Highlights from New Orleans Jazz Fest 2011

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Colin Meloy of The Decemberists performs at the 2011 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on May 1, 2011 in New Orleans.
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"I see the Roots have started," singer-guitarist Colin Meloy noted drily as his band, the Decemberists, headlining the Fais Do-Do Stage at the 2011 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on May 1st, gamely fought the throbbing-bass blowback from Congo Square and Tom Jones' lusty roar, bleeding downwind from the Gentilly Stage. It was an unfortunate sandwich for the Decemberists, making their Jazz Fest debut, and a rare sour note on an opening weekend that was spectacular in every other way: weather, crowd vibe, booking risk and the star turns by local performers.

The Fairgrounds gates are about to open for the second day of the second weekend as I write this. But my first-weekend buzz still runs strong. Here are some reasons why:

Piano Men and Fond Memories
The dead are an integral part of life in this city. Cemeteries are ornate neighborhoods of sculpture and commemoration; funeral parades are mourning on the way out to the gravesite, a joyous sendoff on the road back. In his April 29th set, pianist Jon Cleary – a British native and longtime resident here, working with a buoyant rhythm section of drums and bull fiddle – threaded loss, history and enduring fondness in a magnetic ivory crawl through "Young Boy Blues" by his late friend and long-time employer, the blind R&B singer Snooks Eaglin. The next day, Dr. John held intimate court at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, reminiscing about his drummer Herman Ernest, who died last year and had been Dr. John's backbeat since the mid-Seventies. Dr. John and drummer Shannon Powell, one of Ernest's protegés, also played instrumental duets, demonstrating the way Ernest kept New Orleans time with natural soul – complete with a lesson on how to make and keep "the pocket."

"You've Been Beck-ed!"
This year's Jazz Fest had a strong whiff of Coachella, with second-weekend headline slots going to Arcade Fire and the Strokes and an unexpected big-stage sighting, on April 30th, of the Rhode Island slow-core-folk band, the Low Anthem. Singer-guitarist Ben Knox Miller told the crowd, with what sounded like a mix of excitement and worry, that the Low Anthem's mid-afternoon set was their first-ever New Orleans show. The band certainly had more elbow room than gear  – a modest armory of pump organ, string bass, drums and Jocie Adams' bowed glass harp. But the crisp spring air was just right for the distended suspense of the group's pensive-walk rhythms and poignant antique spell. A nifty exception: the marching clatter of "Hey, All You Hippies!" from the recent album, Smart Flesh, a song about broken promise that sounded like ragged delight.

In a royal tease, Jeff Beck ­– out of his rockabilly-cat clothes and back in lethal-fusion gear – was booked back-to-back with Robert Plant and the Band of Joy at the Acura Stage on the Fest's opening day. Speculation ran high about a summit meeting, and at one point during Beck's set, a roadie set up a microphone at center stage, just as Beck gently stepped into a cover of the Impressions' "People Get Ready" – causing audible groans when no one came out to sing. Beck looked just as puzzled. That mike was probably for Tremé star Trombone Shorty, who did come out for an encore stomp through Sly and the Family Stone's "I Want to Take You Higher," with Beck mimicking Larry Graham's gulping-bass vocal on the original with rolling growls of distortion.

The other highlight of Beck's hour in the sun: A cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Little Wing," new to Beck's repertoire and sung by drummer Narada Michael Walden. Beck stayed close to the melodic discipline of Hendrix's original '67-studio reading – until solo time, when he hit a long, climbing shriek with his tremolo bar and took off from there. After taking the song back to Hendrix, Beck definitively took possession. "You've been Beck-ed!" Fest producer-director Quint Davis told the audience as the guitarist left the stage. So true.

More Gumbo
Delfeayo Marsalis at the Louisiana Music Factory: Wynton's younger brother, fronting an eight-piece band pressed onto a tiny stage at one of my favorite record stores in the land, performed selections from his audacious new album, Sweet Thunder (Troubadour Jass), a compelling investigation and reinvention of Duke Ellington's 1957 suite, Such Sweet Thunder. Ellington's work was itself an adaption, big-band portraits of characters from Shakespeare, and in his half-hour sampling, Marsalis showed a deft balance of fidelity and ambition in his re-creation and expansion of the original themes. It also sounded good and loud, brassy in tone and temper, in the storefront setting.

Glen David Andrews at the Blues Tent: "You've seen him on Tremé," the MC said, introducing this singer and trombonist, who is a cousin of Trombone Shorty and trumpeter James Andrews. Isn't everybody in town on that HBO show? Onstage, Glen seemed too big for any screen, with a Jay-Z physique and a voice big enough to accommodate James Brown and Wilson Pickett. Andrews also has a catholic enthusiam when it comes to New Orleans funk: His band included barrelhouse-blues pianist Marcia Ball and the young Cajun fiddler Amanda Shaw. And it is rare to see crowd surfing at a Jazz Fest show – especially by a guy in a cream-colored suit wielding a trombone. Thirty minutes into his set, Andrews still hadn't played the thing. But everybody in the tent knew of his chops – and the showtime was too good to complain.

Dr. Lonnie Smith at House of Blues: Piano Night, an annual Monday benefit for the community radio station WWOZ, is all about the 88's: local disciples and legends honoring the traditions and long-gone pillars of New Orleans piano. But the closing hour this year went to Smith, who plays the Hammond B-3 organ and was a key figure in the soul-jazz party of the late Sixties and Seventies. Now 68, he is a theatrical performer, holding a rippled A chord with one hand, sweeping the other triumphantly through the air. The uptempo numbers were radiant funky action; the slow prayer "And the World Weeps" was a rapture of melodic details. By that hour, the crowd at House of Blues had thinned out to a couple of dozen people; the majestic sustain in Smith's chords had no trouble filling the rest of the room.