By Brian Wise.
Gurrumul appears in the Blues Tent!
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – Weekend #2 – April 30 – May 4, 2015
If ever there was a ready made advertising slogan for this year’s Jazz Fest it would have been ‘The British Are Coming’ or even ‘British Invasion.’
The Who conquered the first weekend, while Elton John drew one of the festival’s biggest crowds ever on the second Saturday in a weekend that also featured Steve Winwood and Ed Sheeran. Elton charmed the crowd, played a great set and got rave reviews.
But there was an Australian representative in the Blues Tent in Gurrumul, billed with the additional tag of ‘from Australia,’ just in case people were unfamiliar. Most of the audience did not appear to know what to expect and, after discovering that he was not in fact a blues player, some of them left (perhaps unaware that he is one of Australia’s most successful recording artists of recent years).
However, those remaining were treated to a fascinating and sometimes emotional hour. Manager/bass player Michael Hohnen introduced the songs while Gurrumul sang and played guitar aided by drummer Tony Floyd and a second guitarist. They managed to overcome the usual atrocious sound in the Blues tent, simply because they were an acoustic outfit. (Why the festival does not do something about the continuing awful sound in this tent is a mystery).
The tent was populated by an abundance of Australians but there were plenty of others and at the end they all gave a rousing standing ovation. Walking off stage the shy Gurrumul stopped for a second to absorb the applause, waved and then left. If you were an Australian that was the highlight of the weekend right there.
Nevertheless, the festival is not about a single act – although Elton john might disagree. The four days of the second weekend can turn into a marathon endurance test and in really hot weather it can be a trial. For most of this weekend it was clear, sunny and pleasant with occasional hot spells just to remind you that this is the South.
Thursday April 30
Thursday is always pleasant with its lower crowds and the headliner on the Gentilly Stage was Alison Krauss and Union Station with Jerry Douglas. Krauss was last here with Robert Plant in a sensational show so this was completely different and no doubt satisfying for her fans. Widespread Panic headlined the main stage and were given three and a quarter hours as befits their status as a jam band – that’s longer than Bruce Springsteen was allocated! I don’t get it.
What I did get was The Word, with Robert Randolph and his amazing pedal steel guitar earlier in the day on the Acura stage and, preceding Krauss on the Gentilly, the star of last year’s Americana Festival, Sturgill Simpson whose voice sounds impossibly old for his age. Guitarist Eric Lindell impressed in the Blues tent, his latest album is very soulful, Steve Riley and The Mamou Playboys gave the Fais Do Do stage a does of Cajun and Mississippi’s Kenny Brown brought the Hill Country to the Lagniappe stage.
Friday May 1
Friday’s headliners on the main stages were No Doubt and Chicago and it is hard to think of a starker contrast. In the end I opted to see A little of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and most of the excellent Voice of The Wetlands collaboration with Tab Benoit and Cyril Neville (amongst others) in the Blues Tent, later in the afternoon that saw Gurrumul’s show there.
There was also an excellent Q&A with Dr John on the Allison Miner stage in the Grandstand about his tribute to Louis Armstrong. The good Doctor proved a mine of information and amusement.
As often happens at these events here the session becomes more about the audience and their memories of the artist (‘Remember I met you in New York in 1982?’…as if anyone would be able to recall that!). Not only that the interviewer gushed over the new album a little too effusively……it’s good but not that good!
Saturday May 2
There was no way I was ever going to get near the Acura for Elton John closing the day, so I contented myself with the memory of a fabulous Las Vegas show I saw him do a few years ago.
My main mission was to see Jerry Lee Lewis and I managed to find quite a good vantage point to enjoy The Killer’s six songs, enjoying some of Davell Crawford’s Fat Domino tribute in the lead up.
Jerry Lee’s sister Linda Gail Lewis opened the show for him in what was an unexpected bonus but there could only be one star of this show – The Killer.
Jerry Lee sounded in good form – or as much as you can expect a 79-year-old to be. ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ still sound great and you have to remind yourself that this man was recording at the same time as Elvis and is only about nine months younger than Presley.
At this point I retreated from the crowd and the heat and made it to the Blues Tent for a wonderful set by Aaron Neville, assisted by brother Charles on saxophone. Aaron’s voice is a marvel and he opened with ‘Stand By Me,’ as a tribute to Ben E King who had just passed away. He also added ‘There Goes My Baby’ but mixed those up with some Sam Cooke classics. It is difficult to believe that Neville is 74-years old because his voice sounds untarnished. Last year he sang quite a few songs from his then new Keith Richards / Don Was produced album My True Story, this year the set list was more eclectic: ‘Bird On A Wire,’ ‘Hercules,’ ‘Angola Bound,’ ‘What’s Goin’ On,’ ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ Bob Marley’s ‘Three Little Birds’ and ‘Stir It Up,’ ‘Yellow Moon,’ Randy Newman’s ‘Louisiana 1927,’ Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Down By The Riverside’ and, of course, ‘Tell It Like It Is’ and ‘Amazing Grace.’ Fabulous. Later that night Aaron was to sing at the Neville Brothers celebration (review later) but this was a set par excellence.
Sunday May 3
It is always somewhat sad when the last day of Jazz Fest rolls around. It means the end to seven days of music and eleven nights of gigs. There is also a slight sense of relief that you have survived, sometimes unscathed.
The Meter followed Anders Osborne on the Acura Stage and lived up to their legend. The influence of this band is abiding and they seem to be enjoying their recent adulation, as they ran through some of their classics. ‘Cissy Strut,’ ‘People Say,’ ‘Just Kissed My Baby’ and ‘Fire On The Bayou’ might not have been hits but their influence is abiding. Strolling around the Festival you might also have caught sight of their producer Allen Toussaint mingling with the crowds.
Speaking of legends, local act The Radiators were on mid-afternoon and provided a solid set on the Gentilly stage that showed why they are so loved here. It was good, honest rock ‘n’ roll with a Louisiana twist.
Steve Winwood has appeared here three times in recent years, with one set shortened because of a storm. This time he had a full hour and a half and it was a delightful way to spend the afternoon, especially when he opened with ‘I’m A Man’ and followed it, unusually perhaps, with Buddy Miles’ ‘Them Changes.’ ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ and ‘Dear Mr Fantasy’ emerged elegantly from the past, lending themselves to long jams. ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’ was a great way to close the set and had the crowd singing along.
Finally, as Trombone Shorty wrapped up the main stage, I wandered over to Buddy Guy in the Blues Tent and marvelled at his continued energy. ‘Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues’ was fiery and ‘Five Long Years’ was blistering. I thought he was in fine form even if I was standing 20 deep outside the tent! If we could devise the rest of the set list for him it would be even better.