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Festival Review: New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013 – Weekend One

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nolajazzfest2013 Festival Review: New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013   Weekend One

The Internet’s constant rush of new music is great. But time and time again, audiences come back to the old stuff. As of last year, catalog sales outpace new music sales. People who lived in the era of whatever that “old stuff” is seek it out for nostalgia and young people who never lived in that music’s era long for a time in music history they never lived in. But how does the constant rush of quality new music get winnowed down and become “old stuff” or canon? Converting the varied ages at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (or, Jazz Fest) sure helps.

It’s all too apparent the Jazz Fest is about the old stuff: legacy acts who barely tour anymore (Billy Joel), the progenitors of modern roots music (B.B. King), and so on. This year was Jazz Fest’s 43rd go ‘round, making it no festival-circuit spring chicken.

It’s worth noting that most of Jazz Fest’s events since the ’70s have been two weekends long, a point of boasting for major players on the festival circuit like Coachella and Austin City Limits. But give the middle-aged fest it’s due, those guys have nothing on their fortysomething poppa. Jazz Fest has in many ways quietly defined the modern music festival in the gaze of history, as much as, if not more than, Woodstock or Monterey Pop did with its legacy.

What’s beguiling to some is its misnomer: it’s not a 100 or even 75 percent jazz festival, so rid yourself of that notion right now. It’s as much jazz as New Orleans music is jazz: one element of a complex tapestry. Heck, it’s not even that “old stuff” exclusively. There’s a tip of the hat to new fluff (younger, often indie-leaning acts like Andrew Bird, Band of Horses and more) and so much non-American music (Brazilian, African, Caribbean, Latin, etc.) to discover, too. And, of course, a celebration of local culture: Mardi Gras Indians, Native American tribes (the official cultural theme of this year’s fest), and more. All this old stuff can be New to You if you don’t know about it. Jazz Fest is ripe for discovery for all ages, all backgrounds.

Sometimes if you want to discover some new music, you just have to go back to American music’s source, back where it was all along. This is New Orleans. And New Orleans is Jazz Fest.

Photography by Diana Talyansky.

Friday, April 26th

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Dr. John and the Nite Trippers - Acura Stage – 3:50 p.m.

Who is Dr. John? Well, if there’s a mayoral election of New Orleans Music, Mac Rebennack would be the running favorite. And that’s why he plays right before John Mayer on Jazz Fest’s largest stage. The Doctor has a storied career dating back to the ’50s in New Orleans music. Which is why his brand-new band of sidemen (and women, namely trombonist Sarah Morrow, who played a strong featured role in this set) was quite the reveal on Friday afternoon, with Dr. John acting as voice and facilitator, not leader. The band’s set pulled heavily from some New Orleans Songbook standards, which included an exceptional rendition of Earl King’s “Let the Good Times Roll”, in addition to his most recent work alongside The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach — last year’s Locked Down, noted for exposing him to a new generation of roots music listeners. No doubt, the Doctor converted a few more listeners Friday afternoon.

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Gary Clark Jr. - Gentilly Stage – 4:00 p.m.

For better or worse, Jazz Fest’s Gentilly Stage is the “main stage” usually reserved for younger talent, often within various niches of rock. This is well exemplified by the Rolling Stone-touted psychedelic/hard rock guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr.. Of course, it just so happens that Clark can outplay experienced guitar players thrice his age. Through bouts of wordless guitar worship, woozy psychedelic passages, and focused, pained fretting, Clark exuded a Jimi Hendrix-like mystique with songwriting more akin to ‘60s and ‘70s heavy blues acts Led Zeppelin or The Guess Who.

And did I mention already that he can SHRED? Yeah. Set closer “Bright Lights” was a monster, with a groove that lumbered through the audience like a rock ‘n’ roll monster bent on destruction. Clark’s solos dancing on the tip of the audience’s ears, with people’s delight giving way to screams and cheers. “You gonna know my name by the end of the night,” Clark repeated in the song’s refrain. With a killer set like his, he’s damn right we will.

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John Mayer - Acura Stage – 5:30 p.m.

People underestimate, or at least misunderstand, John Mayer. Maybe it stems from his often-tepid radio singles not showcasing his undeniable guitar prowess that you see live. Some see Mayer as a tabloid heartthrob that happens to play music for a living, a reputation that’s stuck over the last few years (see: Battle Studies, Jennifer Aniston, Katy Perry, et al). Veterans at Jazz Fest in upwards of twice Mayer’s age might see him as a promising but ultimately untested young singer-songwriter/guitar wunderkind. But what they forget is that Mayer was a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. And when it comes to his live sets, he can REALLY play.

At 35, Mayer has five studio full lengths plus live records and releases with other projects. He’s paid his dues, even if the New Orleans old guard isn’t quite sold. And after an untimely cancellation of his scheduled appearance at last year’s Jazz Fest due to a throat condition that left him unable to sing, Mayer seemed ready to let his guitar speak for him, showing that old guard what he was all about.

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He covered Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Workin’” to show his blues bonafides and the Grateful Dead’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” for classic-rock bonafides. But he wasn’t about to let people forget he’s a modern ladies man either when he played “Something Like Olivia”. Mayer’s better-known songs like “Who Says” (with a New Orleans twist) and the hit single “Waiting on the World to Change” were crowd pleasers as well. It’s easy to forget the impressive collection of hits he’s amassed.

And you know what else is easy to forget? John Mayer is hilarious. He referred to new material he was working on as a “sonic Molly fest… just sonically, just sonically” yet, sadly, he only talked about it, playing none of it. He boasted about a new “version 2.0” of himself, warning that “It’s going to be getting incredibly groovy and funky over the next couple of years.”

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Band of Horses - Gentilly Stage - 5:45 p.m.

Full disclosure right up front: this marks the sixth time I’ve seen Band of Horses live. I’m a huge fan who’s seen the band repeatedly since its inception. And I say with confidence after the band’s Friday evening set at Jazz Fest that there’s no better young band doing what it does today. The riffs, hooks, and anthemic arrangements of Horses’ own are there. The rockers hit like a mule kick, the ballads soothe, all warm and tender. They do exactly what a rock band should do. Take heart, Band of Horses fans: this band is here to stay for the long haul.

On its fourth and most recent effort, Mirage Rock, the band roots around a Glyn Johns-assisted rootsy sound, perhaps searching for its own Significance. Whatever soul searching Band of Horses may have done as a band has enabled it to hit a serious stride live Friday, with its finest performance I’ve witnessed. It was under-attended, as many headlining young acts’ sets are at Jazz Fest, but look out. To quote LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, “The kids are coming up from behind.”

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The band left no room for small talk, interludes, or silence between songs. The set started off with, appropriately, “The First Song” and shifted into high gear from there: “Ode to the LRC”, “Weed Party”, “Laredo”, “Islands on the Coast”, “NW Apt.”, “Knock Knock”, and the list of fist pumpers goes on. The band played them so fast and excitedly, even aggressively, it suggested The Ramones playing Neil Young and Crazy Horse songs, the latter being obvious touchstones for Band of Horses’ sound.

The heavily licensed BoH “hit” “No One’s Gonna Love You” made some in the crowd swoon and slow dance, sating them for sentimentality until the opening riff of “The Funeral”, eliciting roaring cheers to end out the set. Unassailably, “The Funeral” is one of the best and most recognized songs and opening riffs from the ’00s and it gets a visceral reaction every time it’s played at a show or double-clicked on over a P.A.

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On record, Band of Horses provides a polished beauty, but live there’s a tactile push of what Southern rock could be in the New South with a new set of influences to pull from: punk rock, indie rock, and Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” reconciled at last.

Saturday, April 27th

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Real Untouchable Brass Band with Divine Ladies, Family Ties, and Dumaine Gang SAPCs. – Parade - 12:30 p.m.

The best part of Jazz Fest isn’t what’s scheduled/rehearsed, not by a long shot. And it’s not even the secretly scheduled/rehearsed things either, like what happened with Billy Joel’s set Saturday evening (more on that later). It’s the loosely arranged stuff like the music that happens on Frenchmen Street after a festival day or between the two fest weekends. Let’s submit that the Mardi Gras Indian and social club parades through the grounds– a jazz-like improvisational nature thrown into the taxing process of navigating festival grounds– are the best things about Jazz Fest. The combination of dancers, singers, horn players, pimpin’ Indians, well-dressed men, et al in this parade entry captures so much of what’s serendipitous and beautiful about New Orleans: the joi de vivre, the life bursting from every moment. It feels like a gift. And as soon as it comes, it’s gone.

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Jason Marsalis - Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent - 1:20 p.m.

And now for a total contrast, here’s a study of improvisation done fastidiously. Jason Marsalis’ buttoned-up performance celebrated maybe the least-celebrated instrument in jazz: the vibraphone. It would be unusual for a percussionist to get lead billing much less a prominent spot at Jazz Fest, but keep in mind who Jason’s family is: the First Family of New Orleans jazz, including Ellises Sr. and Jr., Branford, Wynton, and Delfeayo. Surely, Jason got his talent from his genes and family raising, deftly plinking out the sexy, subtle tones of the vibraphone. For precision and composition in jazz, it’s hard to do better than him.

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Allen Toussaint – Acura Stage - 3:30 p.m.

If you don’t know the king’s name, boy, at least bow your head and act like you know. Allen Toussaint is the regal force behind New Orleans funk as a legendary songwriter, producer, and arranger. His songs have been covered by artists too numerous and diverse to list here. But allow for a few: “Lady Marmalade”. “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi / ce soir”? That’s Toussaint. The Hurricane Katrina-memorializing album River in Reverse with Elvis Costello? Toussaint.

In New Orleans, when he sings “Everything I Do Gonh Be Funky (From Now On)” on a hot Saturday afternoon, no one doubts him. They dance and sweat along. When he sings the Pointer Sisters-popularized “Yes We Can Can”, no one doubts that he can can, oh yes he can can. And what other Rock ‘N’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee writes a meta song called “Whatever Happened to Rock ‘N’ Roll”?

Who else wears an off-white suit with bespangled likenesses of himself and his band playing on it? Toussaint, who’s known to require strictly that his band members are sharply dressed, has a showmanship and sense of songwriting not seen in most of America since The Rat Pack era. Yet the funk king is keeping that swagger alive and well in New Orleans. Yeah, you right!

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Billy Joel - Acura Stage – 5:00 p.m.

I don’t know what to even tell you about seeing the second Billy Joel live performance in a year except to say a.) it was one of the best live sets I’ve ever seen from anybody anywhere and b.) if Joel ever tours again and plays your city, run, don’t walk, to get tickets.

If you have any doubts that his voice has stood up over time, don’t worry about it. It’s fine. If you’re concerned he won’t play the stuff you wanna hear, he will. They just don’t make entertainers like Joel anymore.

billyjoel2jazzfest2013dianatalyansky Festival Review: New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013   Weekend OneJoel’s set hit the ground running with “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song)” and a field full of people started screaming. But wait! Before anyone could catch their breath, “Miami 2017 (I’ve Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway)” and “New York State of Mind” followed, the sax solo from charismatic sideman Mark Rivera on the latter being one of the best moments of Joel’s set. When “My Life” showed up within the first 30 minutes of the two-hour set, it was easy to understand why Joel and his songs continue to be so revered despite a relative absence from public life for 20 years. He’s something of a George Gershwin or Cole Porter-like pop genius for our time. He’s clever, relatable, with an unassailable body of work, and intensely self-critical about his work, which explains the two-decade gap.

After he sang “The Entertainer”, Joel admitted, “Yeah I guess you heard my latest record… 20 years ago.” He added, “Yeah, every once in awhile I write a bullshit song.” (For 20 years, Billy? Talk about quality control.) So, what does a performer who no longer likes his own work do when he has a gig to play? He plays the strongest parts of his catalog he can.

So it just kept coming, hitting everyone right in the nostalgia/sentiment bone: “Zanzibar”, “Allentown”, “Keeping the Faith” and then arrived “Scenes from an Italian Restaurant” where members of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band marched on stage for a tuba and drum vamp to the second-loudest cheers of his set.

Joel introduced his next song with an admission of insecurity. “I know if I mess up one word to this song the rest will be a trainwreck,” he said. And then comes the enormous “We Didn’t Start the Fire” which saw Joel stand up from his piano for the first time in the set and play an electric guitar. His face reddened and squinted to focus on getting every tongue-twisting verse right. And, of course, he did. What a pro.

Then came “Still Rock ‘N’ Roll to Me” and “Only the Good Die Young” back to back and it seemed like the hits would just never end — especially once “The River of Dreams” streamed on by.

Of course, he introduced everyone to the “Piano Man” and that’s when NOLA really lost their minds. Friends, family, lovers, co-workers, and total strangers swayed side to side like pirates in Gilbert and Sullivan musicals or Irish people singing bittersweet songs at a wake. And that was it. How could anyone take it anymore? The crowd left delirious.

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I came away from the concert with almost no choice but to conclude that there’s no one alive in the Western world who doesn’t recognize at least one Billy Joel song. Joel is one of those legacy acts that for so many listeners across multiple generations means something deeply sentimental. After all, his songs, having played on radio for decades now, have burrowed their way into their hearts and unconscious brains. You don’t even remember how many songs of his you know but 10 bucks says you know the chorus to all of them. You can say that about maybe a few dozen acts active today. Billy Joel is one of them. Game, set, match. Joel owned the weekend.

Sunday, April 28th

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If some days feel like a wash in terms of not getting anything done, Sunday was a flood at Jazz Fest, impeding all but the festival’s paved fairgrounds/racetrack surface, bringing crowds to a crawl through mud and slop. Sets during the heaviest downpours were uncertain in direction, performers sometimes terse (with a few seasoned performers undeterred), and some acts cut abruptly short, especially as the sounds of thunder neared. Welcome to the Gulf Coast at the start of hurricane season.

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Calexico - Gentilly Stage – 3:25 p.m.

Calexico, a desert prairie rock band from Arizona, might not seem like the best aesthetic fit to a waterlogged New Orleans mudfield. But the band has conjured its own Western atmosphere around the world for over 15 years. Their latest record, Algiers, which the band played nearly in its entirely Sunday afternoon, meets New Orleans halfway in a sense. It was recorded in the Crescent City and is named after the New Orleans up-and-coming neighborhood.

For a moment, it felt like Calexico could bring the sun from its native Southwest to break through the dreary overcast. It didn’t. But let’s give Calexico partial credit: at least the rain stopped temporarily for its set. One highlight: a rousing cover of Bobby Charles’ “See You Later, Alligator”. “Now you’ll have that in your head for the rest of the week, just like me,” frontman Joey Burns said, cursing the audience with an earworm of a song.

Dave Matthews Band - Acura Stage – 5:00 p.m.

Ah the alternately disappointed, surging, maniacal and defiant Dave Matthews Band fans of Sunday evening Jazz Fest. Crestfallen Hula Hoop dancers in ponchos, muddy shirtless bros, tragic sandal-wearers getting their footwear sucked in by a muddy pit, they were all there for Dave. By the time the downpour came and “Don’t Drink the Water” growled and surged to one of the most violent rain episodes of the day, you definitely wouldn’t want to drink any of that water. But Dave Matthews knew what he had to do. He had to baptize and soak himself with the water to show solidarity with the crowd. And that’s what he did.

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Matthews wasted little time getting drenched from the waist up and the fans responded, determined to have fun despite the rain and mud. From “Stay (Wasting Time)” to “What Would You Say?”, the band’s set had a robust middle and the rain subsided slightly. But as the rain picked up again and thunder approached, the band seemed to skip ahead to its much-loved live jam “Ants Marching”, finishing moments before a thunder clap. Fans weren’t happy and the band came out for a conciliatory curtain call, but electrocution/thunder/liability issues during an outdoor festival being what they are, DMB was done.

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Earth, Wind and Fire - Congo Square Stage – 5:30 p.m.

Earth, Wind and Fire also featured a very special guest: rain. But it barely acknowledged its existence, pumping out infectious groove after groove undeterred. The Whites, Maurice (vocals) and Verdine (bass), with Philip Bailey and Ralph Johnson have pumped out killer funk jams for 41 years and literally never stopped touring the entire time. The first time I saw EWF was in a dinky amphitheater in a rural-Georgia theme park. So let’s say this with only a little qualification: EWF does not turn down gigs. Fortunately, the band also happens to get invited to some of the best festivals in the world, like Jazz Fest.

The one-two punch of “Sing a Song” and “Shining Star” shifted the band’s set into high gear. “September” boiled everyone ecstatic. “Boogie Wonderland” and “Let’s Groove” had the crowd forgetting that the mud existed, too, and everyone was shaking their hips like there was no tomorrow.

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It would be easy for the core members of EWF, now in their sixties and seventies, to sit back and collected publishing, royalty, and licensing checks for the rest of their lives. But they don’t. They do around 150 dates a year. They’re frequently Jazz Fest visitors. And, as you can tell from their leaping and smiles, they love what they do. And they make people happy rain or shine. God bless ‘em.

Gallery

Photographer: Diana Talyansky

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