Pinching his nose with his thumb and forefinger in the universal sign of peee-eeww, pianist Eddie B turned to the audience at House of Blues in New Orleans on April 30th, bouncing happily in time on his stool to the volcanic strut of Professor Longhair’s “Mardi Gras in New Orleans.” “This groove is so funky,” Bo declared with a huge grin, “it’s next to a garbage dump!”
The elfin Bo, who has been keyboard royalty in this town for half a century thanks to hits like “Check Mr. Popeye” and “Hook and Sling,” was presiding over one of the many highlights of Piano Night, an annual marathon that benefits community radio station WWOZ and celebrates New Orleans’ jazz and R&B piano traditions with sets by the city’s best players. Piano Night also serves as a perfect exclamation point each year to the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In fact, virtually everyone on stage at that point — including Bo, bassist George Porter Jr. of the Meters, ex-Wynton Marsalis drummer Herlin Riley, organist David Torkanowksy and, at a second set of eighty-eights, pianist Marcia Ball — somewhere in town, when the festival reconvenes for three more days on May 4th.
Lest we forget: New Orleans is no longer under water, but it is still living under heavy weather. Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, more than half of the city’s pre-flood population has not returned, and many of those who have come back are still living in FEMA trailers. Medical services are sporadic, and the few reopened schools are overcrowded and underfinanced. Meanwhile, real estate speculators devour ravaged land, and the natives have as much faith in their elected representatives, at every level, as they do in the rebuilt levees. As one taxi driver told me , “Bush wants to rebuild Iraq. What about us?”
It was hard to imagine that there was anything wrong in the world outside the blue-sky perfection of the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest 2007’s first weekend. But the frustration was never far below the surface of a song. On Saturday, singer-pianist Jon Cleary put a frank spin on his cover of the Meters’ “People Say.” “People in New Orleans gettin’ tired of all this bullshit,” he sang in a cutting tone. “People say, haven’t we got a right to live?” The next day, surrounded by the marquee muscle of the post-Katrina supergroup, the New Orleans Social Club (Porter, guitarist Leo Nocentelli, organist Ivan Neville, pianist Henry Butler), singer John Boutte introduced the magnificent rage and helplessness in his version of the Eurythmics’ “Why” by shouting, “America, can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” He wasn’t talking about his cell phone or the sound system.
But the true fighting spirit of the local and regional musicians dominating the festival’s eleven stages was in their indivisible determinations to party and innovate. Former brass band prodigy Trombone Shorty, leading his own crew Orleans Avenue and looking like a street-parade P. Diddy in a sharp white suit, made true heavy metal with his horn in a thrilling recasting of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” while, one stage over, the trombone army Bonerama funkified Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” the Beatles’ “Helter Skelter” and, for a headbanging finale, some early Black Sabbath. Young Cajun sensations the Pine Valley Boys fused rockabilly and Canned Heat-style boogie with the country poise of bayou waltzes and, in one acapella number, the ecstatic chanting of the Mardi Gras Indians. The supercharged funk of Backyard Groove, led by ex-Dirty Dozen Brass Band sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, included, in one number, the slicing-Santanaeffect of two harmonized lead guitars.
Other highlights far from the main stages: Amazones, a dynamic troupe of women drummers from Guinea; electric country-blues guitarist Little Freddie King, who is no relation to the late Freddie King but, at 66 years young, can definitely duckwalk better than you and plays a mean version of the real King’s “Hide Away”; J.D. Hill, a blues singer and harpist unafraid to sing his original “My Baby Don’t Wear No Drawers” first thing on a Sunday morning; and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, who have arrived at the sweet-spot intersection of Dixieland, Cajun dance music and Seventies funk via Eastern Europe. One wild reel they played was called, in Yiddish, “Celebrate the Pig” — which you could also do at the hot-sausage po-boy and cochon de lait stands across the field.
Jazz Fest organizers did not release attendance figures for the initial weekend, although there were rumors of a record-breaking Saturday, when Rod Stewart, Norah Jones and Ludacris closed the afternoon on three separate stages. Bonnie Raitt, Van Morrison, Lucinda Williams and country singer Brad Paisley also played headline-slot shows. John Mayer, the Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top and, bizarrely, New Edition are among the out-of-town heavyweights set for this weekend. It’s a good bet, though, that none of them will beat the surrealistic showmanship of Mississippi singer-pianist Bobby Lounge, whose Sunday-afternoon blues explosion of Bessie Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis and white-trash-William Burroughs included a song about the mythical Delta beast Squirrelsquatch and an actual sighting — or what was more likely a guy in a giant, truly ratty, rodent costume, probably hammered as he raced through the crowd, chasing girls and dumping people’s beers.
New Orleans may be the city that time and Bush forgot. It is also a city that refuses to give up — or stop laughing.