New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Notes and photos from the field

Categories: Festivals
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Photos by Rick Mason
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
May 6-8, 2011
New Orleans Fair Grounds


As the searing Louisiana sun sagged through the gathering Delta dusk west of New Orleans' Fair Grounds last Sunday, the electric atmosphere in front of the towering Gentilly Stage arced again and again as the Radiators' Dave Malone bellowed the lyrics to the Rads standard "Where Was You At?" while the Fishhead faithful swooned and danced with a fervor that suggested the end of the world was at hand.

In a way it was.

The 42nd annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival was drawing to a close, and with it one of the final chapters of the venerable Radiators, closing out Gentilly one last time before calling it quits for good next month in one last blowout uptown at Tipitina's.

But now the Rads were surfing a crest of emotion palpable onstage and off, playing almost supernaturally tight ("like that"). Ed Volker, stage right, appeared relatively serene as his keyboards bubbled and popped, while Malone and the rest of the band roared, flanked by a phalanx of Bonerama horns, guest Warren Haynes' whining slide guitar and the soaring fiddle of Beausoleil's Michael Doucet.

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Michael Doucet of Beausoleil
After a momentary pause, the band launched into "Wild and Free" ("What you've kept us all these years," Volker told the crowd), a fitting enough epitaph for one of New Orleans most idiosyncratic and quintessential bands after 33 years of funky Fishhead music. But neither band nor fans wanted to say goodbye, and the Rads returned, along with Dave's subdude brother Tommy, for a rousing run through fellow New Orleanian Chris Kenner's 1961 hit "I Like It Like That."

With the Radiators soon riding into the sunset forever (barring reunions), Malone's funkified growling of "where was you at" seemed the perfect summation for this year's extravaganza.

Not only are the lyrics tantalizingly close to the traditional New Orleans greeting and latter day cultural talisman "where y'at?" It also hints at the agonizing logistical dilemma hard core music fans are forced to confront given Jazz Fest's daunting schedule of conflicting goodies. There are those who prefer to camp out in front of one of the megastages and slowly parboil in the throes of the bigger names. But if that's solely where you was at through the fest, the treasures missed are incalculable.

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Sonny Rollins
While the Rads were shutting down Gentilly, for instance, jazz saxophone titan Sonny Rollins was regaling an equally enthralled throng in the Jazz Tent. Plus, the Crescent City's iconic masters of second line funk, the Neville Brothers, held forth at the Fess Stage, while the remaining seven stages hosted sacred steel kingpin Robert Randolph, traditional jazz's Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, zydeco's Rockin' Dopsie Jr., Haiti's roots rocking RAM, rising star Glen David Andrews in the Gospel Tent, the Philly soul of Maze with Frankie Beverly, and finally the seriously twisted sardonic blues of Bobby Lounge somewhere in the depths of the grandstand.

For the intrepid music adventurer, the only reasonable solution is to tear around the Fair Grounds at a frenetic pace, trying to catch as much as possible of one essential artist's set before rushing elsewhere to witness another's, all fueled by oyster po'boys and jambalaya snatched on the fly and hydrated by copious amounts of beer and frozen daiquiris (purely for medicinal purposes).
It's a form of musical triage, sometimes requiring split-second decisions that leave a trail of victims both inconsequential (Kid Rock) and tragic (the Nevilles, Allen Toussaint) in favor of the unique or rarely seen.
Such was the case with Rollins, who has said in interviews that he had a revelatory experience the last time he played Jazz Fest some 15 years ago, finding connections among jazz, the Caribbean rhythms he's long favored and the unique New Orleans cadences that evolved from Congo Square.
This time he explored that calypso tinge-to borrow a term from Jelly Roll Morton-in spectacular fashion, at least through the two-thirds of his set witnessed. Despite a temperature approaching 90, the 80-year-old Rollins came out in long pants and shirt sleeves, a hat pulled low over his sunglasses. He and his four-piece band launched into a lengthy foray built around Rollins' repeated riffing on an effervescent Caribbean phrase, the other musicians gamely scurrying around Rollins' declarative tenor. But it was on the subsequent "Don't Stop the Carnival" that Rollins really caught fire, carving out blistering cascades of bop phrases amidst the percolating rhythms, blowing and honking as if possessed, traversing the stage with a limping but emphatic pace as intense as his music.
Rollins' magnificence made it even more difficult to break away to head over to the Radiators' grand finale, in the process resisting the spyboy sirens attempting to lure the weak-willed into detouring to the Nevilles.
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Irma Thomas
And that was just one of dozens of similar dilemmas over Jazz Fest's second weekend.
By now Jazz Fest is a New Orleans cultural institution that helps define the City That Care Forgot (if that term still applies in the post-Katrina, post-oil spill, approaching deluge times) via music, food, crafts and rituals reflecting the unique mix of native people and immigrants who inhabit the city and surrounding area. Southern Louisiana, and New Orleans in particular, seem only coincidentally part of the United States. As has been pointed out elsewhere, the Crescent City is essentially the northernmost outpost of the Caribbean, while Cajun country could be its own planet.
In both places, despite modern incursions and progressive hybrids, remnants of traditional culture-particularly the music-exist in a time warp that's wonderfully bizarre and vice versa. Endless variations of "Jolie Blonde," "Bourbon Street Parade," "St. James Infirmary" and "Tipitina" never seem to lose their validity or relevance, while Aaron Neville singing "Tell It Like It Is" or Irma Thomas easing into "It's Raining" seem to defy the intervening decades since they were new.

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