Jazz Fest (Nearly Total) Recall: A Swampy Collection of New Orleans Memories
New Orleans is under water. Not actually but theoretically. The city was built precariously under sea level and a task force must monitor its safety 24 hours a day. New Orleans must fight to be a city, to even exist at all. But despite its invisible struggle to remain afloat, once a year since 1970, hundreds of thousands of visitors bring added weight to the city for it's annual Jazz and Heritage Festival. An event so great, that it makes the Louisiana Purchase seem like a bargain.
While Jazz Fest proper has the "formality of occurring" on the last two adjacent weekends of April, in the days between, New Orleans becomes something of a holding cell for hundreds of musicians and tens of thousands of music fans. If those numbers are off, well then, multiply them as needed. For a city constantly worried about sinking, all the weight of music pounds its city walls like high tide all the time seemingly always but certainly in the days during, between, before, and after Jazz Fest.
In most cities, the Tuesday night music club doesn't exactly have a waiting list. Not when everyone is working for the weekend. But in the Big Easy, the concept of "work" seems to be a fluid matter that encroaches from the city limits but is largely held at bay with the ocean water that has threatened to overtake New Orleans since day one. The city still stands. And on a Tuesday night, April 26, Frenchman Street and its back-alleys are breathing with rhythms and smelling of the funk. Inside an opium den-cum-lounge (Dragon's Den), an all-star funk collective is tearing the roof off the sucka. That drummer is Eric Bolivar yeah the dude from Tiny Universe and Anders and on and on. That's Robert Mercurio of Galactic on bass, man! That's Ivan Neville on keys! And that's local breakout Eric Lindell on guitar! The place is pulsing with funk and the beats thump out of the window, possibly drifting downwind towards Cafrasil where Illuminati, a band that seemingly fell off the earth years ago, has resurfaced in their full orchestrated arrangement with Joe Gallant presumably conducting. This could be false. A bit of deceptive black magic throwing hallucinatory visions into the swamp voodoo of the French Quarter, but believe me, man, I was there and I saw it. And I passed it by. And I did dance one foot away from Ivan Neville back at the Dragon's Den, though friends of mine confirmed that he was also playing at Tipitina's Uptown for an all-star jam just a couple hours earlier (or was it later?). Musicians down here seem to know how to be in three places at once. They should share that secret with fans. Or wait a couple years until the street value goes up and word of mouth goes out and they'd never need to play another note to support themselves financially, the cloning formula being their breadwinner and the music being their leisure. Down here, in New Orleans, music is not leisure, music is life, but life is leisure. Down Frenchmen Street, at d.b.a. a partition joint with top-shelf bar drinks on both sides Robert Walter and Friends performed for a crowded house. It was already 3 or 4 in the morning, but the band melted into the corner stage like a wall painting or a chandelier, a permanent fixture that turns on when the bar opens and turns off only after the last bartender has counted her bills and locked the door.
At 8am on Wednesday, around the block from the apartment I was crashing at, music continued to pump from the jukebox at Igor's 24 hour bar as kids like me were still up partying…from a Tuesday night.
Wednesday was more of the same. Which is to say everything happened all at once and everywhere was everything that was happening and it was all going on simultaneously and all of it, all in one flash…followed immediately by another. I know that's an awkward sentence but, editors be damned, I'm not changing it. That's just how it went down, man. The Funky Meters loaded up on the Cajun Queen riverboat, docked just across from Harrah's Casino (where, earlier in the day, I left with a few extra bills), and in the fingertips of the French Quarter, around Decatur and Bienville, there was music I mean, live music leaking onto the streets from a record store. Free of charge. If you didn't mind drunken record bins puking on your shoes as you tried to dance, or sections of used zydeco CDs bumping into you as you stood and watched the performance.
Anyone paying attention understood without comment that Les Claypool was likely going to sit-in with Gabby La La at One Eyed Jacks a David Lynchian burlesque bar right off Bourbon Street in the heart of it. Other reports placed him as a guest at Bernie Worrell's Wednesday night jam. But more popular destinations included the much-hyped "Jamakazi" show at Howlin' Wolf, where Ivan Neville, Eric Krasno, George Porter, Ian Neville, Russell Batiste, and others were scheduled to collaborate before bleeding into a late-night show with Lettuce. With New Monsoon at the Maple Leaf, the Radiators at Southport, Garage A Trois at Tips, and the North Mississippi Allstars at House of Blues, decisions had to be made. Tough decisions. Which meant that while all this fantastic music raged in the ring around the districts, I waited it out at Shiloh for Signal Path to kick it up a notch, Emeril-style. Unfortunately plagued by electricity issues (on a night when New Orleans was going to have one hell of an electric bill), the show started late even by Crescent City standards, and shortly after they finally got up and running I, too, got up and running to Preservation Hall.
Some say that jazz itself was invented in Preservation Hall. And while Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey neither perpetuates nor preserves "proper jazz," I'll tell you one thing I certainly hit a jazz joint in the hall's courtyard, following the fine tradition of jazz musicians everywhere throughout time. Some girl had curly hair. Everything was dreamy and surreal. Inside the performance space, Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey skronked and squealed and generally busted a loose one. It meandered between cacophonous and blasphemous, which meant that the music was right on both in my book and in the book of jazz where it is clearly written that everything in the book must, yes absolutely must, be rewritten entirely time and time again, until the bricks of jazz form a chimney that blows smoke into the heavens and it rains ashes on the baby grand. And we've still got miles to go, yes, and miles to go before we sleep. Forget locals Ann Rice and Tennessee Williams it was Robert Frost that said "Miles to go" and followed it with "before we sleep" and in New Orleans, both parts of that sentence are independently and collectively accurate at all times and to the nth degree.
Which leads into Thursday, which of course, only means more of the same. At the fairgrounds, week two of the 2005 Jazz and Heritage Festival got under way with an impressive set by Drums & Tuba in a garden-bedecked side-stage, while Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots brought zydeco, Los Hombres Calientes brought afro-jazz, and B.B. King brought the truth. Sets by Papa Grows Funk and Nickel Creek were also notable.
But New Orleans belongs to the dark and so, after sunset, flames of rhythm ignited the swampland funk until steam rose from every available dance floor in town. But the hottest, hardest, and most extreme ticket in town on Thursday was Mars Volta at the Orpheum Theatre. All the voodoo of New Orleans stacked up in a single po boy sandwich still would play small potatoes to the pure evil stench of Mars Volta's main platter. Dense and completely consuming, Mars Volta pounded the fuck out of the audience in a steady stream of mathematical precision that hit with all the aplomb of napalm but with the pomp of dandy glam-rock candy and that nasty prog-rock complexity. It was crushing, severe, and totally uncalled for. It also proved to be a highlight of the entire Jazz Fest. For as evil and heavy and dark as it was, there was also a shiny and intellectually stimulating side to the blue center light of Mars Volta's constant eruptions. Like the roar of the beast as it beats in the breast. Something calming in its ferocity.
The opposite of all of this must sadly be spoken about the George Clinton and P-Funk show that occurred concurrently with the Mars Volta show, across town in the warehouse district at Twi-Ro-Pa Mills. On a night when Bernie Worrell and others from the original Parliament-Funkadelic collective were in town and accessible, the worn and battered George Clinton preferred to stick to his modern line-up's mediocre revue of what P-Funk used to be. Clinton himself can barely sing anymore, much less perform, and he is finally sinking in the sludge of simulacra that he created to imitate his former inimitable self. He was once Dr. Funkenstein, the king of uncut funk, the Starchild with the Mothership connection. But in 2005, Clinton is an alleged crack addict and, tragically, not much more, having to resort to shtick ("Skeet, skeet, skeet, skeet!") and a parade of barely clad dancers both men and women to work the crowd for him.
But sometime around 1:30am when security began to clear out the audience and change the stage over, the mood shifted from one of disappointment, to one of curiosity and welcome surprise for Les Claypool's late-night show. Sporting a line-up similar to, but not quite, the Frog Brigade, Claypool broke out songs spanning his entire career, including tunes from Holy Mackerel, Oysterhead, and Bucket of Bernie Brains.
Speaking of Bernie's brains, for the second time in one night, it was decidedly curious that Bernie Worrell himself didn't make an appearance the elder statesman (P-Funk, Talking Heads) was already in the neighborhood. But unlike George Clinton's show, which lacked because of it, Claypool had his own bag of tricks to pull. And, all things considered, Claypool's set would've even felt complete without them. But my what fun tricks can be like the five minutes of stage time he pulled for Warren Haynes to sit in on guitar; like the repeat appearances of Gabby La La, who sometimes appeared on sitar, while other times popping onstage just to dance the robot. Claypool also made room for his ex-Frog Brigader, Eenor, who was in town for a 6am show at that same venue. Mike Dillon and Skerik were full-time members of Claypool's unannounced, slightly disguised solo band (the group was dressed in white robes with various masks and headgear).
All this at Twi-Ro-Pa, while in an attached room with separate entrance, Topaz and Melvin Sparks collaborated in a room that felt like a warehouse lounge.
Yes, and Friday was much of the same. Except that it was entirely different. At the fairgrounds, Widespread Panic started the mass collaboration frenzy off on the main stage with guest appearances by Ben Ellman (Galactic), Wally Ingram, and the ceremonial mayor of New Orleans, Ivan Neville.
But in a city of gastronomical indulgence, Friday's true feast was reserved for after sundown. Once again, the clubs, bars, and even streets were alive with the sound of boom, boom, boom but really, in two nearly adjacent downtown theatres, jambands were holding their own heritage fest beginning tonight and extending into tomorrow. At the Orpheum Theatre, Umphrey's McGee opened for Gov't Mule with a run-for-the-money set, proving to first-timers that Umph is indeed growing the wings that will lift them out of the buzz bin and drop them, eventually, on top of the marquee. Punctuating this, Warren Haynes gave it the formal seal of approval by sitting-in with the band for the set closing "Thin Air," (which included an eloquent "Eleanor Rigby" jam and jaw-dropping exchanges between the three guitarists). As the stage was being turned over for the Mule, a quick peek into the State Theatre showed that Galactic's set was raging as predicted. Mike Dillon (somewhat deceptively advertised as "Mike D") sat in reportedly for the entire show but the part that I caught included a song with Keller Williams on vocals and air trumpet. Theresa Anderson also made a stop on Galactic's stage.
Back at the Orpheum, Haynes continued the Jazz Fest tradition by inviting myriad guests to the stage throughout the night. These included David Hidalgo (Los Lobos), Les Claypool, Brian Stoltz (Meters), and most of the Umphrey's guys at various times. The parade of surprise guests (if Stoltz wasn't totally leftfield, Hidalgo totally was), made for an exciting evening, but musically Gov't Mule remained Gov't Mule. You knew what you were getting, except the special guests meant that you actually didn't. The unexpected highlight? Brendan Bayliss bringing his Umph to the oomph of "Sco-Mule."
Friday's late-night show at Tipitina's Uptown was a whole other adventure. Michael Franti and Spearhead were scheduled to begin at 2am but doors weren't even open long past that time. Around 3:45am, when the place was packed and 500 people still were outside looking in, Franti took to the stage and began strumming "Pray For Grace" acoustically as his band slowly settled in behind him. By 5am the show was just getting going and by 6am kids were getting warmed up to getting down. Still packed, but with slightly more breathing room than when the show began, Franti pulled an energetic, dance-heavy all-nighter that energized the long-haulers (including an electric return to "Pray For Grace") so that when we filed out of Tipitina's long past dawn and into a new day in New Orleans, everyone was able to reconvene at the fairgrounds just hours later, in new clothes but with a fresh funk to them. It wasn't us. It wasn't them. It emanated from the one city that truly never sleeps, during the one weekend when the visitors truly do the same.
Saturday at the fairgrounds was a relaxing day with cold weather and a lot of intriguing, but not necessarily captivating, acts. Morning downpours meant that a few hours of sleep after Spearhead was guiltless if not entirely sound. Members of Umphrey's McGee were scheduled to make a mid-day guest appearance with Theresa Anderson on the Acura Stage and if that actually happened, perhaps that sleep wasn't guiltless after all.
But mainly, Saturday at Jazz Fest was a time to sample all the food that the festival is legendary for (from boiled crawfish to alligator pie to muffeletta the winning dish being crawfish sausage), sample the music that made the festival legendary to begin with (jazz, gospel, and blues tents), bump into Mike Gordon, chance upon old friends, and kill some curiosity by observing a couple minutes apiece of some of the main acts. Dave Matthews Band headlined the Acura Stage and while he used the occasion to debut new material from his forthcoming studio disc, by and large the crowd was just too large, drunk, and dense to navigate. Light drops of rain and larger puddles of mud further dampened the mood even if people's spirits were as impossible to penetrate as the rambunctious Dave Matthews crowd.
The evening's jammier shows once again belonged to the downtown theatres where Gov't Mule concluded night two of their stint at the Orpheum, the under-advertised Robert Randolph show nonetheless played to a capacity crowd at the Saenger, and the State hosted the most-talked-about show of the week Superfly Production's annual SuperJam. This year's event was curated by Trey Anastasio and curiously, the first set was essentially a blistering set by Anastasio's new solo band, and a chance for him to show off his new set-up with his new arrangements. Local staple and past Anastasio collaborator, Sunpie Barnes, sauntered onstage with his accordion for several zydeco inspired tunes before Anastasio steered the ship back to his solo band and their given repertoire namely, a sprightly version of "I Am the Walrus" that Anastasio debuted at Higher Ground a few weeks earlier.
The promised "super jam" kicked off from the start of the second set, as Michael Ray (Cosmic Krewe, Sun Ra, Cosmic Country Horns), Dave "the Truth" Grippo (TAB, Giant Country Horns), several members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and Cyril Neville all took spots on stage and settled in for the night. New Orleans' classics, including "Hey Pocky Way," were taken for spins before the aging concert hall, severely in need of repair, nearly crumbled to the ground under the pressure of stomping, flailing, flinging, and pure jumping that went down following the arrival of one mister Mike Gordon, bass in tow. Soon after, Dave Matthews stumbled onstage for a romp through Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds," a song he performed with Phish nearly a decade earlier. Ivan Neville made an obligatory appearance, before running around the block to appear with Gov't Mule. Some of the other SuperJammers also made it to the "other" show, including the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (who opened the night at the Orpheum), and Dave Matthews. Gov't Mule sported other guests as well, but when Warren Haynes used setbreak to make a break for the SuperJam, bad timing necessitated his return to the Orpheum to handle his own affairs.
Late-night at Twi-Ro-Pa, the Benevento/Russo Duo featuring Mike Gordon performed an imaginative show that was a complete gear-shift from the Anastasio-led "SuperJam" but the contrast was not to be confused with a difference in intensity level. And although this was no "SuperJam," per-se, it did include two special guests on guitar, neither of which were Red (no kidding, right?). Jamie McLean from the Dirty Dozen Brass Band was a bit of a shocker, though strangely not all that thrilling. Next up was Scott Metzger from RANA who, given his frequent collaborations with the Duo in NYC, was less of a shocker, but thrilling all the same. He led the Duo now a quartet through a scorching "Heartbreaker." And yes it was. Metzger and Gordon hugged, Metzger left stage, Russo confessed (privately, backstage) that he was sick as a dog. Russo's impending illness would foreshadow events on Sunday night, but it was still a day earlier….well, Sunday morning for those going by anything-other-than-Nawleans-time. My watch, however, was set on "Big Easy."
So, just for kicks, it was time to catch the tail end of Umphrey's McGee at Tipitina's Uptown. Legendary venue, soon-to-be legendary band sure, why not? I mean, it was barely 6:00 am, what else was going on? The night was still young. Inside Tip's things were raging like it was midnight in New England. Bayliss and Cinninger were shredding. Topaz came out for the encore. Earlier in the show, Gabby La La provided surprise set-break entertainment and then led the Umph boys through a "Norwegian Wood" jam that segued into the second set. Typical Nawleans affairs.
The sun was rising over the bayou. It was going to be a beautiful day. Church folks were chirping; some were already at their respective places of worship. The rest of us were just shuffling out of ours, filled with the voodoo, redeemed by the spirit, exhausted and ready for shut-eye. All two or three hours of it before, we told ourselves, we had to make it to the fairgrounds for the final stretch.
You would think that by Sunday things would start to wind down, but nah Sunday was more of the same. At the fairgrounds, Michael Franti led Spearhead through a set that started off similar to his Tipitina's show on Friday night, with an acoustic-intro "Pray For Grace" (sans travel rant). Although instead of playing to a sardine-packed smokehouse, the audience in Congo Square was, perhaps, 10,000 strong. Thus the energy was a little bit dispersed from the can't-believe-I'm-witnessing-this feel of Friday night, but Spearhead still rocked the party. And the crowd still rocked along. Franti knew how to sink it.
As did Trey Anastasio, albeit not as frantically as at the SuperJam the night before and with a new wave of criticism. Indeed, it was a strange sight to behold, being at a Trey Anastasio show at a festival and watching kids actually leave during his set to catch Steel Pulse or eat some crawfish. And there were bitches and gripes but for those actually paying attention, Anastasio provided some great Sunday rock n' roll. He pulled out the big guns without pulling them apart too much. And of course, it's the pulling apart that usually makes the fans swoon. Not much swooning here, but a whole lotta smiles and head bobbing. A cover of "Sitting In Limbo" seemed both self-biographically relevant, and geographically sound while "Come as Melody" brought a relaxed, perhaps even bucolic, sense to Anastasio's increasingly anthemic rock.
When the sun went down on Sunday, Jazz Fest had officially ended. Some people no doubt went back to their hotels downtown, in the French Quarter, in the Garden District, called for wake-up service and took the first airport shuttle out of there. But if thousands of people did this it speaks more for the sheer attendance numbers and sincere diversity that Jazz Fest attracts more than the activities of, say, a you or a me. The clubs were still packed till dawn on Sunday night and the parties were still "end of the world (just in-case)" affairs. Bourbon Street certainly was still raging but it was tough to tell if the street-gazers were Jazz Festers, tourists, or just lifelong frat-boys who had found their little niche in the world. Beyond the signs advertising live sex acts and hand grenade (drinks) to go, Frenchman Street was waiting on the perimeter. The Iguanas performed at the anomalous-but-somehow-very-local Cafrasil, and reportedly the band kept adding in numbers as the night progressed. Across the street at d.b.a., the Stanton Moore Trio, featuring Stanton Moore (Galactic), Robert Walter (20th Congress), and Wil Bernard (T.J. Kirk) performed for a crowd that would've seriously pissed off the fire marshal. The trio did the NOLA thing and pulled out surprises, guests, and tricks but the highlight of the show was when an instrumental cover of Judas Priest's "You've Got Another Thing Coming" turned into an audience sing-a-long. Topaz was curbside, socializing.
Across the swamp and a ferry ride from the city, at a living room tavern called Old Point Bar, Mike Gordon returned with the Duo but Joe Russo did not. Originally billed as "Benevento/Russo Duo feat. Johnny Vidacovich," the show transformed into "Benevento/Vidacovich Duo feat. Mike Gordon." Vidacovich, apparently the drummer that Stanton Moore has spent an entire career trying to emulate (in so many words), picked up some new out-of-town fans while Gordon chatted it up with old ones. Notably, Gordon's on-stage appearances were on guitar, and Metzger showed up for another run through "Heartbreaker."
Now, again, on Monday you would expect the town to empty out and in some regards it did. No fairgrounds to go to today, and at night the choices were much more languid. Except that I got a phone call saying "The Black Keys are playing a free, surprise show, right now, at the Circle Bar." Being that I was two blocks away, what to do but go! It wasn't actually the Black Keys it was the Hentchmen, featuring the Black Keys. But the lines got pretty blurry as one set was more Black Keys than Hentchmen and the next set was more Hentchmen than Black Keys but the whole thing was Big Easy-style with a "hey, we're playing an announced show tomorrow at Twi-Ro-Pa but tonight let's just rock it" and a pause, at one point, for Keys' guitarist Dan Auerbach to take a cell phone from someone in the front row and prove to the person on the other side that the caller wasn't lying Auerbach was really there, really playing. As if to punctuate this, Auerbach said both into the phone and into the mic "I have to go now, I have to play a song." Cheers erupted from the front row to the back row, and the back row was actually just the fifth row. It was that small. Someone passed around a pitcher for "donations for the band." I threw in a couple bucks. You would've done the same.
Come sunrise, music was still pouring out of every crevice and crack in the city while beers poured from the taps at Igor's. The thing to do in New Orleans is, when you've pushed your body to the limit, when you think you're going to pass out from sheer exhaustion, when you're positive that you can't go on anymore you go to Igor's for beers and push on till the day. And so we did. Amen.