JAZZ FEST 2008
by Rob Johnson

No human being could ever possibly write a comprehensive review of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. From the Fairgrounds to the clubs, there are so many different musical options to choose from that you couldn't hear everything without cloning yourself. As a result, every Jazz Fest experience is in essence a personal one. The best you can do is report what you personally saw and heard, try to convey the unique vibe, and hope nobody will be offended by the great music that you didn't cover.

Specifically, I want to say that the only reason I didn't catch either of the epic Gov't Mule night shows was that they rocked me so hard a few weeks earlier at Wanee that I decided to go with local NOLA bands I hadn't seen in a while. I don't think Warren will hold it against me that I wanted to see the Radiators and the Funky Meters. With that in mind, my wife and I swooped into New Orleans on Friday, and caught a little bit of Papa Grows Funk wailing on the Meters classic "People Say" and "tearing a hole in Jazz Fest," as MC Quint Davis put it. Band namesake John Gros is a bad man on the keys, and guitarist June Yamagichi is one of New Orleans best-kept secrets. We spent some time roaming the Fairgrounds and caught a little bit of Art Neville's solo set, which focused on his doo-wop material from the '50s. Then we settled in for a concert I've waited for all my life: Stevie Wonder.

Stevie Wonder is an American musical legend and inhabits a very elite level of the music world, that higher tier of artists who have invented whole genres and changed the face of music forever. The mellower side of the Wonder songbook was definitely well represented, with silky smooth renditions of tunes like "Golden Lady" and "Too High," and a gritty, heavily politicized version of "Visions In My Mind."

While his set was too heavy on ballads for some people, and others were turned off by Wonder's political comments, it was still incredible, and Stevie hasn't lost one note of his amazing vocal range. The up-tempo hits that many people were impatient for did come eventually, and when they did, Stevie and the band delivered big time. Any day you get to hear Stevie Wonder sing "Higher Ground" live and in person, you should consider yourself lucky.

The real highlight for me and many others was a 1-2 punch of "Living For the City" and "(Master Blaster) Jammin'" in the heart of the set. The band was tight, the vocal harmonies were on, the sun was shining and all was right in the world. After the rain started halfway through Stevie's set, it put a damper on things, but it was still worth getting wet to hear this living legend. Besides, without the rain we wouldn't have heard "Ribbon In the Sky" with a rainbow in the background, a perfect song choice at the perfect moment. A rare cover of John Coltrane's "Giant Steps" and a version of "Superstition" with New Orleans legend Irma Thomas sitting in were just two more highlights of this full-bodied set.

After the Fairgrounds, a shower and change is always in order. Fully refreshed, we headed to one of my old favorite New Orleans hangouts, Les Bon Temps Roule on Magazine Street. While we got warmed up for the Radiators show at Tipitinas, we enjoyed their legendary chili cheese fries while listening to a surprisingly good piano player work out on a beat-up piano in the corner. It was a quintessential Jazz Fest moment, the kind that shows how music permeates the city during these two weeks. Even when you're not looking for it, music is everywhere, bubbling out of the swamp. I never even got the guy's name, but I'll always remember hearing him play – life doesn't get much better than this.

Of course, when we went to Tipitina's for the Radiators show that night, life did get very much better. The Rads have a significant "home court advantage" at Tip's and they were in the zone from the first note. Among other things, HTN readers will be happy to hear that they played a magnificent "Mountain Jam" tease, but it was red-hot versions of classic Radiators songs like "Doctor, Doctor" and "Red Dress" that whipped the partisan crowd into a frenzy.

Guitarists Dave Malone and Camile Baudoin were particularly impressive, showing a near-telepathic ability to finish each other's musical thoughts. When you have been playing together this long, there is an extra kind of musical ESP that develops, and Malone and Baudoin have it in spades. Like any great guitar duo, it was the contrast between styles that makes it satisfying. Camile comes right at you with shredding hard rock riffs, while Dave is more bluesy and soulful.

Malone had just gotten an apartment in New Orleans a few months ago, the first time he has had a NOLA residence since Hurricane Katrina hit, and all weekend he seemed to play with an extra measure of joyful exuberance. His vocals were also strong at this show, with Neil Diamond's "Solitary Man" proving to be a highlight, along with the bluesy "Lonesome Whistle Blow."

And of course, keyboardist Ed "Zeke" Volker was at the center of it all, leading the band from one song to another and adding his trademark "Ed lib" improv jams. Volker's songwriting and endless musical vocabulary are the band's "Ace In the Hole," to quote from one of his hundreds of songs, and like the rest of the group, he seemed excited to be home and having a really good time.

Overall, I can't remember the last time I saw the band this relaxed, going off on mid-jam tangents to hit teases of everything from New Orleans standard "Second Line" to the Meters classic "Look-Ka Py Py" to the aforementioned "Mountain Jam." Every group that is improvisational in nature is going to have off nights, but when they are on, they can hit spontaneous peaks that more rehearsed bands will never approach – this was one of those nights for the Radiators. Check out the high-quality soundboard recording on Archive.org if you don't believe me:

http://www.archive.org/details/rads2008-05-02.rads2008-05-02.flac16

After some much-needed sleep, Saturday found me helping out at the Jazz Fest Live booth. The good folks at MunckMix were a pleasure to be with, as always, and I enjoyed hooking people up with good live music, as always. I didn't really get to see much at the Fairgrounds on Saturday as a result, but I didn't mind. Saturday night was the Main Event for me, with the Derek Trucks Band and the Funky Meters playing at the Howlin' Wolf.

First, a few words in praise of Big Sam's Funky Nation, who began the festivities at the Howlin' Wolf. Big Sam is a charismatic performer, and his band is funky as only a New Orleans band can be. By the end of their set, they had the crowd up and dancing and ready for more.

The relatively tiny club, which couldn't possibly fit more than 500 people, was packed to the rafters by the time the Derek Trucks Band hit the stage around 11. The band was in prime form, and Derek in particular was playing with a command and authority that was striking, even for him. He continues to learn and grow as a musician with each passing day, and the enthusiastic crowd ate up every note.

One observation from this show, which reflects well on the health and vitality of the DTB, is that the new material was arguably the star of the show. Songs like "Done Got Over" and "I Know" were warmly received, and a sizzling version of "Up Above My Head" was an unmistakable highlight.

Even though this wasn't billed as a full-blown "Soul Stew Revival" show, Susan Tedeschi was in attendance and added vocals to several songs, including a blistering version of "The Weight" that ended the set. When she wasn't singing, Susan could be spotted grooving in the wings and enjoying the vibe of the show.

After such a ripping set, most bands would find it difficult to follow Derek, but the Funky Meters were more than up to the challenge. Young Ian Neville, Art's grandson, has inherited the guitar chair from Brian Stoltz, and I was curious to hear the new lineup. Although I missed Brian's scorching leads from time to time, Ian's time playing with his dad Ivan in Dumpstaphunk has refined his chops considerably, and he has the funk in his DNA. While he didn't play a lot of solos, his rhythm licks were absolutely perfect and right in the pocket.

Like the Radiators on Friday, the Funky Meters had the Jazz Fest home court advantage working in full effect. From the opening medley of "Sing a Simple Song/Funky Miracle/Look-Ka Py Py" onward, they hit a groove that was as deep as the ocean and as wide as an 8-lane highway. The deep cut "Soul Island" was a nice treat, and when the group slammed into "Funky Soldier" the crowd started moving in earnest.

Just when you thought the jams couldn't get any hotter, Derek Trucks came out on stage just in time for "Love Slip Up On Ya" and the evening went up yet another notch. Derek seemed comfortable on stage and was ripping sweet slide licks from the minute he joined the band. His solos on "Funkify Your Life" and "Fiyo On the Bayou" added a lot to the songs and were nothing less than inspired. One Meters fan who had apparently never seen Derek before posted on the nojazzfest.com website that "Derek's peaks were blasts of otherworldly beauty." That about sums it up.

As good as Derek was, you can't talk about the Funky Meters without talking about George Porter on bass. He was at his best at this show, leading the band with earth-shaking grooves and unmistakable tone. His playing is so powerful and forceful, and so grounded, that a friend of mine at Wanee quipped "He is of the Earth." Between "Funkify Your Life" and "Fiyo On the Bayou" he took a bass solo that probably set off earthquake sensors in Japan.

Of course, drummer Russell Batiste is no slouch either, and has a backbeat that makes dancing an involuntary activity. Art Neville was massaging that B-3 to create dense organ sounds, and even though he was having difficulty walking, you wouldn't know it from his playing at this show. When I left around 3:00 AM, the show was still going strong, with no sign of letting up anytime soon.

Sunday was all about Santana, at least in my mind. While I have to admit to being disappointed that Derek didn't sit in, this show was so mind-blowing it sounds like whining to complain about any of it. The first half of this show was some of the best live music I've ever heard. "Incident at Neshabur" touched my soul and was possibly the top highlight in a weekend full of highlights. I've never heard this one, one of my favorite Santana tunes, jammed out so much, and Carlos' tone during the second half of the song was pure ear candy.

After the gentle, mellow final notes of "Incident" faded away, the crowd was blown back in their seats by a powerful "Batuka/No One to Depend On" combo that showed the awesome glory of Santana in all its splendor. I was also thrilled to hear a sensitive rendition of John Coltrane's "Naima" at this show, which was well-received by the jazz-savvy crowd.

Even the time-tested sequence of "Black Magic Woman/Gypsy Queen/Oye Como Va" seemed to hit the note a little harder than usual at this show. As "Black Magic Woman" ended, Carlos hit a note that rang over the Fairgrounds and elicited a huge roar from the crowd. As the band kicked into the driving "Gypsy Queen" jam with that note still ringing, the roar of the crowd kicked up a notch. It was that kind of show, where even the most standard songs are played with extra passion and fire. Even the recent radio hit "Smooth" was jammed out in an extended version.

Besides Carlos, who was on his "A" Game all day, it's impossible to see Santana and not come away in awe of their rhythm section. Legendary drummer Dennis Chambers of Weather Report fame, along with percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo, created a churning, polyrhythmic groove that is unlike anything else.

One interesting moment was before the encore, when they played Woodstock footage on the video screens and played the audio of the famous "rain chant." Just as in the film and soundtrack from Woodstock, as the chant faded away, the band kicked into a seriously jamming version of "Soul Sacrifice" that featured some of Carlos' most hard-rocking soloing of the show. The new song "Angel Chant" was a bit anti-climactic, following such an awe-inspiring musical onslaught.

After that, it was over to the other end of the Fairgrounds, where the Radiators were closing down the Gentilly Stage, an annual tradition. They opened with "Wild and Free," which was a perfect song choice for a beautiful sunny day at Jazz Fest. Where can you be more wild and free than in New Orleans? Strong versions of "Where Was You At?" and "Let the Red Wine Flow" also hit the sweet spot, but I couldn't stay for long, not with so much going on.

My timing was perfect: I hit the Blues Tent just as the Derek Trucks Band was playing "My Favorite Things" and I savored every note. Seeing Derek play this song at Jazz Fest was a dream come true, and even if I had just seen him play it the night before, this was definitely special. The only thing that could have made it more special was Carlos showing up, but he had other plans (more on that later). Closing down the Blues Tent on the last day of Jazz Fest is a big sign that Derek has truly arrived in his own right, and he deserves every bit of it.

Right next door was the Jazz Tent, where the Fest-closing "Jazz Jam" was going on, and I had to check it out. I only saw a little bit, but they were cooking with gas, let me tell you. I couldn't tell you who any of the musicians were, just that they were some of New Orleans' finest, and they sounded very, very good. Exhausted but undaunted, I still had one more stop to make. A little bird had told me that Carlos Santana was going to sit in with the Neville Brothers, and I had to catch some of that. This was the first time the Neville Brothers had played Jazz Fest since Katrina, and it had the feel of a very special homecoming set. Just as the Radiators always close down the Gentilly Stage, the Nevilles used to always be the last act on the Acura Stage, and having them back seemed to restore the natural order of the universe.

And yes, Carlos came out and played on "Ain't No Use" and it was amazing. One of my favorite Meters tunes, played to perfection, with one of my favorite guitarists wailing over the top. It was one of those special Jazz Fest collaborations that could never happen anywhere else, and it was the perfect end to my weekend. If you haven't been to Jazz Fest, you are missing out. If you have, you know what I mean. Next year, no excuses – just get there, and let New Orleans do the rest.
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