Saxophonist Donald Harrison first came on the Congo Square stage at Jazz Fest in New Orleans last week wearing a white suit, the very model of a modern major jazzman, playing alto sax.
He later left and emerged in super-elaborate, regal green Mardi Gras Indian garb as Big Chief of the Congo Nation, leading his feathered tribe in ancient parade chants; exemplifying the range of Jazz Fest in one set: from venerable New Orleans traditions to jazz and pop, with blues soul and world music on the side.
Attendance topped 450,000 over Jazz Fest’s seven days, biggest since (pre-Katrina) 2003. The San Francisco Chronicle dubbed it “the best damn time on the face of the earth.”
As one of those 450,000 and a repeat Jazz Fest-er (2008), I agree, though I avoided the biggest crowds. Reportedly 65,000 jammed the SPAC-sized Acura Stage for the Eagles but I skipped them. No Zac Brown Band for me, either; no Foo Fighters, Florence + the Machine, My Morning Jacket, Maze or Bonnie Raitt — though she was the first non-New Orleanian ever to play Jazz Fest, back in the day.
I mostly saw less well-known acts from New Orleans on the 11 other stages.
Plan all you want: Constant musical surprises at Jazz Fest cancel your plans, time after wonderful time.
Walking from a great set by blues pianist Henry Butler at Congo Square to violinist Regina Carter in the Jazz Tent, a bird whistle stopped me at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, where frantic horns and Caribbean beats backed Chico Trujillo, the Dave Matthews of Chile. Fans seemed confused by the bird whistle, a virtuoso performance by the way, but instantly got it when the horns cranked it up and when Trujillo grabbed the mic and took over.
Butler was tremendous, driving and funky, demanding, “Who loves the blues? Let me see your hands!” Butler is sightless, but he knows where everything is on the piano. Carter was wonderful, too, playing simple or complex lines with equal soulfulness and featuring Malian kora virtuoso Yacouba Sissoko and accordionist Will Holshouser. But Trujillo and company were a dynamite surprise detour.
This was the first Jazz Fest in decades with no Radiators and no subdudes. But the Iguanas rocked with Radiators-like blue-collar gusto (in Spanish), and the Malone Brothers (Dave from the Radiators and Tommy from the subdudes) played updated echoes of their former bands.
The Neville Brothers closed Jazz Fest on May 6; they or the Radiators ALWAYS close Jazz Fest. Despite cameos by Trombone Shorty and others, the Nevilles were short on spirit and fire, though they did light up “Fiyo on the Bayou.”
Rumors flew that the Nevilles would play a farewell tour this year, and this would be their last Jazz Fest. Their set had an autumnal sadness, but also a majesty and grace at times that only real masters can summon. Keyboardist Art had trouble walking and seemed low-energy in both the Nevilles’ set and an earlier funky Meters’ set. He rightly proclaimed that one a George Porter show, praising his bassist bandmate for sparking a serious display of Big Easy funk that peaked with “Turn on Your Lovelight” in the Grateful Dead’s arrangement and their own “Cissy Strut.” That set was the only one with rain, and nobody cared much.
I heard the Nevilles got better as guests added energy; but by then I was watching Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, the most New York band at Jazz Fest, tear up the Blues Tent. Dancing nonstop in a dress seemingly sewn of aluminum foil and Twizzlers, Jones was a one-woman cyclone of soul.
HELP FROM THEIR FRIENDS
Warren Haynes guested with fellow guitarist John Mooney, then Dr. John guested in and took over Haynes’ set. Mooney didn’t exactly need the help, heating up the Blues Tent pretty well with can’t-miss outbursts in “Heaven Sitting Down,” “You Got to Move” and “Standing on Shaky Ground.” Haynes gave Mooney extra speed and soul, and his own new band (how many does he need? the Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule, the Warren Haynes Band . . .) swung as much as it rocked, featuring singer Ruthie Foster, keyboardist Nigel Hall and a sousaphone. (Is it illegal to make music in New Orleans without one?) They played Steely Dan’s tricky “Pretzel Logic” with the same ease as more conventional tunes.
When Dr. John joined Haynes’ crew, it was all about his New Orleans tunes: “I Walk on Gilded Splinters,” “Right Place, Wrong Time,” “Such a Night” and “Big Chief,” closing powerfully with “The Weight” for the late, great Levon Helm, whose slot Haynes took at the last minute.
Regina Carter and singers Niki Harris (warm) and Nona Hendryx (dramatic) sang with Teri Lynne Carrington’s straight-ahead Mosaic Project; Harris charming everybody and Hendryx crooning “Strange Fruit” stark and dark.
Saxophonist Tia Fuller elevated both Carrington’s and Esperanza Spalding’s bands. (Spalding plays the Freihofer’s Jazz Festival at SPAC in a few weeks.)
As willowy and wonderful looking as Spalding, Nayo Jones sang “At Last” better than Béyoncé during Kermit Ruffins’ party-hearty set, with tremendous trumpet by Ruffins and equally stunning piano by Z2 — yeah, that’s his name.
Drummer Russell Batiste Jr. laid down the funk behind both the Joe Krown Trio (featuring guitarist Walter “Wolfman” Washington; this same band blew minds at Red Square in March).
SLEEPY TIME DOWN SOUTH
The past doesn’t go anywhere in New Orleans. It sticks around, permanent and alive.
Wycliffe Gordon expertly led a traditional band through a tribute to Louis Armstrong, playing trombone, trumpet and slide trumpet in tender, right-on echoes of “Pops.” The New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra — how could I NOT go see a band with THAT name? — got people singing and jitter-bugging with classic jazz from other centuries, sweating in natty whites like a Navy band in the tropics.
Both Gordon and Kermit Ruffins played “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South,” and many bands played “Basin Street Blues.”
New Orleans’ own musicians get major respect at Jazz Fest, and they earned it this time around.
Allen Toussaint displayed total, overwhelming mastery of songwriting, playing, singing and leading his tremendous 15-piece band, all killers. When he called a player’s name to solo, they all got way down.
Before John Boutte sang his “Treme” TV theme, he crooned soulful tunes with Sam Cooke-like chops and integrated opera singers into his set. Brilliant showmanship balanced wonderful singing.
Irma Thomas, earned her title as Soul Queen of New Orleans, advising “Love Don’t Change, People Do” and “If You Want Love, You’ve Got to Bring It With You.” A fan said he he’d listened to her for 40 years and never heard her in better voice.
Rebirth Brass Band displayed their Grammy, then rocked the place as if determined to win another, right now.
Terrance Simien squeezed tremendous feeling from his accordion and voice, taking soul, reggae and rock songs to the bayou, peaking with “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” and tossing beads to screaming fans.
Bruce Daigrepont played the best Cajun set I saw, his 32nd Jazz Fest appearance, singing as well as Simien and flanked by women playing fiddle and rub-board.
Dumpstaphunk featured two next-generation Nevilles and excited the crowd with deep-rolling soulful funk.
JAZZ FEST SNAPSHOTS
A short woman in a polka-dot dress and extra-curly hair danced hard in Mooney’s set; a woman passing by checked her out and tossed her some moves way cooler than polka dots was doing.
A guy climbed an elevated stool by the Congo Square stage and accurately painted a portrait of Ziggy Marley (replacing his father’s former band mate Bunny Wailer), right down to the dreadlocks reaching the back of Ziggy’s knees.
A tall woman in a super-small bikini paused to pull one of many mini-bar bourbons from the leather cartridge belt at her waist, drinking it down without breaking stride.
Best outfits onstage: Little Freddie King’s bright regalia and Guitar Slim Jr.’s jacket were both blinding at 50 yards, Allen Toussaint’s multi-colored suit must have kept his tailor busy for weeks, and Donald Harrison’s Mardi Gras Indian suit was amazing.
If you bought a souvenir Jazz Fest bandana, vendors would dip it in ice-water for you to tie around your neck or head: It was hot!
Best food at Jazz Fest: crawfish sausage po’boy, beans and rice with Andouille sausage, cochon du lait po’boy.
Best food elsewhere — it seemed impossible to have dinner or a post Jazz Fest beer without encountering a sousaphone: shrimp creole at Mandina’s, surf-and-turf po’boy at the Parkway, alligator sausage cheesecake at Jacques Ymo’s, green salad with grilled chicken at Mr. B’s.
The night before the second week of Jazz Fest began, Marcia Ball played a free show downtown in Lafayette Square, with Maria Muldaur guesting. Glad to be playing in her adopted hometown, Ball said the place is “thick and greasy with music” — a fine description of Jazz Fest and New Orleans, with the mightiest musical mojo I’ve tasted.
Reach Gazette columnist Michael Hochanadel at email@example.com.