Tag Archives: Eye on the Music
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.
February 23, 2013
We’re all told to respect our elders, to learn from the generation before and to pass along tradition. Wise words musically speaking, and fundamental to any jazz or blues playbook where family legacies span generations and old sounds are regularly rediscovered and reimagined.
Now, I hail from about as far from a Pentecostal upbringing as one would expect for a ‘60s kid raised in the relative comfort of a West Los Angeles lifestyle. But when I heard Robert Randolph for the first time, I was floored. I had no clue about the roots of Sacred Steel in the church tradition, but the Hendrix like intensity he brought to the pedal steel was pretty religious in my book and I’ve been a fan ever since.
Randolph’s latest project, the Slide Brothers, pays homage to those roots. Randolph has brought together the “greatest living musicians who embody the Sacred Steel tradition” (as described on the Slide Brothers’ web site), a tradition that dates to Depression era times where steel/slide guitar and vocal melodies were all but interchangeable in church music. Calvin Cooke, Chuck Campbell, Darick Campbell and Aubrey Ghent are the Slide Brothers – a direct legacy to a musical tradition rarely heard beyond church walls. Randolph, himself a son of a deacon and a minister, saw to it that the world gets to hear these guys with the release of the self-titled debut studio album and this current tour (with dates in California and Nevada). I hadn’t heard any of the album before the show, but the mix of material from the Allman Brothers and George Harrison to more traditional spirituals sounded awfully good to me.
The Slide Brothers (with Carlton Campbell on drums and Randolph regular Ray Holloman on bass, but without Darick Campbell) got into position with the pedal steels of Randolph and Chuck Campbell bookending Calvin Cooke and Aubrey Ghent, who played their lap steels on stands (Cooke plays the same instrument his mother bought for him to this day). That’s a whole lot of strings on stage and anticipation of their confluence was obvious. Not something you are going to hear or see, well, err, almost ever.
The set was way more blues rowdy than pew churchy, and shifted into high gear early. Many Sacred Steel players start as drummers, and the percussive gallop of a trap kit boogied easily on the Brothers strings. I also finally got how the steel guitar voice can stand in for so many others and I swear I heard sax, harp and vocal (especially low strings for baritone) lines at many points. The set generously focused on the debut album including the Elmore James staple, “The Sky is Crying”, and the Brothers really tore into the ZZ Top like stomp of “Help Me Make It Through” with Calvin Cooke sharing some life perspective along the way. But with Randolph’s thwacka-thwacka intro to Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile” the place took off and the power Randolph and the Brothers brought to the tune was magnified many times over to cyclone like intensity (no surprise that the band was featured as part of the Hendrix Experience tribute tour last year and, as I just learned, the new album is produced by Eddie Kramer, who twisted knobs on some of Hendrix’s most famous recordings). By the end of the set, the audience was on its feet with hands up high and a distinct Sunday morning feel in the air. Randolph switched to his Tele (as he did earlier in the set), and as the band left the stage, he kept going from the wings (and of course, circled back with all of the band to close it out). The Slide Brothers encored with a stirring cover of the Allman’s “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” (ironic for me, hearing Greg Allman do his tune in the same room last month) and the oft-covered classic “It Hurts Me Too”.
While at times it was difficult to sort out the solos from seated players on a slightly elevated stage, the sound of so much grit and slide, sweet and burn, all mashed together with such intuition was stunning. It must really be something for Randolph to share the stage with the progenitors of Sacred Steel he so revered as a young musician.
The roots of the Slide Brothers are largely non-secular, but they are making music for everybody to hear and celebrate. That is worth praising whatever your beliefs.
The Otis Taylor Band opened the show underway with their unique style of “trance blues”. Taylor, who spent many years away from recording until 1996, just released his 13th album, “My World is Gone” on Concord Music. Their set was moody and meditatively jammy, yet didn’t peg with anything rote or traditional. This was not a push/pull, light/dark blues take, but much more of an ebb and flow that was entirely captivating (of course, he did manage to throw “Hey, Joe” in there, too). The Taylor Band includes Anne Harris on fiddle, Shawn Starski on guitar, Todd Edmunds on bass and Larry Thompson on drums. Harris’ lively stage presence, and slippery-fiery playing (with no doubt some serious classical background) thoroughly enriched the set. Props to UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance (CAP) for pairing the Otis Taylor Band with the Slide Brothers.
February 8, 2013
Friday’s “3 Brave Souls” CD release event at the Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City is just one of many ongoing performances held by the Jazz Bakery as they await construction of their Frank Gehry designed new home next door. John Beasley has been a familiar presence in the new year, with a residency at the Blue Whale encompassing big band, latin and more intimate motifs. The “3 Brave Souls” performance is a fitting cap to a busy January with this special collaboration of Beasley with Rolling Stones bassist Darryl Jones and Ronald Bruner, Jr. on drums (as well as vocalists Dwight Trible and Nayanna Holley). I had not been that familiar with Beasley’s career until this project, but the opportunity to catch two former Miles band mates in Beasley and Jones, with drummer Bruner, Jr. (who has been playing since he was 3, seriously), was too good to pass up. The “3 Brave Souls” project has been described as “ass-wiggling funk/jazz” and made the cut of top 2012 jazz CDs by Jazz Inside magazine. Me, I was just curious to see how resumes that spread from Suicidal Tendencies, Flying Lotus and Kenny Garrett (Bruner, Jr.), to Miles, Steely Dan, Freddie Hubbard and James Brown (Beasley) to the Stones, Sting, Peter Gabriel, Madonna and Miles (Jones), would fare in head to head funk driven jazz. No doubt, these 3 can play absolutely anything (and at the highest level), so the prospect of them cutting loose with a set of sticky-sharp grooves sounded pretty appealing.
The Douglas seats about 300 in stadium style seating and there’s not a bad seat in the house. It is a worthy sanctuary on the road to the Bakery’s permanent location.
As Beasley took a seat behind two layers of electric keys, a piano and a MacBook Pro, the 3 fell in behind Jones’ bubbling bass line for “Back Friday” (which also opens the album). Beasley swirled around the rhythm section landing on the groove for a round or two then departing again mixing synth sounds with electric piano. It didn’t take long for the unit to build to a nice froth, than pull back for Jones to dance with Bruner, Jr.’s snare and Beasley’s flourishes. Tasty, tasty, tasty. Apropos of the group’s lineage, the 3 covered Miles’ “Decoy”, (which from the same titled 1984 album, on which Jones appeared) building from a snare rim/Jones pulse into a throbbing platform for Beasley to explore. This was vintage ‘70s-‘80s infused stuff and I was struck how perfectly absent a guitar was to this sound. Much of the set included the vocals of Dwight Trible and Nayanna Holley, with both singers digging into the pure funk of “Wanna Get Away” from “3 Brave Souls”. Holley found just the right reach with the bluesy “Nothing Left to Say” (from “3 Brave Souls’) and Trible and band worked up “Backlash Blues (from 2011’s “Dwight Trible Sings, John Beasley Swings”). Jones even busted out the vocals for his tune, “Stay” (from “3 Brave Souls”). In the back half of the set, the singers left the stage, Beasley moved to the piano and the trio took flight, leaving the funk behind. Propelled by Ronald Bruner, Jr., the trio was dizzying in intensity and simply flying under Beasley’s piano. The set closed with Bob Marley’s “Exodus”, which swelled beautifully in the hands of these Souls. Trible’s vocals were stirring as he alternated Marley’s chorus with a quiet refrain of “3 Brave Souls”.
Bruner, Jr. (who filled the spot of Leon “Ndugu” Chancler from the record) has been playing for most of his 30 years on the planet and it shows (check him out with the late Austin Peralta on McCoy Tyner’s “Passion Dance” from 2006, off the charts stuff). He’s now set to tour with Prince and will be back in LA with Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke in April. After having just caught Billy Cobham and his monster kit that he played down in size, Bruner, Jr. was the counterpoint. A model of simplicity (1 rail/1 floor and a minimum of hardware) he played big, and that kit sang all night long. Wow is both worthy and insufficient.
This performance was jazz with a personal feel. Superb music played by superb musicians in a superb setting. Definitely a buzz from the crowd as the lights went up. Hats off to Ruth Price and the Jazz Bakery for making this show happen.
You can catch more of John Beasley with his 17-piece MONK’estra big band at Vitello’s on February 20th and Typhoon on March 11th. John Beasley will also be directing the International Jazz Day concert hosted by Herbie Hancock and the Monk Institute in Istanbul, Turkey on April 30th, with over 30 global all-star jazz musicians participating, and hitting the road with Stanley Clarke in late Spring-early Summer.
January 26, 2013
Mahavishnu Orchestra is in the pantheon of jazz fusion pioneers. Black hole density, volcanic intensity and ridiculous virtuosity. I had never heard anything quite like John McLaughlin’s searing fretwork, Jan Hammer’s prog-funk sounds and Jerry Goodman’s violin thrown to the front of what truly seemed to be an inner mounting flame. Not for the faint of heart. Beneath it all was drummer Billy Cobham, who played at Mach tempos and time signatures with the necessary muscle to stir the mix.
While Mahavishnu (especially in its original lineup for three brilliant albums) occasionally slowed down, more often than not, there was an avalanche of notes and spaces were usually avoided. The influence of McLaughlin’s Eastern spiritualism was very much present and the music omni-powerful. After Mahavishnu, McLaughlin turned away from the fire and the volume way down with his acoustic Indian trio Shakti, Jan Hammer went on to Miami Vice fame and blazed rock fusion territory with Jeff Beck, and Billy Cobham recorded his first solo album, 1973’s “Spectrum”. Cobham brought along Hammer, session master Leland Sklar on bass and guitarist Tommy Bolin (all of 21, before he went on to play with the James Gang and Deep Purple), as well as the great Ron Carter on acoustic bass and Joe Farrell on reeds/winds. A mix of funk and fusion, Hammer’s trademark mini-moog squelches and electric piano, Bolin’s cross-over agility, and Cobham’s furious chops placed up front, in the middle and sideways, “Spectrum” stands on its own as one of the seminal albums of its genre. Opening with a stampede of toms (“Quadrant 4”) and closing with Crusaders like funk (“Red Baron”), the album still holds up, even 40 years later.
Cobham has been recording at a Woody Allen like pace over the years, with over 40 albums under his own name and a resume that includes Miles, Sonny Rollins, Horace Silver, Quincy Jones, McCoy Tyner and other jazz luminaries too numerous to mention (I’m partial to 1976’s “The Billy Cobham – George Duke Band: Live on Tour in Europe,” with John Scofield and Alfonso Johnson). Looking back on where it started seems appropriate.
To say Cobham is almost machine-like in his playing is more a testament to his strength and precision than a description of his breakneck pacing and explosive fills. In fact, on more recent listening, it is Cobham’s snare that is the constant. Always bubbling and percolating under whatever he is playing. While his double kick drum set up is rock in posture, it should not be taken as a jazz equivalent of Spinal Tap. Far from it (though I was curious how his traditionally monster kit plus band would fit on the snug Mint stage).
The Spectrum 40 tour reunites Cobham with Mahavishnu violinist Jerry Goodman, with Cobham vets Dean Brown on guitar, Gary Husband on keys and Ric Fierabracci on bass. The tour had been in the Northeast and followed that up with West Coast dates in L.A, Santa Cruz and Oakland.
Beginning with a snare roll that barreled into the theme of “Mushu Creole Blues” (from 1994’s “The Traveller”), the Spectrum unit started to swing quickly as Goodman and Brown enthusiastically tangled with each other. Husband’s topically named “If the Animals Had Guns, Too” (from his 2012 release, “Dirty & Beautiful, Volume 2”) went to darker, freer corners in a more compact tune. Husband is an exceptional drummer in his own right, which must bring added intuition to his keyboard interplay with the bandleader. Cobham was relaxed and loose with the crowd as he introduced the band, admittedly a bit “fuzzy” after their escape from New York, just before a Nor’easter shut down travel. After the intros, the band jumped into Dean Brown’s “Two Numbers” (from Brown’s 2012 release, “Unfinished Business”), which found an interesting African marimba like feel at its mid-point. An extended Cobham solo stitched rhythmic fits and starts into a locomotive, mixing sheets of tom fills with his snare and cymbals, drawing the snare down to the barest paradiddle before an inundating flurry of strikes that launched “Stratus” (from the original “Spectrum” album and a fusion “greatest hit”, deservedly so). This being the first time I saw Cobham live, I was struck by how he played such a large kit (2 kicks, 2 floors, 4 rails and enough metal to melt into a car) like one half its size. That’s finesse.
The second set began with Goodman’s “Brick Chicken” (from 1999’s, “Stranger’s Hand”, a collaboration of Goodman, harmonica player Howard Levy, drummer Steve Smith and bassist Oteil Burbridge), and a flat out boogie that wouldn’t be out of place as a jam band crowd pleaser. “Fragolino” (also from “The Traveller”) and Ric Fierabracci’s “Sphere of Influence” (from 2007’s “Hemispheres” with Phil Turcio, Brett Garsed and Joel Rosenblatt) brought some (relatively) gentler passages between feverish highs. The set closed on the heels of another Cobham solo with “Quadrant 4”(from “Spectrum”), a total stomp with rock hero sensibilities and a 405 pileup of a crescendo. “Red Baron” had to be the encore (which also appropriately closes “Spectrum”), the band returning to its feel good theme many times over and leaving the stage to a very happy and appreciative audience. This was an outstanding night of music and the material a worthy revisit 40 years later.
A special shout out to The Mint. The Spectrum 40 show was the second KKJZ sponsored event at the venue in a week (following Joe Lovano and the US 5 with Esperanza Spalding), and if these shows are any example, the versatile booking of The Mint is a welcome and vibrant addition to the Los Angeles jazz scene. The room is a not a traditional clinking glasses, hushed at your seat jazz club. It is informal, open and intimate (but be prepared to stand). With Stanley Clarke leading his band through a three date run across town, not a bad week for Los Angeles jazz either.
Check out this recent interview with Billy Cobham talking about the tour and the band. Good stuff.
For the drummers reading this, Billy Cobham also teaches online at ArtistWorks (and gives students feedback on their playing, really). Pretty cool.
January 11, 2013
Gregg Allman’s life is a road well travelled for sure. As much thriver as survivor, his blues have the resume to match (40+ years on the road and hard knocks you wouldn’t wish on anyone). Last year’s T-Bone Burnett produced “Low Country Blues” is a seminal record that embodies the sum of Allman’s musical lives in roadhouse ramble, swampy Muscle Shoals drenched horns and his all the way at the bottom looking up vocals. You can feel the miles and hear the fight breaking out in the back.
Like many of his musical peers, Allman has gone open kimono on his life and times with the autobiography “My Cross to Bear” released last year, continuing a trend of influential musicians (Keith Richards, Neil Young, Pete Townsend, most notably) sharing internal reflections, creative insights and the occasionally rowdy it could only happen to this rock star story. Sure, there are more salacious aspects one would expect in these memoirs (and, yes, Richards “Life” is hard to put down), but more powerfully, there is honesty and a peak behind the curtain from guys with less sand in the hourglass and their eyes on the clock. In Allman’s case (as he told Spinner last year), his was not so much of a book as an ongoing journal over 30 years. Seeing Greg Allman on the talk show circuit openly engaging on his life, his approach to the blues, his marriages, his run-ins with former band mate Dickey Betts, was disarmingly real and surreal at the same time. But what struck me was an almost vampiric need to keep playing as long as he has a pulse. That urgency is not unique to Allman, but it is palpable and poignant.
Just after the release of “Low Country Blues”, Allman played the Blues Tent at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2011, competing against the orchestral strains of Arcade Fire from the neighboring Acura Stage. It was a sweaty, satisfying and enthusiastically received set with three-piece horns that moved between rearranged ABB material and Allman solo tunes including several from “Low Country Blues” (Allman’s JamBase interview before the Fest is good reading).
Allman had some health issues last year, but he has been road ready for a while with a swing through the south including a New Year’s Eve stop at the House of Blues in New Orleans and a date at Nashville’s hallowed Ryman Auditorium. His Royce Hall performance is part of a California/Nevada stretch that includes San Diego, Vegas, San Francisco, Napa and Tahoe.
Royce Hall is a gracious space (think more jazz and classical, than roadhouse blues) that gave the evening a relaxed feel, and there was a lot of Allman joy in the air as the band strode onstage to B.B. King on the PA. The current band features Scott Sharrard on guitar, Bruce Katz on keys, Jay Collins on horns, Steve Potts on drums, Jerry Jemmott on bass and Floyd Miles on percussion and vocals, and the 2-hour set was a group effort from start to finish. Allman alternated between guitar and his B3 throughout the night and anyone expecting ABB intensity from a Greg Allman show should check their expectations at the door.
The love for the bandleader was apparent after the opener, “I’m No Angel” with a (male) yell of “you sound sweet, Greg!” from the back rows. About a third of the 19 song set was ABB material and the rest from the deeper Greg Allman recorded and touring catalogue, ranging from a cover of Jackson Browne’s “These Days” (with an appropriate weary tenderness) to crowd pleasers “Melissa” and “Midnight Rider”. “Statesboro Blues” appeared early in the set and showed some kick to the delight of the ABB diehards. Floyd Miles, who Allman has “played with since he was 14” took the band through the blues flavors of Muddy Waters “I Can’t Be Satisfied” and two from his 1994 release, “Back to Daytona”. Allman’s daughter Layla held her own on a cover of Elmore James’ “The Sky is Crying” and Dad dug a little deeper swapping vocals with his daughter. “Wasted Words” was punchy as all get out, with Bruce Katz’s spiky keys, Jay Collins tenor and Scott Sharrard’s fretwork fully jelling. Guest bassist Tal Wilkenfeld stepped in for “Just Before the Bullets Fly” (from Allman’s 1988 release of the same name) and “Midnight Rider”(Wilkenfeld is a phenomenal player who was going toe-to-toe with Jeff Beck at barely 20). “Bullets” was another high point of the night and Wilkenfeld’s presence certainly took it up a notch. “Rider” had Collins layering in flute lines and Katz added just the right touch of Rhodes work to evoke the frozen in time feel of the tune. A slow burn of “Whipping Post” was far from the tempest of the ABB (of any era), but Collins’ sax, the rhythm section of Potts and Lamott, and Sharrard’s wah-wah, brought the set to a satisfying finish.
Allman came back with “Floating Bridge” (the Sleepy John Estes cover that opens “Low Country Blues”) and seemed to find something extra in this song about being pulled under the muddy river. “One Way Out” put the show to bed, another horn-centric arrangement of a classic ABB tune and a chance for Sharrard to flash his slide work. Any player in Sharrard’s spot has to beat down the ghosts of ABB slingers past and present and Sharrard brought the right amount of fire, fuzz and respect to the Allman repertoire throughout the night. After all, the ABB is a guitar oriented bunch and the Greg Allman Band is not. Sharrard rose to the challenge.
Allman has hit some rough road along the way and parts of his life read like lines from much of the Elmore James material he plays. While the evening was more subdued then raucous, Greg Allman appears to be on his game and the affection of his fans (not just ABB fans) has only grown. There’s thriver and survivor in all of us. That’s what makes the blues so relatable. Greg Allman is living proof.
December 12, 2012
Certain celestial alignments skip decades, if not lifetimes, or at a minimum, involve covering great distances at greater expense. Think solar eclipses, Comet Hale-Bopp or if you get around, the aurora. Even then, there is the unexpected cloud cover that can scotch the most anticipated and well-planned events. While the intersection of talent that is Dragon Smoke may not operate on a celestial plane, the fact the band exists, let alone has endured for a decade, is pretty damn impressive. Comprised of the Galactic’s drummer Stanton Moore and bassist Robert Mercurio, guitarist/songwriter Eric Lindell and funk master Ivan Neville on keys and vocals, the band is a potential one-off that never offed. The lineage speaks propulsive, jammy funk meets soulful vocals as one would expect with the Galactic rhythm section, stinging Lindell leads, swampy Neville keys and alternating Neville/Lindell voices. They deliver that and then some.
The demanding tour schedules of Galactic, Dumpstaphunk and Lindell, coupled with additional musical pursuits, make the right place/right time convergence of the four principals slightly more frequent than a Cubs post-season appearance, or at least cause for celebration. Yet, the band has been a fixture for 10+ years on the Tuesday between Jazzfest weekends, while managing to pop up for rare winter forays west of the Mississippi, including another December gig at The Mint as part of a 5-date West Coast-ish swing. Their show last year killed and was of one the room’s most memorable of 2011.
The musical affection between the players is obvious from the get-go. Like a family reunion where you don’t see enough of each other, stay up all night, then go on with your lives until the next one. The material is generously shared and enthusiastically played. And while many similar collaborations often lose focus, tread on reputation or simply go sideways, these guys play for keeps. It sure doesn’t feel or sound like a side project.
Opening with the country ramble feel of “Sunday Morning”, the trademark swapping of Lindell and Neville led tunes jumped right into the Dyke and the Blazers funk of “Let a Woman, Be a Woman” with Stanton Moore sneaking in a NOLA brass snare rhythm between a barrel full of fills, and Neville chomping at his clavs and working his B3. Funky, fun, and delicious. The stutter step blues rock of Lindell’s “Country Livin’” (from 2009’s “Gulf Coast Highway”) sounded pretty damn good, accented by Neville’s Hammond runs and Moore’s cascades, and the War-like soul of father Aaron’s “Hercules” brought things back to an appropriate simmer. A couple of Lindell tunes followed, including “Two Bit Town” (from 2006’s “Change in the Weather” and the pretty “Lullaby for Mercy Ann” (from “Gulf Coast Highway”). The Meters were in the room with “Out in the Country” (“nobody plays it like this” professed Neville), before Lindell stretched out with the breezy “Valerie” (a Zutons’ song most notably covered by the late Amy Winehouse). The first set closed with Gerald Tillman’s (aka, Professor Shorthair) “Padlock” (from Neville’s 1995 “Thanks”) anchored by Neville’s B3 and clav blend punctuated by Lindell’s needle stick delivery and a perfect Meters-esque groove over the lines “somebody’s been sleepin’ in my bed”.
The sold out room had a climate closer to a Bikram yoga class than the cool rainy weather outside, so some oxygen was in order for the break. By the time the band returned for their second set, everyone was a bit more refreshed and most stayed.
The 10-song set went appropriately deeper than the first. Bill Withers’ “Grandma’s Hands” began with spare soulful “uh-huhs” from Neville and built into a creeping, slippery jam that had the crowd singing the “like the way you work it” chorus part of the tune. One of the night’s high points, for sure. The band brought a relaxed loping ‘tude to the Mardi Gras Indian driven “Indians, Here Dey Come” and even a touch of Dead influence meets NOLA backbeat to it, thanks to some Jerry-like inflections from Lindell and Moore’s expansive snare vocabulary. Another Lindell tune, “Won’t Be Long” (from “Change in the Weather”) featured a slow voltage bridge and blue-eyed soul progression that lives in Lindell’s wheelhouse. “Slippin’ Into Darkness” is such a natural cover for the band, they should have written the classic. All the pieces fit just right. Dropping in a “Get Up, Stand Up” tease, then flipping into The Meters “Fire on the Bayou” and again to Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle”, before landing back to “Slippin’” was pretty fine. Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below (We’re All Gonna Go”) was sandwiched between a few more Lindell tunes that brought the set to a close, and featured some well past midnight clav explorations by Neville. The clock was pushing 1 AM on an early Thursday morning by the time the encore of Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” had wrapped.
Robert Mercurio’s recent interview with jambands.com is illuminating reading on how these guys find a way to stick together, and the glue that makes it happen. With grueling schedules and commitments all over the place, the band must want this pretty bad (heck, it would be way easier not to do it). Nonetheless, you may have a better chance of catching an eclipse some years, so best to presume their next orbit is their only orbit. If you are in NOLA the days between the Fest or within hollering distance of their brief trips west, consider yourself lucky and get your ass down to One Eyed Jacks or other respectable live music establishment. This constellation may not come around again, and if it does, you better be there.
November 2, 2012
Grace Potter and the Nocturnals played to a packed Wiltern in the midst of her Fall “all request” tour. The generous set was in the audience’s sweet spot with many sing-alongs that had GP working the front of the pit to connect with as many fans as she could. Potter and the Nocturnals are a force of nature and few artists can pivot as effortlessly between stripped down ballads and blustery blues jams. Extended excursions on rugged hooks underscored why Potter and the band are such great draws in the jam band scene and the festival circuit. Potter herself has a totally magnetic stage presence to go with killer chops, and when she takes center stage playing a Flying V, it’s impossible to look away.
The band had an electric rapport, with guitarists Benny Yurco and Scott Tournet trading and sharing solos like punches – punctuated by Tournet’s gritty dustbowl Telecaster tone. With “2:22” from 2006’s Nothing But Water, Potter prowled her way along the floor to the top of the mic stand and let loose from the top of her pipes – a bluesy chanteuse in full roar. When Potter proclaimed “tonight you’re sleeping next to me” in Stop the Bus (from 2007’s “This Is Somewhere”), there was little doubt who the star of this show was. Lighting and staging we’re top notch, and played well with the gorgeous historic Wiltern space.
Nicki Bluhm and the Gramblers from the Bay Area opened and were well matched for the task, delivering rootsy bluesy material to a receptive and supportive crowd. While this is the first I’ve heard of them, I met a couple who have been fans for years. It won’t be too long before we’re saying that, too.
October 26-28, 2012
As an unabashed Jazzfest vet, I approached my first Voodoo with excitement and a hint of fear. The mix of rap, EDM, and the often indefinable, sprinkled with the best of New Orleans contemporary and traditional, on a bed of arena headliners, eclectic rockers, funk and blues artists, is uniquely Voodoo. Look, I’m an old school guy who knows enough to be dangerous to himself. Not a banger, a mosher or a surfer. I know Skrillex drops bombs that turn your bones to jelly and have never been to a Metallica show in my life, but I approached Voodoo with anticipation and an open mind. After all, there was Mr. Neil Young touring with Crazy Horse for the first time in eight years. Gary Clark, Jr.’s, blues without boundaries and the omni-bluesusical Jack White closing it out.
OK, so much for the obvious. How far would I go to connect with my inner Voodoo? Would I make it to Borgore (an Israeli DJ formerly of a death metal band), the total bizzaro of South African rappers Die Antwoord or Electric Daisy Carnival main stager Nervo (all three made “Rolling Stone’s 10 Must See Acts at Voodoo Fest”)? Maybe Voodoo would leave me forever changed and socially morphed. Or play it safe, reveling in New Orleans talent like the Soul Rebels, George Porter, Jr., Lil Band O’ Gold and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Hmmm. At Jazzfest, FOMS (“fear of missing something”) always runs high. At Voodoo, where I should be and where I could be was a kind of personal dare.
City Park is one of New Orleans’ great spaces and home to Voodoo since it moved from Tad Gormley Stadium (near the top of the park). It’s a relaxed setting of endless greenery and moss-draped oaks, crossed by footpaths and waterways. Perfect for the last big fest of the year and a contrast to the nearby fairgrounds that host Jazzfest. The weather was spectacular; a mix of late summer warm and crisp autumn cool. The five stages are easy to access and not more than a 10-minute walk from one end to the other.
Unlike Jazzfest, Voodoo goes well into the night and the weekend before Halloween in New Orleans gooses the id of the crowd even higher. Corsets and fishnets, the entire food chain (yes, that giraffe had just enough headroom to clear the porta-john), dudes in tutus. Just another day in NOLA.
‘nuf with the travelogue. Friday’s schedule was packed with Gary Clark, Jr., The Avett Brothers and Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the Ritual (main) Stage later in the day and rich with other bands I throughout. I headed to the Preservation Hall Stage, which featured local talent during the weekend. Both the Pres Hall Stage and the nearby WWOZ/Bud Light Stage are insanely intimate and, early in the day, they had the feel of a backyard barbeque. I needed an infusion of big horns right away and found it with the TBC (“To Be Continued”) Brass Band. Yup, officially back in NOLA. Next move was the soul pop of Brooklyn’s Andy Suzuki and the Method. Not quite blue-eyed in sound, but definitely soul directed, the instrumentation of fiddle and djembe (an African hand drum) augmented Suzuki’s strong vocals and keys to create vibrant, easy on the ears material. Back to the Pres Hall Stage for Little Freddie King and his traditional duckwalk , after which he threw in a little James Brown (ala “Sex Machine”) along with the usual blues staples. Guitar “Lightnin” Lee joined Little Freddie for a few tunes of dueling 3-ball red Lucilles. Stuck close by for C.C. Adcock who was sporting some impressive hardware including a steel Thinline Tele that he played with tons of tremolo and a hard tailed hollow body Flying V replete with whammy bar. Accompanied by an upright bass and two drummers facing off on a riser (giving the appearance of interlocking kits), these guys were howlingly loud and kicked up some stompingly serious boogie.
As the day was picked up, I had to be strategic heading up to Gary Clark, Jr.’s 5 o’clock start time and the bigger names that followed. New Orleans’ 101 Runners’ tribute to Big Chief Bo Dollis was my next move and I arrived mid-set with Mardi Gras tunes on full boil. Rolling Stone pointed me next to Delta Rae, a family band featuring rooted arrangements and sweet harmonies. They hit nice Mumford-like notes without the sadness or overearnestness that befalls many of their contemporaries that played well with the younger crowd. I can see why RS called them out and look forward to hearing more than the few tunes I heard. The Le Plur/Red Bulletin Stagepulled me away for a taste of Nervo, the sister EDM act. Now, I’ve been to Electric Daisy Carnival about as many times as I’ve been (or will be) to Burning Man, but I have to say the energy was playful, totally fun and infectious. Maybe it was the safety of the daylight, but I kind of got it in my own I don’t do this thing sort of way. Then the 80s called. Thomas Dolby was playing at the Le Carnival Stage. Dolby was one of the most successful to mix effects, danceable beats and tech with sophistication and rock that was neither the cousin of 70s electronic manipulation à la Kraftwerk or the pop candy of Duran Duran. It was 80s music with a brain. Early tunes included “Europa” (a personal favorite), the band had more strings than electronics and keys, and Dolby himself lent a very affable presence. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Time to get my roots on with Gary Clark, Jr. at the Ritual Stage. With his ACL set scorched in my brain (which I streamed) and a show-stopping Jazzfest set in the Blues Tent (opposite Springsteen), any chance to see Clark, Jr., at this point in his career is an opportunity to witness prime time talent on the rise. No surprise he draws well at big festivals, even though two years ago only a few had really heard him. I could only stay for the first few tunes, but as soon as he hit stage it was if a huge Texas storm had just taken a blue sky day and tossed the place. The Texas shuffle of “Don’t Owe You a Thang” was especially smokin’. Next stop, George Porter, Jr. and His Runnin’ Pardners back at the OZ Stage. I appreciate Porter, Jr.’s playing even more in non-Metersesque settings (that he brings NOLA funk to Dead grooves with 7 Walkers is especially a treat) and Pardner Brint Anderson’s Les Paul and slide are well matched. After a taste of George, The Avett Brothers hit the Ritual Stage, their thrash banjo-cello attitude showing why they have such a great festival following. These guys are the anti-ramble, wielding bluegrass instruments like sharp knives, and have unstoppable energy. After a few of Avett Brothers tunes, I couldn’t miss Malian stringer Cheick Hamala Diabate. Diabete, a Washington (DC) resident, is a griot (West African troubadour of sorts) who has collaborated with Bela Fleck and performed for the US Congress, and builds musical bridges between traditional griot instruments and their western counterparts. His banjo playing and jamming were remarkable and one of the days many highlights. One last stop before the headliner, one more special Voodoo collaboration at the Pres Hall stage that brought together George Porter, Jr. and Johnny Vidacovich, with Skerik and Mike Dillon of Garage a Trois, and the legendary “Kidd” Jordan. Jordan swapping and merging tenor squonks with the crazed and incredibly innovative Skerik over a hard groove from Porter, Jr. and Johnny V. was not to be missed, except for Neil Young.
Neil Young has been headlining large arenas, sheds and festivals for his first tour with Crazy Horse since 2004 and his body of work remains seminal to my personal soundtrack (and has since the 70s). Young’s last performance in New Orleans at the 2009 Jazzfest is the stuff of legend. Seriously. After shredding the strings of Ol’ Black at the end of his “Day in the Life” encore, the swollen skies opened up just when the last note faded. This night was mild, and the skies clear, as Young and the Horse took the stage for a 2-hour set that can only be described as primally charged. Largely sticking to a set list consistent with the tour to date, Young was fresh from a gig in Tuscaloosa with the Horse the night before and his annual acoustic Bridge School benefits the prior weekend. The tour has featured nuggets from early 90s Young and Crazy Horse including “Love and Only Love” (the opener) and “F*!#in’ Up” from “Ragged Glory”, tracks from the just released “Psychedelic Pill” and obligatory classics.
With just a few exceptions, the set was pure cronk. Jurassic and thunderous from start to finish, perhaps never more so than with the seemingly endless coda to “Walk Like a Giant”. There was the 10+ minutes of the song and the 10+ minutes to the finish that was reduced to nothing but sustain, distortion and apocalyptic howl. Young was literally hugging the top of his stack, squeezing every last possibility for noise out of the thing until there was nothing left to give. At one point in the middle of “Giant” Young, back turned, raised his arms and shook his fists at the heavens as if channeling planetary frustration through his Les Paul to get the Almighty’s attention. He got mine. Nothing like the junkie ballad “Needle and the Damage Done” to take the edge off after that.
Later in the set, with a long pick scratch down the neck and some time machine humor, Young launched into a raucous “Mr. Soul”, before closing with “Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)” upon which the 40-something woman next to me proclaimed, “old guys know how to rock!”. Now there’s some Voodoo wisdom for ya. He came back with “Like a Hurricane” as an encore, at one point drifting on the words “somewhere safer”, as if repeating them would make them truer. It all ended in a ritualistic roar with Young deconstructing Ol’ Black yet again, then disintegrating into a primordial rumble that had him nudging the barely beating carcass of his guitar like a big cat over a fresh kill. A fitting end to Voodoo Day 1.
The great thing about Voodoo is sleeping in. While gates open 11ish, the music can go another 12 hours. Especially in NOLA, it is important to recharge, so rolling in around 3 seemed reasonable (as much as I wanted to check out Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds, it just didn’t happen). My first Day 2 stop was the Soul Rebels Brass Band at the OZ Stage. The Rebs are Jazzfest fixtures, and get around plenty during festival season. By the time I hit their set, they were working Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke” into a joyful, brassy lather. Contemporary Cajunistes Feaufollet were a worthy detour at the Pres Hall Stage before catching some of the Revivalists set at the Ritual Stage. I’ve written a lot about them lately and what I saw of their Voodoo set only reaffirms a New Orleans band playing vital rock and roll that is going places (with a Soul Rebels walk on that made them sound even better). Ingrid Lucia Presents the New Orleans Nightingales was a showcase for female vocalists of blues, jazz and traditional persuasions backed by a crack band with Alex McMurray on guitar and a 5-piece horn section including Bonerama’s Craig Klein. Irma Thomas (who I missed) is always a draw, but it was great to hear a wide range of stylings in a back-to-back format from Debbie Davis, Alexendra Scott, Banu Gibson, Meschiya Lake, Holly Bendtsen and others.
One of my must do Voodoos was Dave Stewart, who I had not seen perform since the Eurythmics days. Stewart’s recorded collaborations with Annie Lennox swung radically from the sythn-pop, tech heavy (and beautifully executed) cool of “Sweet Dreams” and “Here comes the Rain Again” to the fiery funked up rhythm and soul of “Would I Lie to You” and “Missionary Man”. Knowing he had taken a bluesier, rootsy direction in recent years had me very curious. Stewart came dressed for the Voodoo vibe with a band that included Nashville guitarist, Tom Bukovac. The set liberally featured material from last year’s “Blackbird Diaries” as well as Stewart/Eurythmics hits including “Don’t Come Around Here No More”, “Missionary Man”, “Here Comes the Rain Again” and a “Sweet Dreams” mash up with the Soul Rebels (they were everywhere). From the outset, Stewart and his band were also one of the most photo friendly and audience engaging acts I have covered in a long time. He was frequently playing to the pit, freely posing and smiling, and having a great time every minute he was on stage. A lot of artists could take a page from his book.
At the Ritual Stage, I hit the start of LA’s own Silversun Pickups gasoline-fueled set then circled back for some timeless reggae courtesy of Toots and the Maytals at the OZ Stage, where Toots was given a generous 90 minutes.
Unfortunately, I was not shortlisted to shoot the headliners, including Metallica. Sometimes things work out the way they’re meant to. Anders Osborne’s set with VOW collaborators Johnny Sansone and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux in front of a few hundred was another highlight. Opening with the thrumming urgency of “On the Road to Charlie Parker”, it felt like they’d been playing for hours, and they just dug in from there. I’ve heard Sansone perform “Lord is Waiting the Devil is Too” many times, but this night he was truly a man possessed by the spirit. I mean scary potent. Oh, and only at Voodoo could you check a guy in an Anders costume and everyone is in on it.
After Anders’, I slid over for the very end of MyNameIsJohnMichael’s set. Spanky horns, uptempo arrangements, great energy. I’ll make sure to catch them come Jazzfest time, if not sooner.
I managed to get to some of Metallica’s set. These guys put on a highly entertaining and totally energized performance, with world class staging and lighting for a festival setting that is second to none. Consummate professionals, for sure. Me, I was pretty spent after two full days and some two dozen plus acts, and just wasn’t feeling my Metallica (I’m a little old for fireworks and explosions, anyway), but I totally get why they are kings of their scene.
Sunday was lighter on acts that pulled me, a perfect opp to go outside my bandwidth. I started with some New Orleans Bounce at the Le Carnival Stage and the younger, totally buoyant crowd way in to all the shakin’ it on stage. Long, tall Marcia Ball at the OZ Stage could not be passed up, even it was a drive by en route to the prog-metal weirdness of Coheed and Cambria (classic Voodoo whiplash). “Afterman: Ascension” the latest installment in the band’s ongoing epic mythology, sits at no. 5 on the Billboard charts, somewhere between Ellie Goulding and Mumford & Sons. Formed in 1995, each of the band’s six albums to date are concept pieces for the “Armory Wars”, a science fiction storyline written by singer/guitarist Claudio Sanchez. I can’t say I really got it for the early tunes I made, but the sound was big and crunchy, more metal than prog. And Sanchez’s mane makes Jim James look like he just got a no. 2 at the local barbershop.
Needing to chill, I quickly checked out Borgore at the Le Plur/Red Bulletin Stage. This former drummer of the Israeli death metal band Shabira (not a genre I’m overly familiar with) is all dubstep and according to Wikipedia, “some songs have been compared to horror movies, farm animals, and sex”. Not sure I got that anymore than I am a dubstep aficionado, so I pressed on to Lil Band O’ Gold back at the OZ Stage to bring me back down. Lil Band O’ Gold is somewhat legendary in New Orleans circles, featuring C.C. Adcock on guitar, Steve Riley on accordion (delayed by weather) and David Egan on keys. Perhaps most impressive were the vigorous vocals and playing of 75 year old drummer Warren Storm. A joy to have finally caught up with these guys who represent the best in New Orleans roots music. Then there is the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Few names are more synomonuos with New Orleans musical traditions. With Big Al Carson sitting in on vocals, the Pres Hall Band swung and sang there way through a spirited set capped off by a warm rendition of “Goodnight, Irene”.
Skrillex (only at Voodoo could you bounce from the Pres Hall Jazz Band to Skrillex). Holy crap. These weren’t bombs, they were cannonballs to the chest. I can only relate the visceralness of the sonic/visual experience. The music itself just poured over me, submerging me behind a wall of visuals and sound that left me in a puddle. And that was for the 10 minutes I could shoot.
Voodoo wrapped with a closing set by Jack White and (for this night only) The Buzzards. With upright bass and pedal steel adding raw texture, they stayed low to the ground, gritty, pushy and fiery, delivering a set of shape-shifting blues rock that was a wholly satisfying conclusion to my first Voodoo Experience.
So, at the end of it all, did I Voodoo well? I went places I’ve never been, found shelter in the New Orleans rhythms and brass I love and heard 30+ acts over the three days. It is just this mix that is hard to duplicate anywhere else. The traditional and the contemporary, the edgy and the extreme, the local and the global, headliners and up and comers. All set in “this stew called New Orleans” (as Paul Sanchez puts it). I’m not off the reservation yet, but maybe a little closer to the edge than I was before. That’s a good thing. Voodoo done me right.
You can check out many of the Voodoo Experience 2012 performances on Voodoo TV. The event would not be possible without the good people of Rehage Entertainment (RE). RE owns, operates, produces, books and manages the Voodoo Experience, which has twice been nominated for Pollstar’s festival of the year.
October 4, 2012
Since I last caught up with Red Baraat in February, the self described “Brooklyn dhol’n’brass” by way of a second line, has been to the White House, played Bonnaroo and High Sierra, performed at the TED conference, toured Europe and the UK, and returned to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. This is a busy group of guys with over 100 dates this year. One listen and the attraction of the east meets west meets stomp on your face swing and brass is obvious. No surprise they get around because there is nothing that comes close to what they do and their musical imprint is rather indelible. I’m not saying that Red Baraat will bring us world peace, but its totally infectious sound and ‘tude, may just get us a little closer.
I extolled the band’s virtues when they played the Mint earlier this year and in my limited vocabulary, attempted to describe my take to the uninitiated. I’m happy to be coming back so soon. The fundamentals bear repeating, though. Traditional Hindi percussion led by singer/dhol player Sunny Jain backed by ridiculous brass including sousaphone, trumpet, bass trumpet, soprano sax and trombone, as well as a trap kit and percussion. On paper, a total head scratcher. The frenzy of Hindi wedding music jumps on NOLA horns and funk. Really?
As Sunny Jain shared with me after the show, there is an Indian brass tradition that came with British colonialism and the relationship to NOLA horns is not as far fetched as it sounds. In fact, Jain likened it to “cousin brothers”. His vision of tapping that unlikely cross-cultural connection beginning as a child when he first encountered the two-headed Indian drum known as a dhol, an instrument at the heart of Bhangra music. Flash forward to years as a jazz drummer and the road to the only Brooklyn Dhol’n’Brass group I know was shaped.
The set began with rich horns layered over swaggering loping rhythms that so characterize the Red Baraat feel and featured some fine soprano work by Lynn Ligammari (sitting in for Alex Hamlin) intertwining with Sonny Singh’s trumpet, Ernest Stuart’s trombone and MiWi La Lupa’s bass trumpet. Three tunes in and the show had the feeling of a mass seduction. It was impossible not to groove with the bottom, your head following the horns wherever they led and Ben Stapp’s sousaphone (sitting in for Joe Alteiri) a constant reminder that the Mississippi doesn’t flow far from the Ganges. “Chaal Baby” (from the 2009 release of the same name) drove that point home with horn lines and a driving rhythm that wouldn’t sound out of place coming from Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. Arms up and “hey ho-ing” one minute, buried under an avalanche of percussion (courtesy of Jain, drummer Tomas Fujiwara and percussionist Rohin Khemani) the next.
The hurry up pace of “Tunak Tunak Tun” (also from “Chaal Baby”) played like an unstoppable marching band cranked on something wickedly potent, then brought the band to its knees (literally), making sure we all “bowed down to the sousaphone”. The next tune went another way, with a mystical intro taking flight under Ligammari’s soprano and a dance floor of inward looking souls, only to swing hard in no time. “Aazzaadee Aazzaadee” the Punjabi word for freedom (if my transliteration is correct) was more Frenchmen Street funk than hot curry (Sonny Singh grabbing it good). “Shruggi Ji” (from their forthcoming release of the same name) started with jazz funeral horns morphing into a hefty mix of shake your shoulders, swing your hips, sousaphone driven horns and rhythm. Before the night was out, Red Baraat took to the floor with undeniable gravity and the rest of us were just helpless satellites. A damn cool moment if there ever was one.
As we bonded at the bar, Sunny Jain kept coming back to music as community, how it is embedded in eastern society and shares a common pull with the pulse of New Orleans. Cousin brothers to the end. Aren’t we all?