Tag Archives: New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

New Orleans notes

The "Wild Man" of the Young Seminole Hunters, Mardi Gras Indians. JazzFest 2014. Photo by Clea Simon.

The “Wild Man” of the Young Seminole Hunters, Mardi Gras Indians. JazzFest 2014. Photo by Clea Simon.

Debbie Davis — singer-songwriter with the trio the Gloryoskis! — was telling the crowd at the Lagniappe Stage about the trio’s club show that night at , at 9 p.m. “It’s a real 9,” she said. “Not a Rebirth 9… which is 11:30, as you know.” That got a good laugh from the crowd.

It’s was the kind of offhand comment that visitors to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival learn to savor. On the surface, the music of the Gloryoskis! and the Rebirth Brass Band have nothing to do with each other: a trio of three white female singer songwriters and an African-American brass band straight outta the hood. But that’s the New Orleans music scene — at least as I’ve experienced it over the years: non-sectarian, a mutual appreciation society that crosses genre, class, generations, ethnicities. Of course the Gloryoskis! know about Rebirth — everyone in New Orleans knows about Rebirth. They’re famous. As is their weekly residency at the Maple Leaf.  And if you make a joke about them going on late, everyone gets it.

Or course, there’s a downside to community spirit. You’ll be sitting in the festival’s trad jazz tent, awaiting the arrival of a singer whose name you only vaguely remember, and all you can think is the worst: “Sub-par standards with lots of innuendo. Local fave.” Or maybe some youngster has a famous surname: “Talentless grandson of. . . . ”

The fact is, New Orleans is both the most local and the most cosmopolitan of festivals. Today, Saturday, you had a choice between Orange Kellin’s New Orleans Deluxe Orchestra, Wayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, the Original Pinettes Brass Band (“the only all-female brass band in the world!”). . . .  and Bruce Springsteen. All playing concurrently. And this year the international focus is Brazill — there’s a Brazil pavilion, and regular appearances by the Os Negoes of Bahia Brazil 30-piece samba crew. There is, of course, a strong French-Cajun tradition in Louisiana music, which is probably one reason the Belgian singer-songwriter Helen Gillet (one of the Gloryoskis! trio) feels so at home here, singing songs in French, accompanying herself with cello and loops. She moved here 12 years ago.

The Festival — now celebrating its 45th anniversary — takes place on 11 stages (plus an interview stage, and supplemental crafts fair and innumerable food booths) at the Fair Grounds race course. The big draws for aficionados are the local acts — some of whom never tour north of Route 10, like Al “Carnival Time” Johnson or Frankie (“Sea Cruise”) Ford, or the local Mardi Gras Indians, trad jazz bands, Cajun and zydeco acts. But, of course, there are bands here of international import, like Springsteen or, last weekend, Phish. The big-name draws always threaten to tilt the festival and to turn the 50 or so other artists performing on any given day into ostensible opening acts.

Springsteen certainly was the big draw today, but some veteran festival goers were not impressed. Settling in the shade of an open tent to enjoy a quick snack (crawfish bisque and trout baquet — yum!) my wife and I found a couple of dining companions (Louisiana natives) who were unequivocal.

“I’m sorry, what have you done for me lately, Bruce!,” said one woman who didn’t want to hear the boss “screaming” at her for nearly three hours. Instead she was going for Al Jarreau. Well, okay. A lover man, a 60-minute man, not a 2-hour-and-45-minute man wailing about the ghost of Tom Joad.

Well, tomorrow she’ll have a choice of John Fogerty, Trombone Shorty, and Arcade Fire, among dozens of others. Me, I think I’ll have to check out Bobby Lounge, the Stooges Brass Band and the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church Mass Choir in the Gospel Tent. And, of course, Aaron Neville. Hey, maybe I’ll run into the Al Jarreau fan at that one.





The rest of our Fest: New Orleans after thoughts

The band is Tuba Skinny, but the tuba player is Todd Burdick. Photo by Jean Hangarter.

The band is Tuba Skinny, but the tuba player is Todd Burdick. Photo by Jean Hangarter.

Okay, the weather in Somerville is finally catching up with what it was in New Orleans two weeks ago.  But I still want to hang on to those memories of New Orleans and the 44th annual Jazz & Heritage Festival, especially of bands we were discovering for the first time.

The first was Natalie Mae and Her Unturned Tricks. Since the Fest is held at the Fair Grounds Race Course and Ms. Mae and her crew were performing in the paddock area (on the Lagniappe Stage), let’s call this a name bet. It was also one of the best places to seek shelter in the first of Sunday’s several downpours.

She came out and sang a country-gospel tune — high and lonesome with plenty of Appalachia twang, accompanied by just banjo and bodhran. Then she said, “We’ve got some Unturned Tricks coming up for you now.” That would be: tenor sax, trombone, trumpet, guitar, fiddle, female backup singer, keyboards, bass, drums. In short order they moved through a country two-step, country-swing, rockabilly, a John Hiatt cover, and all-out rock and roll.  The variety of the arrangements, the playing (especially Michael Lentz’s big, resonant hollow-bodied Gibson), and Mae’s original songwriting all grabbed me. And that voice. By the time she’d turned the corner for the out-chorus of her own rockabilly “Something to Me” and poured on the gas, she’d left the mountains for the big city.

We’re bludgeoned with cooking shows these days, but I have to admit that some of the most moving performances I’ve seen at Jazz Fest have been at the Food Heritage Stage in the grandstand. I’ll never forget one of my first Fests, where neighborhood chef James Batiste told the story of his life as he made oyster pie. On top of the insider chef confessions (“I can make pie crust — I just can’t make a pie crust that I like”) was the epic story (replete with Oedipal struggle) of the journey to owning his own restaurant.

On Sunday, with the rain still coming down, we watched Rebecca Wilcomb, chef de cuisine of Donald Link’s Herbsaint restaurant, make crawfish & sausage stuffed eggplant. She’d worked at both Harvest and Oleana in Cambridge before moving down to New Orleans in 2008. She talked about her Italian heritage and about food in Louisiana being about community, and about attending her first crawfish boil: “Crawfish is more than just a little critter.” And that she had always thought “Cajun food was hot. It’s not. It’s seasoned and balanced.”

Then it was back into the paddock to catch the end of Tuba Skinny’s set. Tuba Skinny, though the name is adapted from the late Anthony “Tuba Fats” Lacen, is not a person, but a band. Formed in 2009, they were first recommended to me by my friend Daisy Novoa after one of her visits to Nola, but this was my first hearing of them. Despite the name, they were no joke. Looking funky and twentysometing, they played a serious selection of rags, early jazz, Depression-era ditties, and blues, arranged with sharp instrumentation and idiomatic solo breaks. The reed players mixed up alto and tenor with clarinet, and there was also banjo, tuba, trombone, washboard, and a singer who played bass drum. But maybe most impressive was Shaye Cohn on cornet. Every break she took rang with exuberance and authority, and she seems to play a leadership role — counting off the tunes, calling the breaks, and even writing an original tune on one of the CDs we bought from the band. She also seems to the manner born: granddaughter of saxophone great Al Cohen, and daughter of distinguished guitarist Joe Cohn.

As the rain cleared for a minute, there was pianist Ed Volker, formerly of the Radiators, playing acoustic piano accompanied by baritone sax and drums, and singing radically re-arranged versions of “Subterranean Homesick Blues,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “Big Chief,” often slowed way down and sometimes with new lyrics (“Don’t follow leaders/watch the Funky Meters”).

What haven’t I mentioned from that weekend? A DJ trio of Native Americans (from Ottawa) tearing it up and getting the crowd screaming with their “pow wow step.” Eddie Palmieri’s Salsa Orchestra floating on one of his deathless son-montuno grooves. Joshua Redman admitting from the stage of the Jazz Tent that although this was one of the few jazz events that his family wanted to join him for, they were probably “out there looking for food” rather than watching him play.

Beyond the festival was a marching band face-off outside Tipitina’s for their annual Instruments A Comin’ Fundraiser, more Tuba Skinny on Royal Street, more Frenchman Street with Donald Harrison and Freequinox at the Blue Nile and the Young Fellas Brass Band down the block at Vaso.  And I can’t forget our visit to the slowly recuperating Lower Ninth Ward and Ronald W. Lewis’s backyard-shed Mardi Gras Indian museum, the House of Dance & Feathers. His collection includes a trumpet from his nephew Shamarr Allen and a Tz’ dakah box for donations, courtesy of his friends in the Krewe du Jieux. It was a small room, packed with countless artifacts and several full Indian suits, books, and photos. We were invited to stay as long as we liked and ask questions. “Like I say,” Lewis reminded us, “everything has a story.”