JazzFest, New Orleans, 5/1-5/5
"Judge Jazz Fest not by what you saw, but what you had to miss to see what
If you’ve never been down to New Orleans during Jazzfest, then it is not
possible to fully understand what takes place. Words cannot express
the full range of colors and emotions that one experiences during the two
weeks of "musical debauchery." The sense of community that the people
carry during this time may be unmatched anywhere else in the country. I
recently flew down to my first jazzfest (second weekend) with some friends
to see exactly what all the fuss was about. And much to
my surprise, the hype didn’t even come close to the actual thing.
We stayed at the Ramada in the Garden District which is right next door to Igor’s,
a 24 hour bar known for having the best Bloody Mary’s around, as well as being
packed every hour of the day. It is also the center of many early morning gatherings.
Everyone I met, from all over the country, was extremely nice and loved music
just as much as I did (who would’ve thought it?).
My Jazzfest began on Wednesday with moe. on the Riverboat Cajun Queen. We
had not planned on seeing music on this night but after spending time in the French
Quarter and Bourbon Street, my friends and I took a walk down to the pier
and scored some tickets for face value from some extremely nice people
from California. We boarded the boat and spent the next four hours with
some good friends cruising down the Mississippi listening to the
band play as well as I’ve heard them in some time. Check out the "Chuck’s
Tune—>Brent Black" to open the second set as it was the highlight of the
night. There would be no late show for us on Wednesday, which was fine as
the moe. gig had taken a lot out of us. We spend the rest of the night
enjoying ourselves in the Quarter where I discovered the "Hurricane," the
drink that would make the rest of my week much, much better.
Thursday at the Fairgrounds was the emptiest it would be all weekend: we
knew that and took full advantage of it. The Fest takes place on an empty
racetrack, with two main stages, the Acura Stage (biggest) and the Sprint
Stage (second biggest). In addition, there are some other smaller stages,
and three large tents: Blues, Gospel and Jazz. All in all, it seems like
there are fifty different bands going on at one time. Due to the smaller
crowd, we worked our way over to several different stages, all the while
keeping home base at the Acura Stage in anticipation of the afternoon
acts. After seeing several bands, we went back to the Acura Stage at 2:00
to see Los Hombres Calientes, which features Irvin Mayfield on trumpet.
For the next hour, Irvin proceeded to show everyone in attendance why he
is one of the most respected players on the New Orleans jazz scene today.
His playing was fantastically intricate as he played over the band, which
laid down some challenging rhythms underneath. Gov’t Mule was up next and
they didn’t disappoint. Some friends of mine left early in their set to
check out Jon Cleary, however I was unable to tear myself away from the
Mule. The sound was a little off at first, as Warren’s guitar was lost in
the mix. However, by the third song, "Rockin Horse", everything was fixed
and the band played much better because of it. Later in the set, John
Popper joined the band for "Sco-Mule." Similar sound problems plagued
Popper’s harmonica, which were not worked out quickly enough and the song
suffered because of it. The set was great, although by the end, my
friends and I were exhausted from being in the sun all day (it supposedly
was 100 degrees with the humidity) so we left in the middle of a set-
closing "Mule." Of course, this set was just a teaser to the band’s
raucous performance the next night at the State Palace which featured as
many as seven different guest appearances, including Les Claypool.
The night began for us with George Porter Jr. and his Runnin Pardners at
Jimmy’s. This is George’s second time around with the Runnin Pardners as
his first incarnation had broken up. It seemed as though the band was a
little rusty and unfamiliar with each other, understandably so since they
haven’t played together very much at all. However, George’s bass was
every bit as good as I’d heard on disc, and I was very pleased with the
way he sounded. We left the club around 2:00 or so and walked over to
the Maple Leaf to catch one of the most highly anticipated shows of the
entire weekend, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress. The bar was extremely slow
to let people in, so we were still outside as the band opened with a
surprising "Back in Black". At least fifteen of my friends from all over
the country were at the Maple Leaf, and we danced the night away together to
what might be the most impressive show I would see. Robert Walter and his
band displayed a versatility I did not know they possessed, and their
second set was as spacey and experimental as anything I’ve EVER
We left the bar shortly after 6:00, went to Igor’s Bar for some early morning
Bloody Mary’s and bumped into the horn section from Deep Banana Blackout.
(For the record, seeing musicians at Igor’s became a pretty standard act that
quickly lost its novelty)
Friday was the day that drew my friends and I down to New Orleans.
We got to the Fairgrounds and set up shop at the Sprint Stage. I had no
intention of moving all day as three very, very good acts were set to
perform. First up was Leo Nocentelli, former guitar player for the
Meters. He quite simply destroyed the crowd with rousing
renditions of several classic Meters’ songs including "Africa" and the New
Orleans staple "People Say," which we would hear on four different
occasions. The Dirty Dozen Brass Band followed and they, as well, were
incredible. And then finally, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe took
the stage to perform for an hour and a half. He played a bunch of his
popular songs, but the set was just a warm up for the next night when he
played The State Palace with Robert Randolph, a show many who were there
consider to be the highlight of the weekend.
On Friday night, things just got better. Medeski, Martin and Wood at the
famous Saenger Theater was everything I had hoped. I had first seen the
band WAY back at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC to a half filled room, and I’m
really happy the band has come this far, deservedly so. For starters, the
Saenger is the most gorgeous venue I have ever been in, with an extremely
high ceiling and detailed statues all around. The show was peppered with
songs from the strong new album Uninvisible and some guest
appearances. Several familiar faces were in attendance in the audience,
including Marc Brownstein and Aron Magner from The Disco Biscuits. After
a brief conversation with them about their late night show time, we finished
out the MMW show and made our way over to Tipitina’s for The
Biscuits. Much to our surprise, our friend Justin, who had seen another show,
had gotten there before us and was the very first person in line. This, of course, enabled us to get a prime spot in
the very front of the stage, right in front of bassist Brownstein.
In fact, if you look at Jeff Waful’s picture in the Jazzfest Photo
Gallery, that’s my friends and I right in front of Brownie. Anyway, the
band took the stage shortly after 3:00 and played to a packed house. The
show highlight came early in the first set, as the band showed exactly
what they were capable of with a tremendous "Helicopters—>Little Shimmy
(inverted)—>And the Ladies were The Rest of the Night.. The band also had another
huge jam in the form of "Reactor—>King of the World—>Confrontation—>Reactor"
in the second set. By the time the band finished, it was just past 7:00 AM which meant
one thing: more Bloody Marys at Igor’s. Not surprisingly, Igor’s was
jam-packed on this morning, and eventually featured an appearance by the
band after they finished up with their gear over at Tips. Nothing like
Bloody Marys with bagels and cream cheese.
Saturday was a no-go for the fairgrounds, mainly because none of us woke
up until three in the afternoon. The previous day’s lineup was just too
much for us, and some extra rest was definitely needed. After having
dinner at the Acme Oyster House (the oysters were the size of footballs),
the extra rest came in very handy that night as my friends went to see the
Radiators at the House of Blues as I wandered along Bourbon street
enjoying the local sights (yes girls are getting topless, even during
Jazzfest). Bourbon is quite a funny sight, and thankfully so because it
smells terrible. A lingering smell of vomit permeates the air and is
quite inescapable. After a couple of drinks, specifically more
Hurricanes, I met up with my friends in order to head over to the
Frenchman’s block party to catch Rebirth Brass Band, Vinyl and Garaj
Mahal. The block party was nothing more than your standard frat party,
albeit with much better bands than I ever got at our parties in college.
Rebirth was great, however it was way too hot inside the bar to stay.
Across the street though, things were much different. The end of Vinyl’s
set was smoking, and things really got going when Garaj Mahal took the
stage. Unfortunately, Fareed Haque was unable to make the show due to
airplane trouble, or so I’m told, so Will Bernard filled in on guitar for
the show. Nonetheless, the band was incredible. Each member is a monster
in his own respect and singling any one out over the other would not do
the band as a whole justice. They were great.
Sunday was another big day at the Fairgrounds. Ratdog got things going
with a great set, with a cameo by the aforementioned Irvin Mayfield who
seemed to be everywhere during the daytime shows. Phil and Friends were
next, much to the delight of the thousands of dead heads in attendance.
Tye Dye shirts were everywhere as the band opened with "Night of a
Thousand Stars." Some people went over to the blues tent to catch
legendary Walter "Wolfman" Washington, but I stuck around to hear Phil.
Later in the set, Bob Weir came out and joined the band for
several songs, notably "Cassidy" and "Help—>Slip—>Franklin’s." And
finally, to close out Jazzfest 2002, The Neville Brothers played the Acura
Stage, while The Radiators played over on the Sprint Stage. Leaving the
fairgrounds that day was a little disappointing as the reality of the
inevitable end was closing in.
That night, another highly anticipated show took place over at the Orpheum
Theater. The Funky Meters, preceded by Project Logic was a big time show
that lived up to all the hype. Project Logic played as well as I’ve ever
heard them. Following Logic was The Funky Meters, which
consists of two original Meter’s members, bassist George Porter Jr. and
keyboardist Art Neville. They were the core back then and they are the
core of this band as well. All night long, George’s bass thumped hard
from song to song. If you’ve ever wondered what "real" funk sounds like,
play some of the original Meters’ songs and listen to George’s bass. He
is the definition of funk. Art’s voice was great all night, as was Russell
Batiste’s drumming. He was pounding away all night and actually broke, by
my count, eight different drum sticks, two of which ended up in my buddy
Shane’s possession. Over the course of the show, which almost brought the
house down, several different people made guest appearances, notably Bob
Weir (who we would meet later at, you guessed it, Igor’s) for several
songs including "Aiko Aiko". When it came time for the band to leave, the
crowd simply wouldn’t let them. It was one of those truly rare times when
the crowd really earned an encore by yelling and screaming non-stop until
the band came back out.
As I look back on the long weekend, I simply cannot find one show or
moment that I could define as "the best." Words cannot describe the
feelings that jazzfest evokes from people who were there. It was 24 hours
a day of music, heaven on earth if you will, even for a short time. It seems like
every fan and every member of every band brings his or her A-game down to NOLA
The musicians give their all at these shows and the fans reciprocate. Just as
importantly, every musician down there wants to see the
other bands as much as the fans do. That’s why most every single
night show featured a guest appearance (SEVEN
people sat in with Gov’t
Mule). Jazzfest is about the music and nothing more or less. There is a
beautiful symmetry that exists between the musicians and the fans in New
Orleans. I didn’t really understand until I first stepped
foot into Igor’s on Wednesday afternoon. Everyone there was so excited
about the music and who they’d be seeing this night and the next.
Jazzfest is not about "the scene" or any community or anything else. It’s
about people who live to play music and the people who live to hear it.