Thursday, May 31, 2012
Jazz Fest Redux
Haven't posted since Jazz Fest because I was waiting to see what OffBeat would use. About half of what I sent in found its way into the magazine, so here's the rest. By the way, I saw the Suspects opening for Galactic at Brooklyn Bowl last night and they blew the place apart. Bassist Reggie Scanlan is out there in the middle of it driving the groove alongside the incredible Willie Green on drums. Music truly is a healing force. Suspects, Malone Brothers, Dr. John etc. all play Saturday at the Crawfish Fest. There was obviously a lot more going on at Jazz Fest but here's a synopsis: State of the Reunion The Beach Boys are my guilty pleasure. I enjoyed listening to them as a kid without taking them too seriously until I started reading Paul Williams write about them in the early issues of Crawdaddy. Williams and his fellow writers demonstrated that pop music could be more important than a poster on somebody's wall, that it was the poetry of the time, the spirit of the era. I began trying to apply those ideas to my own listening habits, which ran more to the Beatles, Stones, Dylan, Young Rascals and the jazz, folk and blues musicians I heard in Greenwich Village. My first published work was a review of the Beach Boys Smiley Smile, which I still consider their greatest artistic achievement. I've seen the group dozens of times over the years and was able to become friends with two of the band members, the late brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson. It's good to hear that music played to an appreciative crowd on a beautiful sunny afternoon in New Orleans. But calling this a 50th annual reunion is outright fraud. Watching the surviving members made me think of those Futurama episodes where people are kept "alive" by putting their heads in tanks of liquid. The production is sustained by a very capable army of singers and musicians who create beautiful facsimiles of the songs, although you might as well be listening to well crafted tape recordings of Beach Boys songs. Unfortunately none of the surviving members of the group are capable of making any significant contributions to this music. Oh well, what can you expect from a group that got its start by outright theft of Chuck Berry arrangements? Long Time Comin' "This is my Jazz Fest debut," said a wide-eyed Dayna Kurtz. "I've been coming to this festival for 20 years and I've wanted to play it for so long." The sassy, big-voiced belter took command of the Lagniappe stage like a JF veteran with a larger-than-life delivery that was a grab bag of nods to local heros, shrewd selections from the American songbook and her own contemporary blues, ballads and R&B songs. The versatile singer augmented her New York band with locals -- guitarist Robert Mache, John Gros on B3, Matt Perrine on bass and tuba and a three piece horn section featuring Craig Klein on trombone and Jason Mingledorff on saxophones. Though her style is so impossible to pin down that she is heartily embraced by both country and blues fans and has a considerable jazz following in New York, Kurtz played the New Orleans R&B diva for the most part at JF, culling material from the two albums she recently released simultaneously. From Secret Canon Vol.1, a crate digger's delight of obscure 20th century pop songs, she chose "Do I Love You," "Don't Fuck Around With Love" (changed to "Mess Around" for the family crowd) and "Not the Only Fool In Town." American Standard, her album of originals recorded in part with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers, yielded "Lou Lou Knows," "Hanging Around My Boy," "Are You Dancing With Her Tonight," her rocking tribute to the Ponderosa Stomp "Good in '62" and her celebration of Obama's 2008 victory, "Election Day." The wildest moment came near the end of the set when Kurtz, fairly bursting out of her tight black dress, pushed the band into high gear for an electric rendition of Eddie Bo's "So Glad." Nice to know that Jazz Fest can still summon up such pleasant surprises. The parts can be greater than the whole The Radiators didn't play their usual Fest-closing set at the Gentilly stage but the final Sunday did feature Rads keyboardist Ed Volker leading a trio with Joe Cabral on baritone sax and Michael Skinkus on percussion. In what could be seen as an ironic comment on his own retirement, Volker began his set with a line from one of his new songs, "Monkey Ain't Going Back in the Box." Volker was a revelation in this new context during his hour-long set, playing slow, dark melodies on the grand piano and cutting a sultry Caribbean groove with his responsive bandmates. The space and dynamics this approach created enabled Volker to use a wide range of vocal techniques, often growling and smearing his lines, as opposed to having to shout over the band at Radiators gigs. Volker also revealed some of the structural ideas he brings to arrangements by performing songs in groups, not just medleys but actual mashups where lines and verses from different songs are fitted into a larger whole. So the dirge-like version of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" became part of Volker's Longhair tribute "Long Hard Journey Home." Volker then sang "Money" as if it were a Ray Charles ballad, brilliantly capped with a baritone solo that played off the melody of "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat" before Volker raised the temperature with "Every Dog Has Its Day." A mournful "Party Till the Money Runs Out" was braced by the tonic of an uptempo "Blackjack." "Turtle Beach" morphed into "Alabama Song," then a triumphant "Run Red Run." Volker visited Kurt Weill again with an amazing construct of "Mack the Knife" interspersed with "Dirty People," "(Screw) Em if They Can't Take A Joke" and "Can't Take It With You." "I Did My Part" became a larger construct with "When This Battle Is Over," "Africa" and "All Meat." By the time this remarkable set ended with Jelly Roll Morton's "Whinin Boy" combined with "Let the Red Wine Flow" and "Fingerpoppin Time" the crowd at the Langiappe stage was out of the seats and dancing. Most of the other Rads spinoffs performed at the Fest or in clubs during the two weekends of music -- Camile Baudoin's soulful acoustic Cajun band; Dave Malone with his brother Tommy and with Bonerama, who also paid tribute to the Rads during their JF set with a joyful version of "Soul On Fire"; and Reggie Scanlan's excellent band The New Orleans Suspects, who just released a very good album of mostly new material. The Radiators even reunited for a brief one set teaser during a benefit for Scanlan, who is recovering from pancreatic cancer. It was a miracle to see Scanlan back in action only weeks after enduring 16 hours of surgery. The Suspects closed the benefit show with an outstanding set that featured Malone and Baudoin, along with surprise guest Bill Kreutzmann on drums, playing a killer version of "Turn On Your Love Light." The two Radiators guitarists have never sounded better together. They have a magic rapport, a mind meld of a connection so rhythmically fierce and harmonically adventurous they seem more like the great tenor duo of Sonny Stitt and Gene Ammons than any other rock guitar tandem. Kreutzmann also played a memorable set with 7 Walkers at Republic with George Porter Jr. on bass. The crowd of Deadheads delighted to opening act Royal Southern Brotherhood's version of "Fire On the Mountain," sung to perfection by Cyril Neville. Kreutzmann was at his levitational best with his talented band as Porter matched guitarist Papa Mali for creative jamming, scorching the jazz changes of "Eyes of the World" with a solo that began referencing Sonny Rollins with a "St. Thomas" quote and ended with a Hendrix flourish touching on "Third Stone From the Sun." Porter even sang on "Sugaree." A great night turned even more amazing when Warren Haynes took the stage to duel with Mali on a lengthy "Snow and Rain" and a showstopping performance of "New Minglewood Blues." Gotta say 7 Walkers is a better band than the Dead itself at this juncture. Bo Knows Bo Dollis and Monk Boudreaux were scheduled to perform in another Wild Magnolias reunion just before Jazz Fest, but on the day of the show Bo had to be rushed to the hosital to be treated for pneumonia. Monk and Gerard (Bo Jr.) did a great job that night, but Bo's followers were once again wondering if they'd seen him for the last time. When the Wild Magnolias hit the Fest trail for an unannounced parade the last Saturday of JF Bo was still in the hospital but Gerard did an outstanding job of calling the chants and songs as his Indians sashayed to the syncopated drummers, all following Big Queen Rita, resplendant in a gorgeous green and white feathered suit. On the final Sunday of JF the Magnolias played the Heritage stage and Bo was there, fresh out of the hospital, looking wan in his motorized chair but smiling broadly as well-wishers (including Monk) thronged around him backstage. After Gerard and Rita led the band through a couple of pieces Bo was gently brought to the stage and propped on a high stool. Miraculously he began to sing in a strong, hearty voice: "One More... one more time!" over and over and the crowd chanted along with him as Gerard urged them on, Rita danced ecstatically next to Bo, and Billy Iuso came up alongside of him as he played a guitar solo, one more offering to the Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias. Earlier in the festival, the 101 Runners also celebrated Dollis by performing Chris Jones' tribute to Bo, "We Love Big Chief," based on the John Coltrane classic "A Love Supreme." Occupy Jazz Fest One of the more interesting complaints about JF is the pushback against the "Big Chief" syndrome that allows some festgoers to "buy" prime frontstage real estate. It seems an odd place to begin a socio-political critique of what's going on in the musician/audience world, especially in light of the fact that two of the biggest draws -- Bruce Springsteen and Tom Petty -- have made audience rights such a big issue over the course of their careers. The Eagles were always one percenters, of course, the first band to charge more than $100 for every seat in the house. But Springsteen and Petty could easily have made an issue of this. I think they probably thought it wasn't the spot to pick a fight. For my part I have adjusted to the fact that the national big money pop acts draw the ridiculous crowds. Just stay away from the Acura stage and every other spot on the grounds is a more comfortable hang. You wouldn't have been able to get into the Blues Tent to hear the great tribute to Wardell Quezergue if it weren't for Petty drawing everyone to Acura. I much prefer hearing a crack R&B band play "Mr. Big Stuff" than "Free Falling" anyway. Petty might even agree with me on that. I'm sure Springsteen would. Right before Petty took the stage the Voice of the Wetlands All Stars warmed up the crowd with a terrific set. But when Tab Benoit stepped up to urge the crowd to become political activists suddenly his mic went dead. His voice was literally silenced, another aspect of JF "presented by Shell." Tab kept talking anyway. He won't shut up and that's one of the aspects of his personality that adds an edge to his music. Amazingly, his mic came back on about two lines before the end of his pitch, just as he had to sing the first lines of "We Make a Good Gumbo." So maybe the issue isn't the lack of space between the swells and the not-so-swells in front of the stage but about the culture wide silencing of political dissent and negative shout downs from the Super PACS that want you to believe corporations are people too. Papa Grows Funk always deals aces at Jazz Fest. The band is adept at big gestures, like when guitarist June Yamagishi, wearing a shirt sporting the cover of Hendrix's Axis: Bold As Love album, played "Hear My Train A'Comin'" as the intro to the Beatles' "Come Together." The Needle in the Groove tracks have added another dimension to the band's presence, moving the group away from the jam band direction into traditional New Orleans songsmithing. The jam band stuff works better in clubs anyway when they can stretch for hours -- sets at the Maple Leaf and d.b.a. (with Monk Boudreaux) during JF gave ample evidence of the band's jamming prowess -- but at JF the band played songs that resonated with meaning. "Get Back Home" is one of my favorites, a great "everyman" song that sums up the celebration of the common person that lies at the heart of the New Orleans spirit. The one per-centers and what Tab Benoit calls "spillionaires" that run everything can't buy better enjoyment than what's available to (and created by) the poor and working class people of New Orleans. This is the kind of dissent that can't be silenced or shouted down. In this context the peace sign John Gros always asks the crowd to flash toward the end of the set seems neither cliched nor inappropriate. Tornado Watch Flaco Jimenez walked out onto the Fais Do Do stage and heard people shouting his name. The great accordion player for the Texas Tornados grinned and sipped his beer, then proceeded to animate the infectious Tex Mex rhythms of his band. Jimenez looked right at home standing next to the portrait of another squeezebox master, Clifton Chenier. Jimenez and Farfisa master Augie Meyers keep the Tornados authentic, along with original bassist Speedy Sparks, even after the passing of group founder Doug Sahm and chicano superstar Freddy Fender. The band makes up for those losses by employing Doug's son Shawn as a frontman singer/guitarist and good natured MC. Shawn looks and sounds the part, projecting the boundless enthusiasm and good cheer that his father always radiated. When he sings Sir Douglas Quintet staples like "Mendocino" and "She's About a Mover" Shawn seems to be channeling his dad and the band , driven by Meyers' rollicking organ sound, does the rest. The Tornados cover Fender's contributions with a section of his best known songs ("Wasted Days and Wasted Nights," "Until the Next Teardrop Falls"). Shawn repeatedly paid tribute to the band's departed members, invoking their spirit with the music itself. Meyers is the band's secret weapon, with his laconic demeanor, wicked sense of humor and full throated baritone singing carrying the day just as much as his playing. His delightful song "Dinero" was a high point of the set.