The Soul of New Orleans Jazz Fest Is Alive and Well: Fricke’s Favorite Sets
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”?