Words by: Wesley Hodges | Images by: Jimmy Grotting
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival :: 05.05.11-05.08.11 :: Fair Grounds Race Course :: New Orleans, LA
Although Jazz Fest is a religious experience, walking by the Gospel Tent to begin each day is only the tip of the iceberg of what transpires once you get into the Fair Grounds. Each band can feel it, too, whether they are from Montreal or the Big Easy, and wouldn’t trade their spot at the Fest for any other place. The musical joy emanating from each stage is downright infectious, and the food is out of this world. Having only lived in the city for just under two years, I’d always heard people talk about their trips to the Fair Grounds with a great enthusiasm, but didn’t fully grasp just how good it could be. New Orleans loves a tradition, and Jazz Fest might be the city’s finest yearly cultural display to the outside world. After seven days of sunshine and reportedly record crowds for the 42-year-old granddaddy of music festivals, there’s no telling how they’ll top this one in 2012.
Thursday, May 5
After a late one with Gregg Allman and Garage A Trois on Wednesday, a stop into the misty and righteous Gospel Tent was needed to cleanse the spirit and jump start the day. Thursday’s weather merits mentioning as well - the sunshine coupled with a general lack of heat and zero rain throughout the weekend made this year’s Fest one for the ages. After the dip into the Gospel Tent, the righteousness continued with Lucinda Williams blessing the delightfully small local Thursday crowd down at the Acura Stage, bringing her earthy brand of heartland Americana to the early-comers in a set heavy on tunes from her excellent newest album, Blessed.
|New Orleans Bingo Show by Jimmy Grotting|
Next, it was over to the Congo Square Stage where Meters Man Zigaboo Modeliste and his first-rate backing band were officially welcoming Week Two’s crowd to New Orleans with a cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Night People.” The punk-and-cabaret New Orleans Bingo Show was highly entertaining and thoroughly rockin’ over at the Gentilly Stage as Preservation Hall Jazz Band mainstay Ben Jaffe showed off his chameleonic musical range, a direct 180-degree turn from PHJB’s jazzy roots.
Pulling from a range of different influences is what this town’s musicians do best and perhaps no band shows off the modern New Orleans sound then Galactic, who invited Mike Dillon up to the stage for the duration of their big main stage set. The tireless Stanton Moore proved to the masses that a drum solo can highlight a festival day, taking it to the front of the stage for a 6-7 solo while his fellow band members carried his snare, cowbell and bass drum.
Next, Wilco proved why they were invited to this party, delivering a Nels Cline showcasing set, including “Impossible Germany,” “Bull Black Nova” and “Handshake Drugs” to cap off to a strong opening day at the track. Finally, it was over to see one of the kings of funk as Maceo Parker was blowin’ it up at the Congo Square Stage in a big way.
Friday, May 6
Once again, the Gospel Tent uplifted our morning, as we were lucky enough to be there to see The Bester Singers deliver “Amazing Grace.” Bonerama invited Marco Benevento up to offer his chops for the duration of their set, which included a “War Pigs” cover and a big array of horn-heavy funk action. Kermit Ruffins was playing “Hard Knock Life” when we cruised by en route to the Lagniappe Stage.
|Marco Benevento by Jimmy Grotting|
If it wasn’t for the Stanton Moore Trio I wouldn’t have even known about the unique setting for the Lagniappe Stage. Set within the confines of the horse track clubhouse, it’s a cool scene in there that Stanton Moore’s wife Aletta apparently helps put together. Paired with Greyboy All-Stars’ Robert Walters and NYC guitarist Scott Metzger (RANA), the trio played a set heavy on numbers from Stanton’s new Squash Blossom record.
Big Sam's Funky Nation is in rare company as far as their ability to incite a huge dance-a-thon, and their set included his take on “Hard To Handle” and the declaration that Sam is the king of the Jazz Fest party. To continue the genre-stretching day, we darted over to the Gentilly Stage for Jamey Johnson’s excellent set and a guest drop-in by the Blind Boys of Alabama, giving Jazz Fest patrons yet another righteous musical moment during “I Saw the Light.”
After many years of being a fan of their atmosphere-bending stylings, Friday was the first chance for me to see Arcade Fire, and the set did not disappoint in any way, shape or form. The band is headlining just about every major rock festival this year, though I found it a little strange to see them included on the Jazz Fest lineup when it was released back in January. However, the first few seconds of the set-opening “Ready To Start” made it thoroughly clear that these guys are not only deserving but poised and rehearsed enough to carry the weight of a festival-headlining set. All I can say is that few bands operate on Arcade Fire’s level of professionalism while still managing to keep things exciting and off-the-cuff. Win Butler conveyed a genuine enthusiasm to be in New Orleans and expressed gratitude to the festival’s organizers for raising awareness for the Haitian tragedy last year, at one point referring to the Big Easy as “the jewel of the world” and an inspiration to the band’s newest songs. “Intervention” had a cool, slowed down vibe after the heavy “No Cars Go” and crowd pleasing “Keep The Car Running.” What transpired in the encore was a surprising treat: Cyndi Lauper joined them for “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” before “Wake Up” closed out the set.
|Arcade Fire's Win Butler by Jimmy Grotting|
After a short breather at home, our crew made it down to the French Quarter for a Superjam that quite possibly carried the weekend - an intricately dark, psychedelic rave up highlighted by the dexterous, controlled guitar work of Brian Stoltz with George Porter Jr., Marco Benevento and Adam Deitch. After about an hour of dim lights and heavy jams, the lights were finally lifted and the band went off on Jimi’s “Fire,” Cee Lo’s “Fuck You” and War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends.” If there is a recording of this show in circulation it is recommended to check it out, a truly one-of-a-kind performance that showed me what Jazz Fest After Dark is all about.
Saturday, May 7
The fantastically-talented Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars was the first of multiple opportunities to see Cyril Neville and Anders Osborne perform over the weekend, alongside the likes of Tab Benoit, Waylon Thibodeaux and Johnny Sansone. A living, breathing commercial for how good things are musically right now in this city, the set was heavy on Louisiana and New Orleans flavored tunes. Bands don't get too much better than these guys: George Porter Jr. on bass, Stanton Moore on drums, Anders Osborne and Benoit on guitars, Waylon Thibodeaux on fiddle, Cyril Neville on percussion, visiting Left Coast pianist Mitch Woods up on the keys. The All-Stars traded lead spots for the most part before Cyril took the spotlight to declare, "Ain't no funk like Louisiana funk.”
|The Strokes by Jimmy Grotting|
We caught a Galactic cover by local master Trombone Shorty before watching The Strokes hilariously overdressed rock show at the Gentilly Stage. The Strokes have been lavishly praised for over a decade as torchbearers of the New York rock and roll scene, and Julian Casablancas, wearing hot yellow high tops, put forth the effort to deliver the strangely out-of-place rocker vibe, wearing a leather jacket in 85-degree weather.
The overly crowded nature of Saturday made it a difficult day to navigate the vastness of the Fair Grounds and hopefully the festival organizers will cap attendance in the future at some clip slightly below the amount in attendance on Saturday. Although done for the best of causes, there is a point when the inability to move around becomes a slight issue. Having said that, after this weekend I can’t imagine a soul in the city who doesn’t take in at least a day at the Fair Grounds.
Sunday, May 8
Festival producer Quint Davis, reflecting on this year’s event is quoted by Nola.com as saying, "This one's going to be incredibly difficult to top,” an especially true sentiment after Sunday’s final whirl. We were lucky enough to be inside the Gospel Tent to witness a marriage ceremony performed onstage by an actual reverend, but not before rushing over to see what Anders Osborne was up to. Anders has quickly risen to the top of my list of can’t-miss local players and Sunday’s early day set was proof in the pudding that Osborne will one day be wielding his Gibson before a Jazz Fest crowd twice as large. A 14-minute heavy, heavy take on “Cortez The Killer” put the signature on yet another unique performance from one of the city’s best guitar player. Bambenoula 2000 rocked African rhythms in Congo Square, demonstrating a freshly evolved sound at the Jazz & Heritage Stage. Papa Grows Funk put on a brilliant version on “Come Together”, serving as further proof that John Gros’ band is one of the city’s best kept secrets.
|Anders Osborne by Jimmy Grotting|
A surprise jaunt over to Kid Rock was both unexpected and totally enjoyable. His Jazz Fest set was a great opportunity to see the many phases of his storied career. From his Waylon mode on tracks like "Cowboy" to the barroom feel of “All Summer Long” (with Trombone Shorty), the colorful, charismatic frontman had total command on Sunday – a larger than life presence one had to see to believe. A trip into the Blues Tent for Sonny Landreth was a necessity, but sound problems slightly marred what was otherwise a transcendent afternoon set in the cool Jazz Tent.
Sunday was also New Orleans jam band The Radiators' last appearance at Jazz Fest. Sadly, the group is calling it quits after 33 years one month from now after their career-closing run at Tipitina’s Uptown, billed as “The Last Watusi.” The Rads cover of Dylan’s "You Ain't Going Nowhere” included a guest spot by BeauSoleil fiddle player Michael Doucet and was followed by a lengthy Warren Haynes appearance for a slide guitar wow moment on the blues staple "Bring Me Little Water, Sylvie," adding an Allmans-esque hue to the already sturdily built Radiators sound. Much of the set included keyboard player and songwriter Ed Volker taking the vocal leads – an appropriate sendoff considering it was Volker’s choice to quit the band and prompt this epic five month sendoff. The Rads’ version of Chris Kenner's "I Like it Like That" didn’t start until about 7:05 p.m., putting a smile on the massively joyous crowd, many of whom like myself will never get a chance to see this wonderful and important local band play again. The Radiators connected a great many people from the past era of New Orleans music and congregated one of the nicest fan bases around. For this and so much great music, we say, “Thank you for the ride.” On their final day at the Fair Grounds,The Radiators chose to let Doucet, Haynes, Paul Barrere (Little Feat) and the trombone men from Bonerama join them in sending this weekend out in style. The collaboration was on-point and extremely fitting to their freewheeling style, and just another accent to one of the best musical days imaginable.
|The Radiators by Jimmy Grotting|
There’s always a feeling of relief once Mardi Gras has passed and life returns to normalcy in New Orleans, but after this year’s Jazz Fest, I’m counting down the days until next year’s Fest.
Continue reading for lots more pics from Weekend Two of Jazz Fest 2011...