Everyone uses it: locals; out-of-town vets; first timers who know, as soon as they get a taste, that they are coming back for more. But the full, formal name of Jazz Fest – the annual pair of spring weekends dedicated to Louisiana's music, cuisine and infamously precarious weather, now in its 43rd year and resuming May 2nd – is the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
The heritage cut both ways – back to the dawn of Crescent City R&B, then in fast, forward motion – at the Fair Grounds Race Course early on April 27th, the second day of Jazz Fest 2013. In the Blues Tent, Herb Hardesty – who played saxophone on Fats Domino's 1949 debut, "The Fat Man," and was a pillar of Domino's orchestra until the latter's retirement from the road in 2007 – led a quintet through Duke Ellington's "C Jam Blues" and a slinky reading of "Makin' Whoopee." Hardesty, 87, took his breaks with more restraint – straight and smooth – than he did on Domino's hits. But there were strong hints of the old fire and sass as Hardesty pulled at a note and creeped into a phrase. And when he wasn't soloing, he was a joy to watch: smiling and dancing, shaking it like a second liner, returning the crowd's loving admiration.
A little later, over at the Gentilly Stage, I saw A Tribe Called Red – three Native American DJs from Ottawa, Canada – running a rare sight at Jazz Fest: a line of laptops, samplers and turntables. But their non-stop set was dense, fluid and proudly topical, with propulsive loops of drum-circle percussion speared by samples of ritual singing: North America's first dance culture powering a new one. There was heavy metal in the charge, dancehall and bhangra cadence in the rapping that flew overhead and a knockout shot of the Raiders' 1971 hit "Indian Reservation" – so obvious you didn't expect it, so hip when it jumped out of the mix.
Big Hits with Local Spice
The late R&B singer and regal eccentric Ernie K-Doe was once quoted as saying, "I'm not sure, but I think all music comes from New Orleans." This is definitely true: No matter where music comes from, when it gets here, it ends up sounding like New Orleans.
The winner of my unofficial contest for hijacked cover versions was Ed Volker, the singer-pianist of the now-disbanded roots-etc. institution the Radiators. His April 28th set at the Lagniappe Stage, with the right minimum of 88s, percussion and baritone saxophonist Tony Dagradi, was a running sequence of lyrically wry, R&B-glide originals ("Everybody's Tired of Being Real") and out-of-town hits given the local business. The hectic pace, rattling guitars and shredded-McCartney vocal in the Beatles' "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" were replaced by a funky churn and deep no-hurry vocal, as if Volker had rearranged the song for an Eddie Bo session. Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" became a Mardi Gras Indian-style chant, with less shout and more menace; the Rolling Stones' "Jumping Jack Flash" came wreathed in swamp gas.
The trombone army Bonerama has long specialized in bringing classic rock songs down to the funk-and-growl of the long, low horn. Originals outnumber the covers on the group's brand new album, Shake It Baby (Bonerama), already a hit in this city. But Bonerama's April 27th Fest appearance came with another Beatles-"White Album" makeover, "Helter Skelter" – three 'bones skidding over and across each other like air guitars – and a version of Led Zeppelin's "The Ocean," with Mark Mullins chopping his horn licks with a wah-wah pedal, a neat mimicking of Robert Plant's vocal tics.
Old Favorites and Crazy Rain
Water – the real thing – arrived on the 28th. I missed this year's best named act, Raw Oyster Cult – which features three ex-Radiators with members of Papa Grows Funk and Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes – while waiting out a heavy midday rain. I only heard that day's set by the Session, a young modern-jazz quintet comprised of local-pedigree sidemen, on the radio, in WWOZ's broadcast from the Jazz Tent while I was stuck in traffic. They sounded hot and sharp, so I bought the record, This Is Who We Are (Hep-Tone Fidelity).
Once on site, I squeezed in a lot – including that Volker romp – before the rain returned, in time for the Dave Matthews Band. The desert-cantina big band Calexico made my afternoon with a sumptuous recreation of Love's "Alone Again Or" from Forever Changes. Outfitted with a six-piece brass section, they were the only band I've ever heard cover that song with so much of the original studio grandeur intact.
There were more horns at the Tribute to Kid Ory, the Louisiana-born trombonist (1886-1973) who was a pivotal figure at the birth of jazz, then a major force in the post-WWII New Orleans revival. At the end of "Muskrat Ramble," trombonists Lucien Barbarin, Freddie Lonzo, Ronell Johnson and Bonerama's Craig Klein exchanged solos like a pack of arguing dogs, trading choruses, then finishing together in harmonized exclamation.
I spend a lot of my Jazz Fest time catching up with favorites. This weekend was no different. At the Blues Tent on the 26th, bayou-slide power-blues guitarist Sonny Landreth got a lot more time to wail than he had earlier in the month, at Crossroads in New York. He got the extra standing ovations too. The next day, on the same stage, singer-pianist Jon Cleary was fronting a new combo, the Diabolical Fandangos, with his reliable strengths – hooks and syncopation descended from James Booker and Professor Longhair; a seductive Seventies-R&B-ballad flair in originals like "Help Me Somebody" and "When You Get Back." If Cleary had written the latter in 1976, it could have been a smash for the Spinners.
And while it was off site, a Monday afternoon set on the 29th by the contemporary-Cajun band Beausoleil at the Louisiana Music Factory was an example of getting a magnificent surprise from an act you think you know too well. Singer-violinist Michael Doucet prefaced one instrumental with a dedication to the experimental jazz and world-music trombonist Roswell Rudd, then led the band into a lightly surging trance of hovering violin and piano-like attack on a ukelele by David Doucet. It was stone psychedelia with a striking Cajun accent, as if the San Francisco band It's a Beautiful Day had just taken off in a Lafayette dance hall.
A Local Cat Steps Forward
I was actually onstage when I caught singer-guitarist John Fohl at Jazz Fest early on the 26th; I was his interviewer on the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage, a treasured Fest showcase for intimate performance and conversation. I walked in knowing that Fohl – an original member of the Northwest funk-punk-ska act the Cherry Poppin' Daddies – had recently finished a decade's tenure in Dr. John's band, the lower 911. But I learned, over our hour, how hearing a mixtape of singer-guitarist Snooks Eaglin ultimately led Fohl to New Orleans; about his friendship with the Canned Heat guitarist Henry "Sunflower" Vestine; and how you get through a job interview with Dr. John.
Then there was the music. Fohl's new solo album, Teeth and Bones (John Fohl), is a fine country-blues summary of those experiences in ten songs, mostly originals, with a strong, hearty whiff of Ry Cooder's earliest records. During our interview, Fohl played songs from that album live and showed where the roots were in a couple of robust covers, including Robert Johnson's "Malted Milk."
It was like every other hour of my Jazz Fest weekend: I left with a lot more than I had when I came in. The only difference: I got to sit a lot closer.