When the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival sets up shop on the city’s fairgrounds, there’s a giant stage at each end of the oval racetrack with eight smaller stages in between. The big stages face sprawling meadows that can hold 8,000 people or more; the smaller stages have fields or tents with capacities in the hundreds. The big stages host the biggest stars, but the small stages provides the biggest surprises.
Jazzfest is often hot-and-dusty or rainy-and-muddy, but the first day of the 2011 Jazzfest enjoyed perfect weather: blue skies, temperatures of 79-81 and a refreshing breeze off Lake Pontchartrain. The day ended with a powerful one-two punch at each of the big stages. Two aging British-rock icons—Jeff Beck, then Robert Plant—were at the Acura Stage, while two young string bands—Mumford and Sons and then the Avett Brothers—were at the Gentilly Stage. Operating on the principle that you can’t be in two places at once, I saw the Mumfords and then Plant.
It’s easy to understand how Mumford and Sons became so popular so fast. Marcus Mumford has a big, personable tenor that makes the quartet’s folk-rock anthems sound like a best friend cheering you up when you’re down. Mumford and his three bandmates are young and good-looking, which doesn’t hurt in the pop business, and they bring a contagious enthusiasm to their shamelessly sentimental songs.
That sentimentality wears thin after half-a-dozen numbers, however, and the listener begins to notice how simplistic the rhythms and chord changes are. If a high-school glee club dressed in white shirts and black vests had found its home in an Irish bar in West London, it might sound—and look—a lot like Mumford and Sons. For the Jazzfest show, the quartet brought out three horn players and/or a fiddler on certain numbers, and that helped flesh out a sometimes thin sound. Their big single, “Little Lion Man,” became a saloon sing-along (if a saloon could hold 8,000 sunburned people) that was hard to resist, but after an hour I was ready to move on.
I stopped by the tiny Fais Do Do Stage to hear Justin Townes Earle, who is just as young and handsome as Marcus Mumford and uses a similar string-band format. Bearing the burden of having been named after two legendary songwriters (his father Steve Earle and his father’s mentor Townes Van Zandt), Justin somehow lived up to it, even though he was facing a crowd of 200 rather than the Mumfords’ thousands.
Dressed in a white linen suit, a hat to match and a peppermint-striped shirt, the tall, lanky singer was flanked by acoustic bassist Bryn Davies and fiddler Josh Henley. But there was little sentimentality in this set; these were songs about bitter romantic breakups, the temptations of suicide and troubled families, even if they were often set to seductively languorous country-swing. Henley reinforced the skipping, lighthearted rhythms with his fiddle solos, while Davies pulled the lyrics earthward with her bass lines. “Mama’s Eyes” may be the best song ever written about the simultaneous attachments and conflicts between parents and children. Here was a string-band set that never grew tiresome.
Walking around the sandy racetrack, I arrived at the Acura Stage just in time for Robert Plant & the Band of Joy to launch into a total transformation of Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog.” It began with a low, dirty guitar rumble from guitarist Buddy Miller and ended with Plant and Patty Griffin trying to out-wail each other with bended notes. It wasn’t ‘70s rock and it wasn’t ‘90s Americana but rather some uncharted territory in between.
As good as Plant’s record and tour with Alison Krauss was, this is much better. Plant seems a whole lot more comfortable with the hillbilly side of American music now, and he has put his musical fortunes in Miller’s capable hands as bandleader. Darrell Scott on banjo, mandolin, pedal steel and acoustic guitar is the perfect foil for Miller; Patty Griffin is almost as extraordinary a singer as Krauss, and the Nashville rhythm section of bassist Byron House and drummer Marco Giovanni can do Led Zep as convincingly as they do Porter Wagoner (Scott sang Wagoner’s “A Satisfied Mind”). The band has been on the road for months now, and the chemistry is producing a heady froth.
Richard Thompson’s “House of Cards,” for example, began with Miller churning up a cloud of noise that only gradually cohered into a riff. That was soon countered by Scott’s chirpy mandolin and by the British-folk corner of Plant’s capacious voice. He built the story, then silenced the rest of the band for an unaccompanied mandolin/drum break. The quiet was shattered by Miller’s ferocious solo, which lit a fire under Plant, who responded by howling the final verse as if he could blow down the house of cards with his own voice. Plant had presented himself with the challenge of an exceptional band, but he rose to it—twirling his mic stand, shaking his red corkscrew locks and singing as well as he has in his long career.
But Plant wasn’t the only person refashioning roots music for a new age. Earlier in the day, bluesman John Mooney put on a show that was almost as good. Before a much smaller crowd in the Blues Tent, Mooney sat in a chair and carved out slide-guitar licks as if he was the personal disciple of Son House. In fact, he was. Mooney had studied with the aging Mississippi Delta legend when both were living in Rochester, New York, but Mooney had then moved to New Orleans, where he added the city’s second-line rhythms to the mix.
The bald-domed, silver-goateed singer added musicians one by one during his set, and before long he was surrounded by congas, trap drums, a B-3 organ and a tuba. When he played slide guitar and hollered out Bessie Smith’s “In the House Blues,” you could hear the echoes of Son House, the street-parade beats of New Orleans and the one-of-a-kind personality of Mooney himself. It was a reminder that the best music at Jazzfest doesn’t always happen on the biggest stages.