Hard to believe it’s been 50 years of epic for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, yet here we are in 2019 celebrating the silver anniversary of this life-affirming institution. Jazz Fest—and the culture that surrounds—is an anomaly of sorts, as nowhere else does an event or community quite like this exist, let alone thrive as one nation under the groove. It can only be incubated and co-created in one place, and that is the beloved Crescent City, the one they say that care forgot. Some of us have not forgotten what it means, and we never will, for it is our home away from home.
New Orleans herself remains a beautiful conundrum, her convoluted and contested history the socio-cultural backdrop that defines the soundtrack to this town. The city often pulls inward, yet the hospitality she continually shows to outsiders like me keeps me forever in her debt. There’s that certain way they treat you, speak to you, nurture you, and bless you up with whatever they have to give and more. There’s a cadence to their musings, their vernacular as colorfully spirited as it is genuinely their own. This is a town where people bid you “Good Morning” until 4 p.m. The musical history that pulses through this city is in ’round-the-clock abundance, and the voodoo magic that defines this place is prevalent in spaces and places large and small. The fashion in which musicians come together to collaborate over this two-week spring interval is downright intoxicating, and keeps Jazz Festers returning annually for another shot at chasing dragons from venue to club to Fairgrounds stage and beyond.
As an aspiring music journalist and Gonzo-historian of sorts, covering Jazz Fest for JamBase and Live For Live Music through the years has become somewhat of a calling. For a number of years and adventures now, I have been honored and humbled to be just a minuscule part of documenting our ever-evolving Fest community and its surrounding events here in the Crescent City. For so many of us, Jazz Fest is a welcome respite every spring, a raging reminder that after an often arduous winter, we’ll see summer come again. I hope that my reflection on Jazz Fest 50 can serve as a souvenir for those who may have danced alongside me, or a motivating factor in prompting somebody new to make this essential pilgrimage next year, or maybe just someday.
Each year, there are countless musical options available to Jazz Festers—so many that it can be quite overwhelming, and at times even paralyzing. There are rampant FOMO outbreaks, often contagious; sometimes we just pick the wrong shows. Even when we get it right on that particular night, naturally one cannot catalog or review everything they take in over the course of nearly two weeks of round-the-clock rage. Nonetheless, as part of my annual love letter to Jazz Fest and New Orleans, I wanted to take the opportunity to shine a light on several potent and prismatic performers that I was blessed to enjoy over the course of this year’s 50th Jazz Fest. Le bon temps roule!
LOOKING BACK AT JAZZ FEST 50
NOLA buzz band The Grïd, lead by the uber-talented drummer/producer A.J. Hall, threw down a sweet tribute to the Roland 808 drum machine (with Khris Royal in tow) for a free show at the Ace Hotel. The Grïd also backed up Nigel Hall for a solo engagement at the Blue Nile, a first Saturday showdown that was on and poppin’. They had several other bookings all over town, as this krewe has been slowly but steadily bubblin’ for a few years now. I’m continually impressed with their unique hip-hop/R&B steez that is all their own.
[Video: Eileen Hall]
Local rapper/singer/songwriter/performer Suzannah Powell, better known by her stage name, Boyfriend, sold out One Eyed Jacks late night on first Friday backed by members of The Revivalists. Together, they tore the house down with hilarious, quasi-tongue-in-cheek risque performance art. This rambunctious party was complete with a lusty Christina Aguilera cover (“Genie In a Bottle”), and a David Shaw-enhanced “Praise You” (Fatboy Slim) to close it down at the stroke of 4 a.m. Over the two weeks of bottomless pints of funk and groove, a bit of humor and self-effacing fun was a welcome detour, courtesy of the rather charming (and somewhat alarming) Boyfriend.
Boyfriend ft. The Revivalists – “Praise You” (Fatboy Slim cover)
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe called upon a gang of friends including Lyle Divinsky (The Motet), Kimberly Dawson (Matador! Soul Sounds), old pal Mike Dillon and more for R.E.S.P.E.K.T.: A Tribute to the Queen of Soul, second Friday at the Orpheum Theater. Even Boyfriend showed up late in the game for an updated take on Aretha Franklin’s signature song. This was an enjoyable show, if a bit safe for Karl D Jazz Fest standards. KDTU also appeared at their regular, longtime late-night NOLA haunt Tipitina’s, for an earlier evening engagement in 2019. Even though the Rolling Stones unfortunately cancelled their Fairgrounds extravaganza, the Diesel still rocked the racetrack when the Tiny Universe torched Congo Square stage first weekend, returning to the festival proper for the first time since 2005.
The pristine swag of New Orleans drummer Terence Higgins is a sight and sound to behold, especially in his hometown. The former Dirty Dozen riddim king was on the drum seat for two dozen different sets over Jazz Fest, including high profile gigs with Tab Benoit and Ani DiFranco, with whom he is a regular band member. The smooth criminal they call “Grease” also rocked with a variety of superjams featuring the likes of Eric Krasno and Roosevelt Collier, in addition to a Col. Bruce Hampton tribute, a Jimi Hendrix tribute, the Mad Skillet project with John Medeski and Kirk Joseph, and a stint double-drumming Jerry Garcia tunes with his pal Jermal Watson at d.b.a. However, the tastiest Higgins jams, in this writer’s opinion, took place at the Maple Leaf late on first Thursday, where his own Swampgreasesquad uncorked an absolute scorcher featuring the likes of Nigel Hall, Ryan Zoidis, Eric Vogel, Ari Teitel, Andrew Block, Lyle Divinsky, Raquel Rodriguez, Khris Royal and more.
I want to acknowledge the steady stream of super solid performers who graced the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival’s plush and cozy Lagniappe Stage over both weekends. There is plenty of coverage from the Fairgrounds proper throughout the media, and I’ve always focused coverage primarily on the After Dark endeavors. However, this particular Lagniappe was simply too lovely to ignore, hence a quick shoutout to the sweet little stage. In 2019, we snuck into the Lagniappe Stage to enjoy the likes of SOUL Brass Band, New Orleans Klezmer Allstars (with special guest Stanton Moore), Helen Gillet, Keith Burnstein’s Kettle Black, and Billy Iuso & the Restless Natives. Each of these performances offered something authentic, and delivered in a cozy, shady, and downright elegant space off the Fairgrounds’ beaten path. On extremely hot days on the track, a tasty set at the Lagniappe was so often just what the doctor ordered.
The annual Fiyawerx Productions threauxdown, FIYA POWA, returned late night second Thursday at The Maison on Frenchmen Street, and per usual, the always-slaying squad delivered another bruiser. Local heavyweights Ivan Neville, Stanton Moore, Tony Hall, and Big Sam Williams teamed up with the likes of burgeoning guitar ace Marcus King, Skerik, Maurice “Mobetta” Brown, and the Minister of the Suwannee River, Dr. Roosevelt Collier, for a typically sick superjam sesh that ended with Adam Deitchand Kamasi Washington squaring off and blessing up the last few lurkers with a special duo treat. Fiyawerx captain Chris Rogers still knows how to throw a proper late night Jazz Fest party on this side of town.
FIYA POWA feat. Adam Deitch, J. Marcinek, R. Collier, D-Vibes
Over the course of my six days at the Fairgrounds in 2019, I spent a considerable amount of time and attention at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, primarily for the series of Mardi Gras Indians performing throughout both weekends. It was not uncommon to see crucial members of the local music community backing these groups. I spied the likes of sax maven Khris Royal and guitar champ June Yamagishi holding it down with 101 Runners, or Tank & the Bangas touring guitarist Danny Abel in a support role with Hardhead Hunters. Of note was the protest music that emanated from the 79ers Gang, hailing from the 7th Ward Creole Hunters (Big Chief Romero) & 9th Ward Hunters (Big Chief Jermaine), respectively. Anger, frustration, and dismay were on colorful and musical display in the 79ers Gang raps and grooves, songs that stirred the political pot and made people think while they danced in the blazing sun. A selection of different Mardi Gras Indians groups took the Jazz & Heritage Stage and/or paraded through the Fairgrounds, offering festival-goers an (admittedly sterilized) peak into the culture of Indian masking that accompanies Carnival music.
Eye-popping displays of art from award-winning photographer Michael Weintrob were on display at his INSTRUMENTHEAD Experience, hosted at the Art Garage across from the Hi-Ho Lounge. Weintrob and fellow artist Scramble Campbell created a container for music and art to live in concert, without the constraints of an admission ticket or a hushed audience. The INSTRUMENTHEAD exhibit comprised a vast collection of striking portraits Weintrob has shot since 2006, portraying musicians and entertainers shown with their instruments obscuring their faces. Subjects included Bootsy Collins, Mickey Hart, Junior Brown, Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers, and Derek Trucks, as well as a ton of NOLA-centric musicians and performers. Painter Scramble Campbell, who’s style and ethos is firmly rooted in a New Orleans state of mind, shared space with Weintrob to display a selection of his own wonderful works of art.
Among the varied musical performances that took place at this location were choice jams from Atlanta upstarts Voodoo Visionary, who appeared several times and made a gang of new fans, and an ultra-rare W-Beez gig (Wil Blades, Will Bernard, Jermal Watson). This writer most enjoyed the set from DJ Williams’ Shots Fired, kicking off after midnight on Saturday. DJ welcomed the likes of KDTU’s Chris Littlefield (trumpet), Steve Swatkins (keys), Chris Stillwell (bass), his Projekt-pal Dusty Ray Simmons(drums) for nearly two hours of fiery funk-rock and soul grooves. Shots Fired invited esteemed guitarist Isaiah Sharkey (D’Angelo & the Vanguard) to the stage for a couple joints, as well as the good doctor Roosevelt Collier, Joe Marcinek and vocalist Jessica Jones.
Keyboard shaman Robert Walter was as busy as ever this year down at the Jazz Fest. Robert may be from San Diego, but he’s spent enough time in NOLA (he lived here for a time) and made enough musical friends ’round these parts that this sort of thing has become an old hat. Whether it was Stanton & Skerik’s 20th Jazz Fest anniversary show at Tips, or linking up with Johnny Vidocavich uptown at the Leaf, Robert stayed in perpetual motion, per usual. Walter celebrated his 49th birthday second weekend with a Friday night double-header. First, he fulfilled his regular role behind the keys with Mike Gordon(Phish) to a sold-out Joy Theater. Then, Mike returned the favor, joining Robert, Simon Lott and company for Robert Walter’s 20th Congress set at d.b.a., blazing late into the night. Cactus chose to sit in on the classic RW20 barnburner “Don’t Chin the Dog.” Gordeaux could be found hanging out at just about all of Robert’s shows over the course of second weekend, including at Greyboy Allstars Tipitina’s late night. On second Sunday, as per tradition, we just had to slide thru d.b.a. once again for Robert’s Frequinoxcloser. Naturally, Steven Bernstein (Sex Mob) and Jeff Coffin (Dave Matthews Band) were in the house and had to get involved for the freaky final comedown. Even emcee Lyrics Born, who was boppin’ around all of second weekend, grabbed a mic and kicked a rhyme. This (possibly) inspired Big Chief Donald Harrison to once again take off his blazer, put down the sax, and spit some lyrics—part Mardi Gras Indian chant, part forgotten No Limit soldier. This gig served to shut it down, forwards and backwards, for Frequinox 2019. Only in New Orleans, baby!
Trumpet player Maurice “Mobetta” Brown seemed to be just about everywhere in NOLA for two full weeks. Few out-of-town musicians are more prolific in their time during Jazz Fest than this master trumpet magician. Brown led his own team thru the Jazz Tent at the Fairgrounds, as well as two smoking hits at Prime Example, where he showcased his own emceeing skills as well as a hot, well-rehearsed band featuring guitarist Marcus Machado. At Prime Example, Brown focused on tracks from his most excellent LP The Mood, released last year. Later, Mobetta teamed up with NOLA-based virtuoso trumpeter Ashlin Parker for a Roy Hargrove tribute at the exquisite jazz club, Snug Harbor. Once again this year, Maurice joined Parker’s fantastic Trumpet Mafia, which also includes Eric Benny Bloom, Leon “Kid Chocolate” Brown, and Nicholas Payton. Trumpet Mafia brought a thrilling show to the Jazz Tent at the Fairgrounds, as well as at Wednesdays in the Park, a free event that draws large crowds between Jazz Fest weekends. All this came before he linked up with his pal Kamasi Washington, to blow minds on the Gentilly Stage, and once again late-night at the Joy Theater. Add him sliding through FIYA POWA, on the Soulaquarians Salute, with DMD, Andy Frasco & the UN, Funky But Better, and numerous unlisted sit-ins in a variety of combinations, and you get the point. Mobetta gets around like few others, and does so in a variety of styles and collaborations along the way. A true Jazz Fest veteran who knows just how to get in where he fits in, always chasing another jam session somewhere.
Maurice “Mobetta” Brown & Soul’d U Out
On the final day of the Fairgrounds, inside of the Jazz Tent, closing out Jazz Fest 50 in a riotous, riveting fashion was the Don himself, Herbie Hancock. What a revelation! This band beyond description and they delivered us a shamanic serenade. After a delayed start due to the tent being overcrowded, Hancock and his ridiculous band took off on a tour de force that was the perfect exclamation point to the magnificent 50th anniversary of this storied festival. After performing some safer traditional numbers, Herbie stretched out and limbered up on “Cantaloupe Island” before dusting off “Actual Proof”, performing the much-revered Headhunters classic in full. The song was complete with all its nuanced passages expertly navigated by the peerless piano pioneer and his astonishing young Jedi Terrace Martin, who astounded on keys, sax, and what sounded like a vocoder or talkbox. After a thrilling, multi-era take on the quintessential “Watermelon Man”, the entranced massive howled, stomped and spazzed until the sublime squadron and their supernatural shaman once again assumed positions. The ever-mystical Herbie then strapped on the keytar and the krewe uncorked a bombastic “Chameleon” that threatened the structural integrity of this tent. The most recognizable jazz-funk song of all time detonated into the single wildest and most euphoric dance party in my own 17 glorious years down at the Jazz Fest Fairgrounds. Nothing short of a spiritual experience, indelible to anyone lucky enough to be present on the Sacred Sunday, when Herbie & ‘nem shut it down proper. By the conclusion, I was appropriately cheeks-deep in a good cry, tears of pure exhilaration. Offering the deepest of bows to the iconic Herbie Hancock, spirited and spry at 79 years young, and a bravo to the murderer’s row that supported him onstage: Vinnie Colaiuta (drums), James Genus (bass), Lionel Loueke (guitar), and the mesmeric Terrace Martin. In a word: Deliverance.
Herbie Hancock – “Chameleon” – Jazz Tent
[Video: Daniel Antony]
On first Friday night at the bustling Howlin’ Wolf, Dumpstaphunk hosted their wildly-successful Dumpstafly show, celebrating the music of Curtis Mayfield and the Isley Brothers, among others. The band once again added horns, and Ivan Neville’s company merked the bubonic “Future Shock”, giving the 1973 track new life. You haven’t really lived until you’ve seen Nick Daniels III put down the bass guitar and just croon Seals & Croft’s “Summer Breeze” in all his high register glory. Motown vibes were in full effect for a selection of Isley classics—we were just waiting for Mr. Biggs to stroll out onstage at the Wolf. Smokey Robinson’s lush “Cruisin’” went over huge, while Ian Neville and Tony Hall locked in with new drummer Deven Trusclair for Mayfield’s pimpadelic anthems “Pusherman”, Freddie’s Dead”, and “Superfly”, augmented by Sly Stone’s “I Want to Take You Higher”.
LETT US In the DUMPSTA – Maison
Predictably, Dumpstaphunk had themselves a mondo Fest the rest of the way. Second weekend, on the mammoth Acura Stage, Dumpsta nailed their annual Fairgrounds set, and Ivan contributed to a choice Allen Toussaint tribute. Ian, Ivan and Tony Hall were essential parts of the Foundation of Funk Acura Stage performance as well. There were numerous Ivan & Ian Neville sit-ins all over the city, not to mention Ivan’s popular piano sessions at the Ace Hotel and his Cris Jacobs collab, Neville Jacobs, at NOLA Crawfish Fest. Notably, most of Dumpstaphunk linked up with several members of Lettuce for LETT Us in the Dumpsta, a rough and rugged thunderclap that took over The Maison late first Sunday. Nick Daniels III and Lettuce’s rhythmic wunderkind Adam Deitch locked into some furious styles that won’t soon be forgotten. The Dumpsta krewe really pushed Deitch to dig as deep as ever, uncorking vociferous beats that cracked skulls with reckless abandon, leaving even his own LETT bandmates in awe onstage. These two bands are truly brothers (and uncles) in arms, and their collaborations, be it this one, Dr. Klaw, or whatever, are pure, unadulterated Jazz Fest late-night DNA. Meanwhile, Dumpsta once again brought it on home second Sunday with a sold-out Tip’s blowout that sent the people reeling back into the post-Fest default world with some sass in their glass. Year in and year out, Dumpstaphunk continues to find a way to make rumps shake and hands wave, thumping themselves into a NOLA institution.
Dumpstaphunk w/s/g Marcus King – 5/5/19 – Full Pro-Shot Video
Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste and George Porter Jr. are the rhythm section upon which the entire foundation of “NOLA Funk” has been built. These living legends from The Meters have created Foundation of Funk supergroups to explore the many avenues that have been paved by their iconic grooves through the years. The duo put together a variety of iterations of FoF over the course of 2019’s Fest, and audiences were rewarded with numerous golden moments. At the Acura Stage, we caught The original Meters rhythm section embossed by the likes of Ivan Neville, Ian Neville and Tony Hallfrom Dumpstaphunk for a thoroughly funky session in the midday sun. But it would be at the House of Blues on first Saturday that inarguable history was made. George and Zig teamed up with Eric Krasno, John Medeski and the Lettuce horns (Ryan Zoidis and Eric “Benny” Bloom) for a rollicking couple of hours of Meters and NOLA classics—renditions that were piping with experimental nuance and that downtown NYC hot sauce. During the encore, Kraz would shock the world when he introduced Phil Lesh(Grateful Dead) and his son, Grahame Lesh (Midnight North), who took the stage to an absolutely cacophonous roar. The electricity in the HOB was ramped to eleven as Grahame strapped on a guitar and Phil slipped on his bass in the corner, tucked behind Medeski’s wall of keys. Predictably, the squad launched into Dead-drenched N’awlinz jams “Hey Pocky Way > Iko Iko” for a perfect encore, complete with a sweet little detour through “Lovelight” towards the end. Absorbing these raw, unadulterated Phil bombs, just poppin’ atop Zig’s inimitable breaks and snappin’ snare, George a-grinnin’ and a-strummin’ from just a few feet away, we sang our collective hearts out on a pair of numbers that the Dead had made familiar to people like me, so many moons ago. An all-time Jazz Fest moment and a joy-filled experience for all who were lucky enough to make FoF a priority—and stay til the very end.
Foundation of Funk w/ Phil Lesh, Grahame Lesh – “Hey Pocky Way”
We caught a sweet Break Science throwdown at One Eyed Jack‘s second Saturday that was chock full of bouyant new music, yet one week earlier, those boys got busy with a different squad when MEGAWATT Vol.3 rolled into the Blue Nile, hosted by Backbeat Foundation. Late first Saturday, the self-described Afro-Dub Soundclash started knocking down Babylon buildings with no holds barred. Offering a streamlined version of their core lineup, lead by Antibalas touring guitarist Raja Kassis, a NOLA resident, and incorporating local pal Luke Quaranta (percussion, Toubab Krewe), plus keyboardist Borahm Lee (Break Science), drummer Adam Deitch (Lettuce, Break Science), and bassist Josh Werner, this troop set out to mine the classic reggae dub-tombs of yesteryear, explore boom-bap inflected hip-hop, and charge through Afrobeat anthems. Special guest Eric “Benny” Bloom slid through with some snake-charming trumpet along the way. A dubbed-out Marley classic, “Sun is Shining”, drove us deep into the well of island vibrations. Along with “Champion”, by the recently liberated Buju Banton, and the eternal “Night Nurse” by Gregory Isaacs all three whipped us into a veritable frenzy. An unforgettable moment for this writer ocurred when vocalist Jahdan Blakkamore, who fronted the band for most of the set, led these gladiators into the smoked-out “Sound Bwoy Buriell” from Brooklyn merchants Smif N Wessun. It was Timbs-N-Hood check time on Frenchman, as the undeniable Duck Down swag of this golden-era Boot Camp Clique chestnut reverberated into the rafters. The band approximated Da Beatminerz blunted dub production to perfection; this one joint alone was worth the price of admission. MEGAWATT continued to evolve in concept and execution in this third consecutive Jazz Fest engagement. Large up to the selectah who opened the show, DJ BlackPearl504, who warmed it up proper with a mighty healthy smattering of fiery edits, remixes, cuts and classics galore, my man truly blessing up the massive before MEGAWATT took over.
Tuesday night of the days between offered a bit of stiff competition for the seasoned Jazz Fester, as there were (more than) three tasty options in a cramped 200-minute window of opportunity. To start things off, we headed uptown to Tipitina’s for a special engagement with Asheville, NC’s Toubab Krewe. Ironically, bandleader/percussionist extraordinaire Luke Quaranta has lived in NOLA for the better part of five years, but they will forever be an Appalachian band to these ears. Nonetheless, their current creations, including 2018’s LP Stylo, are very much informed by their NOLA-bred drummer extraordinaire Terrence Houston, of George Porter Jr’s various bands. The cat they call the “Groove Guardian” lends his fiercely physical Crescent City style to the West African ethos of Toubab Krewe’s sound, a combination that makes for a spicy Malian jambalaya. The Krewe has been doing the damn thing for well over a decade now and they are nothing if not a well-oiled machine. Their patented Kora-dream sessions came alive in the hallowed room over which Fess’ presides.
From Tip’s, we screamed down to Frenchmen to slip into the Blue Nile midway through the Adam Deitch Quartet’s annual seance. Led by the venerable drummer Deitch and ably augmented by his Lettuce horn section of Ryan Zoidis (sax) and Eric Benny Bloom (trumpet) plus Bay Area organ maestro Wil Blades, AD4 has really evolved into an amalgam of classic groove jazz with hip-hop sensibilities. On this night, they unveiled an extremely polished performance yet again. By the end of the concert, people were howling for the release of their long-awaited debut LP, Egyptian Secrets. Kudos to Backbeat Foundation for bringing AD4 back to the Nile year after year.
Alas, at the moment that Deitch and company wrapped up this stellar sesh, we again peeled out of the Quarter and over to the Howlin’ Wolf for the first-ever Soulaquarians Salute, just getting underway. Headed up by trombonist Big Sam Williams and drummer Daru Jones, this would be a scintillating tribute to the landmark turn-of-the-century works by D’angelo, Erykah Badu, Common, the late J-Dilla, and beyond. Naturally, trumpet star Maurice “Mobetta” Brown would be a crucial element to this equation, as would guitarist Marcus Machado. Vanguard vocalists Charles “Redd” Middleton and Jermaine Holmes, D’angelo’s teammates who ran around NOLA with Daru and Marcus for the second straight year, were nothing short of killin’. Singer Kam Franklin took on Badu numbers “Window Seat” and the sultry “Fall In Love (Your Funeral)”, both from New AmErykah Pt. 2: Return of the Ankh. The band expertly approximated the special sauce that Questlove, James Poyser, Q-Tip, Dilla and the original Soulquarians created, a sound and ethos that has been somewhat copied but never equaled. They even took a stab at post-Soulquarians D’angelo country cut “The Door”, a track found on Black Messiah which D himself has only played live once. The Salute really reached for the sky with an ethereal take on “One Mo’Gin” from D’angelo’s unparalleled 1999 LP, Voodoo. The slow and sensual sway had every last lover longing for what might have been. The Soulaquarians Salute delivered musically, but unfortunately the market didn’t respond accordingly, as attendance was pretty light. Admittedly, it was a tough Tuesday night schedule with the two aforementioned shows in addition to the always-popular Dragon Smoke and L4LM’s The Funk Sessions. The deck was pretty stacked, indeed. Here’s to hoping that next year they give Soulaquarian Salute another shot—and maybe in 2020 more Jazz Festers will get religion.
There were several crawfish boil events again this year before, during and after Jazz Fest proper, each of them with merit and music worthy of discussion. However, I want to show love to the first annual Cosmic Crawfish Ball, an all-day event that took place on Wednesday of the days between. Produced by NOLA Brewing and Heartbeat Productions, the Cosmic Crawfish Ball offered some choice eats along with a diverse menu of music that really ran the gamut. Folks enjoyed performances from white-hot local upstarts like The Quickening and The Iceman Special, both of which featured choice sit-ins from local rock n’ roll troubadour Billy Iuso. The afternoon included a spirited set from Benny & the Late Bloomers and a mammoth slab of funk, R&B and Crescent City soul from Daru Jones, Marcus Machado, and Doug Wimbish a.k.a. DMD. Theirs was a raucous affair, and with the help of Roosevelt Collier, Big Sam Williams, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer, and about a dozen others, they made sure that this place got pretty riled up as the sun began to set behind the Mississippi River just across the way. To close out the Cosmic Crawfish Ball, Lil’ Baby Jesus Peasant Party went subaqueous for nearly two hours in the crunk tank. The collective, which features bandleader Jesus Coomes (Lettuce) on bass and his brother Ty Coomes on drums, also welcomed sax contributions from Ryan Zoidis (Lettuce) and NOLA’s Khris Royal as well as Break Science’s Borahm Lee on keys for a downtempo, electronic, psychedelic exploration in sound.
Daze Between Band is the successor to the Bear Creek Allstars/Suwannee Family Band, a long-running Paul Levine-helmed celebration at One Eyed Jack’s on Wednesday between Jazz Fest weekends. For the past three years, it’s been co-produced by L4LM with a band directed and curated by Eric Krasno, to wild success. 2019’s rendition was again a thrilling throwdown of colossal proportions. Ghost-Note’s Robert Sput Searight and MonoNeon held down the rhythm section while a ridiculous collective took shape as the core band, one that included Jen Hartswick (trumpet and vocals), Ryan Zoidis (debuting his sweet soprano sax), Weedie Braimah (percussion), and no-longer-a-secret weapon Nigel Hall on keys and vocals. As is tradition—for this party, for Bear Creek, and obviously Jazz Fest—sit-ins were the order of the day, and Daze Between offered them in abundance. Marcus King—who was omnipresent down there this year—took a star turn fronting the band, joining Adam Deitch, Nicholas Cassarino, WSP’s Duane Trucks, frequent Jimmy Herring collaborator Kevin Scott, and Ghost-Note percussionist Nate Werth, and more on the list of special guests for the evening.
Daze Between Band – Encore for Kofi Burbridge
Nigel Hall may not be born on the Bayou, but the man has resided in the Crescent City for the past decade and has been wholly accepted into the bosom of this great place. The super-talented singer/songwriter/keyboardist has steadily worked his way into the fabric of NOLA and is truly a part of the intrinsic heartbeat of Jazz Fest, day or night. No matter what venue or part of town, Nigel is kin. The man’s immeasurable talents and personality were on glorious display for the entirety of two weeks of Fest, and his contributions to the music and the culture continue to know no bounds. A workingman’s player, a keyboard wizard, an analog son, an organ maestro, and an R&B crooner with the best of ‘em, Nigel Hall could be found wowing audiences as a part of his main band, Lettuce, for their annual RAGE Fest, as well as backing NOLA’s authentically royal piano man Jon Cleary and the Absolute Monster Gentlemen, rocking with The Grïd at the Ace Hotel for an 808 bash, or having them back him up at the Blue Nile with special guest Raquel Rodriguez. His solo band Fairgrounds set was sadly rained out, but instead he was an essential component to The Nth Power’s Marvin Gaye Tribute and to their own OG lineup reunion at the Blue Nile. Nigel sizzled with Nikki Glaspie & the Homies and the aforementioned Daze Between Band, did SwampGrease with Terence Higgins, Maple Leaf All-Stars for some uptown Neville vibes, WWOZ’s annual Piano Night, guested with DMD at the Cosmic Crawfish Ball, Ghost-Noteat the Music Box and again for their Swagism LIVE showcase, the WIMBASH All-Stars, and more. At every turn, Nigel let his otherworldly blessings rain over us all, sorting out all sorts of family stuff onstage, healing with music deep into the night. Nigel left it all on the court. Even when the emotions brought him to tears and choked up his vocals, he soldiered on. Few people live inside of the music quite like Nigel, and during the marathon of Jazz Fest, we are all better off for it.
Nigel Hall (w/Raquel Rodriguez) & The Grïd – 4/27/19
Speaking of marathons, there’s no more thoroughbred Jazz Fest cat than local multi-instrumentalist Khris Royal. This dude has stamina like few others in the game, but his playing is never a note worse for the wear. Seriously, it’s hard to imagine that this dude is a human being, with all the top-flight playing all over town, in such a wide variety of projects, while staying firmly ensconced in the epicenter of the NOLA music scene year-round. His Jazz Fest gig poster for social media reads like fine print. His own project Khris Royal’s Dark Matter has a brand new LP that just dropped as Jazz Fest kicked off, celebrating with a record release party at Gasa Gasa. But my man was everywhere over the course of the two weeks of Fest. I personally witnessed Royal rocking with the Peasant Party at the Cosmic Crawfish Ball, George Porter Jr. & the Runnin’ Pardners at Fest, The Grïd’s killin’ 808 showcase at the Ace Hotel, onstage with the 101 Runners at Fest, with Derrick Freeman’s incredible SOUL Brass Band at the Lagniappe Stage, with Star Kitchen at The Maison, and with Nikki & the Homies at the Maple Leaf. Possibly even elsewhere (it can become a blur), but that’s merely one-third of his appearances, nevermind the random sit-ins and such. Royal’s Bayou-born, jazz-bred, reggae-tinged, New Power Generation-steez saxophone swag leads the way, but Khris gets pretty damn nice on the keys and bass guitar as well. Royal represents this city proudly, serving and embodying the local culture and tradition while collaborating in earnest with the visiting teams too. He always comes with something to say and fresh to play. (Check out Dark Matter II, out now!)
One must tip the Kangol to all-around Jazz Fest superhero Eric Krasno. Serving as musical director for an endeavor like Daze Between Band is no small feat, and once again Kraz lead with his atypically humble authority, charting a perfect balance of familiarity and new territory amidst a collection of artists that he expertly employs to compliment one another. In addition to his masterful work and predictably-sick shredding at Daze Between, this dude was literally everywhere at Jazz Fest. Too many collaborations to mention them all, but without question first team All-Pro 2019, as he is virtually each and every year down at the Jazz Fest. The two-decade New Yorker, recently relocated to Los Angeles, was looking svelte and energized as he took NOLA by storm once again. Krasno really stretched out in numerous directions this year, from Foundation of Funk with Phil Lesh sitting in to a third consecutive RAGE Fest reconnection with his Lettuce bredren to guesting with local stalwarts New Orleans Suspects at the Maple Leaf. He joined in with Jason Crosby & Friends and the Cafe Istanbul superjam with Leo Nocentelli, a huge set with Oteil & Friends second Friday, the classic Dr. Klaw hit at Bayou Rendezvous and, of course, his star turn in the Star Kitchen at The Maison. He even put in a round of raging with local buzz-band The Iceman Special at the reconstituted Sauvage Fest outside the Jazz Fest fairgrounds. All of these were peppered between other unlisted sit-ins all over town. Eric Krasno is a perfect example of how an artist not from NOLA becomes an essential part of the fabric of Jazz Fest, establishing his own lane, in his own voice, with reverence for the city and admiration for its artists, all the while earning their respect and hospitality because of how he carries it himself.
Star Kitchen feat. Eric Krasno 4/28/19
That brings me to Marc Brownstein’s funk band, as Star Kitchen took over the Frenchman Street club Maison on first Saturday with a throbbing, robust set of rock, funk, and irreverent getting-the-Led-out. The Disco Biscuits, Brownie’s main band, returned to the Crescent City for two Jazz Fest shows at the brand-new Fillmore earlier in the first weekend, but on Sunday night, the erstwhile bassist became bandleader and rolled out his new krewe that he dreamt up specifically for the purpose of playing a Jazz Fest late night. Alas, here they were, packing a venue with an assortment of guests who made it crystal clear that this is more than just a side project—this band has legs. It was heart-filling to behold Brownie’s vision come to triumphant fruition, as he set an intention and realized it with the able assistance of a tremendous team incorporating the Philly based talents of Rob Marscher (Addison Groove Project, Matisyahu), the unheralded genius of my old pal Danny Mayer (Eric Krasno Band, Danny & Mary) on guitar, and the crushing Marlon Lewis on drums. From Stevie to Zeppelin, this band wasted no time going to “Outta Space.” When Kraz appeared for his own (Derek Trucks co-written) “Curse Lifter”, Brownie and Lewis held down the groove as Kraz and Mayer stepped into the iconic duel-axe dalliance and soared. The always-welcome breakbeat magic of Bob James‘ “Nautilus” was fresh for this band but straight butta from the Kraz playbook. Soon, the Biscuits’ Aron Magner, who also debuted a new project during Jazz Fest (SPAGA), joined Marcher on the wall of keys on Deodato’s “September 13th”; score one for Brownie, what a call! NOLA’s Khris Royal (sax) and Turkuaz vixen Shira Elias arrived for a grand finale rocketship from Mercury to the Queen of Soul, and by the time the capacity crowd spilled out into Frenchmen Street, there was no longer a question: Star Kitchen is most definitely cookin’ with gas.
Star Kitchen w/ Khris Royal
[Video: Manda Saurus]
The mighty Lettuce sold out the Joy Theater for RAGE Fest, their annual Jazz Fest appearance. Predictably, they leveled the venue with a two-set eruption of cataclysmic proportions. In 2019, the band has really set their gear-shift towards uncharted galaxies with continually colossal type-II safaris, and this evening would certainly not disappoint in that capacity. In the middle of a mystical “Phyllis”, the boys set off on a fantastic voyage of boom-bap hip-hop, arriving at elevation station in a fit of pure LETT improv at its finest and most potent. Two stalwart guests joined them, one in each set: The first frame saw founding guitarist Eric Krasno slide through for a robust axe duel with Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoffon the seminal “Last Suppit”. Second set found LETT inviting bassist Oteil Burbridge, whose own group warmed up the room a bit earlier, to the spotlight for a three-song sit-in, beginning with the JGB groove-train “Finders Keepers” and continuing through the rare “7-Jam”. They finished the special guest section with their customary “Relax”, a song that allowed Oteil to beautifully scat atop his nimble fretwork. Other highlights included “Moksha” and “N’Dugu” early in the final frame before the crunkalogic science of a “Purple Cabbage > Trapezoid” combo seemed to threaten armageddon. That pairing found the squad frothing at the feet of the Mothership, with DJ Premier riding shotgun, before they took a hard turn to East Atlanta for some “Mo Bomba” action. For the titanic encore, Lettuce eschewed any familiar material and asked if they could debut something new. What materialized was leviathan in nature, a punishing peak into the next portal. Bassist Jesus Coomes and drummer Adam Deitch locked into some head-nod calisthenics while Nigel Hall, Bloom and Zoidis were shimmied in and out of the pocket with aplomb. Who knows if or when we’ll ever hear this joint again, but on this special Thursday night, the RAGE Fest faithful were treated to an excursion atop their brand new Space Mountain. Lettuce remains one of the tried and truest rides in the amusement park that is Jazz Fest, but if you take a moment and peek outside, you’ll see that they’ve still got the longest line. The original funk Voltron served to remind us all, yet again, that this is for good reason.
Ghost-Note is another collective that has rapidly immersed itself in the Jazz Fest flow. Leaders Robert Sput Searight and Nate Werth have been gigging down here in NOLA for years with Snarky Puppy, and this town is the first one where Ghost-Note sold out (Gasa Gasa in 2018). Searight has hosted his renowned Sputacular event at the Blue Nile for a few years now, while Werth steadily floats around to myriad shows, sitting in all over town during Fest. Ghost-Note’s bass phenom MonoNeon has also quickly become a part of the Jazz Fest culture, teaming up with a variety of musicians for tributes and one-offs in the true late-night spirit. The rest of the band is slightly less initiated to how we do things round here, but more than prepared for storming the stage with their squad. But nothing could have prepped Ghost-Note or the fans who flock to Jazz Fest every year for what this band would unveil over the course of three fundamentally different performances.
The trio of gigs began with the NEON-Ghost show at One Eyed Jacks, where Dwayne “MonoNeon” Thomas Jr. unveiled slabs of unreleased original music and the rest of Ghost-Note helped him communicate this art to the masses for the very first time. On second Friday, Ghost-Note and a bevy of friends invaded the Music Box Village for a “Junkyard Jam”, a sold-out abstract performance at the interactive venue that saw the band perform an assortment of repurposed structures doubling as instrumentation, while the likes of Daru Jones, Ryan Zoidis (again on soprano sax), Big Sam Williams, Jermaine Holmes, and many more took turns blessing up the bewildered masses. But even that was only a prelude to the massive-in-scope Swagism LIVE showcase at One Eyed Jacks on second Saturday night. The entirety of the Ghost-Note mission was fully realized as they succeeded in re-creating their landmark double LP, which was recorded at Parlor Studios here in NOLA, live onstage over the course of two raucous sets. Special guests included Kamasi Washington, Karl Denson, emcees So So Topic and Munir, spoken word artists Prudence and Sneed The Auset, Alvin Ford Jr., Weedie Braimah, Bobby Sparks, Raja Kassis, Nigel Hall, Eric Benny Bloom, Nicholas Payton, Brandon “Taz” Niederauer and more. Quite the feat accomplished by Ghost-Note, who left an indelible mark on the city in 2019.
Among the most treasured acts to frequent Jazz Fest night shows over the past decade is the divine Rising Appalachia, headed up by siren sisters Chloe Smith and Leah Song. The group, which has swelled to a six-piece band, sailed through their former home of NOLA for two succulent shows on the final weekend of Fest, both in celebration of their exquisite new LP, Leylines. Rising Appalachia began by playing an intimate engagement on Saturday afternoon inside the smaller indoor area at Music Box Village, where they debuted several cuts from the new record and welcomed the amazing Aurora Nealand to the stage for a choice sit-in. Then, the six musicians took over the curious outdoor environs of the Music Box Village and created improvisational music on a plethora of structures, in addition to tweaking the output of their own instruments and voices. A very unique musical experience, even by New Orleans and Music Box standards.
The following evening, just after the Fairgrounds closed on Sacred Sunday, Rising Appalachia packed One Eyed Jacks for a positively masterful performance, primarily of material found on the superb Leylines. Song and Smith reminisced from the stage about how much they loved living and busking in New Orleans, and one could certainly hear the city’s influence embedded in their magnanimous craft. Highlights included “Cuckoo”, an old-Appalachian fiddle tune passed down from their Mama, full throttle and rowdy; and the apocalyptic southern gospel of “I Believe in Being Ready.” I must acknowledge “Harmonize”, a love song dressed as a folk song, singing of a rite of passage to a higher form of love, the kind that we all aspire to connect. In addition to Song and Smith, percussionist Biko Casini and multi-instrumentalist David Brown remained in light, and the group has permanently added Arouna Diarra on n’goni and talking drum, plus Irish fiddler/cellist Duncan Wickel. In true Crescent City tradition, the collective welcomed local legend Washboard Chaz and upcoming trumpet player Brandon Lewis to the fold for a rip-roaring run through the traditional “St. James Infirmary”, a song that Rising Appalachia has certainly adopted as their own through the years.
Nikki Glaspie is my personal Jazz Fest MVP for 2019. There is just something about when she takes the stage in this town, the voodoo magic and cosmic spirituality she summons in abundance, no matter who she is co-creating with. Glaspie managed to play or sit-in with over a dozen combinations over the course of Fest, including (but not limited to) avant-garde artists like the incredible cellist Helen Gillet, Plastic Ballet or the exquisite Phantom Vanity, or the cacophony of Steel Punk at the Megalomaniacs Ball. Yet for my money, it’s her fatback-funk and sassy soul endeavors that really move the NOLA needle. Nikki Glaspie & the Homies closed out second Sunday uptown at the Maple Leaf, dropping some shimmering sexy mid-70’s fatback fonk, with a dash of quiet storm R&B. For these homie hits, be they in LA or NOLA, Glaspie selects musical friends she’s made in the industry, from her time in Beyonce’s band, Dumpstaphunk, Maceo Parker, of course with The Nth Power, and beyond. The Homies were from near and far, and traded in funk, hip-hop, soul, and rock currencies, and the show was something of a spectacular surprise. Glaspie recruited Nigel Hall (Lettuce) on keys, Khris Royal (Dark Matter) on sax, Shea Pierre on keys, June Yamagishi (Papa Grows Funk) and Ben Misterka on guitar, Uriah Duffy(Lyrics Born) on bass, Ty Coomes (Peasant Part) on percussion, Steve Lands on trumpet, and longtime local fam Paul Robeson on trombone. Phenomenal vocalists Kayla Jazmine and veteran Glaspie confidante Adam Joseph lead the charge up front, as well as DJ Soul Sister. This motley crew joined Hall and Glaspie in belting out timeless deep cuts from The Emotions, Crown Heights Affair, The Commodores, Bar Kays, SOS Band, and more. Nikki’s soaring soprano was thrilling to take in a few feet from her drum seat front stage left. The GAP Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head” threatened to detonate the iconic venue with a dynamite, funkalicious swagger, as did the joyful take on Aretha Franklin’s “Jump to It”. The Homies shut it down with a thunderous ride on the Mothership, tweeting no prisoners on The Brides of Funkenstein’s “Birdie.”
Nikki Glaspie was a force of nature (once again) in this year’s annual The Nth Power tribute at One Eyed Jacks, an awe-inspiring homage to Marvin Gaye titled “Time to Get it Together.” This show was possibly the most emotionally-driven musical experience in a fortnight chock-full of them. Bringing together a collective of musicians to dig deep into Marvin’s canon, the squad featured Weedie Braimah, Nigel Hall, Phantom Vanity’s Erin Boyd, trombonist Paul Robeson (Soul Rebels), trumpet player Steve Lands,saxophonist Bryan McNamara, Star Kitchen keyboardist (and longtime Nth co-conspirator) Rob Marscher, vocalists Chrishira Perrier and Kayla Jazmine, and the core trio of Glaspie, bassist Nate Edgar and guitarist/frontman Nicholas Cassarino, with a special appearance from Lettuce trumpet-maestro Eric “Benny” Bloom. Nothing could prepare any of us for the tear-jerking, whiskey-swilling journey into the annals of Jazz Fest voodoo magic that we witnessed at One Eyed Jacks long into the night. The swollen massive careened through Marvin’s funkier deep cuts and transitioned into the bigger hits as the evening wore on. Merely twenty minutes in, Hall and Cassarino removed their sportcoats in unison, a clear indicator that shit was about to get real. Nigel, seated at a Rhodes at the front of the stage next to Cassarino, continued to turn around and face Glaspie at her drum seat each time she stunned the audience with soprano tones. “That’s My BABY!” Hall repeatedly exclaimed, and trust that he meant it.
The vibrant ensemble continued to scale the clouds, making lovers of us all, one luscious track after the next. “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”, “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”, complete with multi-layered harmonies and vocal workouts taking us to church and back again. They came with the haymakers and nearly leveled One Eyed Jacks to its foundation by the time they returned, imbibed and inspired, for the undeniable triple encore. The air was thick and the vibes even thicker as the five original members of The Nth Power dropped into a positively orgasmic “Sexual Healing” that froze the entire room in its tracks, while dozens of panties hit the floor at one time. Presiding over this mouth-watering glory was none other than darling Nikki, ever the Evangelist, holding it down and hitting all the high notes like only this Empress can. “The Good Reverend Doctor” Nigel Hall and the “Master Prophet” Nicky Cake took turns talking some things out onstage, while the whole band (somewhat aggressively) passed a bottle around the horn. Then, somehow, they managed to dig even deeper. During a filthy “Grapevine” finale that made its way through Nth’s classic “Jazz Fest 420”, they exploded into “Heavy Love Affair”, manifested in the form of a salacious D.C. Go-Go joint. This final transmission saw Benny Bloom pop into the mix to get busy on trumpet, and the rest of the big band followed suit as they passed the solo around one mo’ time, with feeling, bringing back that District swagger time and time again. In a city and festival overwrought with tribute shows, The Nth Power delivers second to none, each and every year down at the Jazz Fest. Ring the alarm, we’ve got another instant classic on our hands. Astonishing how many times they can return to the well, yet always be finding forever.
The Nth Power Marvin Gaye Tribute – “Time To Get It Together”
I must save space to mention The Nth Power’s 6th Annual Last Hurrah, which takes place the Monday after Jazz Fest at the Blue Nile. Always a wonderful way to close out your Fest adventure, this year had added intrigue as the original squadron, no longer fresh from the waterworks and whiskey-town of the previous weekend’s Marvin magic, arrived at the Nile a weathered yet wiser assembly of souls. The band had mined so much out of the earlier performance that much of the emotional weight of this show was relieved before it even started. The core trio began by performing an hour of sparkly material from new full length LP, To Be Free. For the second set, Weedie and Nigel would join Nikki, Nick, and Nate for a terrific trip down memory lane. Alas, it was thrilling and heart-filling to hear the shelved Nigel-era classics revived in all their N’awlinz glory. “Jazzfest 420”, “Only Love”, “Holy Rain”, “Walk on Water”—shit, even the Doobies’ “What a Fool Believes” was busted out in all it’s shimmering Michael McDonald baritone bliss. These goose-bump melodies I thought I’d never hear sung in these same Nigel/Nicky Cake heavenly harmonies again, anchored by the dub-wise rugged-style of sturdy bassist Nate Edgar and the intoxicating riddims of Glaspie and Braimah’s gumbo elixir. So grateful that these musicians, this FAMILY, found their way back to one another, and the Last Hurrah was a gloriously graceful way to wind down the cosmic carnival that was this year’s NOLA expedition for Jazz Fest 50.
“There is no more beautiful music… that you will hear in your life… than music made among friends… and music that’s made with your family.” (c) Nigel Hall
Special Thanks to Funk It Blog for the incredible video footage!