guitar lured us into the Blues Tent to enjoy the full sounds of his two-keyboard band. Swaying with the guitar, he got the whole crowd singing "Since I Met You," then switched to the dulcimer to close with the bouncy "Blues, Leave Me Alone," creating some of the happiest blues I'd ever come across.
It shocked me to hear such a strong and haunting soprano coming out of the wizened, 86-year-old Doc Watson, who picked his guitar for a full-capacity Blues Tent. Fast picking, sweet singing and occasional yodeling marked his set, where he played classics such as "Summertime," "If I Needed You (Would You Come To Me)" and rockabilly versions of "Tutti Frutti" and "Whole Lotta Shakin'." He got two standing ovations.
I sought out Chris Thomas King at the Blues Tent, in time to hear him play "Baby Can't Be Found." Sporting a short Afro, shades and a white-hot suit, he certainly looked the part for the Blues Tent. But, I wasn't so sure about his voice, which didn't have the heft I like in a bluesman. His band was working an R&B sound, and I wondered how they'd do at Congo Square instead. Later that day, I caught a little John Mayall as I cruised by, and it sounded just like the blues should – the notes clean and slow, digging in the chest right between the ribs. You only need a minute walking past to get the real blues.
Although a tent is usually small, Jazz Fest Tents are not. They easily seat a couple hundred people and often pack in more: when Buddy Guy closed the Blues Tent this year, fans took every seat and crowded the aisles. The Chicago guitar man filled up the rest of the space under the tall canvas ceiling, where the air pulsated with emotion. His voice ranged from gravelly to sassy to sweet, as in John Hyatt's "Feels Like Rain," a suitable anthem for an almost-finished Fest. But before we had to leave, he threaded Hendrix and Iron Maiden riffs into a screaming electric jam, the bites of familiar melodies anchoring us to our previous reality, stopping our heads from flying off completely.
Bunk Don't Tip
Wendell Pierce from HBO's The Wire is in New Orleans working on Treme, an HBO pilot about one of our city's most misunderstood historic neighborhoods. He showed up at Jazz Fest, according to an anonymous source working the beer trailer outside the Blues Tent. I asked my source about his brush with fame, when he sold the man a beer, and he replied: "Bunk don't tip."
|Jazz Fest Triathlon :: Jazz Fest 2009 by Grayson|
Join the Triathlon!
Who knew that there's been an annual Jazz Fest Triathlon (JFT for short) for as long as anyone can remember? Determined to check it out, I found the tri-athletes by the Fais-Do-Do Stage, dancing to Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys. I caught them between Leg One (the bike race to the Fair Grounds) and Leg Two (the mile-long foot race around the horse track), loosely gathered around a box of Coors. For Leg Three, the Bayou Swim, the group plunges in and swims across Bayou St. John after leaving the Fair Grounds.
If that weren't enough locally brewed weirdness, the JFT coincides with the Annual Watermelon Sacrifice, which takes place between sets at the Fais-Do-Do Stage on the Thursday of Weekend Two. Certainly if there were ever a place to sacrifice a watermelon, the Fais-Do-Do would be that place. Cajun for "dance party," Fais-Do-Do hosts the smaller Cajun and Zydeco bands, along with assorted others. Although the ground still held its sod when I was there, usually Fais-Do-Do means dancing in the mud. With a frame painted to look like an old Cajun swamp shack, this stage can bring out the country in damn near anyone - that accordion sound wraps you up like a blanket and don't let go.
In true New Orleans style, the sacrifice began as a second line, not long after Kenny Bill Stinson & the ARK-LA-Mystics finished their set. Holding up the two-foot-long watermelon, a knot of people began their chant: "Watermelon, watermelon, red to the rind/ If you don't believe, then pull down your blind/ Sell it to the rich/ Sell it to the poor/ Sell it to the woman standing in that do–oh-oh–or!/ In that do- oh -oh – or!" The second line snaked through the Fais-Do-Do area, picking up more people, the chant growing into a scream. They set the melon down, continuing the watermelon song, hands all over the melon, as if in blessing. There was some dirty dancing with the melon, yes, but all with respect. Finally, the big moment came – the inner circle heaved the melon up and down, and then finally hurled it skyward. All backed away momentarily as the giant fruit splattered onto the ground, then all hands plunged in to grab a bit of sweet, red flesh. The ceremony closed with back flips into the melon's sad remains.
|Ben Harper :: Jazz Fest 2009 by McCullough|
Watermelon sacrificed, the tri-athletes could commence with the foot race around the horse track. Pumped from witnessing this oddity in a land of oddities, I decided to run. Tradition dictates that the run begin with participants shotgunning a beer. No one leaves the starting line until they've emptied their beer can. I can't speak for the other runners, but I fear this tradition may have negatively affected my finish time. Though I did get to see both Ben Harper and Emmylou Harris during the same time slot, even if it was at a jog – the track encloses all, which may be why the tri-athletes run it.
The Jazz Fest Paradox
The field spread out in front of the Acura Stage is not for claustrophobics. The Big Names play Acura, acts which attract people willing to sit in the middle of a field all day long, without shade, just to hear the hits. Since thousands upon thousands of these people come to the Fest, the field morphs into an undulating sea of human bodies, straw hats and canvas chairs. Because finding someone in this crowd would be like spotting a particular seashell on the ocean floor, many groups hoist homemade flags to make the search a little easier. Rainbows, peace signs, blow-up cows and Styrofoam heads fill the skyline, not only helping friends find each other but also giving people something to look at, as most are too far from the stage to actually see the artist playing.
|Neil Young :: JF 2009 by McCullough|
There are screens, yes, but the sea of people flows so far back that you may find yourself in a spot where you can't even see the artist's image on the giant screen halfway deep into the field. This is where I caught the beginning of Neil Young's now-famous set, his first-ever appearance after 40 years of being courted by Jazz Fest. Because of the wind, which blew the sound waves coming from the remote speakers away from the crowd, the audio quality could have been better, yet I got to hear him take to the piano for the rollicking "Are You Ready For The Country?" and back on guitar for the sing-able "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." He played "Pocahontas" with his full band, who were a little too heavy on the instrumentation. I like the song better stripped-down, more like how he later performed "Needle and the Damage Done" simply with acoustic guitar. Warping the ending to "Cinnamon Girl" into a tidal wave of sound that reverberated through space and time, Young blasted away any doubts that he can't keep his old songbook fresh.
I can only spend so much time pressed up into the armpit of humanity, so I regret to report that I escaped Acura before "Rockin' In the Free World" and the soon-to-be legendary cover of "A Day In The Life," where he mangled his guitar as part of the encore performance. It's the Jazz Fest Paradox – the constraints of time remain the same as in the outside world, yet to truly experience the staggering amount of musical offerings, time must be suspended. How else could I hear Neil Young's encore, catch Los Lobos' Latin-flavored cover of The Grateful Dead's "Bertha," check out Dash Rip Rock and witness Guy Clark singing "Homegrown Tomaters," which all happened at approximately the same time on Sunday afternoon? True, running the track may solve this dilemma, but I'll be damned if I try that again. I'm hoping that for next year, Jazz Fest adds motorized wings to its growing assortment of merch, something for us musical dilettantes too lazy to run from one show to another.
More From the Land of A Thousand Flags
I don't want to misrepresent the Acura Stage: it's not always crowded ass to elbow. Thursday afternoon, for instance, I was able to stretch out on the grass and get my Meters on. From the first Jazz Fest lineup 40 years ago, three of the four original Meters played the Acura as The Meter Men (Art Neville renounced his Meter status after their previous reunion in 2006). With George Porter Jr. on bass, Zigaboo Modeliste on drums and Leo Nocentelli on guitar, The Meter Men came to school the crowd on New Orleans funk. They hit "People Say" with aggressive vocals, more shouting than singing, their voices not quite what they used to be. Modeliste made some corny old-man jokes ("I was in diapers when we recorded that one"), but Nocentelli's tight guitar licks were still hot, 40 years later.
|Modeliste & Porter Jr. :: Jazz Fest 2009 by McCullough|
Later that day, I returned to the Acura with the tri-athletes to catch the end of Ben Harper's set with his new band, Relentless7. He covered Queen's "Under Pressure," which had most of the crowd and all of the tri-athletes literally jumping from the joy of it - the crashing drums, the singer's earnest scatting.
Bon Jovi played at the Acura Stage, an act that I would skip if it weren't for the 14-year-old living in my psyche. She would hate me forever if I didn't at least try to hear Bon Jovi's voice, so I dragged myself away from The New Orleans Bingo! Show, a local musical cabaret outfit whose instrumentation includes grand piano, bass, drums and saxophone, as well as the megaphone, sirens and metal brushes on an old gas can. Bandleader Clint Maedgen was blowing the notes of "Down By The Riverside" on a glass coke bottle when I tore myself away from their antics.
So, I wandered into a throng of Bon Jovi fans thick enough to block the walkway around the Acura Stage, and my 14-year-old alter ego belted out "Wanted Dead or Alive" along with the aging pop star. When he started in on a tune I didn't know, I surveyed my surroundings: I had ensconced myself into a giant frat party, but without the keg. Though I must report that Jazz Fest has made a huge improvement this year by hiring wandering beer vendors, intrepidly delivering much-needed drink to those of us trapped in the crowd. Even if they do charge $6 for a bottle of Miller Lite, it's an important public service.
|The New Orleans Bingo! Show :: JF 2009 by Grayson|
Among the thousands of Bon Jovi fans, I realized that I was a part of what may have been the largest concentration of white people in the recent history of New Orleans (at least since Dave Matthews played the Fest in 2001). To confirm my theory, Bon Jovi launched into a cover of "Twist and Shout." Time to go home.
Grease Is The Word
Bonnie Raitt is happy to have stood the test of time. She's also at Acura, and even from a great distance I can spot her shocking red hair. She brings plenty of locals to the stage, playing "A Real Good Thing's About To Come To An End," with Jon Cleary scorching the piano, followed by an old Sippie Wallace tune from the 20s, "Woman Be Wise" with Glen David Andrews on trombone and his cousin James Andrews on trumpet. More locals add an extra accompaniment, the beer vendors clanging cowbells for every person tipping the jar. Even onstage, it was hot in the afternoon sunshine, prompting Raitt to give the Fest's best advice yet: "Get into that grease, honey." She then launched into the lusty "Something To Talk About," which I sang all the way to the next act.
Get The Glaze
More Jazz Fest advice: when the lady at the Marie's Sugar Dumplings booth asks you if you want your sweet potato turnover with glaze, say yes. The pie crust is the perfect balance between flaky and greasy, and filled with sweet potato spiced with just enough nutmeg to cut the sweetness. Top it off with the sugary butter glaze and say yeah.
|Glen David Andrews & Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews|
Jazz Fest 2009 by McCullough
The Dance Continues
If a dance troupe comes to the U.S. all the way from Africa, I figure they have to be quality. Jazz Fest rarely disappoints, though the Crocodile Gumboot Dancers of South Africa seemed more like an acquired taste. Accompanied by spare guitar and a fiddle repeating its tune in a minor key, the lead punctuated his chanting by loudly blowing his whistle into the mic. All six dancers wore giant black rubber work boots of the gumboot tradition that originated in the goldmines under apartheid. Even without the boots and whistle, the mining connection was made plain through all the kneeling, saluting and crouching during their dance. Percussion consisted of strings of bells around the dancers' boots combined with their synchronized thigh slapping and boot stomping. Though the talent was impressive – not easy to dance while crouching – the overall effect was unsettling with these direct reminders of apartheid and slave labor.
Providing an entirely different experience, the Ori Culture Dance Club of Benin kept a playful quality throughout their performance, which included several acts and costume changes to the accompaniment of African drums and the gourd rattle. In the first act, male dancers brandished stylized silver hatchets as they leapt, spun and thrust themselves about, all knees and elbows. The men danced off stage, followed by three women dancers with their shoulders and upper arms covered in white powder. Starting with subtle arm movements, the women worked up to seductive shoulder rolls, followed by jumping and squat-hops. Then, the men returned, wearing fishing hats and work clothes, each one balancing a boat paddle over his shoulder. Acting out a fishing tale, the male dancers worked those paddles. At one point, they stood behind their paddle and thrust at the audience.
Just when the testosterone got to be a bit much, the dancers retreated and the lead dancer came out in a hoop skirt and a kerchief. He sidled along the front of the stage, making eyes at the audience. Soon the other men joined him in hoop skirts, waving feathers instead of paddles or swords. It was refreshing to see cross-dressing at Jazz Fest; usually Mardi Gras outpaces it in this regard. They acted out a punishment scene with one of the "women" dancers down on her knees – again, the sort of thing that mostly happens here at Carnival time.
|Ori Culture Dance Club & Quint Davis (producer/director of Fest)|
Jazz Fest 2009 by Grayson
The finale employed a rainbow-colored straw hut, which, after being rubbed with the mysterious powder that the dancers not only ate but also puffed towards the audience, spawned coconuts with paint inside the color of egg yolk. The lead dancer then gobbed the paint onto his fingers and smeared it onto another dancer's bald head before smearing it on his own chest. I confess, this is the sort of culture I like – men smearing paint onto each other!
I was sad to see the act end, but considering how strongly New Orleans is tied to Africa, I wouldn't be surprised if next year's Fest has the Neville Brothers on stage in skirts, decorating each other with coconut paint.
What He Say
Both die-hard music fans and air-conditioning junkies can be found at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, located on the highest level of the Fair Grounds Grandstand. Most of the year, people gather in this space to look out through the wall of glass to see their ponies run. During Jazz Fest, people gather in this space to watch interviews with both famous and lesser-known artists. Usually the seating area has plenty of room, but the Allen Toussaint interview was a standing-room-only affair. One of the most accomplished men in the business, Toussaint has produced everybody and their mama in the New Orleans music scene, as well as established himself as a brilliant composer and pianist.
|Allen Toussaint :: Jazz Fest 2009 by Grayson|
If that weren't enough, his speaking voice is soft and cultured, a caramel melting on the tongue. When asked if he'd been influenced by the old New Orleans jazz greats like Jelly Roll Morton and Louis Armstrong, Toussaint got straight to it: "Not so much. I was too busy tryin' to catch up with Professor Longhair," and treated the audience to a brief Longhair medley. Later in the interview, he confessed that when it came to traveling, he preferred to stay in New Orleans "and never leave. I don't like to leave a shrimp po-boy too far." The audience laughed, of course, but I knew what he meant.
Speaking about his career, Toussaint quipped, "Once you say yes to music, it says yes back to you."
I looked out the viewing area, where I could see almost all of the Fair Grounds and its many stages. It wouldn't be long before the stages and tents disappeared, the out-of-towners gone, and New Orleans resumes its usual rhythms. But as Toussaint continued on, I spent a few moments observing the field of people ahead of me as they moved to and fro, still saying yes to the music after all these years.
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