The eighteenth year of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival – 1987 – was my first. Many of the mythic names in my collection of Crescent City R&B records – including Earl King, Clarence "Frogman" Henry and Ernie K-Doe – were still alive and resurrecting those hits on stages across the Fair Grounds race track. Fats Domino was the undisputed headliner, while the biggest acts from out of town were Bonnie Raitt, Texas blues band the Fabulous Thunderbirds and British singer-songwriter Richard Thompson.
This year's Jazz Fest was my 27th. There was a lot of rain, mud and, with first-time headlining appearances by the Who and Tony Bennett and Lady Gaga, much local hand-wringing over the state of the festival's soul – specifically, how much of the city, its jazz and heritage have survived. My short answer, after the opening weekend: plenty. And it's easy to find. As for those stars, I passed in favor of local wattage. (I admit it: I'm waiting for the Who in New York.)
Still, they belonged. Bennett has been a Jazz Tent regular on his own. Elton John, who closes the festival on May 2nd at the Acura Stage, carries a lot of the city's piano history in his ivories. (He will also be following Jerry Lee Lewis on that stage, who is no small fireball.) And the Who were covering classic New Orleans R&B – like Benny Spellman's 1962 single "Fortune Teller," written and produced by Allen Toussaint – when it was fresh fruit.
The second weekend of the 45th Jazz Fest has just opened, as I write this. I'm already planning my 28th.
Eddie Bo, Baby I'm Wise: The Complete Ric Singles 1959-1962 (Ace)
There is a lot of missing that comes with every Jazz Fest. Eddie Bo was, until his passing in 2006, an annual rite of delight for me, either at the Fair Grounds or in the clubs: a living legend of New Orleans R&B piano, playful lyric wit and irrepressible showmanship. His 1962 Ric single "Check Mr. Popeye," based on a local dance craze, was a radio and jukebox monster here and Bo's near-national breakout. He scored again, and bigger, in the funk era with "Hook and Sling" and "Check Your Bucket." Baby I'm Wise, a new constant-dynamite set of his "Popeye"-period sides, was my run-up listening to this festival. Then came the front page news, in the April 26th edition of The Times-Picayune, that a continuing tangle of legal and next-of-kin issues has left Bo's cremated remains unclaimed, in an urn on a shelf in a medical examiner's office. That is no place for any departed soul, much less this legend. As Bo put it in one of the outtakes on this CD, "Ain't You Ashamed"?
Earphunk, April 24th, Gentilly Stage
The kickoff hour of the first weekend's opening day is a tough slot; many early birds are still in the bag-check line. But this local quintet, founded in 2009 and now up to 200 gigs a year and four albums, made the most of its Jazz Fest debut, firing their delight up the field in a brief, effective set of hydraulic grooves and jazz-rock soloing verve. Vocals were kept to a minimum, which was fine. This was music for wake-up dancing, performed by a homegrown Average White Band with the improvising reach of Phish and proving my standing rule for arrival every day at the Fair Grounds: Get there early; make new friends.
Kidd Jordan and the Improvisational Arts Quintet, April 24th, Jazz Tent
There are many kinds of jazz and blues in New Orleans. Saxophonist Edward "Kidd" Jordan, who turns 80 on May 5th, has played and helped determine the course of most of them as a leader, session musician and educator. His credits in the middle category, for instance, include Ray Charles, Big Joe Turner, Professor Longhair and, improbably, R.E.M. (1991's Out of Time). But in this lunchtime set, Jordan returned to his unfinished lifetime adventure in free, improvising fire music, with an all-star-warrior unit that included the great New York bassist William Parker, Jordan's frequent collaborator Joel Futterman on piano and drummer Alvin Fielder, an original member of Chicago's Association for the Advancement of Creative Music. The performance was a torrid sequence of group rhapsodies and impulsive soliloquies, with passages of striking, melodic empathy breaking up the violence like blue skies in the middle of a storm. It was a test of stamina (theirs) and patience (ours), and Jordan acknowledged the solitary nature of bis pursuit. "We've been doing this a long time – if people don't get it, that's okay," he told the small, focused crowd. "You all who stayed," Jordan added gratefully, "you're the faithful."
Brass-A-Holics, April 24th, Congo Square
Formed in 2010, this nine-piece band plants the New Orleans brass-band tradition in the non-stop, syncopated charge of Washington, D.C. go-go, with the sharp, segue turns of an Earth Wind and Fire revue. In the middle of one straightaway segment here, the horns veered into the crunchy bent-ascension chorus of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," then sprinted through a series of R&B variations – a hip-hop breakdown, salsa-fied licks, a rap-along with the crowd – before returning to the nuts and bolts. I've heard other brass bands have a go at Kurt Cobain's song; it's become a local litmus test for rocking hard at a marching cadence. But in the wake of the new documentary, Montage of Heck, I couldn't help thinking, during that romp, that if Cobain had held on a little longer, he would have seen and enjoyed the worlds of pleasure that keep coming through his pain.
Tedeschi Trucks Band, April 24th, Acura Stage
This reliably ecstatic big band had come to a bright, brawny-church finish in Derek and the Dominos' "Keep On Growing" when guitarist Derek Trucks decided to keep on going, building a fluid, solitary bridge of bottleneck-slide raga – a masterful binding of spiritual-blues prowess with the chant-like testimony of a John Coltrane tenor solo – to the group's next number, the sweet, melancholy stroll of "Midnight in Harlem." Trucks' co-leader and wife, singer-guitarist Susan Tedeschi, soon had the pulpit goingup in her own set of flames, igniting Bobby "Blue" Bland's "I Pity the Fool" with shredded-vocal authority. It's all familiar fire at this band's shows. It never gets old.
New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra, April 25th, Economy Hall Tent
This armada of horns, strings, rhythm and unrepentant corn, in business since the early Seventies and decked out in the dress-whites of a Roaring Twenties yacht crew, plays the kind of pop songs that were big in the ballroom on the Titanic. But in an era when the race lines were hard, wide and dangerous to cross, this kind of straightened ragtime and bathtub-gin party was prophetic subversion, arguably the first mainstream victory in R&B crossover. When the Leviathans signed off with a quick romp through "I Ain't Gonna Give You None of My Jelly Roll," cut in 1922 by the early-blues queen Mamie Smith, the arrangement was closer to the late-Sixties retrospective looning of England's Bonzo Dog Band. But the bawdy-coded defiance inside was still jet-black.
Voices of Peter Claver, April 25th, Gospel Tent
Led by Veronica Downs-Dorsey, this 60-soul choir from St. Peter Claver Catholic Church – built in Treme in 1852, but rededicated in 1920 and named after an American saint who served the city's African-American community – delivered massive, humbled joy, with stunning turns by individual singers. It was a great, deeper cleansing in the middle of the afternoon's biblical downpour and a reminder that whatever the weather outside, the sun rises, again and again, in here.
New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, April 25th, Lagniappe Stage
The "All-Stars" part of the name is no joke. Today's edition of this 24-year-old band included Galactic drummer Stanton Moore and, at one point, Neville Brothers drummer Willie Green. In normal high gear, the Klezmer All-Stars are a cheerfully frenzied study in the striking instrumental proximity of the Jewish diaspora to the lowdown liberation in the racing tempos and the spiral-snake motifs of Sidney Bechet records. A subset of Green, organist Glenn Hartman, guitarist Jonathan Freilich and bassist Joe Cabral also formed what Hartman called "The Yiddish Meters," performing two muscular wedding-funk instrumentals, "Here Comes the Seltzerman" and "Gerhargeted" (the studio versions are streaming at the group's website). Then Moore and Green doubled up behind the All-Stars for a dynamic, integrated fury that sounded like – I'm not kidding – a Hebrew Allman Brothers Band: "Whipping Post" via the steppes and Orchard Street. There was dancing, of course.
Charles Neville, April 26th, Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage
It was my honor and pleasure to ask the questions at this surprising debut: the first, solo Heritage Stage appearance of saxophonist Charles Neville, the second oldest of the Neville Brothers – born in 1938, between Art and Aaron – and a musician of his own legendary breadth and history. In a 45 minutes that went by way too fast, Neville illustrated his learning curve in the Fifties and Sixties – in the house band at the Dew Drop Inn and New Orleans's important, obscured modern-jazz scene – with performance, including a locally flavored take on Thelonious Monk's "Well You Needn't" over a second-like rhythm. Neville spoke frankly of the color laws in New Orleans that kept black and white musicians off the same stages in those years, with some ingenious exceptions; he recalled a residency at the Playboy Club in New Orleans, a private-membership room, with the blind singer-guitarist Snooks Eaglin and a white drummer. The law, Neville said, couldn't do a thing: "Hef had too much money." Neville also recalled the once-common business of fake-star tours – promoters hiring small-time singers to impersonate hot R&B acts. On a trip through Florida, Neville stopped at a club where his brother Aaron and singer Ernie K-Doe were supposed to be appearing. "I go upstairs in their dressing room," Neville said, "and there's these two guys I know from New Orleans. And I say, 'Where's Aaron? Where's K-Doe?' And one of the guys says, 'Man, don't blow my thing. I'm Aaron tonight." Those were the days,
Spencer Bohren, April 27th, Louisiana Music Factory
Born in Wyoming, singer-songwriter Spencer Bohren is a longtime, local resident and treasure, fusing folk, blues and original observations on Southern life and spirituality with a warming tenor and keen eye. His in-store set at the Louisiana Music Factory – one of my favorite records stores and, with its messianic focus and deep catalog, a continuing American miracle – was mostly drawn from Bohren's fine, new album, Seven Birds (spencerbohren.com). He also plugged in a lap-steel guitar to perform a song from his 2013 release, Tempered Steel, Bob Dylan's "Ring Them Bells." Bohren pointed out, in his introduction, that Dylan recorded his version, on 1989's Oh Mercy, only three blocks away at producer Daniel Lanois' French Quarter studio. But where Dylan's singing was low and ravaged, Bohren's performance was spare and gorgeous, with a near-whispered vocal framed by his clean sweeps and dives on lap steel and, at the end, harmonic chimes that sounded like the church bells, ringing over the neighborhood, that originally inspired Dylan. It was a simple, perfect summing of the song, its birth and my weekend – at once local, intimate and pregnant with resonance.