45 Years on, Jazz Fest Remains an Irresistible Draw

New Orleans locals Hurray For the Riff Raff
I wasted about a half-hour watching Hooray for the Riff Raff on the Samsung Galaxy Stage, trying to figure out what all the fuss is about. The group, which represents an emerging stream of acoustic Americana/folk music coming out of New Orleans perhaps inspired by the street buskers played by Steve Earle and Lucia Micarelli on the HBO series Treme, has become an NPR favorite and lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra has graced the cover of magazines like American Songwriter.

Of course, every musical generation has the privilege of discovering the heritage of traditional American music for itself, and Hooray for the Riff Raff attempts to inject a hip rock consciousness into its embrace of Appalachian and Cajun sources. But really, why get hung up on the latest derivations when there is so much of the real deal going on all around you? I wandered over to the nearby Sheraton Fais Do-Do Stage where Sunpie and the Louisiana Sunspots, a zydeco band that plays the festival pretty much every year, was holding forth. I did not have to try to like it. I just had to start moving to the groove. Hooray.

Red beans and rice, one of Jazz Fest's many regional delicacies
Traditional New Orleans jazz can be found in the People's Health Economy Hall Tent. I caught a few songs by Mark Braud's New Orleans Jazz Giants, an all star band of younger musicians, black and white, keeping the Storyville tradition alive that includes Braud on trumpet, Lucien Barbarin on trombone, David Torkanowsky on piano and Shannon Powell on drums. Braud, who plays regularly with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, sang a tongue-in-cheek version of "St. James Infirmary" that featured great solos all around before the band launched into a lively parade march that got the oldsters up out of their seats and parading around with their umbrellas up and down.

In the Blues Tent, I heard New Orleans R&B divas Wanda Rouzan and Jean Knight performing classic soul hits such as "Mr. Big Stuff" and "Tell Mama," as well as the theme song from Treme, on which Rouzan had a featured role. Back in the Gospel Tent, Irma Thomas, the Soul Queen of New Orleans divas, paid tribute to Mahalia Jackson with her version of "He's Got the Whole World (In His Hands)," backed by a full gospel choir.

The last set, starting at 5:30 on most stages, presented a choice of more contemporary soul divas; Aguilera on the Acura Stage, Chaka Khan on the Congo Square Stage and Brittany Howard with her band Alabama Shakes on the Samsung Stage. I picked Alabama Shakes; it was the right choice. The band sounded even better live than it does on record, with Howard's powerhouse vocals, Memphis Stax/Volt organ and lo-fi blues-rock guitars. I stayed long enough to hear the band perform their best-known song, "Hold On," with the crowd swaying and singing along.

At the Jazz and Heritage Foundation's Synch Up business conference on Friday morning, keynote speaker Don Was -- bassist, producer and current head of Blue Note Records -- quoted Bob Dylan as saying that the job of a performing artist is to put people in touch with their feelings. Apparently, there are a lot of people who can relate to a song about how "You got to hoooooold on..." The sound of all those voices pulling for each other put a chill on my spine.

Pharoah Sanders, Jazz Fest village elder
At 6 p.m., one hour 'till closing time, I pulled myself away from the Shakes and made a beeline for the Zatarain's/WWOZ Jazz Tent -- past the Lost Bayou Ramblers on the Fais Do-Do Stage, past the Celebating Brazil Tent, past the Iguanas on the Jazz and Heritage Stage -- to hear tenor saxophonist Pharoah Sanders, one of my all-time musical heroes.

Sanders, 73, resembles an African village elder with his long white beard and kufi cap. He was backed by a tight quintet including drummer Joe Farnsworth and guest trumpeter Marlon Jordan of New Orleans. Pharoah played a soulful ballad, he played a bit of the blues, and he screamed through his horn as only he can do on his anthem "You Got to Have Freedom." He closed with "The Creator Has a Master Plan," a joyful prayer for "peace and happiness through all the land."

Smiling beatifically, I headed for the exit. But Jazz Fest had one more gift for me. As I passed the Blues Tent, I found old-school soul man Charles Bradley down on his knees, his face drenched in sweat and his shirt unbuttoned, pledging his undying, eternal love to the woman who made him feel so good. It was a leave-it-all-on-the-stage finale that Bruce Springsteen would have appreciated.

Thank you Jazz Fest, thank you New Orleans. Here's to 45 more.


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