New Orleans Jazz Fest 2012: Incredible Music All Over the Place

Tom Petty. Photos courtesy of New Orleans Jazz Fest.

Unlike last year’s Jazz Fest where the programming felt more-than-slightly schizophrenic (Kid Rock, Bon Jovi, Tom Jones, Kenny G, Cyndi Lauper), this year’s fest was a model of roots-festival booking, a wholly integrated piece of spectacle-making where the possibility of transcendence — which by its very nature always hangs heavy in the air at Jazz Fest — couldn’t have been made more palpable. Headliners like The Beach Boys, Tom Petty, Springsteen, Jimmy Buffet (as a last-minute substitution for Eddie Vedder’s ukulele tour), and The Eagles just seem make a lot more sense where roots and tradition are concerned.

But the best part was that this year’s fest also showed sings of hope everywhere for new life and new stages of transformation coming from younger generations. Before the fest, contributor Ryan Reed gave you his Bucket List of the Top Ten Artists not miss at the fest — what follows is my own list of Top Ten Moments from this year’s decidedly jubilant extravaganza, a list that gives considerable weight to the fact that I have been living in New Orleans for more than 15 years and love Louisiana music.

Givers

1. In the middle of Friday afternoon on the first weekend, with the sun shining bright, temps and humidity moderate, GIVERS took to the event’s second-largest stage with a kind of shining, youthful exuberance that perfectly matched the weather and, really, set the tone for the whole festival-to-come. Drenched in electronic alteration, bouncing around all over the stage, and swapping off instruments like it was a flea market sale (singer/guitarist Taylor Guarisco and bassist Josh LeBlanc jumping around all over the right side of the stage, swapping instruments between tunes; vocalist/percussionist Tiffany Lamson — after telling the crowd the band couldn’t sleep on the ride down, finally coming home to Louisiana after months of touring — playing xylophone and ukulele; even multi-keyboardist Nick Stephan grabbing a flute late in the set for the band’s rendition of “Atlantic.” The crowd was filled with moms and teens singing along to their favorites songs and for that moment it felt like all was right with the world.

2. From the sun-dappled euphoria of the GIVERS glorious outdoor concert straight to Chuck Leavell’s all-star stage show inside the festival’s Blues Tent (with the smell of the BBQ stand next door occasionally wafting through the stilled air) should have felt like an abrupt transition, but it didn’t. Touring behind the release of his new CD, Back to the Woods, the first-call keyboardist and sometimes musical director for the likes of The Allman Brothers, The Rolling Stones, and Eric Clapton, opened his set with Gregg Allman’s “Statesboro Blues” and a dozen musicians on stage, among them multi-instrumentalist Randall Bramlett, guitarist Danny Barnes, and most of New Orleans’ Bonerama making up the horn section. But he really came to showcase the old-time rural boogie-woogie and hony-tonk piano featured on Back to the Woods, and he did it sublimely. With the set running long, advertised guest Bonnie Bramlett (of Delaney & Bonnie fame) had time for just one number before the full band returned and laid down some more textbook-style Southern rock’n’roll.

Beach Boys

3. Surprise, surprise. I didn’t even intend to check out their set, but The Texas Tornados reunion on the small, outdoor Fais Do-Do stage really wasn’t making it, so I found myself wandering over to Jazz Fest’s main stage where the first performance of The Beach Boys 50th-anniversary reunion tour was already in full swing and got the shock of my life. Everybody was singing along — everybody, from the old and shaggy to the young and pierced – to every song and guess what? They’re all great songs, every single one of them, gorgeous harmonies, beautifully constructed, filled with youthful optimism, longing, and just a touch of regret, so solidly constructed they sound as fresh today they did in that long ago age of innocence when they were recorded. Sure the presentation’s a little hokey, the old-time band members mostly just going through the motions (but then again, they almost always did anyway) and the ranks filled with plenty of ringers to make sure the music sounds now exactly like it sounded then and still sounds in recordings. But something new has now been added. Stage front, extreme left, tucked away behind a white baby grand piano, there’s Brian Wilson, stone-faced and emotionless, but there he is on stage and suddenly you realize, it’s not just Brian’s music this is his band, and it always has been, whether he’s playing with it or not. As if to remind us, the video guy onstage keeps most of the video screen focus on Brian, stone-faced though he is, and then, with the sun beginning to set, somewhere in the middle stunningly beautiful renditions of “Heroes and Villains” and “God Only Knows,” the stage goes into shadow and a single, long, slanted ray of cuts across the festival grounds, the audience, and everyone assembled on stage, landing directly on Brian Wilson, bathing him in pure sunlight. For that moment, I felt blessed by perhaps having been in direct contact with the eternal — and ever since have found myself randomly humming the joy-filled bouncing refrain to “Help Me, Rhonda.”

Brian Wilson

4. Not all the musical fireworks happen on the Festival grounds — for two weeks the entire city is awash in independently produced concert series, beefed-up club schedules, and live appearances in New Orleans’ premier record store, the Louisiana Music Factory, and on the streets of the French Quarter and the adjacent Frenchmen St. music corridor.

Monday night at the city’s newest club-in-the-know, a place called Chickie Wah Wah located in mid-city on the central dividing avenue of Canal St., pianist extraordinaire Jon Cleary held court in support of his recently released CD, Occapella, an imaginative romp through the songbook of New Orleans senior musical ambassador Allen Toussaint shaped by Cleary’s own idiosyncratic approach to American soul and R&B. A British native, Cleary made his way to New Orleans in his late teens and began absorbing the wealth of musicianship and funky atmosphere. Working in back-up bands behind several local stars, he also began crafting his own approach to funk and soul, occasionally writing a tune but mostly developing a piano and interpretative style filled with the riches of ragtime, swing, classic R&B, blues, down-home soul, and Cuban clavé. While Monday night’s crowd was mostly out-of-towners listening quietly and far more respectfully than a New Orleans audience would (local audiences tend to whoop it up and join along), Cleary put on an awesome display of pianistic pyrotechnics, transforming selections ranging from old 45-rpm hits to classic jazz standards, that left no one in the crowd doubting his candidacy for reigning New Orleans piano professor. A sideman by trade, he spent five years in Taj Mahal’s touring and recording unit before spending the past decade as Bonnie Raitt’s keyboard maestro; word has it his next gig will be to accompany Dr. John on tour supporting the good Doctor’s latest, Locked Down.

5. There is an amazing youth movement going on in New Orleans backing a resurgence of the brass-band format as a malleable form of expression, with the success of Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, The transformation of staid Preservation Hall into a fount of musical collaboration, this year’s Grammy won by The Rebirth Brass Band, and sparkling new recording from both The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and the Soul Rebels Brass Band just tip of iceberg with roughly a dozen new, youth-oriented brass bands in various forms evolution and achievement. Something similar has been going on in Cajun country in southwest Louisiana, centered in Lafayette, Louisiana, for the past decade and the leading bands — like Feufollet (FOO-FILLAY, or depending on where you live, FOO-FIL-A) — are moving closer to the edge of breaking out nationally and internationally. The band’s set on Friday morning of the second weekend of Jazz Fest perfectly illustrated their potential. Playing to a large crowd more interested in listening that dancing and whooping it up, the band showed off their traditional Cajun credentials (all in their mid-20s, they’ve been playing together for more than dozen years) before breaking out the mind-blowing eclecticism, which included their version of The Beach Boys’ “Heroes and Villains” (major fans, the tune’s been in their repertoire for about six months), a Cajun French version of a tune by cult favorites Big Star, and “If I was a Farmer,” a tribute to fellow Lafayette rockers Brass Bed with whom they previously collaborated. Leader Chris Stafford is an A-list electric guitarist recently turned engineer/producer, while vocalist Anna Laura Edmiston lends a critical dimension to three-part harmonies reminiscent of the earliest Byrds records. In fact, the band’s deliberate experimentation, youthful optimism, and range from soft and pretty folk-rock to snarling, straight-on folk-rock mostly recall the best bands of the mid-1960s, before the influence on the music scene of multinational corporations.

Next page: Bonnie Raitt, The Lost Bayou Ramblers, filling in for Levon Helm…

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