36 Hours at Jazz Fest
Here is the latest from from Hittin’ The Note staffer (and longtime Jambands.com writer) Rob Johnson. Special thanks to HTN editor John Lynskey
JAZZ FEST: THE CRESCENT CITY SPIRIT STILL SURVIVES
This was my first trip to New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina, and I cant deny that I had some anxiety about it. There was a part of me that was worried that the New Orleans I had known and loved for years, the place I went to college and learned about life, would be somehow dead, or at least too different to recognize.
Well, I am happy to report that the Big Easy may be bloodied, but it is unbowed. The food, the atmosphere, and most of all the music are still better here than just about any place else in the world, and even though the damage is inescapable, the spirit of the city has proven too strong to break. I had only been in town a few hours when I felt that old familiar feeling of coming home, and I knew that on some basic level my city had survived the monstrous destruction of Katrina, and the neglect that followed.
One of the great things about Jazz Fest in New Orleans is that there are so many different ways to enjoy this great festival. You can go the Diversity route and hop from one show to the other, catching 15 minutes of everything. This approach usually ends with some outrageous statement like I saw 47 bands in three days!
You can go the Single Artist route, which involves trailing your favorite musician around town like some deranged stalker in order to make sure you dont miss a show, including that 5 AM jam session in some tiny club. This usually ends with a statement like I saw the Radiators eight times in seven days!
For this trip, my wife and I opted for a third route, which we will call the Highlights Only Jazz Fest Experience. Rather than wear ourselves out trying to hear and see everything the city has to offer, we zeroed in on three Big Shows and tailored our weekend around those events. The result was as much fun as Ive ever had at Jazz Fest, and a true triumph of quality over quantity.
RIDING THE RIVER WITH THE GREYBOY ALLSTARS
Jazz Fest night shows helped make the reputation of Superfly Presents, who went on to create Bonnaroo, and they put together another great slate of shows this year, including Dr. John and Govt Mule. This year, they had the good sense to book the Greyboy Allstars on the riverboat Creole Queen. You havent really experienced Jazz Fest at its best until you catch a good show on the riverboat. There is just something about riding a riverboat down the Mississippi with the lights of NOLA in the background that makes music sound better.
You know you must be in New Orleans when you walk up to the boat and there is a brass band playing on the deck of the ship before it even leaves the dock. The Hot 8 are one of New Orleans finest brass bands, in a tradition that includes bands like Rebirth and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and they helped set a festive mood for the show.
Even thought the Hot 8 sounded good, we wanted to get a good spot in the main performance room below deck, where the Greyboys would be throwing down the funk. Of course, first we took a wrong turn and ended up in the Kings Room, a forward cabin that served as the backstage area. Karl Denson and Robert Walter were having a relaxed conversation that I didnt want to interrupt, so we left them alone and went downstairs to claim our spot.
At the riverboat shows, its always good to get in the room early enough to secure some space on the comfy benches that line the perimeter of the room. Youll spend most of your time dancing, but its always good to have someplace to sit down, and the view of the river is spectacular. I dont know this for sure, but I wouldnt be surprised if the seeds of Jam Cruise were planted on one of these Jazz Fest riverboat shows.
The boat had just hit the river when the Allstars came on stage to a warm reception from the crowd. Many Californians were on the boat, giving the show almost a hometown feel for the San Francisco-based band. The fact that Karl Denson is a part-time resident of New Orleans, and has played so many legendary Jazz Fest shows over the years, probably didnt hurt. Denson himself flashed a beaming smile to the crowd as the band got ready to play. It was the smile of somebody who is totally confident that the next four hours of his life are going be a lot of fun.
Right from the opening notes of Still Waiting the Greyboys showed why they one of the very few bands that actually deserve the All-Star ranking. Every member of the group was excellent on their respective instruments, but more importantly, they all contributed to the super-funky, completely in-the-pocket group sound.
Karl introduced Back in the Game as another song from our new record, which were really happy with. As well they should be in my opinion, its the frontrunner for 2007 CD of the year. Most of What Happened to Television? was represented at this show, and the material sounded just as good live, if not better.
The Greyboys are a very tight band, which means that if youre looking for wide-open improv that can go anywhere at any given moment, you wont find a lot of that at an Allstars show. There will be plenty of great solos, mainly from Denson and Walter, but theyre not going to suddenly morph into some oddball cover or unique jam. They may not be a jamband in a certain sense, but theyre a great band, which is all that matters.
Speaking of solos, Ive never heard Karl wail on the saxophone like he did on the riverboat. His incredible agile musical mind was negotiating tight corners and creating wicked turnarounds with the greatest of ease, all while maintaining deep, powerful tone. Hes always been good, but it seems that he has reached a new level of musicianship lately.
This is somebody who has achieved total mastery over their instrument, and Denson was definitely the star of this show. When he wasnt ripping it up on the sax or belting out soulful vocals worthy of James Brown himself, he added tasty jazz flute to some of the more atmospheric numbers. Ron Burgundy, eat your heart out!
Robert Walter is a very impressive musician in his own right, and being in that small of a room with his fat Leslie sound definitely let you know he was in the house. Like great organists from Booker T to Lonnie Smith, it was all about the groove, not how many notes you can play in one measure. When he stepped out for a solo, he delivered every time, but his subtle playing was the foundation of everything the band did.
Even though Denson and Walter stood out, each member deserves recognition. Guitarist Elgin Park sang lead on How Glad I Am and was always right on time with old-school funk licks that sounded sweet and clean. Bassist Chris Stillwell held down the bottom end like a champ, and drummer Zak Najor showed everybody what its all about on Knowledge Room. This highlight from the new CD was nothing less than devastating live, with the band pushing the boundaries of the song way out without ever losing the groove.
After a set break and some fresh air up on deck, the crowd was ready for more, and the band continued to bring the fire all night long. Starting with V-Neck Sweater, yet another tune from the new CD, they picked up right where they left off. How Glad I Am seemed particularly appropriate for the occasion, and summed up the feelings of the lucky few on the boat. Individual songs become harder to remember at this point, as the night dissolved into a blissful combination of good music and good atmosphere in a perfect setting.
The Greyboy Allstars finished the show with a red-hot version of the James Brown classic Hot Pants, with Denson out front, playing both the JB role and the Maceo Parker role at the same time. Like no other group touring today, the Allstars deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with these legends of funk, and we can all sleep easy knowing that the legacy of Godfather of Soul is in good hands.
Another funk legend was on my mind as I left this show, New Orleans own Funky Meters, who I would be seeing tomorrow night at the House of Blues. Ive always considered them the undisputed heavyweight champions of funk, but could they match up to what Id just seen the Greyboys lay down? Id have to wait until tomorrow to find out.
THE ALLMAN BROTHERS FAIRGROUND REVIVAL
You literally cant go to Jazz Fest without seeing the scars of Hurricane Katrina. The neighborhood around the Fairgrounds was one of the hardest-hit areas, and there are still plenty of people living in trailers, boarded-up houses, and other signs of destruction. The French Quarter is still fairly intact, but the trip to the Fest was a brutal reminder of just how much is left to do to rebuild the city. Hopefully tourist money can help get the city up and running again.
We got to the Fest just in time to catch the end of the Dixie Cups, the New Orleans vocal group legendary for such tunes as the original version of Iko Iko. Their vocals were still strong after all these years, and if they sounded a little old-fashioned at times, they could surely be forgiven.
I was a little disappointed in Buckwheat Zydeco, however. Ive enjoyed seeing him at Jazz Fest before, but this time his routine seemed a little tired. There was too much banter and not enough music for my taste, and I just felt like Id heard and seen this set before.
Galactic stepped things up a notch, especially when Ivan Neville joined the band for a ripping version of Curtis Mayfields If There Is a Hell Below (Were All Going to Go) that got the crowd up and moving. Ben Ellman was wailing on harmonica and sax, and Stanton Moore was his usual animated self on the drums. Finally, it really felt like Jazz Fest.
I left Galactic a little early to check out Stephen Marley, and although I only got a small taste, I was impressed with his charisma. Congo Square was packed with one of the largest crowds Ive ever seen at the African-themed stage, and Stephen commanded their attention like a seasoned pro. Having been born into a famous musical family, Marley was surely at home in New Orleans, home of the Nevilles, the Marsalis family, and many others.
The Allman Brothers Band have played Jazz Fest five times, more than just about any other non-local act, so at this point they are practically honorary New Orleanians. That might be part of the explanation for the massive crowd they drew to the far side of the Fairgounds. Before their show at the Gentilly Stage on Saturday, it was hard to walk around the crowd without hearing people telling stories of great ABB shows at past Jazz Fests, or even all the way back to the legendary Warehouse days of the early 70s. The locals seemed convinced that this was the biggest crowd ever at the Gentilly Stage, usually the #2 stage at the fest, with the possible exception of Stevie Ray Vaughan 20 years ago.
When you consider that this is the Jazz and HERITAGE festival, it is only appropriate that the Allman Brothers Band be a part of it, since they arguably have the richest heritage of any rock band performing today. They tipped their hat to their deep catalog and storied past early and often at this show, opening with the very first cut from their self-titled debut album, the Dont Want You No More>Its Not My Cross to Bear double whammy.
Derek Trucks, the new guy in the band some eight years after joining, announced his presence early on with a luminescent solo on Aint Wastin Time No More that caught the attention of even the casual fans and curious onlookers. The big fat notes emanating from Dereks Gibson seemed to shimmer and melt in the 90-degree heat, and anyone who had wandered over to the Gentilly Stage to check out this young gun Derek Trucks was surely impressed. Not to be outdone, Warren Haynes followed with an equally plaintive and melodic outpouring, and the show was truly underway.
The legendary Dr. John classic Walk on Gilded Splinters was warmly received by the crowd, who sang along lustily to the chorus, but windy conditions hampered the sound and Dereks slide was unfortunately low in the mix. The first long jam of the show was Haynes Rockin Horse, and it showed why Warren is one of the most talented all-around performers in music today. This song is sometimes criticized within the ABBs own fanbase for being too heavy metal sounding, but here at Jazz Fest, supposedly a purists paradise, the crowd roared in approval. This was something new, a song most of the crowd hadnt heard before, and they seemed visibly impressed. Bassist Oteil Burbridge was really bringing the thunder on this one, shaking the Fairgrounds with his mighty bass bombs.
When the band kicked into Statesboro Blues the crowd responded enthusiastically, and it was apparent that this was the song many of them came to see. The ABB did not disappoint, with Gregg Allman delivering a testifying vocal and Derek slicing up sharp, stinging slide riffs with a biting tone. This was blues-rock at the most primal, archetypal level. Less than halfway into the show, the ABB had proven that they were ready for the Jazz Fest challenge.
JAZZ FEST FUN FACT: When the Allman Brothers play Melissa in front of 100,000 people, statistical analysis tells us that at least 12 of those people are women named Melissa who were named after the song.
The ABB launced into Trouble No More next, and Oteils thumping bass lines led the band into a menacing swing-funk groove. The tight stops and big sound of this tune make it perfectly suited for a big festival crowd like this, and it worked. Not the most subtle song in the world, but effective.
Desdemona is the song that the ABB plays the most from their most-recent studio CD, Hittin the Note, and it is easy to see why. All the different facets of the band are on full display, from deep blues to swinging jazz, and this version was a shining, lyrical example of what makes the Allmans so special. After a great solo from Derek Trucks Warren was halfway through his solo when the band seemed to collectively pause as if taking a breath, only to go right back into the jam with such timing and finesse that it brought the crowd to life. This was the kind of moment we all go to shows for, that instant when the stars align and everything is right in the universe. Hittin the note indeed!
Midnight Rider was another obvious choice for a big festival crowd, a song that just about everyone knows by heart, and the crowd was totally won over by this point. Every Hungry Woman, on the other hand, was a deep cut from the bands first album that not many in the crowd seemed to recognize. While it was a gutsy choice, it paid off. The red-hot guitar duel between Derek and Warren at the end of the song impressed even the most hard-to-please Jazz Fest snobs, and they nailed the intricate unison parts with flair and precision.
By the time the ABB went into the dreamy trance waltz of Dreams they had the crowds undivided attention, and Derek Trucks stepped up in front of the one of the largest crowds of his young career and calmly worked magic on the spellbound mob. He began his solo with massive, bassy notes that cut right through you, then moved into an elegant series of graceful melodies. He finished the non-slide part of his solo with a gorgeous flourish, but just as he was putting the slide on his finger, Gregg Allman started singing the final verse and led the band to the big finish.
They may have been running short on time, but it was a shame Derek didnt get to take the trademark slide solo in Dreams. I remember thinking at the time this could be his Jimi Hendrix at Woodstock moment, and its a shame he didnt reach those heights. Even so, on the positive side this was one of Dereks best non-slide solos Ive ever heard, and most of the crowd didnt seem to notice or care that the song was cut short.
Dereks wife Susan Tedeschi and former Allman Brother keyboardist Chuck Leavell joined the band for The Weight, and the show instantly rose to another level. Susans soul-drenched, testifying vocals worked the crowd up into a frenzy, with Derek responding to her vocals with perfect guitar lines and Chuck adding just the right touch of boogie-woogie piano on top. Better known for his time in the ABB and the Rolling Stones, Chuck once played in Dr. Johns band, and the New Orleans flavor in his playing seemed to come out on this tune.
The trademark song of Leavells tenure in the Allman Brothers was Jessica, and whenever he sits in with the band, you can expect to hear this classic instrumental. This was a big, brawny version, with Chuck reprising his famous piano solo. After he brought the band back to the main groove of the song, Derek took a long, soaring solo that seemed like he was making up for the abbreviated Dreams. Cascading waterfalls of bell-like tone rippled from his guitar in waves, first without a slide, then a lengthy slide segment that showed why many consider him the best slide guitarist on the planet today. Eventually Derek passed the torch to Warren Haynes, who led the band into a full-blown Mountain Jam detour before bringing down the hammer for the big finish.
Then something really special happened. Just as the band had brought it way down in preparation for the standard ending, Derek quietly began playing the chiming guitar riff to the Miles Davis classic In a Silent Way. Only at Jazz Fest would you ever see a crowd this large get quiet enough to make this possible, and it added an extra layer of drama and tension, which made the final release that much more explosive.
Jazz Fest head honcho Quint Davis said it best when he addressed the crowd before the One Way Out encore. Still undefeated, still the heavyweight champion, the Allman Brothers Band! Davis said to a wave of applause, then his voice took on a hushed, confidential tone, as if telling the crowd a secret. Jazz Fest 2007 is almost over, and were not going to see anything better than that, I guarantee it.
THE FUNKY METERS AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES
I dont know if Quint went to the Funky Meters show at the House of Blues, with special guest Derek Trucks sitting in, but as good as the Allmans were at the Fairgrounds, this show gave it some healthy competition.
We got there just in time to catch part of opening act Big Sams Funky Nation, and let me tell you, Im glad we did. They were throwing down some serious funk, often sounding like a hybrid between traditional NOLA funk and George Clintons P-Funk. Big Sam, the owner of the legendary Funky Butt cafis a charismatic performer, and his band has New Orleans flavor to burn. This was the perfect warm-up for the main event.
This was the New Orleans debut of a new version of the Funky Meters, with Ian Neville stepping into the guitar slot that was held by Brian Stoltz for over 10 years. Brian apparently wanted to focus on his own music, and didnt want to be committed to a group that, as he put it, only played one gig the last year I was in the band. He will still be playing, however, with drummer Russell Batiste and bassist George Porter in their PBS project.
Since Ian is the grandson of Meters founder Art Poppa Funk Neville, it only seems fitting that he continue the family tradition. Ian also plays with his dad Ivan in the band Dumpstaphunk, so he knows a thing or two about funky music, and his rhythm guitar chops are squarely in the tradition of original Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli. His soloing might not match up to Stoltz, but on this night, he would have plenty of help in the guitar department, courtesy of Derek Trucks.
Derek laid low for the first few songs, but when the band busted into the Stephen Stills classic Love the One Youre With, he proved that he came to play. The songs classic chord structure is a great solo vehicle, and Trucks knocked it out of the park with pleading, emotional slide work.
This pairing didnt always work that well, but both Derek and the Funky Meters should be praised for stepping out of their respective comfort zones. Part of the spirit of Jazz Fest is the incredible, once-in-a-lifetime collaborations that happen at the festival, and once everybody got used to each other, this combination proved to be a great idea.
An early highlight was a strong version of Funkify Your Life that showed why, as the T-shirts and hats say, George Matters. Porter brought his A Game throughout the show, but on this tune he really got down and dirty and showed that he is not ready to relinquish the title of Worlds Funkiest Bass Player any time soon.
Surprisingly, Midnight Rider was one song where Derek seemed awkward. The Funky Meters have been playing this song for years, in a remarkably different arrangement from the Allmans version, and it looked to throw Derek off.
Fiyo On the Bayou is one of the most cherished Meters classics, and it also is a song that perfectly matches Dereks playing style. As the band dropped down into an ominous, mid-tempo groove, Trucks softly played Eastern-flavored lines, slowly building until the jam reached a screaming crescendo. This was what we had all hoped for from this meeting of the minds, a jam that combined the best of both worlds.
By this point, everybody seemed loose and warmed up, and any first date jitters between Derek and the band were over. The classic instrumental Funky Miracle showed Derek and Ian jamming together on some tight unison guitar lines, and they were locked in like they had been playing together for years.
Just Kissed My Baby offered Derek another chance to shine with its bottom-heavy, slow-motion funk. Trucks ripped savage riffs from his SG, laying way back in the pocket, while Ian grinned at the rest of the band and mouthed, This guy is bad! That would be the James Brown kind of bad, not the expired milk bad. Ian showed a little something himself by quickly leading the band into the funky guitar riff to People Say. The guys from Big Sams Funky Nation jumped up on stage to add some horn power, and it was on. One of the greatest funk songs of all time, and one of the greatest political songs of all time, the message of this tune still rings true today.
Welcome to New Orleans was somewhat anticlimactic after that monster jam, but the Aint No Use encore was anything but. Derek blew the roof off on this one, taking another big, wide-open solo slot and putting his own unique stamp on it. By the time the musicians left the stage well after midnight, they were drenched in sweat, proof of a hard nights work. This is a show that needs to happen again.
In the end, this trip was a joyful, exciting one, despite the occasional sadness you feel when you see Missing cat spray-painted on an abandoned house, or you notice the waterline that bears silent witness to the flooding. The city of New Orleans has taken a mighty blow, but the unique spirit of the Crescent City is still a living, breathing thing. This is a city like no place else on Earth, and let us hope that its rich and unique culture continue to thrive and grow for another 300 years.