2005 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival:
Music + Food + Beer + Sun = A Good Time Was Had by All

by Richard Skelly

At last year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival - aside from the usual vast smorgasbord of American roots music - many patrons found wild weather and thunderstorms to be particularly memorable. A huge storm and the understandable overcrowding in the blues tent almost led fire marshals to stop a brilliant set by Etta James and the Roots Band in May 2004. This year, the weather was sunny, cool and breezy most days of JazzFest, resulting in an added comfort level in some of the more crowded tents. There were many highlights in the 2005 edition of this seven-day event, often called “the mother of all festivals.” Thankfully, wild weather was not one of them.

For one, there was the brilliantly orchestrated “Tribute to Sister Rosetta Tharpe,” organized by singer Maria Muldaur. On Sunday, May 1, patrons in the blues tent were treated to a truly memorable show involving Muldaur, Angela Strehli, Marcia Ball, Del Ray, Irma Thomas and Tracy Nelson. Muldaur read a few words about Tharpe, who died in 1973 and who was the subject of a recent tribute album, Shout, Sister, Shout!, on Long Island-based M.C. Records.

“In October, 1938 a 21-year-old Sister Rosetta Tharpe recorded a string of hits,” Muldaur, reading from liner notes from the record, told a hushed audience in the tent. “I had the great pleasure of seeing Sister Rosetta Tharpe live in 1962, and believe me, she took no prisoners.” Muldaur and the others then proceeded to mix it up, performing glowing renditions of Tharpe’s secular, blues- based music, as well as her gospel material. Nelson delivered a soul-stirring, magnificent version of “Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down.” All the singers joined forces for one of Tharpe’s biggest hits, “Nobody’s Fault But Mine.” The vocalists and the back up band were joined by JazzFest impresario George Wein on piano for “Tall Skinny Papa.” (For more on Wein, see his recent memoirs, Myself Among Others, a fascinating chronicle of his long years in the festival business.)

Then there was the slide guitar set in the blues tent that paired up John Mooney, Drink Small, Roy Rogers, “Steady Rollin’“ Bob Margolin and Little Ed Williams. For anyone who’s a fan of slide guitar, that show was also memorable. Rogers served as musical host, as Muldaur did for the set previous. His band, the Delta Rhythm Kings, ably backed up the stellar lineup of guitarists. Mooney and Rogers traded riffs with abandon and aplomb on Mooney’s big hit, “Sacred Ground.” While you might think it would turn into a free-for-all finale, all five guitarists got the audience out of their seats several times as they wrapped up the show with an extended jam on the blues staple, “Shake Your Moneymaker.” The first weekend of JazzFest, April 22 through April 24, left most patrons with a dizzying array of choices. (Truthfully, the second weekend is more of the same!) With music on 12 stages, it’s hard not to find something palatable to your ears. There’s the WWOZ Jazz Tent, the Popeye’s Blues Tent, the Rhodes Gospel Tent, and then there are the big stages - the Acura and Sprint / Sanyo stages, where the bigger touring acts can perform while accommodating their arena-sized crowds. Big-name acts the first weekend included Steve Winwood, the Black Crowes, Wilco, James Taylor, Nelly, and Brian Wilson, among others.

Speaking of palatable, the food vendors at JazzFest are a whole other story, but suffice to say, offerings include everything from crawfish etouffee to Cuban sandwiches and oyster and shrimp po’ boy sandwiches to a variety of iced coffees and teas and beignets. Of course, there’s also beer! JazzFest patrons are doing themselves a disservice if they don’t experiment a bit with food options, and try something they’ve never had before, or never heard of before.

Many newcomers to JazzFest are often overwhelmed at the array of musical choices on the first two or three days of the festival. Fortunately, there’s that little break the following Monday through Wednesday when one can recharge the batteries a bit.

The festival’s focus on local and Louisiana-based performers is a good thing, because it enlightens patrons from other parts of the country - hell, from all over the world - on the subtleties and intricacies of the musical gumbo that is New Orleans music.

Wanda Rouzan and her band, A Taste of New Orleans, disarmed her audience on Saturday in the early afternoon in the blues tent when she said: “I’m not Steve Winwood, I’m not the Charlie Daniels Band - I’m Wanda Rouzan from New Orleans!” Rouzan is one of many colorful, charming New Orleans-based musicians, who, for whatever reason, just don’t tour much outside of Louisiana or the south. Others of that ilk include pianist and bandleader Eddie Bo, guitarist Snook Eaglin, Luther Kent and Trick Bag, Germaine Bazzle, guitarist Little Freddie King and his band, Alvin Batiste and the Jazzstronauts, Bob French and the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, John Boutte,’ Banu Gibson and New Orleans Hot Jazz, the New Orleans Jazz Vipers, Deacon John, the Frankie Ford Revue, Bryan Lee and the Blues Power Band, the James Rivers Movement, the Dave Bartholomew Big Band, and dozens of other acts. All of these artists have their own reasons for not getting out of town much - from the economics of touring for somebody like Bartholomew’s big band, to blindness compounding the hassles of travel for musicians like Eaglin and Lee.

The WWOZ Piano Night, always held the Monday night after the first weekend of JazzFest at Generations Hall, was certainly a success. High points at this year’s Piano Night, honoring songwriter, singer and pianist Allen Toussaint, included performances by Joe Krown (better known as Gatemouth Brown’s keyboardist), Dr. John, Marcia Ball, and Eddie Bo. Some offered renditions of tunes written by Toussaint, but most stuck with their own material. Toussaint is author of “Southern Nights,” “Java,” “Mother-in-Law,” and other R&B and pop classics, and he’s arguably one of the South’s greatest and most prolific songwriters.

If you haven’t had your fill of music over the first weekend of JazzFest, there’s always music in the record stores on Decatur Street during the day, often times featuring performers from the previous weekend’s JazzFest.

One welcome addition to the slate of activities going on between JazzFest weekends is the annual MoFest, presented by the Mayor’s Office. This two-day free festival on the Mississippi riverfront included a host of up-and-coming bands who are making names for themselves outside of New Orleans: Shannon McNally, Joe Krown, Bonearama, the Tin Men and the Soul Rebels Brass Band, among others. This low-key event is ably run by Scott Aegis, a New Jersey transplant who’s been in New Orleans for nearly twenty years.

The second weekend of JazzFest, which begins on Thursday, is even more of a musical endurance contest than the first weekend. Kim Prevost, a talented vocalist and arranger, offered up compelling takes on the Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night,” and the jazz standard, “Willow, Weep for Me” in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, ably accompanied by her husband, guitarist Bill Solley.

While the original Meters reunion may have been the talk of the locals during the first weekend of JazzFest, one of the more highly anticipated sets of the second weekend came from guitarist, singer and violinist Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown. Last year, Brown, 81, was diagnosed with lung cancer, and for the most part, he’s refused treatment. Brown and his band, which includes New York-raised keyboardist Joe Krown, were every bit as forceful and energetic in what may turn out to be Brown’s last JazzFest performance. Brown and his band, Gate’s Express, waltzed their way through a mostly instrumental music set that included “Sister Sadie,” “What a Shame,” and “Jumping the Blues,” while most of the audience baked in the hot late afternoon sun, listening in rapt attention.

Not surprisingly, many JazzFest performers included their own nods to the late Ray Charles in their sets. “A Tribute to Howlin’ Wolf” in the blues tent was a big success. Saxophonist, harmonica player and arranger Eddie Shaw, who played with Wolf, as did guitarist Hubert Sumlin and pianist Henry Gray, paid homage to their former bandleader in a well-paced set. Shaw sang, played saxophone and harmonica, and also included a nod to the late Charles with his own take on “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” The three seemed to mesh well together on stage, even though they may not have played together - or seen each other - in some time. High points included great renderings of Wolf classics “Built for Comfort,” “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” and “Howlin’ for My Darlin’.” Shaw delivered most of the vocals during the set, but Sumlin’s guitar playing was right on the money. Sumlin, another cancer survivor, has even begun singing lately at his shows.

New York-based singer-songwriter Madeleine Peyroux, accompanied by pianist Larry Goldings and bassist Matt Kendon, offered up stirring vocals and good guitar playing in the Economy Hall Jazz Tent, while Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm packed an equally huge crowd into the blues tent.

Another highly anticipated show was one from Australians the John Butler Trio. Butler, a guitarist and singer, offers up an eclectic, refreshing mix of blues-based rock and folk-rock, accompanied by a bassist and drummer. Butler’s much-anticipated set in the blues tent was followed by Tab Benoit and his group. Benoit, a native of Houma, Louisiana, is riding high on the heels of his best album in years, Fever for the Bayou, on the Telarc Blues label.

Another JazzFest band worthy of wider recognition is Bonearama, a group of five trombonists and a tuba player, accompanied by guitar and drums. Bonearama is led by New Orleans-based trombonist and arranger Mark Mullins. Their latest album, Live from New York, offers up startlingly fresh, creative arrangements of classic rock staples like Jimi Hendrix’s “Crosstown Traffic” and the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post.”

One important consideration: most of the Crescent City’s clubs come alive during the 10 days of JazzFest, so you’ll more than likely want to go out and hit a few clubs at night. Pacing yourself should be the order of the night, although that’s not always easy in the Big Easy.

The 4th Annual Ponderosa Stomp, April 26 and 27
Mid City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl

by Richard Skelly

You won’t find too many household names at the annual Ponderosa Stomp, a well-organized event held in between the two JazzFest weekends. The first event, and each subsequent Ponderosa Stomp, has been organized in large measure by a musical fanatic and record collector, Dr. Ira Padnos. By day, Padnos, a native Chicagoan, is a respectable assistant professor of anesthesiology at LSU Medical Center, one of New Orleans’ many hospitals.

The unsung heroes of American roots music are the focal points at this two-night extravaganza held at Mid City Lanes Rock ’n’ Bowl. This event has become prestigious in just four short years because of its eclecticism, or perhaps in spite of it. Early pioneers of rock ’n’ roll, country music, blues and jazz are all fair game here. The event is famous for going until 3:00 and 4:00 in the morning both nights. Last year, David Hidalgo from Los Lobos was checking out Barbara Lynn’s set. Terry Stewart, the director of the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland, is an avowed patron and sponsor.

Performers at this year’s Ponderosa Stomp included Dale Hawkins, saxophonist Plas Johnson, keyboardist and singer H-Bomb Ferguson, guitarist Deke Dickerson and his band, the Eccofonics, Archie Bell, Cleveland-based bluesman Robert Lockwood, Jr., New York-based blues and funk guitarist James “Blood” Ulmer, Travis Wommack, the Carter Brothers, Little Freddie King, Freddy Roulette and eccentric guitar legend Link Wray.

Ulmer delivered an exceptional rendering of “Queen Esther’s Blues,” and “Your Blues and My Blues,” and told the audience after his set: “If you decide to have me back next year, hopefully, I can bring my band.” H-Bomb Ferguson, (who has long had one of the coolest names in blues) and his band delivered a much-anticipated set downstairs at the Rock ’n’ Bowl that included tunes like “I’m Not Mad at You,” “I Had a Dream,” and “Pucker Up, Butter Cup.” Although he was clearly looking tired, Ferguson rose to the occasion, and an empathic audience spurred him and the band on.

The Carter Brothers recognized the fans from Australia who were at the Stomp before launching into “Somebody Lend Me a Helping Hand” and “Southern Country Boy.” To be sure, the most anticipated set of the first night of the Ponderosa Stomp was the show from Link Wray and his band. After several delays while the stage setup was finalized, Wray and his band, which includes his wife and his son, took the stage to thunderous applause. The 76- year-old guitarist delivered the goods on “Rumble” and his other now-classic rock instrumentals through a sea of flashing cameras.

Saxophonist Plas Johnson and his group delivered a rock ’n’ roll set the first night of the Stomp and a jazz set the second night. Accompanied by an organist, bassist and drummer, Johnson breezed his way through spry renditions of “Since I Fell For You,” “On Broadway,” “Hard Work,” and his famous “Pink Panther Theme.”

Other highlights from the second night of a true musical endurance contest included Archie Bell offering up his classic “Tighten Up,” and guitarist, singer and songwriter Barbara Lynn’s classic “If You Lose Me, You’ll Lose a Good Thing.” She included her own nod to Ray Charles too, with a great take on “What’d I Say.” Phil Phillips offered up his now classic “Sea of Love,” and accordionist and singer Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Doral sat in on Hammond B-3 organ. Oklahoma-based Dennis Binder and his band, the Early Times, delivered a powerful set. Binder told the crowd: “The first time we played here, we came on at about 5 o’clock in the morning! Dr. Ike has brought us back every year since then!”

The annual Ponderosa Stomp - attended as it is by so many musical cognoscenti and festival bookers - often offers a new lease on life for some performers who haven’t lost their enthusiasm for the business.

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