The Roots Canal: Jazzfest (wow)
Where do I begin? There was great music all weekend, but the musical temperature kept rising higher and higher to the very end. If I tried to give a sense of what an ecstatic musical experience it was, I'd sound like a babbling 16-year-old so I'll just try to share some impressions of what I heard and saw. That's Eddie Bo with his band on the right, dancing around with a parasol at the end of his set.
Here's the top highlight, with others (and several MP3s) on the permalink:
Bruce Springsteen & The Seeger Sessions Band
The Boss? 'Nuff said. I was never a huge Springsteen fan, but now I'm a convert. He closed the first weekend with an emotional suckerpunch that left a huge crowd reeling.
Springsteen was inventing a new kind of music. Folk music as no one ever imagined it. He took century-old songs and made them musically and culturally relevant for today. I never before appreciated the emotional content Springsteen's voice can deliver. The combination of Bruce's passion with an emotion-laden setting and a huge, rollickin' band (I counted 19 musicians on stage: 6 horns, 2 fiddles, banjo, accordion, stand-up bass, 3 backup vocalists, and 2 guitars and a pedal steel guitar besides the Boss) created a situation that touched the heart of even the most jaded old music fan.
Bruce started the set by announcing that "This is our first gig. Let's hope it goes well," and then they played this song:
Bruce Springsteen -- Oh Mary Don't You Weep
At the end of the main set, the band played a 40's jump blues called Voo-It, Voo-It, originally recorded by Marion Abernathy (under the name "The Blues Woman"), popularized by Helen Humes and most recently covered 15 years ago by Paula Lockheart. I've been playing blues detective for "voot" songs for some time, and plan a major post on the subject. [Note to self: Now that New Orleans Month is ended on The Roots Canal, it's time to get moving!]
There were 4 encores: My City of Ruins, originally written about Asbury Park, NJ, but with obvious relevance for New Orleans; a joyous Darktown Strutters Ball; a rendition of You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch) that left me speechless; and, finally, a reimagining of When the Saints Go Marchin' In as a soulful protest song that was not only unrecognizable but included some rarely heard lyrics (at least, by me):
Now some say this world of troubleThe grizzled New Orleans native next to me touched a handkerchief to his eye.
Is the only world we'll see.
But I'm waiting for that moment
When the new world is revealed.
Click on the permalink for Elvis Costello, Keb Mo, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, The Iguanas and others, including a few MP3's. (Did I mention Bob Dylan?)
Allen Toussaint with Elvis Costello
This was my weekend's high point -- for about half an hour, until Springsteen blew me away. Allen Toussaint is a living New Orleans legend who teamed with Elvis for most of the set. They played half a dozen songs from their new album, The River in Reverse, which will be released in June. When the time comes, run right out and get it. It's that good.
After hearing lots of great New Orleans grooves all weekend, it was refreshing to hear someone use the music as a starting point for something more ambitious. This is serious music – Elvis Costello songwriting backed by a great piano stylist and funky New Orleans rhythm section. The album’s title song is sure to get plenty of airplay, as the refrain of "Wake up! Wake up!" builds to a big finale. Toussaint’s piano licks on Tears, Tears and More Tears (I’m only guessing at the title) were a great counterpoint to Elvis’ lament.
After Elvis left the stage, Toussaint sang his contribution from Our New Orleans:
Allen Toussaint – Yes We Can Can
[Our New Orleans: A Benefit Album for the Gulf Coast]
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Amidst all the hard-driving rhythm-and-blues grooves at Jazzfest, it was great to see Keb Mo in total command of a big audience on the main stage with an all-acoustic set. Just him and one backup musician, Clayton Gibbs. Keb played acoustic and steel guitar and harmonica. Gibbs played guitar, banjo and mandolin. Most of the set was from Keb’s great early albums. Of 13 songs, 9 were from the first three albums (my favorites) and only 4 from the later, less successful albums. The highlights, for me, weren't necessarily my favorite songs from the records but the combination of steel slide guitar and banjo on That’s Not Love along with Henry and Everything I Need.
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Walter "Wolfman" Washington
I’m a fan of the Wolfman, and he didn't disappoint. Washington puts the rhythm back in rhythm-and-blues. He used to play guitar for the late great New Orleans blues-and-jazz singer Johnny Adams (a future post!) and apparently learned to sing by watching the master. He wasn't born with a great voice, but makes up for it with enthusiasm -- and an occasional howl. His gravelly voice easily goes back and forth between blues, soul and even light jazz. His bass player had the best bass solo I saw all weekend. Here's an instrumental with his trademark howl:
Walter *Wolfman* Washington – On the Prowl
[On the Prowl]
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What a great performer! He's lost nothing over the years. Great funk band. When Eddie sang Drown in My Own Tears, it was the only time I've ever heard anyone sing Ray Charles without being a pale imitation of the master. When he played Professor Longhair, he was channeling the Professor himself. He only got to play a few songs, but he lit the stage on fire. When they told him he had to end his set, he picked up a parasol and started dancing around the stage. I'd like to post an Eddie Bo song, but he didn't bring any of his albums to sell at the Fairgrounds' record store. I guess that's typical business practice for Eddie, who's not doing too well since Katrina.
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My toughest decision was whether to see the subdudes, Luther Kent or the Iguanas. I chose to skip the 'dudes, because they were at the main stage which is the worst venue at the Fairgrounds unless you stake out a spot early (as we did the first and third days). Instead, I caught Luther Kent's first few songs (he started a little earlier than the others) and then moved over to the Iguanas at the next stage. Good choice. Luther and Trick Bag always put on a great show with their big-band style of blues, but the Iguanas are an unusual, idiosyncratic band. The highlight was a folky number with a kind of squeaky atonal horn-and-guitar-and-percussion intro (it's a little different on the record). It's on the album I already owned but I had never really focused on this song. There's a lesson there, I think.
The Iguanas – The First Kiss Is Free
[Plastic Silver 9 Volt Heart]
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Here are some names I wasn't familiar with:
J. Monque 'D Blues Band – Whiz Bang
J. Monque 'D barely seems to break a sweat as he blends New Orleans grooves with a healthy dose of Chicago-style blues and Louisiana "swamp blues" (according to the liner notes). Here's a novelty song that kept the crowd laughing all the way.
[Chitlin' Eatin' Music] Also available on emusic.
Elements – The Brightness
Here's a reggae-rock band from Baton Rouge, of all places. They mix lots of influences into a big, big sound.
Anders Osborne – Break the Chain
This young white Swedish-born New Orleans bluesman has a bright style that sometimes seems to verge on pop but stays credible. I like this title song even though it's nothing like the other songs on the album, which tend to be a more hard-rock style of blues.
[Break the Chain]
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Oh, yes. Bob Dylan. How can you separate memory from experience when you listen to Dylan live? He put on a good show, I guess. It's like watching a guy named Bob play Dylan songs. Is it real, or is it Memorex? I'll take the Memorex over the real.
I like the Springsteen track a lot too--it could easily have gone wrong but didn't. (On paper it sounds like a recipe for an aural train wreck.)
There is also a popular version of "O Mary Don't You Weep" by the Swan Silvertones. Sometimes the dancers like to experiment with other styles of music and that particular track is one of the more popular ones on the gospel side of the fence.
The following podcast features Lavay Smith and a snippet of the Swan Silvertones version of "O Mary"
Download the April edition.
Thanks for the tip, Nathan. I'd never heard of Lavay Smith. She sounds worth getting to know, based on the snippets on Amazon.
"Voot" is a jive word that suddenly cropped up in half a dozen song titles around 1945, and then disappeared. I've traced it to a small group of LA musicians. I think it's related to "vout" which is a jive language invented by Slim Gaillard. The interesting thing is that everyone seems to use the word to mean something different.