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Friday: It's the Mud

Ah, New Orleans in early May. You might think 90 degrees, fly-trap stickiness, magnolias, and post-Mardi Gras contrition. You'd be half right. This year's 44th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, at least the second of two weekends I attended, was so rain-sodden I almost cried. Some five hundred acts performed during the seven-day festival, and I figured I could get to twenty-five or thirty if I kept motoring. A night of downpour turned the fairgrounds' paths into cold mud, an all-day toe-squishing trudge: tire-tread sand, horse-track slick, grassy sludge, ankle-deep ooze, pig-sty slop. It was fifty degrees, and most of us half-dressed fans were wearing straw fedoras, cut-offs, and plastic-wrapped tennis shoes. We teetered through the mud at a woozy half-time to the music, balancing inebriation and chagrin.

It was worth the slog—especially if you rocked in the dry Gospel Tent to the most rousing guardians of the gospel groove, Crescent City's Betty Winn and One A-Chord. Anchored by a quartet, the group is led by Winn, who directs the big-band-like syncopation of eight singers, piston-sharp in the manner of Duke Ellington's sacred music concerts. In white Capri pants and robin-egg blue shirts, their sing-along version of Bill Withers' "Lean on Me" lifted the gloom and had the poncho-draped crowd swaying as one. But when Winn billowed the tent with her own composition, "Praising in New Orleans," and its saucily extended refrain, "this is how we praise the Lord—down in New Orleans," some communal meld took the top off the venue and everyone rose on the delicious command, "Stand up on your feet."

From stage to stage (there were twelve in all) I rambled and found much to celebrate: in American roots musician Spencer Bohren, his microtonal lap steel guitar coaxing "Ring Them Bells," a Bob Dylan tune whose origin Dylan attributes to the many resonant belfries of the Big Easy; in Marc Broussard's nasty pelvis-pumper, "(Take Me) Home," a blistering bit of Bayou soul snappishly punctuated by lead guitarist Court Clement; in the Branchettes, a North Carolina congregational-style trio, and its singer, Lena Mae Perry, who palmed her hand aloft for every praise-phrase chorus in "I Belong to That Union Band"; and in Marcia Ball's "Louisiana 1927," Randy Newman's renewable anthem about the first great flood, which she crooned with a gloriously understated sadness, especially on the lines, "Louisiana, they're trying to wash us away." I was moved by the widows and widowers of Katrina, crying and singing along on the big, hi-def screen feed.

I was entranced by regional favorites: Cajun fiddlers such as the Cyndi Lauper-esque fireball Amanda Shaw (the 22-year-old was at her tenth festival); sundry blues travelers; the uncontainable Papa Grows Funk; and the supersonic dobro virtuoso Jerry Douglas. These acts were so good I neglected to spend time with headliners such as the 80-year-old Willie Nelson or the forever-young Jimmy Cliff, both playing to seas of happy mudsters.


Saturday: It's the Sun

Over sweet potato pie for breakfast, I conversed with a native couple who, looking over the day's program, said, "What's New Orleans about Fleetwood Mac?" The '60s/'70s pop-rockers, revived in the Clinton era, closed out one festival stage—to wide acclaim—while again I ranged, glad for the savory sunshine and the many venues featuring musicians of the Bayou State. One aromatic wrinkle: days of tramping had stirred the racetrack mud, blessed by the nearby stables, and the acrid gas of horse manure floated just above the twenty-seven acres of fairground paths.

It wasn't long until I was bent upright by the phenomenal Dukes of Dixieland. This New Orleans septet in black jackets and clashing ties possesses inexhaustible lungs. Highlights included a tribute to Louis Armstrong with bassist Alan Broome's frog-throated Satchmo sound-a-like and trombonist Ben Smith's boozy brogue on "When They Swing That Music for Me." Their arrangements and cadenzas were zipper-tight, and they raised the double-time hurry of each tune with modulating ease, soaring to heights the politely seated audience took a while to scale.

I was determined to get to the jazz tent, having over-lingered again in gospel heaven, to listen to two groups: Fleur Debris Superband and Terence Blanchard. The Superband is percussionist Joseph "Zigaboo" Modeliste, bass player George Porter, Jr., trumpeter Nicholas Payton, and pianist David Torkanowsky. This super-fluid quartet swam into rhapsodic r&b grooves then abandoned them for some honking improv. Blanchard, an astonishingly supple trumpeter (not to mention fine film composer and educator), journeyed into jazz's outer limits with his sextet. They have a maximalist sound, and Blanchard's amplified horn achieved a clanging, yearning tone of great metallurgic force, crossing into a place where pulse dies and orbiting begins.

I have two complaints about the festival. One is for the Army Corp of Engineers, who probably designed the narrow bridges from the track to the infield: people use them as well as horses. One is for the drummer of the clown rockers Cowboy Mouth: every so often, please stop hitting the bass drum during your band's twelve-minute "one, two, three—scream" anthem, because 2,100 pounds of the same beat is not music, dude.

To heal my pique, I reentered the gospel venue and found the Wimberly Family Gospel Singers. The ten members, in matching yellow-silk shirts, erupted with "A Change Is Gonna Come." One of the younger brothers tipped the highest male soprano notes I've ever heard, in the castrati region. In falsetto, he scream-sang three octaves higher than his brother's lead vocal. As if possessed, he leapt and leapt in arms-a-swirling frenzy, ran away from the microphone, and cupped his hands on his head to keep from levitating. The message was simple, Papa Wimberly preached: "If you got money in your pocket and God paid your bills this week, I want you to shout, Yaaaaaa!"

Everyone on the planet has heard the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who improvised a feral set in the People's Health Economy Hall Tent. As the front men and the drummer sat and wailed, I did not forget the two sousaphone players (wrap-around tubas) who held up all that brass and throbbed the bottom. What a sweet day it must have been for that pair to get "Preservation Hall New Orleans" painted onto the big broad bell of their horns. Then I raced to the blues tent for a day-ending half-hour of Los Lobos. Their ribcage-rattling East-L.A. soul is anchored by guitarist David Hidalgo, whose unadorned vocal on "Will the Wolf Survive?" had the crowd in tow wave for wave, word for word.


Sunday: It's the Music

Fest folk get happy for obvious reasons: the beer, the sun, the camaraderie, the gumbo, the liberation that pulsing sound provides. The wind was brisk on Sunday, and the party breezed by. I met the "Mississippi Queen," Connie Rouble, a Creole foods entrepreneur and solo snake-charming dancer. I met a guy hoisting a giant stuffed zebra on his back ("My bachelor party," he said forlornly—"only four more days"). I met a Cajun two-stepper with a pith helmet of plastic flowers who on Saturday waltzed with a four-hundred-pound woman.

Over the second weekend, music that borders Interstate 10, Cajun and Zydeco, was sweet and sorrowful to the ear. Yvette Landry sang "Three Chords and a Bottle," channeling Hank and Patsy: "I've heard you tell the story / that you think you're good in bed / but honey let me tell you / it's only in your head." D. L. Menard & the Louisiana Aces performed a gritty waltz in Cajun French and Menard's resonant nasal baritone. Nearby, War Chief Juan & Jockimo's Groove rattled their bluesy funk percussion with story-song chants ("floodwater's rising") and visual splendor in their mauve and purple peacock costumes. "It's an Indian thing," Chief Juan said more than once.

Though I couldn't get through the masses to Jeffrey Osborne or Hall & Oates or Frank Ocean, I did sample Satan and Adam (melodic harmonica), The Black Keys (cataclysmic drum-guitar duo), and Aaron Neville (refined serenade). Two classics I have to mention: Wayne Shorter and Taj Mahal.

Wayne Shorter is one of the jazz gods whose long-running quartet includes Brian Blade on drums, Danilo Perez on piano, and John Patitucci on bass. Blade is, perhaps, jazz's most inventive drummer since Jack DeJohnette—a beat seldom issues from his sticks or mallets or brushes, only a universe of animated flourishes. Patitucci's aggressive presence demands he be heard. Perez alternates blunt attacks with concentrated lyricism. And Shorter, at 80, is still a magician of the noisy and the sublime. Opening with his new extended piece, "Pegasus," the tune was so lush and free and mercurial, by turns existentially introspective and stridently raw, that one could hear down through it—from Miles Davis to Weather Report to today—the tonal-atonal evolution of jazz, captured and caressed by Shorter's tenor and soprano saxes.

Closing the blues tent was Taj Mahal, buoyed by his Real Thing Tuba Band—a column of four tubas who harmonized translucent foghorn effects on "Big Kneed Gal," softening the plucked clang from Taj's gold-plated National steel guitar. The groove they got to on a tune from 1971 was as evergreen and mesmeric as when Taj first sang it, with a chorus of "You know, I'm just crazy about that woman." And I'm just crazy about these musicians and about a city that will never let Storyville's music get old.

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