I made a serious effort this year to go and hear some of the out-of-town buzz bands that were booked at the New Orleans Fairgrounds. Here’s a look back on new and old favorites from the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Friday dawned cool and bright and I immediately raced to the Acura stage to hear the New Orleans Suspects. As most fans of the Radiators have heard, the bassist Reggie Scanlan was hospitalized for three weeks and was only released a few days before their set at Jazz Fest. You couldn’t tell from his playing—he was on fire, as was the rest of the band.
Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe is an elder in the community who has kept one foot in his youth. He performs with musicians decades younger and always appears with his grandchildren in tow. He turned up the mysticism during an intimate set at the Jazz and Heritage stage.
Seun Kuti has big shoes to fill as the son of the Afrobeat legend, Fela. He performed admirably with the old man’s band and ripped some stellar solos on the alto saxophone. Unlike his father, he actually waited until he was soaked in sweat before doffing his shirt.
On Saturday, I checked out two bands that I had heard about but had never seen live. The Carolina Chocolate Drops were one of the most talked about acts after their Jazz Fest debut last year. Unfortunately, I missed that set. This year, I was up close and center to hear this superb band play old time Appalachian sounds. Three of the four instrumentalists switched between banjo, fiddle, and guitar nearly every song. The main guitar player tossed and flipped his guitar without missing a cue and the lead singer told self-effacing tales of growing up in the country. Amid all the hubbub, the cello player provided a solid bottom end and added sweet vocal harmonies.
Leslie Feist of Feist rose to national prominence due to a ubiquitous television commercial that featured one of her songs. She didn’t play it during her closing set on the first Saturday and that was a good thing. Instead she played a song that “we wrote twenty minutes ago” and captivated her admiring audience with an ace band filled with multi-instrumentalists. That’s a trend I noticed a lot this year—besides the two aforementioned bands, I caught several other outfits that switched instruments multiple times during their performances.
Sunday’s weather mirrored Friday and Saturday’s—cool in the morning, low humidity in the air, and a scattering of clouds decorating the blue spring sky. Perfect Jazz Fest weather if I do say so.
I have to admit that I was never a rabid fan of Alex Chilton while he was alive. But after seeing a crack band of local musicians playing his songs in tribute to the indie rock icon, I am going to delve back into his catalog. Alex McMurray (pictured above) was fierce, tearing off solo after solo on his electric guitar.
Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum (an honorary local) channeled his younger self on several of Chilton’s classic tunes while slashing chords on his low-slung guitar. Susan Cowsill and unannounced special guest Vickie Peterson (late of the Bangles) turned on the charm on their closing version of one of Chilton’s best-known songs, “September Gurls.” Through it all, the band was having more fun than the crowd and their joy was palpable and contagious.
I really didn’t know what to expect from Janelle Monae (pictured), but I knew that I wasn’t in the mood to fight the massive crowd (estimated at 65,000) gathered at the other end of the Fairgrounds for Bruce Springsteen. I went with the flow and my mantra of checking out new music at the Jazz Fest. All I can say is she put on one of the most amazing performances I have ever seen. She had a killer band and her charisma was self evident in front of an adoring crowd.
At the end of her set, she jumped off the ten-foot high stage, vaulted the barricade separating the photo pit from the VIP section and climbed the final fence to exult in the adulation of her real fans. It was a fitting ending to an incredible first weekend filled with energy, soul, and spirit. Incidentally, I heard Bruce was amazing.
Tomorrow—the second weekend recap!
Photos: “Baton Rouge” Bill Boelens