New Orleans Jazz Fest: The One of a Kind Factor

Music Features New Orleans
New Orleans Jazz Fest: The One of a Kind Factor

The rain had stopped by the time Elvis Costello & the Impostors took the stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival last Thursday. The quartet’s line-up included three-fourths of the original Elvis Costello & the Attractions; the singer, drummer Pete Thomas and keyboardist Steve Nieve, who were joined by replacement bassist Davey Faragher.

The group began with a string of some of the Attractions’ best known songs: “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love & Understanding,” “Watching the Detectives,” “Mystery Dance” and “Radio, Radio.” The music was so fast and furious that it almost sounded like 1979.

It was a flourish you might have heard at any stop on the band’s spring tour of America or on its coming summer tour of Europe. But what you wouldn’t hear at any of those shows was the version of “I Cried My Last Tear” that came later in the set. Bob Andrews, the legendary keyboardist for Graham Parker & the Rumour now living in New Orleans, was behind the organ for this obscure Toussaint composition.

Also joining in were the Crescent City Horns, the late Allen Toussaint’s horn section. Costello had toured in 2006 with Toussaint and the latter’s band in the wake of the album The River in Reverse. Costello had been telling stories all evening about the gifted and beloved composer who died last November, and his obvious emotion carried over into the song.

This is the other reason we go to festivals. The first reason, of course, is the chance to see a whole lot of music in a short period of time, only having to park once. That’s the Efficiency Factor. But we also go to festivals in hopes that circumstances will produce a moment that we wouldn’t encounter on a random tour stop. That’s the One-of-a-Kind Factor.

This version of “I Cried My Last Tear,” for example, would never have happened if Costello weren’t in New Orleans, where Andrews and the Toussaint horns live and where all the memories of the bandleader’s landmark collaboration with Toussaint had been recorded. This year was the 10th anniversary of Costello’s joint appearance with Toussaint at the 2006 Jazzfest, the first one after Katrina, where they unveiled their new album.

It was the most emotionally riveting Jazzfest ever, as the musicians seemed to be willing New Orleans back to life, just by the fervent hopes embodied in their performances. Perhaps it worked, for the city is not only on the rebound 10 years later but actually flourishing in many neighborhoods with new restaurants, condos under construction and renewed life in the streets.

For the anniversary, Costello resurrected four songs from The River in Reverse: “Wonder Woman,” “Ascension Day,” “Who’s Gonna Help a Brother Get Further” and the title track. The whole show echoed the high stakes and the powerful response of that 2006 festival.

It wasn’t the only tribute to Toussaint at this year’s fest. The Allen Toussaint Band hosted a long tribute that included such guest vocalists as Dr. John, Bonnie Raitt and Cyril Neville. Especially touching were Aaron Neville’s intense revival of “Hercules” and Jonathan Batiste’s spirited take on “Working in a Coal Mine.” Even a steady rain couldn’t keep the crowd from singing along on the latter.

Bob Andrews isn’t the only Brit transplanted to New Orleans; the Pogues’ Spider Stacy has been living in New Orleans since 2010. Since arriving, he’s been playing now and then with the Lost Bayou Ramblers, one of the best young South Louisiana bands around. After all, an Irish folk group and a Cajun outfit are both acoustic string bands with fiddles and accordions. Irish tin whistles and American steel guitars met inside that overlap.

A couple hours before Costello, Stacy and the Ramblers teamed up on a mini-set of Pogues’ songs, sometimes adding Cajun-French lyrics and always adding a French-Louisiana accent to such numbers as “Dirty Old Town” and “Fairytale in New York.” What didn’t change was the reckless attack the songs received.

There were more surprises on the Cajun front. During the first weekend, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys did many of their most popular songs, but the Lafayette quintet gave them a very different sound by adding a B-3 organ and two female gospel singers. These reinforcements gave the two steps and waltzes a full-bodied thickness and African-American flavor they’d never had before.

For the second weekend Riley reconvened the Band Courtbouillon (named after a Cajun stew), a group that also includes Wayne Toups and the Pine Leaf Boys’ Wilson Savoy. All three are lead singers and instrumental virtuosos, and they sounded great. They seemed to enjoy the set immensely, but they rarely play together, because their regular bands keep them so busy.

That’s the beauty of a festival. When many different musicians are on the same site, they can play in formations that wouldn’t be possible otherwise. This is a great advantage that most festivals don’t take full advantage of. The New Orleans festival does.

Examples of this abounded over the two weekends between April 22 and May 1. Local jazz heroes Kermit Ruffins and Dr. Michael White made a rare appearance together during the festival’s tribute to Louis Armstrong. Rickie Lee Jones, another transplant to New Orleans, played a couple of her recent French songs with the Lost Bayou Ramblers.

Trombone Shorty’s older brother, trumpeter James Andrews, recruited the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis, Allen Toussaint’s bassist Chris Severin and the organ-playing leader of the Joe Krown Trio to romp through New Orleans standards as the Crescent City Allstars.

These are all fine examples of the One-of-a-Kind Factor. Unfortunately, the second weekend gave far too many examples of another festival variable: Weather Roulette. When you schedule an outdoor music event a year in advance, you never know what the weather’s going to be like, but if the event is in Louisiana there’s probably going to be some rain.

The first weekend boasted splendid weather—dry and cool—but the subsequent Thursday, Saturday and Sunday were interrupted by rain, sometimes in voluminous quantities. Saturday’s music was shut down at 5:30, 90 minutes before the scheduled end time, and such acts as Stevie Wonder, Beck, Snoop Dogg and Buddy Guy had their sets wiped out.

There was more hard rain on Sunday, but the music kept going till seven. And the One-of-a-Kind Factor was never more in evidence than in the closing concert by Bobby Lounge from McComb, Mississippi. Lounge has only performed one show per year over the past half dozen years, and that show is always at Jazzfest. It’s almost worth coming to the festival just for that.

A balding man in a white gospel robe and silver-metallic wings, Lounge takes the stage by popping out of an iron lung wheeled onto the stage by a nurse (and he was doing this long before Janelle Monae came up with a similar gambit). He sits down at the piano and starts banging the keys like a berserk Jerry Lee Lewis.

And over this rocking boogie beat, he sings and talks about the hidden side of Southern culture: all its deviants, non-conformists, bon vivants and crazies. He laughs at them as much as he celebrates them—and he’s one of the best singing comedians working today—but ultimately he revels in the sheer eccentricity of the South. He should; he’s a prime example.

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