Saturday, May 28, 2011

Jazz Fest reviews

Big Chiefs on the Battlefront
Forty two years ago Monk Boudreaux and Bo Dollis joined forces to lead a Mardi Gras Indian parade to Congo Square as the first official act of the New Orleans Jazz and
Heritage Festival. It was an extremely important symbolic act that opened up the secret society of the Black Indian gangs to the general public in non-ritual time. At roughly
the same time the two began to mix Mardi Gras Indian music with New Orleans R&B, an incredible important development in New Orleans music. At this year's Jazz Fest Boudreaux
and Dollis were still at it and Mardi Gras Indians were a huge part of the festival's identity at the Heritage stage and elsewhere. Boudreaux, who's become an iconic figure
through his presence in Treme, has never enjoyed a higher profile. He brought the house down as part of the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars at the Acura Stage and had two
hellacious sets at the Heritage stage, one with the 101 Runners and another leading his own band. During the 101 Runners show and wizened old black man moved down to the front of the stage and started beating on a portable tom tom drum in time with the band. Several percussionist on stage smiled approval as the guy hit all the right accents during "Sew Sew Sew." This was about as perfect an expression of how New Orleans music moves seamlessly from the streets to the stage as I've ever witnessed.
I interviewed Bo Dollis two years ago and he was extremely frail, but at Jazz Fest he was miraculously restored to his rightful spot in front of the Wild Magnolias. With his son Bo Dollis Jr. providing appropriate support Bo Sr. seemed transported by the music, urging the crowd to sing along as he balanced on his cane or sat as he sang, decked out in a brilliant white suit instead of feathers and beads. Dollis was in powerful voice and was able to sing numerous verses as the crowd, aware that they were witnessing a miracle, urged him on with the fervent devotion of a religious gathering.

Long on Shorty
Trombone Shorty apparently doesn't sleep during Jazz Fest. He was all over town, day and night, playing until dawn at Tipitina's and then hitting the Fair Grounds for an
onslaught that included guest shots with people as disparate as Fifth Ward Weebie, Kid Rock and Jimmy Buffet. His own set was a dazzling example of how jazz can still be
cutting edge contemporary popular music. The young audience watching him at the Gentilly stage was mesmerized by his beautiful rendition of "On the Sunny Side of the Street,"
a song that would have driven the same audience to the exits if delivered in the cornball version too many veterans give it. Shorty made a very good song his own in the
context of a set that sizzled with a hard rock edge but traveled on funk rhythmic patterns and featured great trombone and trumpet playing from New Orleans' most galvanic
soloist. I saw two young men right after the show playing air trombone instead of air guitar as they moved excitedly toward their next destination. I was disappointed to see a
national writer try to describe how good Shorty was by comparing him to Kermit Ruffins. Shorty doesn't need Kermit as a foil to demonstrate his brilliance. It just doesn't sit
right with me that Kermit has to be dissed in order to talk about how good Shorty is. The perception problem is caused by too small a sample. It's a mistake to judge New
Orleans music by what happens at Jazz Fest alone. Kermit's decision to stay local isn't just good for his own lifestyle; it benefits everyone who calls New Orleans home.

Rads on a roll
The comment I kept hearing after the Radiators played their final Jazz Fest show was "That didn't sound like a band that is breaking up." Indeed it didn't, and the fact is the
band isn't breaking up; Ed Volker is leaving. I find it hard to believe that some version of this group will not continue on and I submit that the question of who will replace
them in the Jazz Fest lineup can be easily answered: pay them Bon Jovi money to reunite for a special series of performances at Jazz Fest every year. The band's run during
this year's fest was uncanny. Those who judged them merely on the two hours at the Fest with a host of special guests were unaware of the context of this music. Over seven
shows there were only a couple of repeat performances including the incendiary readymade "The Twitch," a guaranteed quantum jumper that goosed every set it
appeared in. My personal highlight reel of this run would have to include "Creeping Vine," "Hold Back the Flood," "Let the Red Wine Flow" and an astonishing great "Total
Evaporation" with Mark Mullins at The Temple; "Can't Take It with You When You Go" at Le Petite Theater; "Nail Your Heart To Mine," "Smoking Hole" and "Suck the Head" at House
of Blues; "Confidential," "Law of the Fish," "Circus Life" and "The Wrong Road" from the Dream Palace Revisited; "Screwloose," "Fuck 'Em if They Can't Take A Joke", "Lost What
(They) Had" and "River Run" from Snafu; and finally at Jazz Fest with "Never Let Your Fire Go Out" (with Michael Doucet on violin), "Waiting for the Rain" (with Warren Haynes
on guitar) and "Wild and Free." The whole run ended with Dave Malone channeling Chris Kenner on a careening version of "I Like It Like That" backed by a host of friends. When
a band plays a series of shows in one city that is as varied as the Radiators performances were during Jazz Fest the thoroughgoing critic has a genuine obligation to consider
the run as a whole because just about everyone else plays the same show night after night. Judging the Radiators by about a seventh part of a sequence of music that really has
to be heard in its entirety to be fully appreciated is like reviewing Wagner's Ring Cycle on the basis of the performance of "Ride of the Valkyries." Maybe that's why the fans
who took the time to listen are the only ones who ever really understood this very important piece of New Orleans music history.

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