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Published: 2007/05/24
by Rob Johnson

Featured Column: 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 I’ve ever had at Jazz Fest, and a true triumph of quality over quantity.

ACT ONE:

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 Gov’t Mule. This year, they had the good sense to book the Greyboy Allstars on the riverboat Creole Queen. You haven’t 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 “King’s Room,” a forward cabin that served as the backstage area. Karl Denson and Robert Walter were having a relaxed conversation that I didn’t want to interrupt, so we left them alone and went downstairs to claim our spot.

At the riverboat shows, it’s always good to get in the room early enough to secure some space on the comfy benches that line the perimeter of the room. You’ll spend most of your time dancing, but it’s always good to have someplace to sit down, and the view of the river is spectacular. I don’t know this for sure, but I wouldn’t 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 didn’t 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 we’re really happy with.” As well they should be in my opinion, it’s 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 you’re looking for wide-open improv that can go anywhere at any given moment, you won’t find a lot of that at an Allstars show. There will be plenty of great solos, mainly from Denson and Walter, but they’re not going to suddenly morph into some oddball cover or unique jam. They may not be a jamband in a certain sense, but they’re a great band, which is all that matters.

Speaking of solos, I’ve 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. He’s 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 wasn’t 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 it’s 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. I’ve always considered them the undisputed heavyweight champions of funk, but could they match up to what I’d just seen the Greyboys lay down? I’d have to wait until tomorrow to find out.

ACT TWO:

THE ALLMAN BROTHERS FAIRGROUND REVIVAL

You literally can’t 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. I’ve 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 I’d 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 Mayfield’s “If There Is a Hell Below (We’re 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 I’ve 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 “Don’t Want You No More>It’s 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 “Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More” that caught the attention of even the casual fans and curious onlookers. The big fat notes emanating from Derek’s 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 Derek’s 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 ABB’s own fanbase for being too “heavy metal” sounding, but here at Jazz Fest, supposedly a purist’s paradise, the crowd roared in approval. This was something new, a song most of the crowd hadn’t 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 Oteil’s 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 band’s 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 crowd’s 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 didn’t 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 it’s a shame he didn’t reach those heights. Even so, on the positive side this was one of Derek’s best non-slide solos I’ve ever heard, and most of the crowd didn’t seem to notice or care that the song was cut short.

Derek’s wife Susan Tedeschi and former Allman Brother keyboardist Chuck Leavell joined the band for “The Weight,” and the show instantly rose to another level. Susan’s 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. John’s band, and the New Orleans flavor in his playing seemed to come out on this tune.

The trademark song of Leavell’s 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 we’re not going to see anything better than that, I guarantee it.”

ACT THREE:

THE FUNKY METERS AT THE HOUSE OF BLUES

I don’t 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 Sam’s Funky Nation, and let me tell you, I’m glad we did. They were throwing down some serious funk, often sounding like a hybrid between traditional NOLA funk and George Clinton’s 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 didn’t 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 You’re With,” he proved that he came to play. The song’s classic chord structure is a great solo vehicle, and Trucks knocked it out of the park with pleading, emotional slide work.

This pairing didn’t 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 World’s 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 Derek’s 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 Sam’s 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 “Ain’t 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 night’s 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.

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