A triumph for the old and new guard in Van Morrison and Rhiannon Giddens.
By Brian Wise.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
First weekend: April 22 – April 24, 2016
Hurricane Katrina seems almost a lifetime away now – and in many ways it is. Visitors to New Orleans now would hardly see any clues that the devastation that occurred nearly eleven years ago unless they ventured into the Ninth Ward and saw the thousands of remaining abandoned houses.
The Crescent City has come back – not necessarily better than ever – but enough to make it vibrant and bustling again. There seem to be more homeless and poor people on the streets and the composition of the population has changed but conventions are back in strength and tourism is booming. The Jazz & Heritage Festival, which never missed a beat despite the threat after Katrina, is thriving once again.
Held at the Fairgrounds racetrack not far from the French Quarter, Jazz Fest is a musical feast of Louisiana and international acts on a dozen stages spanning 7 days over two weekends. It is not only a celebration of music but also a showcase of culture (including the Mardi Gras Indians), art and, not the least, an amazing array of food.
If you ignore some of the mainstream headliners (Nick Jonas? Ouch!) which these days seem inevitable on most festivals and guarantee strong ticket sales (460,000 last year), this is still one of the best music events in the world. And, while the imported big name artists often dominate the headlines this remains a great showcase of Louisiana talent across all its genres.
The US$70 tickets state ‘Rain or Shine’ and for the first weekend luckily it was the latter and gloriously so. With the temperature hovering around 26-28C and the sun mostly shining it was almost perfect – certainly great for newcomers who were not thrust into introductory days of searing heat and energy-sapping humidity.
It was a different Jazz Fest for me in that I had to restrict my movements to accommodate the crutches that have resulted from a motorcycle accident. No running around like a madman for me this year. Rather than a little time at a lot of stages there was a lot of time at a few stages. It worked for me. There were a few brief journeys onto the infield to the outdoor stages but most of this festival will be spent in the jazz and blues tents – hardly a problem!
Friday April 22
The outdoor Fais Do Do Stage is usually the home to Cajun and zydeco with other roots music thrown in. The Deslondes have graduated from the small grandstand stage and combine a little country with folk and other old-timey musics. Most of the band members write and the two main members, Sam Doores and Riley Downing, have presence. After seeing them last year I thought this might be the year for the big breakthrough but it occurred to me that they need someone like T Bone Burnett to whip all the songs into shape to complete a really strong album.
Eric Lindell cancelled his spot in the Blues Tent due to illness in the family and the program was moved down. Alvin ‘Youngblood’ Hart’s Muscle Theory was impressive and gutsy. It’s amazing that he has not won a swag of Blues Awards in Memphis.
The subdudes (sic) then put in a killer set following Hart and showed why they are a crowd favourite in New Orleans. If you were surprised that Hart had not won awards then you would be astonished that the subdudes never made a major radio breakthrough in their near 30-year career. They have two great singers and writers in Tommy Malone and John Magnie. Then there is the unusual drummer in Steve Amadee who only uses one hand-held drum and makes it sound like a full kit. Finally, every song features great harmonies and most are instantly appealing. Bonnie Raitt, who is here next weekend, is a big fan. The problem is that with modern commercial radio they just fall between the fracks. Maybe Americana can rescue them. God knows, they deserve it because this show was stunning. (I saw them on Sunday at the House of Blues and it was even better).
Walter Trout told some chilling stories of his illness, need for a liver transplant and of almost dying. ‘That’s what five years in Canned Heat will do to you,’ he explained.
Most of his songs revolved around this story – ‘Say Goodbye,’ ‘Almost Gone,’ ‘Take Me Home’ and ‘Tomorrow Seems So Far Away’ – wrapped in a standard blues rock framework. Here is a man who is so glad to be alive that he is going to tell everyone about it.
Talking of survivors, Sharon Jones is certainly one of the most loved. Where she gets the energy after what she has been through is a mystery but she is as dynamic as ever. The Dap Kings, of course, opened the set in the classic soul mode by introducing the backing singer to do a number and playing a few instrumentals but things really lift when Jones hit the stage.
Others reported the sound at the Steely Dan show at the Acura stage was amongst the best ever heard at Jazz Fest. High praise indeed. And closing out the day on the Gentilly stage Govt’ Mule played a 12-minute version of Prince’s ‘When Doves Cry’ seguing into ‘Beautifully Broken.’
Saturday April 23
Guitarist Anders Osborne is typical of many musicians here. Born in Sweden he visited New Orleans at the age of nineteen and just stayed. He followed ex-Meter Leo Nocentelli on the Acura stage and impressed with tracks from his new album, Space Dust & Ocean Views.
Tab Benoit on the Gentilly stage is another example of a Louisiana musician who would seem to have all the necessary qualities to become better known, but has yet to do so. It is not lack of talent.
In the Jazz tent legendary jazz drummer Jack DeJohnette teamed up with sons of legends in saxophonist Ravi Coltrane (son of John) and bassist Matthew Garrison (son of Jimmy). It was as a compelling jazz performance as we are likely to see at Jazz Fest this year with the there musicians feeding off each other and creating a consistently haunting atmosphere.
The fact that Van Morrison on the Gentilly stage clashed with Boz Scaggs in the Blues tent presented a problem for many. Others opted for Pearl Jam’s two-and-a half hour show on the main stage. I chose Morrison and when I arrived at the arena discovered that it was probably the most crowded I had ever seen it with chairs all the way out to the Portaloos on the racetrack. Morrison would normally play the main stage but this was hardly a demotion.
With a five-piece ensemble, Morrison – clad in a colourful blue suit jacket and wearing a brown fedora – kicked off playing sax on the instrumental ‘Celtic Swing’ and segued into ‘Close Enough For Jazz’ before remarking, ‘Thank you very much, I’d like to play a Ray Charles song’ and launched to an excellent rendition of ‘I Believe To My Soul.’
There were a few people who grumbled later about the set list not containing enough of the ‘hits’ but it seemed to me that it was almost the perfect mix to keep the audience happy and Morrison interested.
‘Brown-Eyed Girl’ appeared as the fifth song after ‘By His Grace’ and ‘Carrying A Torch,’ and the fact that people stood and sang along was a good indication of what they expected. ‘Baby Please Don’t Go,’ on which he sang through the harmonica microphone several times, morphed into Mose Allison’s ‘Parchman Farm’ and then into ‘Don’t Start Crying Now,’ the A-side of his first single with Them in 1964! The fact that Morrison can reach back more than 50 years is remarkable in itself.
These days Morrison’s performance might be described as relaxed. His voice is sounding as good as ever and he seems comfortable cruising through the show, occasionally scatting on the lyrics and playing sax, guitar and harmonica. The fact that he is still around, recording and playing, is cause for celebration in itself.
‘In The Afternoon’ contained references to the old New Orleans classic ‘Don’t You Feel My Leg’ and when he sang that line Morrison almost laughed, though some claimed it was just a wry smile. ‘Ancient Highway’ gave way to ‘No Plan B’ mixed with ‘Raincheck’ and then the bluesy ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.’
‘Wild Night’ got the audience reinvigorated and, after ‘Sometimes We Cry,’ there was the surprise addition of ‘Jambalaya’ which seemed to be a lovely gift to the New Orleans crowd. The set list strategy seemed to work as Morrison remained engaged throughout. So ‘Precious Time’ led into ‘Moondance’ and ‘My Funny Valentine’ and ‘Days Like This’ preceded ‘Whenever God Shines His Light’ and John Lee Hooker’s ‘Think Twice Before You Go.’ There was a spirited version of ‘Help Me ‘before Morrison closed with the classic ‘Gloria,’ that really got the crowd hopping. I thought it was almost the perfect set list and one of his best Jazz Fest shows.
Sunday April 24
The fact that Preston Shannon played an epic version of Prince’s ‘Purple Rain’ was hardly a surprise to those who have seen him at BB King’s in Memphis where he performs it at every show. Nevertheless, it was a nice tribute to Prince, though not the first of the weekend. On Friday, Gov’t Mule did ‘When Doves Cry’ in a 12-minute mix with ‘Beautifully Broken.’
Glen David Andrews, cousin of Trombone Shorty, pulled out every trick in the book for his set after Shannon. This was all about getting the audience involved and he did so with a mix of up tempo songs, wild moves and, finally, descending into the audience on the floor and walking, sometimes crawling, around the tent. This was all highly entertaining and received a standing ovation. It seems apparent that Andrews would be a great choice for Byron Bay’s Blues fest next year.
If Van Morrison is an old favourite who didn’t disappoint then Rhiannon Giddens is a new favourite who gave one of the most stunning performances, I have ever seen in the Blues Tent at Jazz Fest. The fact that she received a standing ovation after every song shows that she also connected with the audience. It was soon apparent that Giddens is headed for superstar status.
Giddens and her band, which included other former members of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, took an inordinately long time to sound check but the results made it worth the wait. After the second song, when the audience pleaded for the drums to be turned down, the sound was almost the best I have ever heard it in the Blues tent which can often sound muddy and distorted. With banjos, violins, bass and cello, accordion and guitar there was plenty to get right and it was almost a painstaking process.
But if the audience became a little restless they were immediately won over by the opening song, a tremendous version of Bob Dylan’s ‘Spanish Mary’ which received a standing ovation. I don’t think I have ever seen an artist get a standing ovation after every song but that is how Giddens set proceeded!
Giddens has studied her music history and her set draws on an alternate story of American music that is compelling and she continued with songs from her debut solo album Tomorrow Is My Turn, in Dolly Parton’s ‘Don’t Let It Trouble Your Mind’ and Hank Cochran’s ‘She’s Got You,’ made famous by Patsy Cline, always careful to credit the composer. There were eerie versions of Odetta’s ‘Waterboy’ and Geeshie Wiley’s ‘Last kind Words.’
With Dirk Powell on violin, Giddens then played, Julie, a new song based on a slave story. Later she played another equally arresting song, ‘You Can Take My Body,’ which was inspired, she said, by seeing an 1828 newspaper ad offering a save and her baby for sale.
Powell then performed a Creole song by Cajun legend Bois Sec Ardoin titled ‘Sunday Afternoon’ which had the audience again on its feet before the finish. ‘Children Go Where I Send You’ was sung by the Chocolate Drop’s Hubby Jenkins who also featured on anoter of the standout songs, ‘Louisiana Man.’
Giddens performed the Gaelic song ‘Mouth Music’ and ‘Look Down That Lonesome Road’ from her Factory Girl EP before closing with Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘Up Above My Head.’ The massive ovation resulted in something unusual on the smaller stages at Jazz Fest – an encore and Giddens chose a song from the Carolina Chocolate Drops very first album.
It was nothing short of superb performance and led more than a few people to speculate that next time Giddens is here she will be on the main stage and that in future she would be a major Festival star. Certainly there could have been few Jazz Fest debuts as impressive and as warmly received.
After that, plans to see a little of Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter were shelved when someone informed me that the Jazz tent was packed and there were people milling outside.
Jonny Lang cancelled his show in the Blues tent which allowed us to enjoy his replacement in British Blues legend John Mayall who was up against the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the main stage. At the age of 82 Mayall is still spritely and his performance was much more energetic than the one he gave in Melbourne a few months ago. Always renowned for his sidemen rather than his own skills, Mayall started with ‘I Feel So Bad,’ (a classic blues lyric if ever there was one) and put in a solid blues set that also included ‘Parchman Farm,’ ‘Do I Please You,’ ‘Mother In Law Blues’ and Sonny Landreth’s ‘Congo Square.’
Jazz Fest continues this weekend from Thursday April 28 – Sunday May 1.