Words by: Joanna Asher | Images by: Zach Mahone
Mountainside Mardi Gras Music Festival :: 08.08.09 :: Red Rocks Amphitheatre :: Morrison, CO
When you think 'Mardi Gras,' what comes to mind? Thousands of colorful beads, boas, and face paint? Second-line parades, non-stop brass band and funk music? Perhaps a group of incredibly enthusiastic partygoers ready to dance, drink and be festive? Well, that is exactly what the Mountainside Mardi Gras Music Festival at Red Rocks Amphitheatre was all about. All the music, bead-tossing, booty-shaking madness of Mardi Gras made its way into Morrison, Colorado when eight of New Orleans' most talented bands came up from the Big Easy to the Rocky Mountains. The event was a first for newly established For/Sure Productions, started by 23-year-old Trevor Jones, who was the youngest person ever to put on a show at Red Rocks. The result was a one-day festival created to pay homage to the musical Mecca that is New Orleans and to introduce Colorado to the remarkable talent of that city's performing musicians.
|New Era Brass Band leading the Second-Line Parade|
Mountainside Mardi Gras Music Festival :: Red Rocks
The thousand or so fans may not have filled the amphitheatre, but the energy they emitted was immeasurable. Equally as enthusiastic were the musicians, many having been away from their home city and fellow performers for several weeks. Artists were greeted by swarms of hugs, handshakes and friendly recognition as they reunited with each other. The positive vibes of the morning continued through headliner Dr. John's last note of "Save Our Wetlands," which closed the festival at midnight.
The concert began just after 1:00 p.m. when New Orleans rockers Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes were the first to take the Red Rocks stage, ready to kick off the inevitable funk fest. From the moment they began, JSDN's enthusiasm spread to the already-eager crowd, instantly elevating the energy level inside the amphitheatre. The set started out with a strong drum and bass line, Johnny Sketch's quick, hard-hitting guitar riffs, staccato horn accents and screaming command to the audience to "Dance!" didn't go unnoticed. There wasn't one person left sitting by the time Sketch and his boys headed into their catchy, horn-heavy rock tune "Hey Little Mama." Sketch's powerful, rocker voice perfectly complimented both the band's quick ska/rock tunes as well as the smoother, sultry ones that were accompanied by Sketch's electric cello. Their variety and high energy started the day off on a very high note.
|Mountainside Mardi Gras|
To ensure that the upbeat vibes from the first set stayed intact throughout the day, New Era Brass Band was on-call to parade through (and with) the crowd in between every set on stage. Despite the high altitude and steep incline of Red Rocks, New Era successfully led audience members through several foot-stomping, bead-slinging, sing-along parades that were pleasantly reminiscent of the quirky Crescent City.
When Big Sam's Funky Nation took the stage, they flawlessly picked up where Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes left off with some bass-heavy funk/rock to introduce Big Sam Williams as he danced his way to center stage. The band members took turns showing off their musical talents as the set started, each demonstrating his individual style be it heavy rock guitar, jazzy trumpet or smooth, funky keys. The perfect combination of these elements created an ideal backdrop for Big Sam's call-and-response exchanges, effortlessly powerful trombone playing and all star dance moves. Quickly realizing that it is impossible not to dance during a Big Sam's Funky Nation concert, audience members scoffed at the heat and the venue became home to a sun-soaked, euphoric, musically rich dance party. By the final song of the set the audience had moved their bodies "to the left" and "to the right," they "got low" and "a little bit louder now," and were fervently awaiting more music.
|Big Sam's Funky Nation :: Mountainside Mardi Gras|
Never ones to disappoint a music-hungry audience, Papa Grows Funk quickly set up the stage for their first-ever gig at historical Red Rocks. In fact, Saturday marked the first time most of the bands on the bill graced the Red Rocks stage and, if Colorado is lucky, it won't be the last. The set started off with June Yamagishi's incomparable guitar riffs, Jason Mingledorff's exceptional saxophone grooves and John "Papa" Gros' raspy, New Orleans drawl singing over his equally funky keyboard riffs. Marc Pero and Jellybean Alexander held down the rhythms on bass and drums, respectively, providing a solid base for the funked up guitar, sax and keyboard solos. The rock feel that carried over from Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes to Big Sam's Funky Nation led way to the pure and solid "stanky" funk of Papa Grows Funk's set. Pero's chest-pounding bass vibrated through the crowd, pulsing heavy rhythms through our bodies and propelling the dance party. PGF managed to infuse their style into a blues ballad, a soulful gospel number and all of their traditionally funky songs like "Stanky" and "Pass It."
After another New Era second-line parade George Porter Jr. and the Runnin' Pardners were ready to continue the good times with some classic New Orleans music. Included in the Runnin' Pardners are drummer Russell Batiste and Papa Grows Funk members John Gros on keys and Jason Mingledorff on sax. The eight-piece band proceeded to play the classiest funk of the day and Porter expertly demonstrated the way a true funk bass should sound - smooth, soulful and very loud. The set included upbeat numbers that featured the three-piece horn section as well as more soulful, sexier numbers perfectly suited for Porter's relaxed yet passionate style of playing, like his unforgettable rendition of "Sneakin' Sally." At the end of their set, George and the Runnin' Pardners joined hands for a group bow in front of a jumping, screaming, necklace-launching audience that was not quite ready to part ways with the artists. Luckily, we didn't have to wait long for the next round of incomparably talented musicians to amaze us.
|George Porter Jr. :: Mountainside Mardi Gras|
Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk is an all star band made up of some of the most well-known, talented musicians in New Orleans. Their set started off with some notably funky bass lines that could only exist through the combination of Tony Hall and Nick Daniels, two of the most badass bass players to come out of the Big Easy. The set was speckled with solos from each of the musicians during which they established themselves as individual forces to be reckoned with. As a collective group, Dumpstaphunk's vocal and instrumental harmonies blend perfectly. Included in their set were crowd favorites "Put it in the Dumpsta" and "Meanwhile." The laid-back yet celebratory New Orleans feel of the festival continued throughout the set as I began to notice several of the other musicians dotted amongst audience members to watch their fellow artists. Big Sam came into the stands to further show off his agile dance moves, and Jellybean Alexander kept a close watch on Raymond Weber's drumming abilities. It was clear the amiable comfort of the New Orleans music scene had successfully transplanted itself into Colorado.
Soon, the sun began to set and the incredibly beautiful Red Rocks cliffs were illuminated from all angles, creating an awesome backdrop for the final two sets of the day. Dirty Dozen Brass Band was up next, starting off with a funk-fueled jam featuring guitarist Jake Eckert, drummer Terence Higgins and baritone sax player Roger Lewis. As the trio played on, horns gradually trickled in to shift the original funk vibe towards a more brassy, big band resonance. Dirty Dozen Brass Band emits a sound that has a very crisp, swingy, concert hall feel as opposed to the generally more rugged, dirty funk sound of most other New Orleans brass bands. Their set was classy and sophisticated with just enough roughness around the edges to appease the crowd's thirst for brass band music. As if the eight-piece band wasn't enough, DDBB brought up countless guests to sit in, including former member Big Sam, DJ Logic, keyboardist CR Gruver, trombonist Derrick Johnson (Yo Mama's Big Fat Booty Band) and For/Sure Productions president/guitarist Trevor Jones (Frogs Gone Fishin). DDBB played some traditional tunes like "Unclean Waters" and "Fire on the Bayou" as well as several covers played with a Dirty Dozen twist such as Little Feat's "Spanish Moon" and James Brown's "Super Bad." By the time they were finished, stars were shining brightly against the pitch black sky, the backstage area was a full-fledged New Orleans family reunion, and people out front were ready for the headlining act of the day, legendary pianist-guitarist-songwriter-producer Dr. John.
|Big Sam with DDBB :: Mountainside Mardi Gras|
When the 68-year-old New Orleans funk superstar was announced, he graced the stage in an old school red pinstriped suit, black suspenders, a top hat complete with feathers and a pair of large, round-eyed sunglasses. Waltzing onto stage with a swagger appropriate for the King of New Orleans, Dr. John (known as 'Mac' to most of his fellow artists) was greeted by a standing, screaming ovation as he took a seat in between the organ and piano that were positioned on stage. Once his fingers hit the keys, Mac played with an ease that displayed his decades of musical experience. The set included funky blues/rag tracks such as "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Let the Good Times Roll," as well as some more strictly blues numbers like "How Come My Dog Don't Bark (When You Come Around,)" which was played as a memorial for a woman who "dug this song." Although he complained of the high altitude, saying, "I'm a sea level boy all the way," it did not prevent him from exercising his dancing feet and his guitar playing abilities. After ten hours of Mardi Gras revelry, the crowd's energy continued to mount while the Doctor played on.
|Dr. John :: Mountainside Mardi Gras|
As a slight rain began to sprinkle over the amphitheatre, I couldn't help but smile at the surrounding atmosphere. Behind me, renowned New Orleans artist Frenchy and two other extraordinary painters stood around easels filled with their colorful interpretations of the music. Behind the stage, dozens of musicians from earlier in the day mingled and bonded over Dr. John's exquisite playing. As I glanced at the small, wide-eyed, slightly damp audience, the appreciative smiles on their faces let me know that I wasn't the only one who was awed. It became clear that this festival was about more than just first-year ticket sales. In bringing these musicians to the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre, For/Sure Productions successfully implanted the incredible flavor and feel of the New Orleans music scene into a place hundreds of miles away both geographically and culturally. Given time to grow as an annual event, Mountainside Mardi Gras has the potential to create a passionate bond between the swamps of New Orleans and the mountains of Colorado. In the words of Dr. John, it truly was "Such a Night".
Continue reading for more pics of Mountainside Mardi Gras 2009...