Annually, I give in to my more sybaritic, if not hedonistic, tendencies and head to the Crescent City for a weekend of jazz, food and play (with a little culture thrown in too). This year, I took that to a whole new level and went to both weekends of the Jazz and Heritage Fest (formerly the Louisiana Jazz, Food and Heritage Fest but don’t worry, they still have the food, boy do they ever). The trip and weekends were filled with sound, laughter and joy and collectively they only did me 5 pounds of damage. Don’t tell my nutritionist as I plan to have it off before I see him next.
Because any trip to New Orleans for the Fest has Foodie implications, I am saving the Dining part of my trip for next week’s newsletter and focusing on the best of music and travel surrounding the Fest in today’s piece. Make sure you tune in for next week though as I will have quite the report (and will include options for where to stay). You won’t want to miss these highlights of some of the best meals I have had in a long while.
But, what’s the musical buzz in 2012 about Jazz Fest and the NOLA music scene? Well, I would say that the local stars of the show are up and comers Big Sam’s Funky Nation (the BEST set I saw at the Fest either weekend)–they are local but will set the national funk/jazz/hip hop/rap scene on fire, I am betting! Sam, who is big in terms of muscle in body and muscle in musical talent, is the real deal. Sweating through his shirt, he threw it all out there with a set that was amazing and got everyone on their feet. It was a HOT day but no one cared. People stood and danced, arms in the air, and partied. Wow. I have seen Big Sam’s Funky Nation in bars the past few jazz fests but this show proved to me that they have their stuff tight. If they end up touring in your town, you gotta go!
Who else? So many its hard to pick. Loved Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra set in the Jazz tent. Fantastic talent joined them in a mix of straight ahead and progressive jazz with a few Latin Beats. The legend of New Orleans Jazz Bar scene, and my favorite, Kermit Ruffins came out and joined for a while and it was some sweet music. Then, a week later, caught Mayfield’s Los Hombres Calientes set on the Jazz and Heritage Stage–all hot, sexy Latin jazz. Speaking of Latin Jazz, caught the Baton Rouge, LA sound of Rumba Buena for the first time ever and I can say that I will NEVER miss them again if playing near me. Eric Lindell was amazing and played several of his new tunes from his just released album “I Still Love You.” A little rockabilly, blues, sexy and awesome guitar playing, Lindell starred both in the Blues Tent the first weekend and at one of my favorite night club venues, One Eyed Jacks located in the French Quarter.
Of course, one of my all time favorites, Papa Grows Funk, with the incomparable John Gros at the Keyboards, knocked it out of the park at the Fest and all around town (if you are in New Orleans on a Monday make sure you catch them at the Maple Leaf–a party will definitely break out). Amazing as always but no longer a New Orleans secret (playing Radio City this year) is Trombone Shorty who I caught a few minutes of at the Fest and then jammed with Dave Koz (who avoided Smoothing his jazz and was pretty stellar) impressing his packed audience, including John Stamos (looking stellar and fashionable). Performing in his and their incredibly eclectic yet always moving way was Shamar Allen and the Underdawgs.
But, while I normally eschew the non-jazz, headliners (e.g. Pearl Jam in past years or Foo Fighters, Tom Petty this year) since I can see them some other time, I parked myself all day on the first Sunday to make sure I had seats for the Boss, Bruce Springsteen. And, boy was that the right call (and since it meant catching Dr. John–a true legend–right before hand it was a really good call). I am a huge Springsteen fan–this was my 20th of his shows and none have moved me (and the humongous audience) more in that he helped save Jazz Fest (and some would thank him for his efforts for the City itself and its spirit post Katrina) when he showed up after Katrina in 2006. The audience and all of New Orleans have taken this man to heart and they showed it during his 2 and 1/2 hour set. It was truly an amazing experience–tears to eyes several times including realizing that this tour is without Clarence Clemons who passed this last year but will NEVER be forgotten.
And, finally, speaking of tears–my absolutely best Jazz Fest moment was in the Gospel Tent for the Boutte Family Sunday show when John Boutte (who, I think has some of the best pipes in the vocal arena today) and his Family belted out “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” a song not often played in the South. Goosebumps and tears.
The funny thing about Jazz Fest, in case you worry that the Fest is going to be too busy or crowded (or hot–and yes it is), the glorious nature of the Fest is that it brings some of the best Blues, Jazz, Funk, Rockabilly, Zydeco, Rock and Pop performers to the city and they have nothing to do after (or before) their sets but to go sit in with other musicians for a freakably great jam session and/or perform at nightclubs all over town.
The nightclub scene was on fire too. I caught Soul Live (!!!) at Temple NOLA (great venue and has seating for those weary of standing at the Fest) and the fun Robert Randolph and the Family Band (Ain’t Nothin Wrong with That) at House of Blues both were hot shows. I made it to the Maple Leaf for Jon Cleary (wow) and to One Eyed Jacks for Eric Lindell and caught the last half of Kermit Ruffin’s set at the iconic Rock N’ Bowl at Mid City Lanes–it was an all out party! Drinking a beer with Kermit after the set still is one of the better memories I have from this year. Sadly, I didn’t make some of my favorite venues: Snug Harbor (the classiest joint in town), Vaughn’s (where Kermit rules and barbeques for the audience on Thursday’s), Tipitina’s (just too many shows), Blue Nile (might be my all time favorite spot), DBA or Banks Street (off the beaten path but worth the trip) but am already planning next year. Hmmmm. Might even need to check out the French Quarter Fest about a month before Jazz Fest as I hear that is a kick and half too!
Whatcha waitin for–get your groove on and head down to America’s icon, NOLA, the City that Care may have forgot but the sound lingers on!
If you can’t do the crowd (and want to avoid the sun), think about buying a Big Chief Pass which is sold for each weekend at the Fest. The Pass gets you (sort of) backstage, with seating and out of the sun and, I think, is worth every penny (even though it is a lot of pennies–around $800 for the shorter weekend and $1000 for the longer 4 day weekend): check out the main site (and yes the great App for your phone) at www.nojazzfest.com for tickets and information (and if you book early enough some great hotel packages).
As to the talent, please check out:
Big Sam’s Funky Nation: http://www.bigsamsfunkynation.com/
Irvin Mayfield: http://irvinmayfield.com/
Eric Lindell: http://www.ericlindell.com
Papa Grows Funk: www.papagrowsfunk.com
Kermit Ruffins: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kermit_Ruffins (and catch him on Treme where he guests as himself on the great HBO series)
Trombone Shorty: www.tromboneshorty.com
Shamar Allen: www.shamarrallen.com/ (Shamar Allen and the Underdawgs!!!)
John Boutte: www.johnboutte.com/ (who sings the theme song used by the HBO series Treme, Down in the Treme! and has the best rendition of “The City of New Orleans” ever)
Robert Randolph and the Family Band: www.robertrandolph.net/
Soul Live: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soulive
Jon Cleary: www.joncleary.com/
And for must experience venues:
Maple Leaf Bar: www.mapleleafbar.com/
Snug Harbor: www.snugjazz.com
Mid City Lanes (Rock N’Bowl): www.rocknbowl.com/
House of Blues: www.houseofblues.com/venues/clubvenues/neworleans/
Blue Nile: www.bluenilelive.com/
Banks Street: www.banksstreetbar.com/