New Orleans Jazz Fest: Still The Best Party Around

5/2/07, 5:05 pm EST

Pinching his nose with his thumb and forefinger in the universal sign of peee-eeww, pianist Eddie Bo turned to the audience at House of Blues in New Orleans on April 30th, bouncing happily in time on his stool to the volcanic strut of George Porter Jr. of the Meters, ex-Herlin Riley, organist David Torkanowksy and, at a second set of eighty-eights, pianist Marcia Ball –- somewhere in town, when the festival reconvenes for three more days on May 4th.

Lest we forget: New Orleans is no longer under water, but it is still living under heavy weather. Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, more than half of the city’s pre-flood population has not returned, and many of those who have come back are still living in FEMA trailers. Medical services are sporadic, and the few reopened schools are overcrowded and underfinanced. Meanwhile, real estate speculators devour ravaged land, and the natives have as much faith in their elected representatives, at every level, as they do in the rebuilt levees. As one taxi driver told me , “Bush wants to rebuild Iraq. What about us?”

It was hard to imagine that there was anything wrong in the world outside the blue-sky perfection of the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest 2007’s first weekend. But the frustration was never far below the surface of a song. On Saturday, singer-pianist Leo Nocentelli, organist Henry Butler), singer John Boutté introduced the magnificent rage and helplessness in his version of the Eurythmics’ “Why” by shouting, “America, can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” He wasn’t talking about his cell phone or the sound system.

But the true fighting spirit of the local and regional musicians dominating the festival’s eleven stages was in their indivisible determinations to party and innovate. Former brass band prodigy Trombone Shorty, leading his own crew Orleans Avenue and looking like a street-parade P. Diddy in a sharp white suit, made true heavy metal with his horn in a thrilling recasting of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” while, one stage over, the trombone army Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” Black Sabbath. Young Cajun sensations the Pine Valley Boys fused rockabilly and Canned Heat-style boogie with the country poise of bayou waltzes and, in one acapella number, the ecstatic chanting of the Mardi Gras Indians. The supercharged funk of Backyard Groove, led by ex-Dirty Dozen Brass Band sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, included, in one number, the slicing-Santana effect of two harmonized lead guitars.

Other highlights far from the main stages: Amazones, a dynamic troupe of women drummers from Guinea; electric country-blues guitarist Freddie King but, at 66 years young, can definitely duckwalk better than you and plays a mean version of the real King’s “Hide Away”; J.D. Hill, a blues singer and harpist unafraid to sing his original “My Baby Don’t Wear No Drawers” first thing on a Sunday morning; and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, who have arrived at the sweet-spot intersection of Dixieland, Cajun dance music and Seventies funk via Eastern Europe. One wild reel they played was called, in Yiddish, “Celebrate the Pig” — which you could also do at the hot-sausage po-boy and cochon de lait stands across the field.

Jazz Fest organizers did not release attendance figures for the initial weekend, although there were rumors of a record-breaking Saturday, when Rod Stewart, Norah Jones and Ludacris closed the afternoon on three separate stages. Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and country singer Brad Paisley also played headline-slot shows. John Mayer, the Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top and, bizarrely, New Edition are among the out-of-town heavyweights set for this weekend. It’s a good bet, though, that none of them will beat the surrealistic showmanship of Mississippi singer-pianist Bobby Lounge, whose Sunday-afternoon blues explosion of Bessie Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis and white-trash-William Burroughs included a song about the mythical Delta beast Squirrelsquatch and an actual sighting – or what was more likely a guy in a giant, truly ratty, rodent costume, probably hammered as he raced through the crowd, chasing girls and dumping people’s beers.

New Orleans may be the city that time and Bush forgot. It is also a city that refuses to give up — or stop laughing.


Bill Dazzler | 8/9/2007, 1:46 pm EST

I don´t know if anybody noticed a young brazilian girl who sang “at last” on the blues tent with C.J. Chenier. MAn, that girl rocks, never saw such a powerful voice. Knocked Etta James to the floor with her perfomance. I appreciate if somebody could send me some info on that misterious girl. All I know is her first name, Yasmin.

Mike B | 5/21/2007, 5:59 pm EST

I agree…crappy writing, good sentiment. I’ve been going since about 1990 most years and this year’s second weekend was as good as it gets. Countless great gospel bands, Snooks Eaglin, Marva Wright, Branford Marsalis and on and on. I went last year and, not surprisingly, found the festival really depressed. The energy was seriously lacking. No surprise as many people were probably meeting again for the first time since Katrina. This year, the energy was explosive. People wanted the music in the worst way. I don’t ever remember the energy in the blues tent this high. People just flipped out for Marva and Snooks and they responded in kind by playing their hearts and asses off. New Orleans still needs lots of help though. Go, donate time, spend $, call your congress people and tell them to get off their butts and put some focus back on New Orleans. The people there got screwed once by Katrina and then time and again by a lack of government functionality and follow through.

Bunny | 5/8/2007, 2:14 pm EST

Last I checked, Nocentilli was a guitarist.

Henry B | 5/3/2007, 5:37 pm EST

Bobby Lounge is the wild but really good - he rarely plays in public but everytime is amazing - now he is adding more show to the “show business” - the girl getting her clothes ripped off by the giant squirrel - what a lot of fun - reminded me of Jazz Fest of old. Jazz fest is sooo big - no one can see it all or write about it all. I think your comments are fair.

JazzFestLover | 5/3/2007, 4:50 pm EST

Also missed by the Editor:
“The Pine Leaf Boys” not
“The Pine Valley Boys”

Steve S | 5/3/2007, 3:45 pm EST

Not the best article I have ever read by any means, but give the guy a break- its Jazzfest, there is no way he is sober.

PKM | 5/3/2007, 2:25 pm EST

Billy T is right on the ball. How can you miss referencing Bonerama? Wierd.

Billy T. | 5/3/2007, 2:08 pm EST

This is a fine example of sloppy journalism and editing. Your first sentence doesn’t make sense: was the drummer Herlin Riley there? Or are you referring to Porter or Tork as formerly being in his band? And then there is a disembodied hyphen where you jump to “somewhere in town,” you never even finish the thought in your first sentence!

Then after you get done praising Trombone Shorty you reference a “trombone army.” How hard would it be for you to consult a schedule when writing up your scatter-brained recap to note that the band is called Bonerama.

Please re-read your Freddie King reference–this sentence is also poorly construed and nonsensical.

C’mon man… the writing is decent but are you so high up the pay grade that you don’t have editors? If this is the case, you should certainly reconsider the arrangement.

Billy T.
Houston, TX

Wow. | 5/3/2007, 5:32 am EST

Waiiiiiiiiit a second. Did you go to Coachella? That’s what I thought.

sboggia | 5/3/2007, 12:17 am EST

I just returned from Jazz Fest and I can tell you, it was the best ever! NOLA rocks and if the media would give this city a break, it will come back better than ever before!

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