NEW ORLEANS JAZZ & HERITAGE FESTIVAL
Fairgrounds Racetrack, New Orleans – Friday April 25 – Sunday April 27, 2014
If you don’t like large crowds, heat and humidity and frequent long lines for food, transport and rest room facilities, then maybe Jazz Fest is not for you. On the other hand if you have zen-like patience, do not mind being surrounded by people in party mode and love an eclectic music mix then it might just be the best event you could ever attend. This year is my 20th and I haven’t tired of it yet.
What began in 1970 as a celebration of Louisiana music and culture for 350 people in Louis Armstrong Park’s famous Congo Square is now an event that draws upwards of 100,000 people on some of its seven days at the Fairgrounds Racetrack a short bus ride from the French Quarter. Despite the massive expansion over the years to include what appears to be the Spring Break crowd, there is still some continuity: that first event featured the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and The Meters, some of whom are still here at the festival.
The daunting size of crowd at the main arena (the Acura Stage) was forcefully underlined on Sunday when we sat at the very opposite end of the field even out of clear view of one of the several video screens.
As Eric Clapton performed a version of the old Ace hit ‘How Long?’ we remarked on just how good it sounded and how faithful it was to the original. Those able to get a spot closer to the stage would have known (as we later found out) that, in fact, it was Paul Carrack, the singer who first recorded it with Ace, performing the song and playing organ while Eric decorated it with extremely tasteful guitar licks!
On the other hand, it was possible to get almost within an arm’s reach of John Hiatt and The Combo on the small Fais Do Do stage where he put in a brilliant set packed with great songs, mighty playing and amusing repartee.
Jazz Fest bounces between those two extremes but with a bit of planning and zen-like patience you can make it work for you. Get in early and set up your chair or arrive the Blues, Jazz or Gospel tents at the end of the act prior to the one you want to see and you will get a seat. Even slowed down by the recovery from a motorcycle accident I still got to see plenty of acts at closed range and enjoyed a few more at long range in the trusty camping chair.
Friday April 25
Friday’s Jazz Fest started for me with Chris Thomas King, the son of the late Tabby Thomas, in the Blues Tent. I have likened him to an older version of Gary Clark Jr and despite his appearance in the Coen’s O Brother! Where Art Thou? his popularity remains localised, though his appeal certainly is not. He let loose on a great version of Buddy Guy’s ‘Damned Right I’ve Got The Blues.’
Most of my activity was then at the Samsung Galaxy (formerly Gentilly) stage – the second largest stage. Locals, the Honey Island Swamp Band were excellent with their blend of rock and swamp pop. Their version of The Stones’ ‘Silver Train’ was excellent with a nice Louisiana tempo.
Jason Isbell has really asserted himself with his latest album Southeastern and his set here was powerful – and often the match of just about anything he did with the Drive By Truckers, especially on ‘Ain’t Never Gonna Change’ (which he recorded with The Truckers) and ‘Super 8’ (from his latest album). The chugging southern groove cut a swathe in the afternoon atmosphere.
The Avett Brothers were then simply stunning. While their music might be rooted in bluegrass brothers Scott and Seth Avett, now into their 15th years with the band, have incorporated a lot of other elements.
Last year’s Rick Rubin-produced Magpie and The Dandelion seems to have been overlooked (though it debuted at No.5 on the charts) but many who witnessed them here would have been scrambling to get hold of it afterwards. They also performed songs from I and Love and You (also a Rick Rubin production) including the title song and a rousing ‘Head Full of Doubt’ and then added a rocking cover of John Denver’s ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy’ which had everyone cheering. (Fiddler Tania Elizabeth from Canadian band the Duhks was a special guest).
The day closed for me back in the Blues Tent with Joe Louis Walker, who is the ‘bluesier’ side of Robert Cray. In fact, early in his career he had the same producer, Bruce Bromberg, who had given Cray his start. Walker should be much better known; he is as soulful as Cray (as his reading of ‘In The Morning’ proved’) but he has a sharper edge.
Saturday April 26
Saturday started again in the Blues Tent with John Mooney & Bluesiana, a great local blues act who always does a dynamic set and manages to get people on their feet stomping and cheering. Mooney’s latest album is a tribute to Son House and performing some of those songs in concert he really captures the spirit of the deep blues. He rocks too: as evidenced by ‘You ought To See My Baby.’
Anders Osborne followed at the main stage and was again impressive, and though he didn’t do his cover of David Crosby’s ‘Almost Cut My Hair’ he did do a version of ‘Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door’ of which Dylan would heartily approve, twisting it to his own ends just like Bob might do.
Royal Southern Brotherhood were solid back at Gentilly and it seems that Cyril Neville has really found a niche in this outfit now that The Neville Brothers are in hiatus.
Of course, the day’s big headliner was then Robert Plant with his outfit The Sensational Shapeshifters – although Phish were given the day’s closing spot on the main stage. The wait was rewarded by an inventive performance that was preceded by some Middle Eastern music that set the tone for the rest of the show.
Taking a break from recording a new album in the UK, Plant demonstrated his love of Jazz Fest and flew in to the USA for just this one show! It was certainly worth it from the audience’s point of view because there is nothing predictable about a Plant concert these days. So he did Bukka White’s ‘Fixin’ to Die,’ an eerie version of Willie Dixon’s classic ‘Spoonful’ and even ‘Tin Pan Valley,’ and ‘The Enchanter’ from the 2005 album Mighty ReArranger.
Then there were the Led Zeppelin songs reworked and reinvented to keep them fresh for everyone concerned.
“It’s great to keep changing it and turning it around,” said Plant. “Here’s one of them songs.”
‘Going to California’ (or ‘going to Louisiana’ as he sang), ‘Black Dog’ in African mode, ‘Bron-Y-Aur Stomp,’ ‘What Is and What Should Never Be’ and, of course, ‘Whole Lotta Love’ segueing into Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love?’ and finally ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll.’
Rushing from Plant’s set I caught the final four songs of Boz Scaggs’s show in the Blues Tent and reckon I got the best of it: ‘Hercules’ and ‘What Do You Want The Girl To Do’, featuring Allen Toussaint (who wrote both songs) as special guest, then ‘Lowdown’ and, finally, ‘Lido Shuffle’ which turned into a sing along. Scaggs was as smooth as silk (degrees) in his playing and still sounds great.
Sunday April 27
North Mississippi Allstars on the main stage opened the day for me. They have stripped the sound back and are more focused, as the band’s main guitarist/vocalist Luther Dickinson explained recently in an interview. Once lumped into the Jam Band camp, he and his drummer brother Cody, sons of the late Jim Dickinson, are really what the new blues scene is all about now. They are helped out by other Mississippians in bassist Chris Chew, guitarist Lightnin’ Malcolm and the young Sharde Thomas on vocals.
Leaning heavily on the latest studio album World Boogie Is Coming the set was a tribute to the power of the Mississippi Hill Country blues history with versions also of ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’ and ‘Rollin’ and Tumblin’ as well as an extended workout on ‘Goin’ Down South.’
Irma Thomas, the Queen of New Orleans soul, followed and was professional as always, her voice undiminished by age (73 this year). There were the usual ‘hits’ – ‘It’s Raining,’ ‘I Wish It Would Rain,’ ‘You Can Have My Husband,’ ‘I Done Got Over’ and more but there were two surprises.
Thomas sang Bill Withers’ ‘The Same Love That Made Me Laugh’ which she recorded some years ago with producer Joe Henry – and don’t we wish they had done en entire album together. (This song confirms that). Finally, Thomas offered a lovely version of Bob’s ‘Forever Young.’ If someone such as Henry could get Thomas out of her comfort zone for a while she could still do great things.
The set of the festival for me by far came on one of the smallest stages: John Hiatt & The Combo on the Fais Do Do. A brilliant set packed with great songs (even a new one). I couldn’t believe how lucky we were to see Hiatt in such a setting.
Hiatt’s band includes Doug Lancio on lead guitar, Brandon Young on backing vocals and guitar, Nathan Geary on bass and drummer Kenneth Blevins from Lake Charles. It is not quite The Goners (which featured Sonny Landreth) but it serves Hiatt’s songs very well. Lancio, who has also played with Lucinda Williams, really showed his value on the riff-heavy songs such as ‘Real Fine Love,’ ‘Paper Thin,’ ‘Cry Love,’ ‘Perfectly Good Guitar’ and ‘Thing Called Love.’ Add in ‘Slow Turning,’ ‘Memphis In The Meantime,’ ‘Crossing Muddy Waters,’ ‘Drive South’ and ‘Tennessee Plates’ and you have the makings of a classic John Hiatt show – which it was.
Hiatt also played a new song ‘Long Time Coming’ from the album Terms of My Surrender to be released in June. Then to show that he was not just a riff-meister he sang ‘Have A Little Faith In Me’ before closing with ‘Riding With The King,’ pointing out that Eric Clapton, who was just starting on the Acura Stage had recorded the song with BB King.
“Hey, Eric!” said Hiatt, ‘we’re over here. This is how it went when we recorded it.”
Eric Clapton on the main stage had a huge crowd which meant we were consigned to the very back of the arena, out of sight but not out of earshot. This was one of the more satisfying sets that I have seen him do – yet I only caught about half of it.
Clapton did at least three Robert Johnson songs (‘Stones In My Passway, ‘Little Queen of Spades’ and ‘Crossroads’), two by JJ Cale (‘Crazy Mama’ and ‘Cocaine’), along with ‘Hoochie Coochie Man,’ ‘Tell The Truth,’ Key To The Highway’ and ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out.’ (Ironically, the only flat spot occurred with an acoustic ‘Layla’). Thank goodness there was no ‘Wonderful Tonight’ or ‘Tears In Heaven’!
On the up tempo numbers Clapton sounds superb, soloing as fluently as ever. (Note to Eric: Just stick to the blues mate and you’ll be fine!). The band included long-time members guitarist Andy Fairweather-Low, keyboardist Chris Stainton, drummer Henry Spinetti and bassist Dave Bronze and, unbeknownst to us at the time – organist and singer Paul Carrack (which is why ‘How Long sounded so great!).
We left prior to Paul Carrack singing Joe Cocker’s ‘High Time We Went’ as the encore. Long bus lines the previous night had given a salutary lesson. As we sat on the bus back to the French Quarter we listened to the very unflattering reports of the Rodriguez gig in the Blues Tent and I was glad to have encountered a rather better Clapton set than I had anticipated.
It seems difficult to believe that there is another four days to go starting next Thursday!