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New Orleans jazz & heritage festival

The second weekend of The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, otherwise known as Jazzfest was held during the first weekend of May. Although many people attend the festival to hear the music of national and international music giants, the festival is meant to showcase the music of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.

Cajun and Zydeco music, which both originate from Louisiana, are distinct in origin but have frequently influenced each other. Both genres were well represented at the festival. Goldman Thibodeaux from Lawtrell, Louisiana, at 85, gave the audience a lesson in the roots of zydeco. Drums, guitar, bass, washboard, and a fiddle accompanied Thibodeaux’s accordion. The Grammy winning Lost Bayou Ramblers from Broussard, LA are a more contemporary Cajun band. Brothers Louis (vocals and fiddle) and Andre Michot (accordion and lap steel guitar) integrated a mix of styles, including western swing and rockabilly with traditional Cajun rhythms.

Jazzfest dedicates an entire stage to traditional jazz. Many of the performers are in their seventies and eighties and rarely perform outside of Jazzfest. Recently there has been a resurgence in traditional jazz. Younger musicians are being mentored and learning the tricks of the trade. One such band is the Smoking Time Jazz Club. A seven piece with Sarah Peterson on vocals belted out songs from the 1920’s and 30’s. Annual performers Jamil Shariff and the clarinetist and jazz historian Dr. Michael White have also included younger musicians such as Kid Chocolate and David Harris.

Two musical genres distinct to New Orleans are their Brass Bands and Mardi Gras Indians. Brass bands date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Trumpets, trombones, clarinets, saxophones, sousaphones, and percussion have been used to perform a fusion of military style band music with African folk music. Mardi Gras Indians also trace their origins to at least the mid-19th century but most likely even earlier. Indians dress up in “suits” which are fashioned after Native American ceremonial apparel. The Indians are paying homage to Native Americans who helped runaway slaves. Like traditional jazz, the long standing customs are passed on between generations. Brass bands such as The Real Untouchable Brass Band, Soul Rebels, The High Steppers Brass Band and Mardi Gras Indian groups such as Big Chief Bird and The Indian Hunters and Fi Yi Yi & The Mandingo Warriors have carried the flame and helped renew interest by either updating the genres and/or including the younger generation in these age old traditions.

Many of the current crop of singer songwriters coming out of New Orleans playing the festival have blended many brands of music and added their own New Orleans flavor. Gal Holiday’s Thursday morning set introduced the crowd to her expressive songwriting and western style swing honkytonk. Paul Sanchez and his large ensemble’s blend of music and storytelling reached a pinnacle during “Canal Street” a song which evangelizes optimism and the celebration of life.

New Orleans moves to the beat of a different drummer, quite literally. A stuttering syncopated beat is fused with European traditions. New Orleans rhythm and blues along with its funk, dances to the beat of that drummer. Mia Borders fused soul, funk, and R&B to inspire the Sunday morning crowd to groove and remove the morning’s blurry vision. The addition of Brad Walker’s saxophone added an extra depth to her performance. C.C. Adcock arrived on stage with neon orange shorts and cowboy boots. He confessed to the crowd that while at the infamous Check Point Charlies he had lost all his clothes, phone, and passes to the festival. Adcock, and Check Point Charlies reputations make the story very believable. His Cajun, zydeco, electric blues, and swamp pop influences brought the Louisiana honky tonk to mind. The Honey Island Swamp Band, a five piece band who’s sound has been tagged “Bayou Americana” played an early afternoon set. Comparisons to The Band, Little Feat, and the Allman Brothers are valid. The addition of Cris Jacobs on guitar led to a triple guitar assault 

Two of New Orleans funkiest bands are Dumpstaphunk and Galactic, Dumpstaphunk is made up of two Nevilles, two bassists, and a drummer. The are probably the best pure funk band in New Orleans. Unfortunately bassist Tony Hall experienced sound problems the entire set. The set never seemed to take off. The guest appearance by Donald Harrison helped revive the end of the band’s set. Fortunately the sound problems were minimalized on Sunday, the final day of Jazzfest during Galactic’s set. Galactic’s triple horns tour de force shot right out at the gate. Erica Falls sang vocals on half the songs, going for broke on “Dolla Diva”.

During the second weekend it was obvious which local bands were pushing the limits. Two in particular stood out; Boyfriend and Tank and The Bangas. Boyfriend brought her burlesque, feminist, staccato rhymes, to a brand new audience. Big Freedia accompanied Boyfriend on “Mary Antoinette”, a bounce and twerking tribute to the Queen of France who was beheaded. Since winning NPR’s Tiny Desk Contest, Tank And The Bangas have been making a national name for themselves. The band’s reputation only grew with their 2018 Jazzfest performance. Mixing spoken word, soul, hip-hop, R&B,  and a bit of rock the band used the entire stage to their advantage. The band concluded their set with Nirvans’s “Smell Like Teen Spirit”.

Perhaps New Orleans most recognized rock band at the moment are The Revivalist. The septet has scored a major radio play with the song “Wish I Knew You”. The bands relentless touring have allowed them to perfect their craft. Vocalist, David Shaw came off the stage and into the audience a number of times. Their performance ended with a scorching cover of Joe Cocker’s “With A Little Help From My Friends”.

Of course there were other bands that were not from Louisiana at the festival. Bands such as The Lee Boys, Old Crow Medicine Show, Hiss Golden Messenger and Lyle Lovett played their brands of Americana to capacity audiences. Jason Isbell and Sheryl Crow delighted the crowd with their brands of country rock. L.L. Cool J reminded us that his name stands for Ladies Love Cool James when he handed out roses to the women in the front row. Jack White and Cage the Elephant ROCKED the fairgrounds. Some may say the sonic assaults don’t belong at Jazzfest. Both acts attracted a younger audience. Band members of Cage the Elephant thoroughly seemed to enjoy themselves. Jack White compared himself to a vampire and ended his set with “Seven Nation Army”.

Jazzfest had almost come to an end. As is tradition, festival organizer Quint Davis came on stage to introduce the final act, New Orleans own Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue. During the set Shorty introduced Ivan, Ian, and Cyril Neville and they played a tribute to Charles Neville who passed on the eve of Jazzfest . After the set Quint Davis bid the fans farewell and plans started being made for next year’s fiftieth anniversary of the festival. - Carl Beust