Local Flavor Seasons Lineup at NOLA Jazz Fest
The first time Irma Thomas performed a tribute to gospel titan Mahalia Jackson at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, her spirituals reached an audience that was still reeling from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The set became an instant tradition at the festival’s Gospel Tent, where one of the keystones of New Orleans music—the music of the church—celebrates spiritual healing.
At the 2013 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival on April 26–May 5, Thomas’ would-be parishioners had a new set of challenges.
“New Orleans loves you,” Thomas announced, dedicating the song “If I Can Help Somebody” to those affected by the Boston Marathon bombing. “We’ll never know the hurt, but we understand the hurt. I dedicate this song to those families, and know that we mean every word.” It felt like she was speaking on behalf of her entire city.
The performance that followed was thunderous and soulful, if bittersweet. It was also a propos of a festival whose traditions have been tweaked on multiple levels. This year signaled a new phase for both the festival and the artists showcased there. The post-Katrina fear that swelled in 2006 has been largely replaced by a renewed, global sense of appreciation for local acts, as evidenced by increasingly larger audiences at sets by hometown staples.
Anticipating a September release for their second followup to the Grammy-nominated album Backatown (Verve Forecast), Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue were promoted to the closing set on the main stage, a challenge they met with aplomb. The ensemble behind Troy “Shorty” Andrews was a tight ship that demonstrated a new level of maturity with material from its most recent album, For True. (It didn’t hurt that versatile baritonist Dan Oestreicher shared duties out front with Andrews occasionally.)
For more than two decades, that closing slot belonged to the Neville Brothers, who performed the previous weekend, sans brother Aaron, as The Nevilles. Aaron Neville closed out a smaller stage on the festival’s last day, focusing on material from his newish doo-wop album, My True Story (Blue Note), plus a smattering of tunes from previous solo releases.
Another shakeup came via Mac Rebennack, a.k.a. Dr. John, who performed his first New Orleans show since firing all but one member of the locally based group Lower 911 after scoring a Grammy for 2012’s Dan Auerbach collaboration Locked Down (Nonesuch). The remaining 911-er, trombonist Sarah Morrow, stayed on as musical director of the newly christened Nite Trippers, a much smaller ensemble that leaned heavily on basic funk and rock styles during its set. The crew eschewed the shuffling rhythms and mystery-drenched harmonies that have characterized Dr. John’s hoodoo vibe since the late ’60s. Some tunes—including “Revolution” and “Big Shot”—worked in this setting. Others, like the 2012 disc’s title track and the 1968 classic “I Walk On Gilded Splinters,” suffered from clipped arrangements that seemed to have been scrubbed of their original grit and appealing darkness.
Both Morrow and guitarist Joel Johnson made numerous plays for the spotlight, taking solos that obscured Dr. John’s piano, keyboard and guitar work. Morrow demanded the show’s last word by taking over the mic to introduce the band—moments after Dr. John had done the same.
New projects from other jazz fest stalwarts fared better. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band debuted new material at its late-night Midnight Preserves shows. Featuring new voices (such as longtime trombonist Freddie Lonzo’s theatrical bellow), doubled-up tuba work and a handful of deliciously skulking melodies, the work previewed tracks from That’s It (Legacy Recordings), the first album of all-original music in the 50-plus-year history of the band. The album is due out in July.
The jazz fest tradition of showcasing extended musical families stayed intact. A Treme Brass Band tribute to bass drummer and vocalist “Uncle” Lionel Batiste, who died in 2012 at 81, included more than 20 of the city’s top brass players on the small stage in Economy Hall for a rousing fairgrounds send-off on April 28. As trumpeter Dr. Michael White blew a round and supple solo on “St. James Infirmary,” pink and white feather-bedecked social aid and pleasure club strutters led the crowd in a mini-second line that defied the muddy conditions to slow its roll. (Batiste was also commemorated with a second line on the main grounds, as a marker bearing his image was added to the venue’s permanent collection.)
As the Treme Brass Band looked back, remembering standards heralded by Batiste’s long tenure on the scene, an all-star version of the Midnight Disturbers brass band looked ahead. With drummers Stanton Moore (Galactic) and Kevin O’Day holding down the beats, a stage-long ensemble of horn players including Roger Lewis (Dirty Dozen), Ben Ellman (Galactic), Matt Perrine, Skerik, Corey Henry, “Big Sam” Williams and Shamarr Allen snapped out tight unison lines and blended parade-centric triplets with funk-fueled mantras. As the sky blackened and unleashed a pummeling hour of rain, Allen toyed with the dedicated crowd, daring them not to dance while his tiny assistant—Perrine and singer Debbie Davis’ young son—busted second line moves beside the band.
“Y’all are fiends. Music fiends,” trumpeter Terence Blanchard said the following weekend between the soaring horn lines and cascading harmonic waves of songs from his new album, Magnetic, and a surprise debut vocal performance from his son. “That’s what I love about y’all.”