New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
April 25 – 27 and May 1-4, 2014
Fair Grounds Race Course in New Orleans, LA
Years come and go. Jazz Fests do not. They endure. Each seemingly better than the last. Each its own indelible stamp on the soul. Jazz Fest 45 had everything going for it and, man, it did not disappoint. From the time the lineup dropped in January and headliner after headliner brought smiles, to the days of Fest without a drop of rain and temps in the 70s and 80s, to the ensuing butter and crawfish withdrawl, Fest 45 delivered. The big moments were big – Springsteen and New Orleans deepening their love affair, an epic crowd for Clapton, Phish’s return after 18 years and Robert Plant flashing some legend. But the small moments were big, too. Kindness spread generously throughout the Fair Grounds for seven days and musicians who were on stage one day would be roaming around the next. Locals Johnny Sansone, Irvin Mayfield and James Singleton were regularly spotted throughout the Fest.
Photographer and fan frequently collide within me. Call it an occupational hazard. Stay on task, cover ground, hit my stages. But sometimes, you gotta just put the gear down and take it all in. I actually managed to do that (a little).
I’ve come to the conclusion that FOMS (“fear of missing something”) is not an anxiety disorder and that overcoming it is tantamount to some form of minor enlightenment. After all, Jazz Fest is about falling for the moment, over and over again, because they just keep coming. There’s a take away in there somewhere…
The first weekend I was on assignment for the NOJHF Foundation Archive whose mission is to document all things Fest each day every year. The challenge is balancing assigned stage coverage (in my case, Acura and Jazz) while wedging in other acts, and it requires plenty of stamina and hydration. Day 1 kicked into gear with Wayne Toups and Zydecajun at the Acura Stage. I try and hit these guys most years and if there is such a thing as accordion zydecajun jam rock they are it, and they were smokin’ (especially “Ramblin’ Man”). A stop into the Blues Tent for Little Freddie King was a must. Newcomer Laura Mvula brought soul, spirit and unique arrangements to Acura, as well as the first harp (err, with strings) I’ve seen featured on that stage. The squonks coming from Roger Lewis’ Baritone Bliss in the Jazz Tent were unmistakable. While I missed Honey Island Swamp Band’s Samsung Galaxy Stage set, I was told it was a burner and looked forward to catching up with them around town before Fest was done. I did make the start of Jason Isbell’s set on the same stage. Still touring behind the critically acclaimed (and deservedly so) “Southeastern” this was some of the best stuff I heard all weekend and the former Trucker had the crowd with him (and his band) every step of the way. Isbell’s place front and center on the roots-Americana charts is completely earned. Wanted to stay for more, but had to press on. The Infamous Stringdusters jamgrass at Fais Do Do was a very worthy follow-up (after a quick stop in the Jazz Tent for Irvin Mayfield, cultural ambassador, former mayoral candidate and band leader/trumpeter). Closers were quite the mélange. Santana at Acura, Public Enemy at Congo, Gregory Porter in the Jazz Tent and The Avett Brothers at Samsung Galaxy. Oh yeah, I wanted a piece of all of them, but was especially excited to see Carlos in action, so my fourth lap around the mile long track was looming. There is no guitar voice like Santana’s. It simply comes from a higher place. This iteration of the band featured two vocalists of different styles (Tony Lindsay who came on board in 2012 and Andy Vargas, who has been with the band for some time) and it worked for me, as much as Santana vocals can. Their latest disc, “Corazon” is a Latin all-star guest collection of Spanish language tunes and instrumentals ala 1999’s “Supernatural”. My samples grabbed hits and slices of “Corazon” nicely spiced by a three piece horn section. While Carlos rambled on oddly towards the end, Quint gave him wide berth and the band went on to encore until 7:30. It all added up to a fine start to Fest 45.
How much of a Phish phest would this be? Would the legions of phans overrun the joint like 1996? As a more elder jam fan weaned on the Dead, I’m more cold Phish than not, but was way curious about putting my toe in the pond. In the meantime, the day started with some more zydeco fire at Acura with Zachary Richard. Accordions rule is all I can say. With a name like Ironing Board Sam, I had to check out the Blues Tent. Any Fest set by Anders Osborne is not to be missed and no coincidence he launched before Phish. Meanwhile…The Mavericks at the Samsung Galaxy Stage had huge buzz, but alas, I missed this one. Caught them last year and thoroughly enjoyed Raul Malo’s tight infectious alt-country punches. To my surprise, the Fair Grounds barely rippled as Phish o’clock approached. A three hour slot, no less. When the boys hit the stage, Trey surveyed the crowd and was all smiles kicking off their 2014 tour. Opening with “Kill Devil Falls” into “the Moma Dance>”Rift” (thank you Jam Base), all was good with the world, and I must admit to totally digging the vibe and the up close and personal from the pit with Trey’s Paul Lanquedoc axe. But, the other end of the Fair Grounds was calling and I mobilized to hit Robert Plant & the Sensational Space Shifters (with a Keb Mo’/Fais Do Do detour). A critic friend tipped me that this outing was not to be missed, having seen Plant in L.A. late last year. Their set was a one off and took some real wrangling from Quint Davis to pry him away from London, where Plant was putting the finishing touches on his next release. In fact, he flew in just for this performance and went back the next day. Good thing he did. What I heard was a knockout. Opening with “Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You”, followed by a slow dark take on the already black Howlin’ Wolf “Spoonful” and a “Black Dog” that reinvented and embraced the Zep-ness of the tune, Plant was every part up to the task. A rock legend that has aged with power and, dare I say, dignity. The Space Shifters, including guitarists Liam Tyson and Justin Adams and augmented by Juldeh Camara playing griot and riti (a single string Gambian ”fiddle”), mixed texture with formidable might. Definitely a Fest highlight and the rest was supposedly just as strong, with Zep heavy fare including “Going to California”, “Bron-Y-Aur Stomp”, “What is and What Should Never Be”, “Whole Lotta Love” and “Rock and Roll” (check out NOLA.com’s Keith Spera’s excellent write up). Shooting the first three turned into 30 minutes, but with one more lap to go I had to move on. Bypassing Robin Thicke (really?), I landed at the Blues Tent for a few tunes of Boz Scaggs. While I’m not much of a fan of Scagg’s hit laden 80s repertoire but embrace his bluesier leanings, I was clearly in the minority and the material had a soft spot with a very enthusiastic crowd (especially for “Harbor Lights”). Branford Marsalis brought his quartet to the Jazz Tent, but my focus was circling back for the end of Phish (which turned out to be two sets, a Fest first?). While I am a reluctant phan, I was still bummed to miss “Free” and “Harry Hood” towards the end. I arrived in time for “Grind” and the “Julius” encore which all went until about 7:20. Bookending a Phish show may seem heretical, but it’s Jazz Fest and I couldn’t do it all. Let’s just say showing up for the last phew songs is like walking in at the end of an epic movie. I get that. Add it all up and it was a killer Day 2.
The crowd for EC had already swollen Acura to the back track early on. While I was geeked about Clapton, the earlier part of the day proved potent (and the North Mississippi All Stars, Tab Benoit, Slowhand tee up was Quintessential). Brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson’s band seemed to pull out every homespun string instrument imaginable. Their moonshine roots rock was highly entertaining, with plenty of instrument switching and a world boogie drum line into the crowd that worked up a nice lather. Enjoyed them so much, I missed out on the New Orleans Guitar Quartet (a must for string nerds) at Lagniappe for yet another year, so I could make Bombino in the Blues Tent. The Taureg guitarist from Niger plays an indescribable trance influenced jam blues sung in his native tongue. His 2012 appearance is still talked about and I managed to see him in a small room in Los Angeles later that year. It was unlike anything I had ever heard. The intensity and exultation he brought to the Blues Tent this year was extraordinary. Stops at the Jazz Tent for Astral Project and back at Acura for Irma Thomas, meant missing Bonerama (FOMS strikes again). Astral Project is a constellation of New Orleans players whose first Fest appearance was in 1978 and is always a treat for the ears, while the Soul Queen of New Orleans wrung everything out of her cover of “Forever Young” as an encore, that she seemed on the verge of tears, in a good way. John Boutte has found the following he so deserves and the Jazz Tent was at rapt attention when I dropped in. Tab was cooking when I swung by Acura, and an appropriate slinger to precede the headliner. I wasn’t short listed to shoot Clapton, and those few that were, got pushed back to the sound board for the first two songs, so I opted for a loop to hit Galactic, John Hiatt, Vampire Weekend and Rodriguez before finding my way back to the headliner. Galactic always brings it at the Fest, but the addition of Maggie Koerner on vocals takes these guys up another notch. Fierce, fearless and with stage presence that raises the bar on Grace Potter, she is a great match for the band. John Hiatt at Fais Do Do was next. I had not seen Hiatt since my first Fest in 2000. His songbook stands on its own with great covers by Bonnie Raitt, Dylan and other luminaries showing respect. This was another strong set from end to end and well received all the way around and I would have liked to have stuck around for more. On to Vampire Weekend. While I was jonesing to get to some of Clapton, I had to check out the band that landed Rolling Stone’s best album of 2013. Much has been said about layered sophistication cloaked in a more confectionary package and when the band hit, I was engulfed by a sea of estrogen singing every word. Opening with “Diane Young”, the energy was rather infectious. Tons of fun. I departed for the reclusive Rodriguez in the Blues Tent, which proved to be disappointing, even with the crack pickup band of Russ Broussard, Alex McMurray and John Fohl behind him (even more poignant now with the very recent passing of Waiting for Sugarman director Malik Bendjelloul). By the time I worked my way back to the huge throng at Acura, Clapton was winding down. In fact, he ended a full 10 minutes before his 7 PM scheduled close. I am a huge Clapton fan and he was one of my big personal draws. Rarely miss a tour and this Fest date was one of only four scheduled for the US in 2014. Reviews were mixed for some since the set was more blues than hits heavy, with an acoustic break and ample room for solos and turns from his bandmates. If the rest of the set sounded even half as good as the last two numbers I managed to catch (“Cocaine” and “High Time We Went”), it is one of my only Fest regrets to not have made more of Slowhand. The band was snare drum tight, his playing relaxed and fiery and the spirit all there. Damn.
Second weekend Thursday is usually lower impact and I was happy to be shooting as a floater with more flexibility to roam at will. The semi-traditional jam band slot featured the Fest debut of String Cheese Incident at Acura opposite Lyle Lovett at Samsung Galaxy. The rest of the day had a very local flavor and began with Gal Holiday & the Honky Tonk Revue living up to their name at Samsung Galaxy. Swung back to Acura for the New Orleans Suspects – Reggie Scanlon (Radiators), Willie Green (Neville Brothers), Jake Eckert (Dirty Dozen Brass Band), CR Gruver and Jeff Watkins. The Suspects had been busy during Fest time including a Howlin’ Wolf gig with Little Feat’s Paul Barrere and Fred Tackett and the 10th Annual Threadhead Patry, and made their Acura set count. A pass by Fais Do Do for Lil’ Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers, then Congo Square to find the Soul Rebels and guests in full twerk. The Blues and Jazz Tents had Johnny Sansone blowing it out and Stanton Moore in jazz trio mode, respectively. Moore’s trio with “Jim” Singleton on bass and David Torkanowsky on piano was as dexterous as a jungle cat and to hear Moore flat out fly in a jazz setting was simply splendid, and a Jazz Tent highlight. Long tall Marcia Ball was stirring it up quite nicely at Samsung Galaxy, but the bone pummeling low end at Congo Square was too much to linger for the Wailers. Greensky Bluegrass at Fais Do Do was a great tease for SCI at Acura (with a Soul Rebs drop in), but another lap was calling for Lyle Lovett via Blues and Jazz, where Bernard Allison was tearing into “Voodoo Chile”, while Dr. Lonnie Smith was spinning some of his B3 magic. No large band for Lyle. Just suits and skinny ties for his five-piece (including cello, and session legend Russ Kunkel on drums) as they worked through some of the best of his catalogue, with particularly tender tellings of “North Dakota” and “Nobody Knows Me”. Another fine Fest day.
Second Friday was looking light. Nobody I had to see (though I was looking forward to Alabama Shakes) and a chance to check acts I wouldn’t normally seek out. First up was Cowboy Mouth at Acura. Fred LeBlanc, John Thomas Griffith and company continue to put on completely entertaining, seriously playful and energetic performances year after year. Jazz and Blues stops hit Jason Marsalis in mallet heavy mode with the Vibes Woodshed and the booming blues of “Big Al” Carson. I rounded the track to get to Hooray for the Riff Raff at Samsung Galaxy and found Alyndra Lee Segarra’s band captivating and thoughtful with a distinctive musical voice that stood apart from so much of the folk strung sound elbowing for space these days. I swung back towards Acura for some Amanda Shaw, then a food break for alligator sauce piquante (after much encouragement from Steve, a staffer at Acura), that was rich, tangy, spicy, generous and a new Fest favorite. Word on JOHNNYSWIM was intriguing and the band fronted by Amanda Sudano (and also daughter of the late Donna Summer) and Abner Ramirez fit squarely between Hooray for the Riff Raff and Samsung Galaxy closer Alabama Shakes (no accident there). Nicholas Payton brought along Monster Gentleman Derwin “Big D” Perkins on guitar, Russell Batiste, Jr. on drums and Braylon Lacy on bass in the Jazz Tent, after which I hit the tail end of Alejandro Escovedo at Fais Do Do, and was left underimpressed. I was looking forward to Alabama Shakes and the chunk I caught had me from the moment Brittany Howard picked up her SG and unleashed her soul with every howl and chill. That woman is a force of nature and the band matches her with a deceiving front porch stride. Chaka Khan had a good crowd going at Congo Square, but I was determined to get back to the Jazz Tent for Pharoah Sanders. Sanders, along with pianist McCoy Tyner, remain forever linked to John Coltrane’s legacy and he is moving slower than his 73 years, with a brief Blues Tent detour for Charles Bradley & his Extraordinaires. Sanders’ tenor is truly a cosmic sound and the brief and stirring passages I heard left me thinking he really is planted in another place. Where else can one follow-up Pharoah Sanders with Christina Aguillera, but we arrived at the diva’s set in time for her goose bumpy (and now signature) take on Etta James’ “At Last” and a fun cover of Zepp’s “Whole Lotta Love”. She brought the pipes and the entertainment quotient to match, not to mention being seven months pregnant, though I confess to departing before her encores wrapped. Just wasn’t that into the gaggle of dancers and stage initiated beach ball party at that point.
Saturday was all about Bruce, for me, and for most of the legions at the Fest. No camera gear (wasn’t cleared to shoot this one), just a fan. But that was later, there was more than Springsteen to make the day. Got it started with Jimmy Buffet joining Allen Toussaint at Acura for “Fortune Teller” and “Wave Bye Bye”. Joe Krown’s trio with Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Russell Batiste, Jr., in the Blues Tent had some oomph for the organ trio format. Then on to The Revivalists, who kick some serious ass on big stages (like Samsung Galaxy). Singer/guitarist David Shaw is magnetic, frequently jumping in and out of the crowd to sing. Ed Williams flashes his screaming pedal steel like the sharp blade it is and the rest of the band, including Zack Feinberg on guitar, George Gekas on bass, Rob Ingraham on sax, Andrew Campanelli on drums and Michael Girardot on keys/trumpet fill out what has to be one of New Orleans best straight ahead rock bands. Then I went old school for Butler, Bernstein and the Hot 9 in the Blues Tent before the end of the Voice of the Wetlands All Stars at Acura featuring Anders Osborne, Cyrille Neville, Johnny Sansone, Tab Benoit, Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, Michael Doucet and Johnny Vidacovich. But as the day grew deeper, so did the anticipation. Missed out on the Midnite Disturbers at Brass and Heritage – a ridiculous who’s who of horns that come together during Fest. Any hankering for The Head and the Heart, Foster the People or Johnny Winter was left in the dust (take that FOMS). It was Bruce time and I wasn’t moving. The nearly three hour show was the centerpiece of this year’s Fest. Whether taking the “Saints Go Marching In” down to a whisper, digging into the hits or Seeger Sessions traditionals, the show was a celebration of the New Orleans spirit (“where it all started”). Springsteen communed with the crowd throughout, at one point chugging down a beer from a fan, other times bringing the horns and the party to the masses, and, of course, the obligatory “Dancin’ in the Dark” pick ‘em. This was Springsteen’s third Fest appearance, including the City lifting 2006 performance and then again two years ago. While Steve Van Zandt sat out this tour, guest guitarist Tom Morello joined the E Streeters for the ride. Morello and Springsteen exchanges bordered on a mind meld, the emotion and excitement all over their faces when trading solos. Morello’s shredding on “Ghost of Tom Joad” was simply off the charts. The Seeger Sessions songs resonate deeply in New Orleans and especially with the Fest. “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?”, “O Mary Don’t You Weep”, and “Pay Me My Money Down” were perfect companions alongside more recent fare such as “Wrecking Ball” and “Shackled and Drawn”. John Fogerty joined in for “Green River” and “Proud Mary”, and “Badlands”, “Hungry Heart”, “Born to Run”, “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” and “Thunder Road” were given the full treatment. The E Street horns, including and especially Jake Clemons embraced the New Orleans moment and did it proud. Forget my words, read two excellent perspectives of the show from Keith Spera, and Steve Hochman writing for Fender.com. This was a day to remember.
After six days of Festing and shooting, it didn’t seem real to do it one more time. The weather stayed gorgeous, Shorty would be closing out the big stage and there was something for everyone on this last Sunday. Jonathon Boogie Long, remember that name. He had an early afternoon time at Acura and after seeing him as a sideman to Luther Kent in the Blues Tent last year, I knew he was not to be missed. The Baton Rouge native is poised to follow Joe Bonamassa as a blues master of jaw dropping ability, copious showmanship and original material you can’t believe you haven’t heard before. Absolutely electric. Glen David Andrews was working the Congo Square Stage crowd and it’s great to see GDA in good form and riding a wave of positivism, including a well received new album. Every time I hear George Porter, Jr. live, my appreciation and respect for his playing grows. The end of his Samsung Galaxy set with the Runnin’ Pardners (including Kris Royal on winds and guitarist Brint Anderson) featured propulsive and punchy runs on his Lakland bass that left me grinning. Back around the track to catch some of Dumpstaphunk at Acura. Their latest, “Dirty Word”, is good stuff and with a horn section for the Fest, they really put it in the dumspta. Meanwhile, over at Congo Square, I missed Big Sam proposing mid-set. Congrats, SW. Perfect setting. Blodie’s Jazz Jam featured Dirty Dozen alum Gregory Davis and Roger Lewis in horn heaven in the Jazz Tent. Arcade Fire, a headliner on any other day took the pre-Shorty Stage at Acura to the strains of “Iko-Iko”, accompanied by Mardi Gras size heads of the likes of Obama and the Pope. Kicking into “Here Comes the Night Time”, the theatricality of the band was a lens full. I stayed through the three I could shoot and then headed to the Jazz Tent for a far too brief stop of Chick Corea & the Vigil. Corea in tee-shirt and jeans in an acoustic mood with the Vigil’s hugely talented ensemble including Marcus Gilmore on drums and guitarist Charles Altura. In keeping with the spirit of musical whiplash, my next stop was Robert Earl Keen at Fais Do Do. Sporting a Sears sucker suit and the wit to match, it was a pleasure to hear some of this great songwriter’s musical stories. And then the home stretch. John Fogerty opened the only way he could, with “Born on the Bayou”. Creedence was everywhere when I was a kid and the songs and Fogerty’s voice endure well. He definitely brought his A game, wringing every solo out of his gold Les Paul, running all over the stage, Kenny Aronoff pounding it home (some think too much so). Stayed for “Green River” and “Who’ll Stop the Rain” and the rest of the set list looked just as satisfying. Another Fest highlight, for sure. My last lap finished up with the Terence Blanchard Group in the Jazz Tent (sublime, as always) before closing it out with Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue at Acura. Orleans Avenue has been steady for years, three horns on top of some serious rock and rollers, flecked with street soul, funk and RnB . Shorty owns this spot now. Going out with “Do to Me”, Troy hoisted his horns in Fest celebration and the joyous yell we all felt.
After seven days of Festing, another one was in the bag. Number 11 for me (still a newbie). Best Fest ever? I say that every year. This year, I really mean it. At least until 2015.