What was so great about this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival? For one thing, OutKast wasn't there.
Nothing against Big Boi and Andre 3000. I'm actually quite looking forward to seeing the reunited '90s rap duo at the Firefly Music Festival next month in Dover, Delaware.
But OutKast are not just playing Firefly: They're playing everywhere. From Coachella to Lollapalooza, 40 festival dates in total, a ubiquitous example of how it's become increasingly difficult to tell one festival from the next.
Jazz Fest doesn't have to try to be different. It comes naturally. Sure, the Louisiana festival, which takes place every year over seven days on the last weekend in April and first in May at the Fair Grounds Race Course on Gentilly Boulevard, has its share of big names.
For starters, there was a two-and-a-half hour triumphant-as-usual set from Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, who were making their way across the South on the High Hopes tour that plays Hersheypark Stadium next Wednesday and will presumably eventually wind its way to Philadelphia.
It was Springsteen's third Jazz Fest appearance since he played the Fest in 2006 on the Seeger Sessions tour the year after Hurricane Katrina, at a time when the recovery of The City That Care Forgot felt very much in the balance. On Saturday, he referred to that day as "one of the highlights of my performing life," and as he did then, he included both his cover of Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," with a pointed verse directed at then-President George W. Bush, and hymn-like hopeful reading of "When The Saints Go Marching In" in his set.
Drawing out the gospel influence in songs like the Sessions album's "O Mary Don't You Weep" and Wrecking Ball's "Shackled & Drawn," Springsteen also brought on New Orleanian Rickie Lee Jones to sing backup vocals on several songs, and was joined by John Fogerty for "Green River and Proud Mary" as part of this hour long enore.
Oh yeah, as has been widely reported, he also stopped in the middle of the show and drank a member of the crowd's beer, and also showed up later that night and sang "Right Place, Wrong Time" to kick off a four-hour tribute to Dr. John at the Saenger Theatre that also featured Mavis Staples, Irma Thomas and many others.
Beside The Boss, I caught serval addtional out of towners on the sceond weekend, including Arcade Fire, Alabama Shakes, Charles Bradley, Lyle Lovett, Bobby Womack, Robert Earl Keen, Frankie Beverly & Maze, Alejandro Escovedo & the Sensitive Boys and Fogerty again, who reprised "Proud Mary" with a crowd of locals that included zydeco washboard player Rockin' Dopsie Jr. and pianist Allen Toussaint, who opened for Springsteen (and brought on Jimmy Buffett the sing a cover of recently deceased Louisianan Jesse Winchester's "Wave Bye Bye") the day before.
And besides those acts I actually laid eyes on, there were plenty of other marquee attractions to be found on 12 different stages over the course of the seven day fest, including Vampire Weekend, Eric Clapton, Christina Aguilera, Phish, Laura Mvula, Carlos Santana, Robin Thicke, Robert Plant, Solange, Public Enemy and the Avett Brothers.
But while name brand acts may be the lure, what really hooks you, and what's kept me coming back on a bi-annual basis, has little to do with the out of towners. On Sunday, Win Butler of the Arcade Fire, who would finish their afternoon set by dancing a Second Line into the crowd behind local all-female hornblowers The Original Pinettes Brass Band, got it right in introducing "The Suburbs."
"This is one of the last places in America that's its own place," said Butler, wearing a Public Enemy baseball jersey, who grew up outside Houston. "This song is for the rest of us."
Congo Nation "Flag Boy," performing with Donald Harrison Jr.
Donald Harrison Jr., feathered but with no headgear.
At Jazz Fest - which is not really a jazz festival, though it did feature headliners like Pharoah Sanders, Terence Blanchard, Chick Corea, Al Jarreau and Delfeayo Marsalis, as well as a stage devoted to trad ragtime and Dixieland jazz - New Orleans expresses that individuality in innumerable ways.
Parading down the Fair Grounds.
Most visibly, there are the gloriously feathered Mardi Gras Indians, like the Flag Boy pictured above. Along with James Brown trombonist Fred Wesley, he was an onstage guest of Donald Harrison Jr., the sax man, band leader and Big Chief of the Congo Nation, the single figure who probably best embodies both the traditional and modern aspects of living, breathing New Orleans jazz culture.
Creepy Brazilian mask.
Os Negoes of Bahia-Brazil.
Indian krewes from the city's African American neighborhoods regularly parade through the Fair Grounds, and this year, they were frequently joined by South American visitors from Brazil, this year's guests at the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, who brought along the oversized bonecos gigantes papier-mache masks even cooler than the Arcade Fire's.
There is also the New Orleans brass band tradition, which bubbled over with cacophonous energy as tasty as the bowl of Andouille, Quail and Pheasant gumbo from Prejean's restaurant in Lafayette which won my own personal competition for the most delicious fairground food.
Soul Rebels with Big Freedia.
On the Jazz & Heritage stage, up and coming outfits like the High Steppers, Pinstripe, and Forgotten Souls Brass Bands, held forth. On the bigger Congo Square stage, I was pulled in by the Soul Rebels version of Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake's "Holy Grail," a not uncommon hip hop cover coming from younger generation of brass players. I then stuck around as the band, who are playing World Cafe Live on June 5, brought out Big Freedia, the reality TV star and Queen Diva of New Orleans hip-hop bounce music.
The Soul Rebels were not the only horn band mixing in hip-hop. On Sunday night, the 12 member of the Hot 8 Brass Band - due at the Boot & Saddle October 17 - played their weekly residency at the den at the Howlin Wolf. Covers of Marvin Gaye and, yes, OutKast, were given the raucous swinging, brass band treatment. Meanwhile, next door in the Howlin' Wolf's larger room, genre stalwarts ReBirth Brass Band were celebrating the release of their new album, Move Your Body.
Spencer Taylor & the Highway QCs.
Ever since I first came to Jazz Fest in the early '90s, I've vowed to spend more time in the Gospel Tent, the gathering place for a higher concentration of righteous Southern spiritual music than anyplace else I've ever been. A couple of years back i spent almost as much time there as I felt necessary, after the heavens opened up on a Friday afternoon and sent me and many other lost souls to scurrying to find dry land.
This year, there was no rain, which blessedly kept the Fair Grounds infield from smelling like manure. But I still spent as much time as I could bearing witness to powerhouse vocalists singing the praises of the Lord. Most were small groups with bass-drums-guitar and Hammond organ backing four to six singers who provided unified support to one testifying lead.
Donnie Bolden & the Spirit of Elijah.
The best of the bunch was Spencer Taylor & the Highway QCs, the Chicago combo of longstanding who once counted Sam Cooke, Lou Rawls and Johnnie Taylor among their members. Other standouts that I heard for the first time, and are very much worthy of further investigation included Jermaine Hawkins & the Harvey Spirituals, Donnie Bolden Jr. & the Spirit of Elijah, the Zion Harmonizers, and Pastor Terry Gullage and the Greater Mount Calvary Voices of Redemption.
Another place I'm fond of hanging out at Jazz Fest is the Fais Do Do stage, where Cajun, zydeco, swamp-pop, country and bluegrass acts are found.
Lil Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers.
The list of winners I ran across this year leads off with Lil Nathan & the Zydeco Big Timers, the dance band led by the son of veteran squeeze box player Nathan Williams. Interestingly, the youngsters were more traditional minded than their elders Rosie Ledet & the Zydeco Playboys, who infused jumping bean music with funk. Also standing out were Greensky Bluegrass, Robert Earl Keen Jr. and the swamp-pop summit of old timers Warren Storm, Willie Tee and T.K. Hulin.
Alejandro Escovedo & the Sensitive Boys.
What else? Alejandro Escovedo also played the Fais Do Do, but he really shone at a small club show at the House of Blues on Saturday night, far and away the most balls-out rock and roll I saw all weekend.
Tyrone Pollard of Brother Tyrone & the Mindbenders proved himself to be an all-embracing Southern soul man, with a sorrowful version of George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today." Punk rock Renaissance man Jon Langford was in New Orleans, without an official Jazz Fest gig, but played solo acoustic at a show of his own music-connected art at the LeMieux Gallery.
New Orleans Nightcrawlers.
The New Orleans Nightcrawlers laid down a seductively subtle Latin jazz groove on Thursday afternoon on the Jazz and Heritage stage. I spent a memorable hour watching a Portland Trail Blazers-Houston Rockets game in Treme while a DJ spun old school hip-hop at Kermit's Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge, the neighborhood bar long owned by New Orleans R & B legend Ernie "Mother In Law" K-Doe that has been purchased by trumpeter Kermit Ruffins (who has given up his longtime Thursday night gig at Vaughan's in the Bywater to play at his own bar).
And my most out of the out of the blue discovery was the white female performance-art rapper Boyfriend at Siberia, where she was opening for R & B band King James & his Special Men. Her clever wordplay and sharply incisive way with dirty-minded double entendres revealed her to be considerably more interesting than, say, fellow underdressed competitors like Iggy Azalea.
James Andrews & the New Orleans All-Stars.
Hometown folk heroes Hurray For The Raff did themselves proud, headlining an intimate gig at the First Presbyterian Church, opening a club show for Charles Bradley and commanding a main stage crowd on Friday afternoon with songs from their breakthrough Small Town Heroes album. They play the Non-Comm convention at the World Cafe Live next week and return to the Xponential Festival in Camden in July.
Blodie's Jazz Jam.
An army of saxophonists blew boisterously in the WWOZ Jazz Tent during Blodie's Jazz Jam on Sunday, minutes after James Andrews (whose younger brother Troy goes by the name Trombone Shorty) threw a wild party with his band of New Orleans All-Stars.
Jazz Fest is that it ends every day at 7 p.m. This gives you time to hurry back to the hotel and eat a real meal, after stuffing yourself on crawfish and cochon de lait po' boys, or perhaps just buying vegetables from produce vendor Mr. Okra, who parks his truck on the grounds near the Jazz & Heritage stage and ascribes to the customer service philosophy: "Be nice or leave!"
Pascal's Manale oysters.
I took advantage of that window to check out the excellent new-to-me NOLA Brewing craft beer outpost and eat at trendy new school eateries Root, MiLa and Dijon. I wasn't wild about the praline bacon at Elizabeth's - too sweet - but the shrimp and grits at La Petite Grocery were awesome. I also ate at one fab old school establishment, Pascal's Manale, where I'm hoping it wasn't the bodacious oysters above that made me sick upon returning to PhiladelphiaNew Orleans nourishes the soul, but it can also be hard on the stomach.
Elizabeth's, in the Bywater.
Since Katrina, New Orleans is a changing, still troubled city. Riding bikes along the Mississppi River in either direction from the French Quarter, you can't help but notice new hipster-friendly shops and restaurants in neighborhoods like the Bywater (also known as the Upper Ninth Ward) and along Magazine Street. Just as unavoidable as the stories of horrific violence in the city's poorest black neighborhoods in the pages of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
(The paper, which did a rock solid job of covering Jazz Fest, currently publishes as a broadsheet three days a week, and as a tabloid called TP Street three days a week. On Saturdays, you have no choice but to go digital. Local wags refer to it as the Sometimes Picayune.)
Marva Wright, Mahalia Jackson and Al Hirt.
On Sunday, Trombone Shorty & his band Orleans Avenue closed out the Fest on the Fair Grounds biggest stage, taking over the duties formely handled by the Neville Brothers for the second year in a row.
An excellent choice. In New Orleans, the past is alive all around you, with every version of "St. James Infirmary" or "Iko Iko" you hear. See the spirits of Marva Wright, Mahalia Jackson and Al Hirt taking shape above.
But the Fest is also seriously in need of new blood, and new sounding bands, like Canadian electronic traditionalists A Tribe Called Red, who held down a second weekend slot.
The 28 year old Shorty could still use some work on his songwriting chops. But he and his funk-rock crew have abundant musical swagger. And Shorty himself has been playing Jazz Fest since he was 5 - that's how he got his nickname - and has grown up as an almost made-to-order rising star, raised to carry forward the Crescent City traditions embedded in his musical DNA.
On Sunday, after he was introduced by Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Shorty proved to be the charismatic man for the job, He put on a crowd pleasing show that brought the party to close while taking every opportunity to talk up the city of New Orleans, just as nearly every performer before him had, all weekend long.
I took all the above photos, except for the one that's marked otherwise. To see more, go to Instagram.com/delucadan.
Check out Springsteen and Fogerty doing "Green River" below.
Previously: BC Camplight, making good across the pond Follow In The Mix on Twitter