As I write this, the gates are open for the second weekend of the 2014 edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, but the music has not yet started. I usually don't arrive that early. I typically walk in to a warm, resounding cacophony already in progress – Latin jazz, Cajun waltzes, the chanting bravado and rattlesnake-shake percussion of Mardi Gras Indians – on the way to a crawfish-bread lunch.
This year, my 27th, on the first day of the first weekend, I got there in time for a taste of the void – the weird quiet before the tradition, reinvention and determined cheer and sharing erupt at the dozen stages across the Fair Grounds. It was an eerie reminder of how empty even this city feels when there is no music – and how bizarre local politics can get. Later that day, a tie vote in the New Orleans City Council left standing a 1956 law that bans the playing of musical instruments on the streets after 8 P.M. – this in the birthplace of jazz, where some of the best acts I've seen have been new, young brass bands showing their chops for change on the sidewalk.
My weekend was, ultimately, anything but quiet, on and outside the Fair Grounds; here is personal-top-ten evidence, in chronological order. But in a city where so much else is so wrong – the police-blotter news in the Times-Picayune is sadly breathtaking – it is astonishing to see something always so right treated like crime.
Louisiana Music Factory, April 24th, 10 P.M.
Even before I got to Jazz Fest, I paid a Thursday night visit to this record mecca, specializing in New Orleans and Louisiana music, now at 421 Frenchman Street after nearly two decades on Decatur Street in the French Quarter. The digs were so fresh I could still smell the varnish. Everything else – the hospitality; the deep stock and reverence for local niche and soul majesty (swamp pop and brass bands; the designated bins for Ernie K-Doe and Oliver "Who Shot the La La" Morgan); the traditional in-store performances like those I caught a couple of days later – is as it ever was. Visit with confidence and a yearn for learning.
Tommy Singleton, Blues Tent, April 25th, 11:15 A.M.
Singleton is not a star, even here. He drives an oyster truck by day and works the black bar-and-wedding circuit with a versatile, brawny voice that swings between Otis Redding in a Howlin' Wolf register and a fine-grit-lined Sam Cooke. His set, which included a tribute to the late K-Doe, was the right start for this weekend – old-school R&B delivered like the catch of the day and good for you at every hour. The next time someone tells me Jazz Fest has lost its down-home heart to imported closing-slot superstars, I'll send them this guy's way.
The RAMS, Gospel Tent, April 25th, 12:05 P.M.
The acronym stands for the Raymond Anthony Myles Singers, the choir founded in 1982 by Myles, a vocalist of volcanic poignance and huge promise who was an annual, holy charge on this stage until his murder in 1998. The loss still hangs heavy in here, along with his portrait. But despite sound problems, the reunited RAMS, two-dozen strong in Sunday-best tropical white, sang like a long, high wall of bravado and assurance, selling salvation in beat-that-Beyoncé melissma and, in "I Go to the Rock," a rapid-fire exchange of call-response voices – that hook in Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" taken back to the church where he got it.
Chris Smither, Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, April 26th, 12:30 P.M.
I conducted this interview but was, in every other way, a magnetized fan in the audience. Smither, a folk-blues singer-songwriter admired and covered by vocalists such as Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris, grew up in New Orleans and told illuminating stories about trying to be a solo cat in a saxophone and trombone city in the Sixties – learning from Lightnin' Hopkins records and the New Orleans-based bluesman Babe Stovall – then running with fellow New Dylans like Townes Van Zandt. Smither illustrated each tale with brawny picking and the drawling emotion in his voice, in performances of "Devil Got Your Woman" and "Love You Like a Man." Smither, based in Massachusetts, came home last year to cut a forthcoming two-CD retrospective, Still on the Levee (Signature Sounds). It sounds like he never left.
Robert Plant and the Sensational Space Shifters, Samsung Galaxy Stage, April 26th, 5:30 P.M.
In his Jazz Fest debut – a one-off show for which he flew over 5000 miles from Britain, then back – Plant gave the crowd plenty of Led Zeppelin hits while pursuing the unfinished business in that band's blues-etc. roots: rerouting the knotty riff in "Black Dog" through North Africa; translating the Celtic gallop of "Bron-Y-Aur Stomp" into Cajun barfloor-sawdust stomp; and relocating the leaving in "Going to California" ("Made up my mind to make a new start/Going to Louisiana with an aching in my heart"). Plant's Space Shifters were a hard and elastic marvel – a genuinely psychedelic band with down-in-the-dirt charge – while the leader was in firm, ascending voice and both wry and delighted between songs, clearly pleased to be showing off his exploratory spirit at the source point. This set was Jazz Fest performance at its best – entertaining and exhilirating, an electric lesson in hits and history going forward. But Plant has gotta come back; I want to see what he does here with "Royal Orleans."
North Mississippi All-Stars, Acura Stage, April 27th, 12:35 P.M.
This hill-country Cream, led by guitarist Luther and drummer Cody Dickinson, took a rare leap off the stage – literally. Sporting a diving goggles and a hockey-goalie mask, Cody took his snare drum into the VIP pit, followed by Luther on bass drum and the rest of their troupe, then up a security aisle in a Mississippi second-line parade, through the crowd already massed for Eric Clapton's late-afternoon set. The ensemble's chant, "Granny, Does Your Dog Bite?" – a traditional reel on the All-Stars' 2013 album, World Boogie Is Coming – was also a tribute to the Dickinsons' late mentor, Mississippi drum-and-fife legend Othar Turner, sung with his granddaughter, Shardé Thomas. The best music here is always, in some way, a family affair.
Dr. Michael White and the Original Liberty Jazz Band, Economy Hall Tent, April 27th, 4:30 P.M.
A curious, official sign posted at the front of the tent, reserved for early jazz, read "Moshing/Crowd Surfing Strictly Prohibited – Subject to Ejection." Maybe someone got out of hand with a parasol once, in a second-line parade during Kid Ory's "Muskrat Ramble" – that's about as rambunctious as it gets here offstage. On the boards, that's different. White, an educator and clarinet master of pre-war jazz, lit a poised fire right away in this set. The opening number by his septet was ten minutes of dynamic familiarity: a bright, loping theme; round-the-horn solos; then an extended finale of collective improvisation, a showing of licks that flirted with chaos but stopped on a dime. It was an excitement as old as the levees, as fresh and spicy as that day's crawfish bread (I did the appropriate research). There was no moshing. I hope I'm there when it finally breaks out.
Eric Clapton, Acura Stage, April 27th, 5:10 P.M.
With Clapton, it's all about the solos – what happens between his singing and the generous limelight he hands to his veteran sidemen such as pianist Chris Stainton and second guitarist Andy Fairweather Low. And what Clapton played, without extravagant physical gesture, was stinging and precise, a lesson in the light and muscle possible in a concentrated skid of notes and single, tightly curled accent. Clapton reportedly rehearsed for a week in New Orleans, at a church on Esplanade Avenue, in advance of this show and his current tour. But while there was nothing in the set list that suggested extra New Orleans-related homework, most of it was apt and sharply executed: the Charles Segar blues "Key to the Highway"; "Hoochie Coochie Man"; acoustic versions of "Driftin' Blues" by Charles Brown and "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Clapton previewed, in a roundabout way, his new J.J. Cale tribute album, The Breeze, with "Crazy Mama" – a song not on that record and one of the few hit-level Cale songs Clapton has never recorded. The groove was unhurried; the soloing was tart and quietly commanding – too quiet, probably, for fans in the far back of the field, even with video closeups of Clapton's fretboard. More hits might have helped. But everything Clapton played belonged here.
Stanton Moore, Louisiana Music Factory, April 28th, 1:30 P.M.
I was back for dedicated shopping, with an unexpected bonus: a set by drummer Stanton Moore, the beat and backbone of the funk band Galactic, leading a supercharged modern-jazz trio with two members of the local institutiuon Astral Project: pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton. As a jazz drummer, Moore keeps a lot of Meters in his Art Blakey, running under the melodic unison and soloing thrusts of the piano and bass with anchoring force and sharply chopped swing. Moore's new album with the trio, Conversations (Royal Potato Family), has everything they did this afternoon, at extra length.
Flamin' Groovies, One Eyed Jacks, April 28th, after midnight
Founded in San Francisco in the mid-Sixties, the Groovies may be the longest-running cult band in rock. Their first record was a DIY milestone as well: a 10-inch, independently-issued EP, Sneakers. The lineup tonight, on this reunion tour, included two members from that era – guitarist Cyril Jordan and bassist George Alexander – with the singer-guitarist from the Groovies' power-pop Seventies, Chris Wilson. There were some rough spots, with Wilson fighting for higher notes here and there. But the jangle and momentum were solid from the start (the latter due in big part to new drummer Victor Penalosa) and peaked in the closing run of shoulda-been-a-hit monsters: the addiction kamikaze "Slow Death," the magisterial pop of "Shake Some Action" and the 1971 snarl "Teenage Head." There was a fine, new bullet too, "Let Me Rock," part of a forthcoming record of "killer stuff," Jordan boasted happily. This was not my usual Jazz Fest signoff – I normally do WWOZ's annual benefit, "Piano Night." But the Groovies come east with the frequency of asteroids. Tonight, they hit just as hard.