The 44th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a few weeks past and my rear view reflections only seem to sweeten the experience. This Jazz Fest, my 10th overall, is best summarized by an exchange between two Festers NOLA bound from NYC by train, one a dear friend, composer and 3-timer, the other a vet from a krewe known for their affection for Fezs (yeah, you heard that right).
“Hope to see you next year”….
“You will, and every year after that until I die.”
What Rolling Stone calls the “greatest music event on the planet” inspires such pure devotion. 60+ acts a day, 12 stages and tents, 7 days (no repeats, Coachella, you listening ACL?). Most of my time these days is in the pit or hustling from one stage to the next, trying to burn more calories than I eat while keeping up with artists and bands older and younger than I am (not in my 40s anymore).
Fest photographers do not get to enjoy whole sets. Far from it. With 3 and outs for most big names, as well as other random acts, and much ground to cover, the feast becomes a mountain of nibbles (but you still walk away stuffed). The upside is hitting the last few songs when energy is at its highest and moments most prime. As NPR took note recently, Fest photogs have our own culture. Some are gamers who rarely interact, usually on real time deadline, others (like myself), rabid enthusiasts who let it show. We all keep coming back to the same well.
This year brought the elements. Downpours, muddy slop, wind, epically beautiful skies and a few cool days. While the BNAs didn’t draw me like other years, it’s not about them anyway. At the end of it, I still found myself pulled to the New Orleans acts that are the essence of the Fest. Anders Osborne, Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, Galactic, Bonerama, Tab Benoit, Trombone Shorty and so many others. Year after year. It’s just gravity.
WEEKEND 1 HIGHLIGHTS
Day 1 was not shabby, but a little soggy. The Jazz Fest crew worked hard over night to throw sand and boards over wet areas of the field from a Wednesday storm that brought tornado warnings to the north. Gentilly alone featured the Carribean funk antics of Flow Tribe, Jamaal Batiste pumping up the family tradition, everyone shaking their brass with the Soul Rebels, Anders Osborne with Black Crowe and North Mississippi Allstar Luther Dickinson slinging it out, Gary Clark, Jr.’s thunderous return and Seattle alt-rootsers Band of Horses. While I missed Dr. John’s new Nite Trippers band at Acura, I did catch some of John Mayer and can say I dug him without shame. Joshua Redman’s quartet with Terence Blanchard drummer Kendrick Scott in the Jazz Tent was exquisite. George Porter, Jr. and his Runnin’ Pardners kicked it up good at Congo, where George Benson is still a crowd favorite. Missed Sonny Landreth in the Blues Tent, but caught him at the Maple Leaf with Johnny Vidacovich and GPJ the night before. The sacred steel of the Campbell Brothers was a hands raising knockout. Even squeezed in a taste of NOLA’s resident troubadour Paul Sanchez and a road show that keeps on rolling and growing. With more of me to go around, I could have checked out Corey Ledet, then Terrance Simien at Fais Do-Do, Los Po-Boy Citos at Jazz & Heritage and the under the radar and overly chopped New Orleans Guitar Quartet, another quasi incarnation of the legendary Twangorama and Woodenhead. No such a thing as a bad day at the Fest and we were off to a fine start.
Day 2 brought drier, warmer conditions. Most of my time was around the Gentilly and Acura Stages, as well as covering other areas for the Jazz Fest Foundation’s Archive. There was good reason to be anchored around Gentilly. The inimitable songster/stringer Alex McMurray, A Tribe Called Red’s uniquely North American EDM spin, the unmistakable thrills of Bonerama, the philthy double bass attack of Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk and the howling blues union of Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite. Yeah, that’s solid. The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars lit up the Acura Stage (with Michael Doucet now taking the fiddle role), setting the table for the always nattily attired Allen Toussaint and closer Billy Joel pushing back the weather demons of 2008 (leave it to Quint Davis to schedule these piano men/songwriters back-to-back). While I missed out on shooting the headliner, there was a good buzz about Joel’s hit laden set and only scheduled performance of the year (my consolation was catching him behind the keys for a stealth sit in at the Carousel Bar mid-week). Managed to sprinkle in the zydepunk of the Lost Bayou Ramblers at Fais Do-Do and Jon Cleary holding court in the Blues Tent with his Diabolical Fandangos. Andrew Bird had every gal swooning at the Fais Do-Do rail. My clone would have worked in Jason Marsalis’ sticks and salsa legend Eddie Palmieri in the Jazz Tent, Jill Scott at Congo Square and the Sidney Bechet Tribute at Economy Hall. Let’s just say FOMS are a high class problem.
The forecast was ominous for days. Definite weather anxiety. Keeping the gear dry, slogging through the mud to hit my stages. While it is was raining pretty steady throughout the AM, we seemed to get a break and rain stayed away for a good part of the afternoon. Half an eye was glued to iPhone weather maps, and all signs pointed to a major hose down before the day was through. I stayed Acura and Gentilly heavy, but bounced all over the Fair Grounds from start to finish. This was one day when there was truly too much of a good thing. Couldn’t miss the super horns of the Midnite Disturbers and I was on a mission to shoot 87-year old B.B. King in what could be his last Fest appearance. The Rads + Papa John arrangement of Raw Oyster Cult delivered as the rain abated. Khris Royal & Dark Matter took their brand of NOLA jazz funk to the Gentilly Stage. C.J. Chenier’s foot stomping accordion and zydeco lineage were matched by an even bigger smile. Dropped in for a few minutes for “King of Treme” Shannon Powell working the skins with his quintet in the Jazz Tent, then jumped over to Blues for Luther Kent & Trickbag just when guitarist Jonathon Boogie Long was shredding the place with his ES-335. The Nevilles minus Aaron were fresher than recent Neville Brothers performances (which seemed to be running on fumes), at least from the small bit I heard. I am a big fan of Baton Rouge songwriter Kristin Diable, who brought her full band, The City, to the Lagniappe Stage. The tex-mexaltation of Calexico back at Gentilly was surprisingly fun. Anyone who has heard the collection of the best horns in one place either side of the Mississippi that is the Midnite Disturbers knows they literally wear their musical roots on stage and are ground zero for an only at Jazz Fest experience. Worked back for a taste of Dianne Reeves in the Jazz Tent. Her nuanced, soulful and spiritual vocals were gorgeous and left quite an impression on many first weekenders. By this time, skies were darkening and DMB’s start time was minutes away. When Matthews took the stage, molecules were thick with moisture. DMB got through most of the opener (“Seven”) before the drops multiplied. I knew what was coming. A few minutes into “Still Water” (ironic) the valves fully opened and torrents unleashed. I bagged up my gear and hightailed it to find refuge between acts in the Jazz Tent. Those photogs that did stick around captured some pretty dramatic and waterlogged shots of what turned out to be an abbreviated set because of weather. With the gear secured, I caught up with the Mediterranean guitars of the Gypsy Kings at Gentilly, then turned around for another lap to make sure I caught Lucille’s master in the Blues Tent. All these years, I had never shot B.B. King and poignancy hung in the air. I was positioned dead center at his feet and we were all able to shoot for about 30 minutes. What I didn’t expect was to capture 87 years of the blues written all over his face. A satisfying close to the first weekend, soaked and all.
Anders Osborne’s takes on the David Crosby penned “Almost Cut My Hair” and the Dead’s “Franklin’s Tower”…First duck po-boy…Covering Gary Clark, Jr. for the fourth time in a year and loving every minute of it… A youth band busting out their sticks en masse around a trash can and sounding better than most drummers you’ll ever hear…First cochon dulait…The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, this time and every time…Dianne Reeves enrapturing the Jazz Tent…Skerik getting the mic up in Photographer Zack Smith’s grill so he could sing along to “Buck It Like a Horse” in the Midnite Disturbers pit…The, whoa, who is this guy moment hearing Jonathon Boogie Long for the first time…Allen Toussaint’s intro of B.B. King and King toasting the audience at the end of his set “if I can’t be with you next week, think about me some time”. Chills…Walking through an endless swamp of abandoned camp chairs at Acura leaving the Fair Grounds.
WEEKEND 2 HIGHLIGHTS
Nature figured prominently as the second weekend rolled around. Steady rain on Tuesday and a slightly drier Wednesday still the left the infield in terrible shape. By Friday, the place was a big bowl of brown slop (worst conditions I had seen in my 10 years attending). But Festers spirits do not dampen. Rain and mud are just crazy juice to fuel their inner “laissez le bon temps roulet”.
Thursday the second weekend is always lighter in attendance, easier to navigate and a great day to get bearings for first timers, with Widespread Panic taking the quasi-traditional jam band headline slot at Acura this year. While I missed Mia Borders at Acura, and the B3 Woodshed in the Jazz Tent with Joe Ashlar, my early afternoon arrival found me appreciating 78-year old Edward “Kidd” Jordan’s Improvisational Arts Quintet in the Jazz Tent, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone owning the Blues Tent and understanding why there’s no mistaking who “Miss Rosie” Ledet & her Zydeco Playboys are. Henry Butler is always on the list. His boogie makes my ears happy and longtime guitarist, Vasti Jackson is a photographer’s dream to go along with his fire breathing chops. I was tipped to check out Fi Yi Yi & the Mandingo Warriors at the Jazz & Heritage Stage by a photog buddy. The sight of a 6-7 year old furiously slapping a tambourine and dancing in full Indian regalia while elders looked on was potent. I managed to catch the end of Glen David Andrews set in the Blues Tent (a quart or two of sweat later). Always the showman, and freshly post-recovered, GDA was on his game, even managing to suit up and hold a triumphant pose not lost on all the cameras. Me, I’m not a huge Widespread fan, but they have a loyal following, for sure and I had to hang for a bit. Then reversed course to Gentilly. I had never seen Patti Smith and worked my way through the rain and mud for the first few songs of her set. An early departure swung by Roy Ayers in the Jazz tent, a great vibes player who went the smooth jazz route long ago. Not my thing and I was ready for dry feet and a cold beer.
While Friday was dry, it was cold, damp, cloudy and impossibly muddy (footware became a major lifestyle choice and you couldn’t find a pair of shrimp boots anywhere in town). Another post-2 PM arrival and we were fully underway around 2:30. Quint definitely Texas-fied the Gentilly lineup with the Mavericks and Marcia Ball, leading up to Willie Nelson. The Mavericks were a total shit kick (and helped make up for missing the Iguanas). I would have made it to Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet, the always entertaining Amanda Shaw, the Summers-Mayfield Latin tag team of Los Hombres Calientes and the Coco Robicheaux Tribute with Walter “Wolfman” Washington, but an early start was so not in the cards. Getting fed and navigating the grounds took a little more strategy than usual and was a priority. Landed at the Jazz Tent for Astral Project, one of the first jazz acts I encountered at the Fest. The band has been playing it for 24 straight years, and it shows. Johnny V. is a wonder and there is special chemistry in how that rhythm section of Vidacovich and bassist James Singleton mix with Steve Masakowski’s 8-stringer and Tony Dagradi’s tenor (btw, vocalist Sasha Masakowski, Steve’s daughter, was playing at the Lagniappe Stage at the same time). Next stops of Beausoleil at Fais Do-Do, Papa Grows Funk’s last Fest appearance at Congo and trumpeter Nicholas Payton’s XXX at the Jazz Tent (with drummer Lenny White, and where Payton often doubled at keyboard while playing his horn) kept the afternoon rolling. But my day was fixated on master stringer Jerry Douglas’ set at Fais Do Do. Douglas has defined, embraced and expanded the realm of the dobro in stunningly jammy ways and it is rare for a West Coaster like myself to hear him and his band perform live (and I had to forge a sea of muck to do it). I arrived early in the set with Douglas wielding an electric dobro to spectacular effect (“power tools”, he chided). Turning strains of bluegrass to fiery ends, it was an incredible instrumental display. Switching to the traditional steel instrument, Douglas’ digital dexterity just kept flowing. It was an indefinably beautiful and satisfying set, and a highlight of the entire 7 days. This was one of those not quite under the radar bookings that you either eagerly anticipated or stumbled upon. I was also excited to see Willie Nelson for the first time. The 80-year old opened with “Whiskey River” and while I only was able to stay for a few songs, the set list was loaded with favorites and only Willie could pull off a set ender like “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” in all seriousness. The day was far from over as I headed towards the Blues and Jazz Tents. Now, I’ve seen Tab Benoit a bunch of times, but never, I mean never, have I seen him tear the place up like he did this year. His blistering Thinline Tele and rhythm section were all he needed to take the place down. After Tab’s smoldering set, the Jazz Tent was still going with Cookers, featuring Eddie Henderson, Billy Harper, Craig Handy, David Weiss, George Cables, Cecil McBee, and Billy Hart. Yeah, another only at Jazz Fest kinda day.
The rain was gone, the sky impossibly blue, the temps unnaturally cool. When we entered the Fair Grounds, our krewe was inserted into a sea of humanity that backed across the track up to the Beaufort gate. Were there really that many Fleetwood Mac fans in the world? Turns out that much of the interior was still almost impassable due to mud, so everyone crowded along paved walkways or the track and the automysophobia was rampant (look it up). Too late for the musical shenanigans of the New Orleans Bingo Show!, prodigal-openers-for-not-much-longer the Revivalists and the calming sounds of Cowboy Mouth, I was not going to miss the Meters rhythm unit of George Porter, Jr. and Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste scatter their fleur debris in a jazz setting with trumpeter Nicholas Payton and David Torkanowsky on piano. A few tunes of Eric Lindell in the Blues Tent and then on to Galactic at Gentilly, just in time to hear David Shaw of The Revivalists take the Corey Glover part for “Hey Na Na” (nice job, Shaw, you nailed it and the crowd loved you). Corey Henry’s daughter, Jazz, joined her dad on trumpet. A sweet moment that took some courage. Shot over to Fais Do Do for The Little Willies featuring Norah Jones dressed in country colors, then to the tail of Terence Blanchard, and his sonic portraits in the Jazz Tent. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band in Economy Hall was a delight. I could not cell divide enough for the closing acts, even with being shut out to shoot the Mac. Phoenix, Frank Ocean, Los Lobos and the Stanley Clarke/George Duke Project. Had to catch/shoot ‘em all. Phoenix was the big alt-rock act of the Fest and fresh from headlining slots at Coachella. I’ve wanted to embrace their musicality, but Thomas Mars mid-80s new wave encased vocals turned me off, at least on the studio tunes I was familiar with. That changed live, especially with Thomas Hedlund on drums anchoring the whole affair. Must say, I quite dug what I heard at Gentilly. No egos, playing like a unit, having a great time on stage. Like the 2005 White Sox. New Orleans native Ocean captivated his fans, but was more of a drop in for me. The best band from East L.A., was humming in the Blues Tent (second “Dear Mr. Fantasy” of the weekend, including Widespread’s). George Duke and Stanley Clarke seemed like a gift pairing. Just got there for the end of a rousing “School Days”. “Dr. Funkenstein” was a bit of a schtick, but this was a groove fest and a worthy capper for the non-Mac crowd. The word on the Fleetwood Mac set sounded inspiring, even moving. Since I experience the Fest camera first these days, I had to live vicariously.
Back in long sleeves (a Fest first for this photographer), the last day would be Acura and Gentilly heavy, starting with the Meter Men and Phish’s Page McConnell behind the keys. The 3M +1 config were locked in and very tight, but I didn’t want to miss the “soul queen of New Orleans”, Irma Thomas at Gentilly, the rollicking ruckus of the New Orleans Nightcrawlers at Jazz & Heritage or John Boutte hushing the crowd to Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluah” as only he can in the Jazz Tent. Excited to see The Black Keys and got my fix with the tremolo drenched “Howlin’ For You” opener. A misjudged refreshment break scuttled Hall & Oates at Gentilly. While Hall & Oates singles were everywhere back in my day, I was always a bit indifferent to their pop oriented brand of blue-eyed soul. As it turns out, this was another set that had lots of people talking. Oh, well. A lap back to the Jazz Tent for the Wayne Shorter Quartet with Brian Blade, John Pattitucci and Danilo Perez. Shorter’s set three years ago was magical and I arrived towards the end when the now 80-year old Shorter and his soprano were taking flight. Brian Blade is a marvel to hear, watch and shoot. Few drummers play with such unbridled joy, whether spaces or strikes. Managed to get to the pre-tuba part of blues-rock patriarch Taj Mahal’s set (with the Real Tuba Band, they squeezed 10 of those big horns in for the finale). Aaron Neville had the usual three and out and the last hour of the Fest was approaching. After grabbing my shots, I headed for a stop at Fais Do Do for a taste of Del McCoury with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Del and the boys with the PHJB are a fine (and not obvious) match of two of the best forms of traditional American music. But the sun was getting low. It was time to close it out with Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue at Acura. Arriving in the middle of this historic set was shape shifting. I’ve seen Shorty dozens of times, but nothing like this. They played big. They played to the moment. They played to the passing of the torch from years past with the Neville Brothers to the now and beyond. As the sun was setting, the cool air genuinely dry, color splashed everywhere, Troy and the band were a Tesla coil for the masses. He was generous with every one of his players. Heck, drummer Joey Peebles ear-to-ear grin couldn’t contain his exuberance. Never more so, then when all six band members grabbed sticks for an extended “solo”. During “Do to Me” towards the end of the set, Shorty descended into the crowd, deep into the crowd, working everyone to get down low and to get up high. This may play in a club, but when it works with 40,000+, you have a bond for life. Quint let Shorty go well past 7 (as well he should) and the crowd loved it. Before he departed the stage, Andrews, trumpet in one hand and trombone in the other, raised his hardware high above his head and let out a celebratory yell for the masses. Do to Me, indeed. This was Jazz Fest history at its best.
Mardi Gras colors young and old with Fi Yi Yi and the Mandingo Warriors…Johnny Sansone emptying boxes of harps to the crowd, one undoubtedly caught by the next great NOLA blues talent in the making…Jerry Douglas amid the slop, instrumental musicianship and soul deeply felt and appreciated…Tab Benoit simply going to town in the Blues Tent, when I was almost going to skip it…crawfish enchiladas and soft shell crab po-boys…Norah Jones’ smile from a few feet away…how much I totally enjoyed Phoenix…Clarke and Duke going at it like youngsters…wanting to hear more of everything, but especially Terence Blanchard…Debbie Davis’ son zonked out on her lap backstage with the New Orleans Nightcrawlers making a lovable racket and the smile on mom’s face….the attention of the John Boutte crowd in the quietest moments…going face-to-face with a Buffalo Hunters and Apache Hunters Mardi Gras Indian chief as the parade came through…Shorty’s Jazz Fest triumph…worn and torn by Day 5 of shooting and knowing we will always be back after Day 7.
The tribe of photographers is tight and I am fortunate to not just be working among so many talented people, but to count some as my friends. Rolling Stone, Offbeat, Nola.com and just about every music blog imaginable, feature the fine work of many colleagues, writers and performers. Also, for the first time, Jazz Fest was televised, with AXS TV providing over 30 hours of coverage and many full sets. The DVR helps with the detox.
So many people make the Fest possible, with the biggest shout outs to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and Foundation to all the staff, grounds crew, security, food vendors, medical crew, sound/lighting techs and stage managers. It takes more than a village to raise this barn.
Summer’s close and the Fest glow recedes, but one thing is for sure. I will be back. Next year, and every year after that I am able and breathing. It’s just gravity.