New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013: An Off-Year Marked by Virtual Milestones

performs during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2013
Grand Finale: Taj + Tubas x 10; Trombone Shorty Triumphs

Ducking out before the quartet’s set ended, I headed directly next door to the Blues Tent — I wanted to get there early to find a seat for that venue’s final act of the day: Taj Mahal & the Real Tuba Thing, a billing I’d never encountered before, but being an ardent, life-long Taj Mahal fan, one I definitely did not want to miss. And it turned out to be a classic Jazz Fest experience capping what, in fact, had been, for the most part, a classic Jazz Fest day. I found an empty aisle seat relatively close to the stage and passed the time waiting for Taj conversing with the couple in the two seats to my right — retired schoolteachers from Detroit who still try to make a difference volunteering to teach basic literacy skills to disadvantaged kids. He’d been to Jazz Fest, but this was her first, and she was clearly delighted by the experience. This is the part of Jazz Fest you can’t replicate and can only experience by physical attendance: the random interaction with a few of the thousands of fans who’ve converged on this semi-rural-site-become-small-city-for-a-week because they share many of the same passions — for music, food, art, and culture — that brought you here. Once Taj finally emerged and took his place stage center, the music became the sole focus for everyone in the tent.

Backed up by his long-time touring buddies, Bill Rich on bass and Kester Smith on drums, Taj filled the stage on both sides of that essential musical unit with augmented back-up: congas, sax, and rhythm guitar stage right and a quartet of brass horns stage left, tearing through long-time classics from a repertoire that, at this point, can only really be called “Taj music” — rhythm and blues-based dance music mixed with a myriad of world-music influences; Taj hits a groove and then the music just rolls out, regardless of tune, musical setting, or category. For his Jazz Fest show, Taj opened the set by dusting off some classics from early in his career, notably “Gonna Move Up to the Country (and Paint My Mailbox Blue),” the gospel-based “You’re Gonna Need Somebody on Your Bond” and the outright blues-rocker “She Caught the Katy (and Left Me a Mule to Ride),” all of which reached the kind of ecstatic heights that only long-form, rhythmically driven, ensemble dance music can reach. More than halfway through the show, Taj had sufficiently worked his magic to satisfy any audience — but then he signaled for the tubas. The back-up brass quartet switched gears, and instruments, while six locally recruited tuba players emerged from backstage, and the clearly amused bandleader kicked off a Caribbean-tinged version of “Hello, Josephine,” the Fats Domino hit marinated in such a familiar New Orleans lilt that it has become practically folk music in the City That Care Forgot. After a verse or two, the entire audience was on its feet, tent security staff wisely gave up all hope of maintaining order, and Jazz Fest 2013 in the Blues Tent officially ended in a state of joyous chaos and ecstatic celebration.

Also unique to Jazz Fest: similarly celebratory scenes of varying intensity were unfolding simultaneously at a dozen contiguous stages all around the Festival grounds. At the intimate Lagniappe Stage located within the Fair Grounds grandstand, long-time Jazz Fest PR manager Matt Goldman was getting married, with the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars providing the background wedding music; Bo Dollis & the Wild Magnolias were wrapping things up at the open-air Jazz & Heritage Stage while directly across the racing-track infield, the Del McCoury Band was holding forth on the Fais Do-Do Stage, with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band billed as back-up; Maze featuring Frankie Beverly were serenading a largely African-American audience from the immense Congo Square Stage; Aaron Neville was debuting his new “doo-wop,” early-classic-R&B career phase on Jazz Fest’s second-largest venue, the Gentilly Stage, located at one end of the oval horse-racing track and Trombone Shorty was giving one of the great performances of his young life at the Fest’s largest venue, the Acura Stage, at other end of the oval.
Both signaled an official changing of the guard: The final set on the Acura stage for nearly two decades belonged to The Neville Brothers while local funk/jam band The Radiators traditionally closed out festivities at the Gentilly Stage. This year, Aaron Neville formally announced his departure from The Neville Brothers (who performed the first weekend of the fest with multiple generations billed simply as The Nevilles), and Trombone Shorty formally was awarded closing honors on the Acura Stage, while acts closing the Gentilly Stage will likely rotate, depending on who’s currently succeeding with new, New Orleans-based music.

Digital Coverage Completes Transition to Mainstream Commodity

When Jazz Fest organizers characterized this year’s event as “the best worst fest in history,” they were referring specifically not only to the relatively cool temperatures that prevailed on the event’s final weekend, but also to the week-long weather pattern that had preceded it: from Sunday on the first weekend through Friday of the second weekend, skies remained dark and threatening, rain squalls punctuated every day with a moderate downpour or two. By that second Saturday, when the rain pattern finally broke, the festival grounds had acquired a series of muddy obstacles — significant patches of ground where accumulated rain created the kind if mud-laden conditions that looked potentially passable but remained capable of instantly sucking the sandals off the feet of those intrepid enough to attempt even a delicate crossing. The result was not only a narrowing of passable ground that concentrated the density of lightly thinned-out crowds moving along dry routes, it also seemed as if the imposition of a week of dark clouds reflected the overall mood of the event, signaling a major transition from earlier, carefree days when the fest depended more strictly on New Orleans and roots-related talent, ticket prices were cheap, and those attending felt a more-tribal connection as a whole — roots music lovers converged to become as much a part of the show as the ongoing music being presented on multiple surrounding stages.

This year, the passing of those days surfaced in the fracturing of musical acts that at one time upheld and represented the event’s central vibe. Beyond The Neville Brothers’ demise, the funkalicious Dr. John, riding a wave of contemporary success through recent his collaboration with The Black Keys, unveiled a brand new backing band received almost universally as incongruous. Meanwhile The Meters, core architects of New Orleans postmodern funk, made their presence known, but only in splintered appearances: in addition to The Meter Men, guitarist Leo Nocentelli offered a free outdoor concert midweek advertised as “The Meters Experience,” while bassist George Porter and super-drummer Zigaboo Modeliste joined forces with keyboard maestro David Torkanowski and trumpeter Nicholas Payton in a Jazz Tent booking wittily presented as “Fleur Debris,” a Nicholas Payton side-project that had all four musicians improvising on jazz-funk riffs with collaborators occasionally breaking out into mile-wide grins of pure joy. The bottom line, however, remained unchanged: both the Neville Brothers and The Meters, once the divinely inspired collaborators on the 1976 released The Wild Tchoupitoulas, a cornerstone of the late-20th-century New Orleans music and cultural revival, are now most likely gone forever as intact entities, gamely moving forward instead as disassembled versions of once-powerful cultural icons.

Ironically enough, it was the announcement this year of live-streaming coverage of the event’s second weekend offered by a pair of new-media players with high profiles, AXS TV (www.axs.tv) and TuneIn radio (http://tunein.com/), that seemed to mark the completion of one cycle — Jazz Fest as a wild and woolly tribal gathering — and the firm establishment of a new identity: Jazz Fest as a highly marketable cultural commodity now interconnected with a series of major corporate players who will continue to determine the event’s primary identity for decades to come. Another foretaste of the future arrived in New Orleans last fall as the privately held Newhouse publishing empire — today doing business as Advance Publications — announced a shift to digital platforms under Nola.com banner, which would require, Newhouse insisted, massive layoffs and a cut-back in production of the city’s widely read daily newspaper, The Times-Picayune, from seven to three days a week. By the time Jazz Fest rolled around, Nola.com was ready, dispatching anyone with any writing ability and cultural inclination to file up-to-date and wall-to-wall performance reviews, which ultimately came to number more than 100 and, given the event’s ongoing 60+ performances a day, in context represents only a partial accounting of more than 400 total performances, not to mention the potential for reviews of more than 70 food and beverage purveyors, or the dozens of craft and art booths vying for audience attention. It’s only a matter of time before celebrity bloggers and TV-host commentators become a part of the grand media mix, giving you the low-down on Ryan Seacrest’s favorite musical acts or Hota Kotb’s to-die-for favorite Jazz Fest food concoctions, as the once down-and-dirty New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival becomes a nearly ubiquitous, major corporate media event.

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