Hola from NoLa: Jazzfest Musings

NEW ORLEANS - Random raves, notes and observations from the Jazz and Heritage Festival's second and final weekend:

The big story here was the return of the Neville Brothers, this city's first family of funk. They'd served as Jazzfest's closing headliners for more than a dozen years before Hurricane Katrina hit; since then, they hadn't performed together in the city at all, causing much consternation and controversy. So much so that a columnist for the Times-Picayune was compelled to write a column on Sunday in which he urged locals not to protest the Nevilles' headlining performance.

No worries. Jazzfest producer Quint Davis introduced the brothers from the stage by calling their return "a family reunion" - meaning the New Orleans family, which splintered following the hurricane. Davis even appeared to get choked up as he brought the brothers out one by one - Charles first, then Cyril, Aaron and Art.

The Nevilles themselves only marginally addressed the symbolism of the set, with Art declaring, "Another family coming back together. We ain't never left New Orleans, y'all." Mostly, they let the music carry the day, performing songs with a decidedly local flavor, from "Fiyo on the Bayou" to "Meet de Boys on the Battlefront," a funky song about Mardi Gras Indians during which the Nevilles were joined on stage by Tchoupitoulas Indians covered in colorful, ornate feathered suits. A hard-driving cover of Professor Longhair's defining New Orleans piano anthem, "Tipitina," was a highlight, all dirty, snarling funk and swagger.

The Nevilles also threw a bit of salsa into their musical gumbo and also turned to Sam Cooke for a slice of cleansing soul, with Aaron Neville singing "A Change Is Gonna Come," which was a showcase for his airy, ethereal voice. How does something so tender, sweet and delicate come out of somebody so ... hulking? (Seriously - his biceps are the size of my head.) Neville ended the stirring performance by saying, "I'm coming home." But he didn't have to. He was already there.

Three songs heard with great frequency around the New Orleans Fairgrounds over the weekend: Gospel standard "When the Saints Go Marching In," Randy Newman's newly relevant storm-of-the-century ballad "Louisiana 1927" and Ben E. King's classic soul song, "Stand By Me."

The latter tune actually provided what was surely one of the most surreal mash-up moments in history: If you happened to be walking between the gospel tent and the heritage stage right around 4 p.m. on Saturday, you could hear Aaron Neville performing a hymnal version of "Stand By Me" at the same time as the Pinstripe Brass Band was blasting through its own boisterous take on the tune. Their approaches could not have been any more different: One ruminative and spiritual, the other rambunctious and swaggering. Only in New Orleans.

(More after the jump.)

Most unlikely T-shirt sighting of the weekend: A guy in a Joy Division shirt. He must've been lost. I was also thrown off a little bit when I saw the White Cloud Hunters Mardi Gras Indians on stage. Amidst the explosion of bright orange feathers and frills, there was a tambourine player wearing ... a New York Yankees jersey with Alex Rodriguez's No. 13 on the back.

Ruthie Foster was a revelation. Wandered into the blues tent shortly before the Texas singer-guitarist led her all-female band through a cleansing, deeply soulful cover of the Lucinda Williams song, "Fruits of my Labor," and I was pretty well blown away by Foster's vocals. They were the perfect combination of emotion, power and control, with some stunning flourishes, such as her descending vocal runs.

On a subsequent song, Foster sustained a vocal note for what seemed, in real time, like three minutes - a crowd-stirring, tent-top-lifting, jaw-dropping, lung-emptying, hair-raising, wow-she's-still-holding-it? moment. Foster blended the ache and weariness of a blues singer with the fiery grit and optimism of a gospel vocalist, and if you just can't get by without a vis-a-vis, I'll offer early-era Aretha as a data point. Yes, she's that good. If you'd heard Foster drilling down to the emotional core of the blues stomp, "Death Came A Knockin' (Travelin' Shoes)," you'd understand.

Do NoLa's brass bands and D.C.'s go-go bands come from the same branch of the musical tree? I wondered about that while watching the Rebirth Brass Band perform a memorably wild set on the Congo Square stage. Like go-go, brass-band music needs to be experienced live to be fully appreciated, but the music doesn't travel particularly well - in large measure because the bands are generally so big. (Rebirth had more than two dozen people on stage, though hardly all of them were musicians.) There's also just nothing like seeing the music performed in its natural environs.

Like their go-go counterparts, the brass bands here play rambunctious, freewheeling, wholly infectious party music that's anchored by a homespun rhythm - in this case, second-line marching-band beats. It's purposefully imperfect art, as with a set I saw by the Pinstripe Brass Band, which performed frisky, swaggering songs that paid tribute to the New Orleans way of life and that always sounded as if they were on the verge of becoming completely unspooled.

Trumpet player runs out of breath in the middle of a melody? No worries. You might not even miss it amid the cacophony, anyway. The vocals tend to be call-and-response chants, and the covers frequently had a D.C. connection: The brass bands over the weekend had a particular affinity for Marvin Gaye songs, even though it wasn't always easy to tell that they were Marvin Gaye songs. When I saw the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, for instance, it took me a while to realize that they'd turned "What's Going On" into a sinewy funk song with a spoken-word vocal. And Rebirth began a version of "Let's Get It On" with the sousaphone blasting out the melody.

One of the big draws on Sunday was the Mahalia Jackson tribute in the gospel tent, where Raychel Richard, Marva Wright and Irma Thomas came to sing Jackson's praises - and, yes, God's, too. Jackson was yet another of this city's great musical products, a New Orleans native who merely went on to become the undisputed queen of gospel.

It's so hard to measure up to her that Thomas, a terrific R&B vocalist who is widely regarded as the first lady of New Orleans soul, noted that she can't quite sing at Jackson's level. Nobody can, she said: "Marva, Raychel and I, we're just passing it on to you the way we feel it." And then Thomas sang "Take My Hand, Precious Lord," the song Jackson used to perform at civil rights rallies at Martin Luther King Jr.'s request. Thomas knocked it out of the Fairgrounds with a powerhouse vocal (so much emoting! so many soaring runs!) that brought the seated crowd to its feet and even caused more than a few people in the audience to cry.

At the end of the tribute (during which Thomas, Wright and Richard never performed together, sadly), Thomas sang one of Jackson's signature songs, "How I Got Over." But she needed help - and not the divine type. Noting that the song is "a bit wordy," Thomas admitted that she'd brought a lyric sheet onto the stage. "There's no shame in my game," she said. And anyway, she added: "The words are important when you're singing gospel."

Thomas usually sings secular music, of course, but she explained on stage that she's also a gospel singer at heart, saying: "Yes I sing my rhythm and blues, but it was God that gave me my voice." And when she's not performing her soul songs somewhere, she said, she can be found every Sunday "at 2216 Third Street" here - the address of First African Baptist Church.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  May 5, 2008; 12:33 PM ET Jazzfest
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Thanks for the Jazz Fest report. Nice to get a little reminder of home and the greater NOLA family...

Posted by: NOLA Ex-Pat in DC | May 5, 2008 2:39 PM

Geoff Himes had a nice article in the April 27 New York Times on the various artists who are all covering (and/or adding their own changes to) Randy Newman's "Louisiana 1927"

Posted by: curm | May 5, 2008 3:03 PM

Highlight for me was The Roots. They have the same sort of energy and live feel of the brass bands. Also, they did an incredible cover of Dylan's Master of War.

Posted by: DC Ex-Pat in NOLA | May 5, 2008 3:06 PM

Quint Davis looks like Jerry Springer

Posted by: Anonymous | May 5, 2008 6:34 PM

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