New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is an incomparable celebration that bridges the months of April and May with a joyous jamboree. Its associated “After Dark” calendar once again quenched the cultural thirst of the thousands who flocked to New Orleans this spring. Revelers visited the holy Fairgrounds, pulsating nightclubs, and beyond, soaking up the smorgasbord of all things Jazz Fest. By day, the Fairgrounds’ multitude of stages and vendors offered musical magic and the finest in N’awlins culinary arts. The party overflowed deep into Crescent City nights through to sunrise, offering gluttonous groove marathons, and crucial, creative collaborations.
A note from the narrator B.Getz:
For ten days, the first Saturday of the festival through to Monday’s “Last Hoorah,” I was fortunate enough to make my 15th pilgrimage on down to the Jazz Fest. The forthcoming feature is merely one version of an adventure that is shared by many; Jazz Fest is unique to each and every individual. It is an arduous task—a marathon of sorts—short on sleep, long on dance, big on refreshments, and abundant in good vibes. I am here to report back to music fans the world over and detail the wonders that transpired within the confines of the Big Easy this past month over.
Every May, sometime around Mother’s Day, I begin to take time to catalog and publish my thoughts. I do my best to retell my own Jazz Fest experiences the week after Fest concludes. (This year my process was interrupted by a fierce bout of post-NOLA wook-flu and the scheduling of Lettuce’s Rage Rocks, so it arrives a few days later than the norm.) Each year, I add a disclaimer in some capacity: Jazz Festers may not see me mention a few of their favorites, though, as a reminder, one person can only be at one place at one given time. This personal diary is not anywhere close to a complete overview of the festivities; my annual “After Dark Wrap Up” is a labor of love. For the 2017 edition, I added a few Fairgrounds performances that I felt deserved the ink. Nonetheless, I am again honored and proud to bring forth another first-person account of the music, the madness, and the mystical magic that defines the Fess experience. These are but a few of my favorite things from NOLA Jazz Fest 2017.
Usher & The Roots at Congo Square Stage at NOLA Jazz Fest Fairgrounds
My first Fairgrounds set spotlighted the all-grown-up R&B sensation Usher backed by The Roots and members of The Dap Kings. Usher had a delightful and cheery stage presence, the elastic dance moves of his youth, phenomenal vocals, and euphoric energy. The Roots krewe’s vintage versatility transformed Usher’s massive hits into herculean funk numbers and satiating soul arrangements with relative ease, setting the Congo Square Stage on fire.
Usher Raymond blended his songs beautifully within a bed of sonic artillery: guitars, keyboards, several horns, the thumping beats of bandleader Questlove (Ahmir Thompson), and MPC wizard Jeremy Ellis. The Roots plus Dap Kings hooked up Instant Funk’s “I Got My Mind Made Up (You Can Get It Girl)” and Kool and the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” Plus, Usher’s two decades of bangers were given new life, including “Confessions Pt. 2,” “You Make Me Wanna,” “Burn,” and “U Got It Bad.” Conversely, “Yeah” was performed in its original form, keeping Lil’ Jon’s addictive production present as Black Thoughtreworked the Ludacris verses devoid of their inherent misogyny.
The newly-liberated Usher classics drove home just how strong these compositions were in the first place. “Love in This Club” was reimagined Kingston-style, with a massive syncopated reggae groove. “Caught Up” was a furious take on the JB’s, with Usher channeling the Godfather himself with some James Brown moves and directives. Late in the set, The Roots and the inimitable Riq Gz (Black Thought aka Tariq Trotter) flexed their golden-era hip-hop chops with the always-incredible “Men at Work.”
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe featuring “Big Chief” Donald Harrison at One Eyed Jacks
Saturday evening was broken into (no less than) three tremendous shows and four mammoth performances. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe welcomed local legend Big Chief Donald Harrison to the stage at One Eyed Jack’s. Denson took a couple pages out of his own way-back machine with choice runs through classic KDTU chestnuts such as “Dance Lesson #2,” “The Rumpwinder,” and the long-shelved “Front Money.” Guitarist Seth Freeman made sweet love to his Strat, as the trusty Chris Stillwell pushed the bottom-end and Alan Evanskept the beats swingin’ real funky. Both Denson and Chris Littlefield (trumpet) took great pleasure in the Carnival melodies emanating from the Big Chief’s sax, and highlights included a rollicking run through Jimmy Smith’s “Root Down,” which had every pair of feet movin’ and groovin’ on Toulouse.
Russ Liquid Test And Break Science at Howlin’ Wolf
Across town at the Howlin’ Wolf, new NOLA electronic sensations The Russ Liquid Test were expressing their remarkable ideas to a small-but-enveloped crowd. Bandleader Russ Liquidsteered his squad through funky and frenetic rhythms, ably assisted by guitarist Andrew Block and drummer Devan Trusclair. The trio primarily focused on material from their debut EP, 1984. Before long, Denver-based MC Jubee,from Michal Menert’s crew, was onstage aiding and abetting this genre-tweaking contingent with high energy and fresh lyricals. Expect big things from Russ and his testy trio, a modernized lysergic experiment guaranteed to bear fruit.
Immediately following their set, headliners Break Science Live Bandtook the Howlin Wolf stage by storm, unleashing a furious run of classic BrkSci material reworked for the band setting. The instrumentation lent new colors and textures to the already-vibrant BrkSci songbook, while newer jams like “The Spins” were propelled into the stratosphere by the guitar work of Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff and rotund bass provided by Jesus Coomes, both of whom are Adam Deitch‘s Lettuce brethren. The Shady Horns (Ryan Zoidisand Eric Benny Bloom, also of Lettuce) lent both a bombastic punch and a NOLA feel to the future-music of Borahm Lee and Deitch. Lee came alive on the keyboards, and his sampling and programming prowess has evolved leaps and bounds. As a duo, Break Science is exciting and avant-garde, but the live band leaps into a new prism.
Wake Up & Live: Bob Marley Tribute at One Eyed Jacks
The Nth Power set the tone for tributes with their original Earth, Wind and Power gig during Jazz Fest 2016. This year, they reprised that program with some new faces for their return to the Howlin’ Wolf. However, for 2017, Nikki Glaspie, Nate Edgar, Nick Cassarino, andCourtney Smith chose to honor the timeless catalog of Bob Marley in a showcase engagement late-night first Saturday. The Nth krewe enlisted an incredible armada of musicians to deliver a magnetic message to an adoring audience; the squad consisted of Cyril Neville, Shira Elias, Raja Kassis, Rob Marscher, Brian Haas, Erin Boyd, Adam Joseph, Andrew “Da Phessa” Baham, Skerik, Weedie Braimah, and more.
From the opening pulse of the evening’s namesake tune, “Wake Up & Live,” and strong and steady runs through emotional numbers like “Iron Lion Zion” and “Concrete Jungle”, the enormous band had the dancehall in the palm of Nesta’s hand. “Bend Down Low” into “Soul Shakedown Party” was enchanting, as the backup vocalists embodied the I-Threes vibe. “Kinky Reggae” throbbed from Nate Edgar’s thundering Family Man and Glaspie’s titanic drumming. Local legend Cyril Neville took the stage to front the solemn “No Woman No Cry” before flipping the script Uptown Ruler-gone-Kingston rudebwoy on “So Much Trouble in the World”—once again Joseph, Boyd, and Elias gleaming bright behind the melodies.
The magnanimous performance from Nicky Cake Cassarino on guitar and fronting the enormous band cannot be overstated. What a role to assume—that of Bob Marley: universal deity, spiritual heartbeat of all peoples—and boy did Cassarino ever step up to the plate. Across the wailing “Waiting in Vain,” the massively dubby “400 Years,” “Them Belly Full,” “Punky Reggae,” “Rebel Music,” and the charging, mighty “Exodus,” the weary and wise leader took the Nesta throne with appropriate reverence and unwavering authority.
By the time the band returned for their second of three encores, there was nary a dry eye in the house. It would again be Cassarino, along with artillery-vested warrior Ms. Glaspie and the humble offerings of Smith, who brought the tears to the people with a sublime “Mellow Mood.” With the final stroke in “Redemption Song,” the crowd left inspired as we walked out into the Toulouse Street chill, collectively agreeing we were feeling no pain.
Lettuce at Tipitina’s Uptown
Lettuce took the legendary Tipitina’s Uptown stage after an opening set from Flow Tribe, and predictably uncorked a monster to close out the first weekend of Jazz Fest. The band’s core six were augmented as usual by Nigel Hall, as well as Eric Krasno on guitar, original trumpeter Rashawn Ross, and percussionist Tyler Coomes, brother of bassist Jesus. The undeniable Tips energy was palpable from the jump, with “The Hawk,” Neal Evans’ transformative “Bowler” unleashing the hounds, as did the maniacal hip-hop savagery within “Trillogy.”
Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff shined with boss tones and some ripping riffage from his trusty Les Paul on “Chief it Up,” while Adam Deitch whacked cowbell and Nigel Hall played Georgetown Hoya on “Let it GoGo> Makin My Way Back Home.” Kraz made his presence felt all of Jazz Fest, mostly on a bluesy Gibson SG (rumored to be a gift from Derek Trucks), and neatly realigned with his Royal Family bredren. Throughout, The Shady Horns kept things positively one hundred, as Ryan Zoidis and Eric Benny Bloom are want to do when the grooves get blue. The back-to-back attack of a mammoth “Madison Square” straight into EWF’s ferocious “Remember the Children” near the end of their set propelled us out into the NOLA night, spiraling into the spiritual ham-zone.
Thiftworks at Dragon’s Den
A curiously milky stroke of luck found Thriftworks‘ “The Feather and the Sword” tour landing just beyond the Quarter, at the Dragon’s Den very late on Sunday evening. Just as he did last month in Oakland, Thriftworks (gov’t name Jake Atlas) made sure that the Lettuceheads could catch Terry D in the zone just after raging the Royal Fam. We arrived for the long-running electronic music party Church to the Deem Team fully assembled, and I barely made it inside the Dragon’s Den as the Red Leopard took the decks well after 2am.
In patented Dilla-on-DMT style, Thrifty delivered a psychedelic excursion to underwater tombs, building bulbous three-dimensional bass on top of slurping drums and dreamy soundscapes. Jake reached into the way-back machine, pulling elements of “Greenie Beanies,” the pristine “The Touch,” and “Early Mondee,” while lacing up “Viscosity” and even “Terry’s Big Dab.” Channeling the Crescent City’s grimey environs, Atlas, one of the more genre-bending producers in dream-state downtempo (and a close pal/collaborator of NOLA newest electronic king Russ Liquid) kept things mad guttural, offering dirty, trap-to-table samples within his drippy drops, always mining for more McKenna. Dropping science from nearly every release, dating from ZenZero and Rainmaker to the most recent Low Speed, High Drag and Red Leopard, Thriftworks showed and proved to the NOLA massive just exactly what the fuss is about. This writer was lucky enough to encounter Thriftworks and tour-mate Payam Imani on Frenchman Street, as Jazz Fest wore on late one night, and took the opportunity to thank Mr. Atlas for his demonic dalliance at the Dragon’s Den.
Frequinox at One Eyed Jacks
Monday evening, the day after the first weekend of Jazz Fest Fairgrounds wrapped up, we honored tradition by taking in West Coast born, NOLA-bred boogaloo-soul supergroup Frequinox, hosted by Boom Boom Room Presents at One Eyed Jacks. The combination of Stanton Moore (drums) and Rob Mercurio (bass) of Galactic alongside keyboardist Robert Walter, guitarist Will Bernard, and sax man/bandleader Big Chief Donald Harrison is a Carnival-esque troupe—a terrific team when they annually come together at Fest. Their set was a joyous romp until near the very end, when a promoter took the stage, ostensibly to announce the encore, but instead matter-of-factly delivered the devastating news of the passing of Col. Bruce Hampton. The palpable grief that permeated the audience took the wind out of many a sail as we spilled into the Quarter, hearts in our hands, seeking hugs and understanding.
(photo from d.b.a. 5/7)
Dr. Klaw at Blue Nile
From there we ambled back to Frenchman Street to take in the first of two Dr. Klaw hits during Fest. Though weary and grieving, the Blue Nile gave us a chance to collectively mourn in a familiar and familial dance, as the band’s namesake and mascot, bassist Nick Daniels III, used inherent inspirational energy to summon his band’s best and most brutal grooves, salutes in tribute and homage to their fallen comrade. The usual suspects were on hand to steer the ship, including Mr. Eric Krasno, Ian Neville, Nigel Hall, Adam Deitch, as well as sit-ins from organists Wil Blades, Kofi Burbridge, and Eric Krasno Band’s young gun, D-Vibes. Though his afro appeared a bit shorter than usual, Ian Neville’s chicken-scratch riddims and uptown swagger told us everything we needed to know about local style. On this night, we all felt like a “Lost Rager,” but Daniels and his mercenaries did their duty to remind us all that “God Made Me Funky.”
Bitches Bloom at Blue Nile
Bitches Bloom followed DRKWAV’s phantasmagorical performance Tuesday night at the Blue Nile, and the Royal Fam regiment immediately distinguished themselves from the dozens of other tributes taking place around town. Helmed by Lettuce trumpet player Eric “Benny” Bloom, Bitches Bloom took a long, hard look into the Miles Davis catalog of the late 60’s and dawn of the 70’s. Bloom employed a sort of method acting, mean-mugging and glaring at his assembled players until they achieved tone and textures to his liking, just as Davis would do to start performances in those times. Bloom was joined by Lettuce co-conspirators Adam Deitch (drums), Nigel Hall (keys), Ryan Zoidis (sax), and Jesus Coomes, who handled the Michael Henderson basslines with aplomb.
Benny Bloom was master of ceremonies and star of this serenade. The steamy, foreboding performance saw sit-ins from Wil Blades(organ) and trumpet mavens Maurice “Mo Betta” Brown and Aaron Janik. Benny meticulously searched deep into the annals of this era, and the setlist included opener “Sivad,” a harrowing revamp entitled “Benny Runs the Voodoo Down,” “Right Off,” “It’s About that Time,” “Jean Pierre,” this writer’s favorite jam “Black Satin” (off of 1972’s brilliant On the Corner). Be advised that the separations hardly mattered, as they were just shifts in groove that altered the time-space continuum. Leaving the Blue Nile sometime near 4 a.m., we were left shaking our heads at how Benny and company had so effectively mined the Miles zeitgeist whilst delivering this shell-shocking, inventive performance. Bitches Bloom found itself immediately on the short list of the finest shows at Jazz Fest 2017, a testament to the modus operandi of this murderers’ row.
New Orleans Heavy Hitters Drum Championships
The New Orleans Heavy Hitters Drum Championship was billed as “A Day of Second Line and Street Beats, Benefiting the New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic.” With a crack-band of NOLA regulars—CR Gruver(keyboards), Andrew Block and Ian Neville (guitars), and Eric Vogel (bass)—this unique event showcased the best in New Orleans rhythms. Pairs of drummers who embody the region’s various styles and steez were pitted against each other to entertain the masses as well as to flex their chops. The lineup card saw matchups like: Zigaboo Modeliste versus Nikki Glaspie, Alvin Ford Jr versus Adam Deitch, Terrence Higgins versus Terrence Houston, Stanton Moore versus Johnny Vidocovich, Andrew Campenelli versus Mike Fouquier, and Joe Gelini versus Jeff Jani. Each drummer was given a few sections to strut their stuff while the band cooked up familiar NOLA grooves atop their beats. Towards the end of this mighty display, Deitch joined Glaspie and the King of NOLA funk drummers Zigaboo Modeliste for a triple-threat segment that was alone worth the price of admission.
John Medeski’s Mad Skillet (A benefit for Pass The Beat) at Little Gem Saloon
In the early portion of Wednesday evening during the week between Jazz Fest weekends, my mother and I attended a fundraiser at the Little Gem Saloon, a benefit for the brand-new non-profit Pass the Beat. Superhuman B3 bully John Medeski sits on the board of this organization, whose mission focuses on bringing music education programs and instruments to disadvantaged children in third world countries where resources for the arts are limited. Medeski’s phenomenal side-project Mad Skillet, born of a late-night Jazz Fest hit in 2015, blessed up the altruists and angels alike. Kirk Joseph, Will Bernard and Papa Mali fronted the greasy gumbo grooves, all powered by the best kept secret of Jazz Fest drummer-kings, Terence “Swampgrease” Higgins.
MegaWatt: An Afro Dub Soundclash at Maison
Late-night, traditionally, I find myself at One Eyed Jacks for Paul Levine’s annual shindig during Jazz Fest. This year, the Daze Between Band morphed into one of the more extraordinary all-star bands in recent memory, coming together to celebrate the lives of the dearly departed Col. Bruce and Butch Trucks. However, despite my allegiance to all things Purple Hat, there was another show in town that flat out demanded my undivided attention, MegaWatt: An Afro-Dub Soundclash, taking place at 2am at Maison.
The group was conceived and executed by all-world irie-mon Raja Kassis (guitar, Antibalas, Pirate’s Choice, The Wahala Boys). He tapped a real rudebwoy roster for the performance, including Break Science’s Borahm Lee and Adam Deitch, JuJu Fest & Toubab Krewefounder Luke Quaranta, Weedie Braimah on percussion, bassist Josh Werner, and vocalist Bajah (of the Dry Eye Crew), plus a horn section that counted on Rebelution’s Khris Royal and a very bad man called “Mo Betta” (Maurice Brown). This would be an all-star tribute to roots reggae and dub music, pulling vibes from soundsystem culture, smuggling them from the Kingston yardies all the way to Frenchman Street.
The krewe left few corners of the culture unturned, incorporating everything from “Kabbalah Rock” (Mad Professor meets Sly & Robbie), “Stalk of Sinsemella (Growing in my Backyard)” by Black Uhuru, and Eek-A-Mouse’s 80’s chune “Long Time Ago.” The boys also reached back to the Afro-Beat motherland for Tony Allen’s “Road Close” before ringing the proverbial alarm, forwarding Buju Banton’s rudie-anthem “Champion.” The sweet smell of ganja permeated the rafters, as Werner pulverized tombs that would make even King Tubby shiver. Deitch hung tough with both the dub and the one-drop, and when Borahm and Kassis called up Nesta’s “So Much Trouble” out of a particularly psychedelic space—the massive nailed the transition and unleashed the groove something stupendous. Despite the torrential rain and the bold font names throwing down across town, there ain’t no place I’d have rather been than with MegaWatt; chanting psalms to rain a bloodclot Babylon down.
MegaWatt was the centerpiece engagement of JuJu Fest, which took place within Jazz Fest and was curated and powered by the focused integrity of Kassis, Quaranta, and Braimah, among a long list of cohorts. Both percussionists found themselves gigging twice a night throughout the JuJu Fest programming, including with The Wahala Boys, a reunited Toubab Krewe, The FuFu All-Stars, Pedrito Martinez Rumba Project, Weedie’s annual birthday gala, the debut of Weedie Braimah and the Hands of Time, and more.
As Toubab Krewe’s Luke Quaranta said of the programming he helped organize, “We wanted to highlight this music here in New Orleans. We have always thought this music needed to be highlighted more and have a brighter spotlight on it anytime of year. But we felt Jazz Fest would be the time to do it. You know there is so much African inspired music that has developed here in a way that is pretty unique to anywhere in the States really. The way it has stayed alive and morphed and changed into all these amazing styles, New Orleans and American styles of music, so we really wanted to highlight West African music and music of the Diaspora.”
You can check out a few other choice performances from JuJu Fest during Jazz Fest below.
Toubab Krewe at Blue Nile
Weedie Braimah B-Day Party featuring Pedrito Martinez at Blue Nile
Lettuce’s Rage Fest at Joy Theater
Lettuce’s annual Rage Fest again returned to the magnificent Joy Theater, a staple of Jazz Fest after-dark activities each year. The funk gurus brought together the baddest band in the land with its gargantuan ten-piece Voltron edition for two sets of bombastic funk energy and robust future muzik. Opening sets from all-vinyl empress DJ Soul Sister and a brand-new lineup from Marco Benevento’s solo project both warmed up the capacity crowd thoroughly. Predictably, it would be the Mike Tyson of the crunk game, commonly known as Lettuce, who would come correct to crush the Crescent City crazies.
The band used their seventy-minute first frame to re-imagine their 2003 classic Live in Tokyo. Guitarist and founding member Eric Krasno settled back in quite nicely on a selection of songs that he co-wrote in his youth, vibing with his brothers immediately on “Nyack” and “Breakout.” As the jams wore on, the recently revived “Kron Dutch” and former rarity “4 on 6” soared atop the majestic theater. Full time axe-slinger and founding member Adam “Shmeeans” Smirnoff came alive on “Flu the Coop”, while the whole posse went Broadway on a head-nodding “Reunion.”
In a twist of historical irony, the Japan shows that gave birth to Live in Tokyo were the first performances for both Neal “The Hawk” Evansand OG trumpet man Rashawn Ross. Naturally, it was lovely to hear these fellas return to the melodies and movements that originally brought them down this once-unimaginable cabbage alley. Conversely, bassist Jesus Coomes’ brother, Tycoon Beats, was performing on a lot of these tracks for the first time, traveling from the LBC to lend his wicked ways to the percussion rig set up next to Adam Deitch.
The second set was one-hundred percent pure, uncut LettuceFunk, with the ten men coalescing as one and blazing into a defiant rage. Beginning with the haunting “Requiem,” the squadron uncorked one slab after another, driving the runaway train into the chests of every beating heart in the building with a surgical precision. “Get Greazy” saw Eric Benny Bloom and Ross take turns passing the dutchie over a Deitch beat from a City Park cemetery’s gates. “116th Street” harkened back to the Harlem players of yore, while subtly calling out to the Crescent City gangsters and the Creole queens alike.
“The New Reel” was maybe the finest cut of the evening, it’s rare-groove giving way to reverberent hip-hop swagger, Jesus Coomes professing a luscious low-end theory, as Ryan Zoidis’s voodoo-Maceo spoke in native tongues that rang all the way out into Canal Street. The heavyweight champs saved the constellation-hopping for the Rage Fest crescendo, an Iron Mike one-two slug of “The Force>Phyllis.” These joints from the stupendous Crush (2015) can be counted on for psychedelic explorations; on this night the pair would shoulder this mission for Lettuce to awaken the leviathans within. To conclude this exceptional engagement, resident analog synth technician Nigel Hall came to the front of the stage, and wooed us all to the finish line with a sultry, smooth run through “Do it Like You Do.”
Fiya Powa at Maison
FIYA POWA, a Cajun-fried soul-groove throwdown presented annually by FiyaWerx Productions, was a necessary stop between Rage Fest and the Leaf, power moves like this are required when trying to soak up all the Jazz Fest jambalaya. Seriously, anytime that NOLA legends like Leo Nocentelli, Ivan Neville, Stanton Moore, Tony Hall and Big Sam come together, it’s a guaranteed funk gumbo of absurd proportions. Throw in honorary members Skerik (Seattle), Roosevelt Collier (Florida), and “Mo Betta” Maurice Brown (NYC), and the recipe is ripe for ridiculous. Though this writer only caught about an hour, it was well worth the detour as Chris Rogers and company always facilitate a decadent dance party with mucho Fiya Powa.
Nthfectious featuring Nigel Hall, Viveca Hawkins, Erin Boyd, Adam Joseph, and Kofi Burbridge at Maple Leaf
Friday night’s super-late Shabbat séance Nthfectious felt like deliverance of a supernatural kind. The Nth Power invited founding member Nigel Hall to hang back in the room where it all began, Maple Leaf Bar on Oak Street. Nikki Glaspie, Nicky Cake Cassarino, Courtney Smith and Nate Edgar were also keen to invite the swaggiest singer in all of Berkeley, the spell-binding Viveca Hawkinsto soar along with Phantom Vanity’s Erin Boyd and Glaspie’s longtime collaborator Adam Joseph. Eschewing Nigel-era Nth material, the collective dove down into steamy soul and R&B of the mid-1970’s and beyond. Before long, Nigel and Nikki’s frequent cohort Kofi Burbridgearrived to play keys and purr on the flute, and the scene was set for the serendipitous.
On the very stage where The Nth Power was conceived (as a Jennifer Hartswick hit some five Jazz Fests ago), the swollen squad took no prisoners as they tore through a set tipsy off that bubblin’ grown n’sexy. Michael McDonald’s AOR smash “What a Fool Believes” was mouth-watering, and Burbridge’s choice offerings on the SOS Band deep cut “No One’s Gonna Love You” left jaws agape. Edgar, Smith, and the riveting frontman Cassarino showed an engrossed Leaf audience why they became Glaspie’s go-to krewe.
Towards the end of the evening, as the sun began to race up the horizon, the team dipped into one of Hall’s most reliable and resilient jams, “Joy and Pain” (Maze featuring Frankie Beverly). Nigel was crooning from the heart as the Nth Power plus Kofi mesmerized behind him. Meanwhile, the trifecta of terrific vocalists stole the show. Before the show came to a conclusion, Adam Joseph, Erin Boyd, and Viveca Hawkins unveiled “Ride My Pony.” The Nthfectious got salacious on the timeless Ginuwine ballad, a song that two decades later still goes hard at every skating rink and school dance from sea to shining steez. Welcome home, fam; we hope this happens once again.
Earth, Wind, & Fire at The Jazz Fest Fairgrounds
Earth, Wind & Fire’s shining set on Friday quelled any concerns that the funk institution is on its final legs. It seems that last year’s passing of founder and musical director Maurice White emboldened the band during a fiery, hit-fueled performance on the Congo Square stage. The band’s current twelve-piece lineup used its fourth Jazz Fest appearance to tweak its newest stage presentation. The iconic group is bound for both Japan and a full US Tour in the coming months. The trendsetting Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers have been mixing up funk, soul, jazz, and more with African and R&B styles for nearly half of the past century, and their hour-and-a-half show ran like the well-oiled machine that it has always been.
Original members Ralph Johnson (drums), Verdine White (bass) and singer Philip Bailey led the group through a wild, excitable twenty-two-song workout at Jazz Fest. Moments after the huge band stormed the Congo Square Stage, the area was packed to the gills with maybe its largest audience of the fest. The group launched into “Boogie Wonderland,” “Sing A Song,” and the everlasting “Shining Star” within its first half-dozen tunes. The show featuring two new vocalists, B. David Whitworth and Philip Bailey, Jr., yet it would be his father, Philip Sr., who delivered the signature falsettos and timeless vocals that, along with Verdine’s lively basslines and Johnson’s funky drums, made Earth Wind & Fire a household name for decades.
Bailey Sr.’s four-octave range was on display deep into the set, and towards the end of their magnificent showing, the band welcomed the intergalactic saxophone stylings of Kamasi Washington on a Middle-Eastern snake-charming vamp. After ninety-plus minutes with the iconic Earth, Wind & Fire, it should come as no surprise just why they are both Bobby and Adam Deitch’s all time favorite band.
Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s Exile on Bourbon Street at Orpheum Theater
Assisted by Luther Dickinson, Ivan Neville, Neal Evans, and Honey Island Swamp Band‘s Chris Mule, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universedelivered a resplendent performance, revealing their Rolling Stones’program Exile on Bourbon Street to a sold out Orpheum Theaterprime-time Friday night. Local hero Ivan Neville summoned his best X-Pensive Wino to deliver vocals and atypical verve, while Dickinson was a cagey bluesman high into the Crescent City night.
A variety of Stones jams were forwarded, including a Second Line intro on a mammoth “Loving Cup,” and deep cuts like “Sway,” “I Can See His Face,” the Mule-enhanced “Ventilator Blues,” and “Sweet Virginia.” Karl Denson and company dug for their own old chestnut, “Because of Her Beauty,” along with newer material like keyboardist David Veith‘s shimmering “So Real.” The encore was a sure-shot rage through Steely Dan’s smooth and sultry “Showbiz Kids” that had everybody in the Orpheum losing their proverbial minds along with their wages.
Dr. Klaw and Friends during the 15th Annual Bayou Rendezvous at Howlin Wolf
Eric Krasno, Nigel Hall, Adam Deitch, Ian Neville, (Dumpstaphunk) and Dr Klaw himself, Nick Daniels III (Dumpstaphunk/Neville Brothers), usually make up this NYC/NOLA Jazz Fest/Bear Creek supergroup. The gang appeared just before 2 a.m. at the 15th annual Bayou Rendezvous, again hosted at Howlin’ Wolf and benefiting the wonderful New Orleans Musicians Clinic. Klaw is perenially a rough ‘n’ rugged gang with Deitch bashing the skins; on this night, it would be Pretty Lights/Dumpstaphunk cyborg Alvin Ford Jr. manning the kit. Klaw was outfiited with the full frontal assault from Ryan Zoidis (Lettuce), and Rashawn Ross (Dave Matthews) blasting horns. This extra-spicy Klaw set tantalized the crowd, with special guests Bay-Area organist supreme Wil Blades, the ungodly talented Khris Royal (George Porter Jr., Rebelution, Dark Matter) crushing the sax and Ewi, and The Nth Power’s Nikki Glaspie taking a star turn, too.
A trying afternoon gig for Eric Krasno Band in Baton Rouge ended with Nigel’s car dying en route home, stranding Hall, Kraz and bassist Eric Vogel for a short time an hour outside NOLA. Nigel sought comfort onstage in a bottle of Jamison and some humorous banter, but Kraz exorcized his demons with grizzly SG tone and a bluesman’s bulls-eye shred. As a whole, Jazz Fest 2017 saw Krasno leave an indelible imprint on a dozen-plus audiences, exacting funk retribution on all who dared whisper that the Royal Fam OG might have lost a step. Buoyed by the bright and burly brass, and another stealthy sit-in from D-Vibes (his young buck protégé on the keys), Kraz tore it up like a man possessed—apparently, he was merely following doctor (Klaw)’s orders.
Orgone during the 15th Annual Bayou Rendezvous at Howlin Wolf
In a sea of contemporary funk bands who pride themselves on technical mastery of instrumentation alone, off to the edge of the map is Orgone. For over fifteen years, the California vibe institution has been eschewing fusion-math jams in favor of an astute, garage-band groove. Their authentic aesthetic that harnesses the fabric and ethos of the slammin’ funk 45’s of the Oakland 70’s. Founder/guitarist Sergio Rios is always the coolest cat in the room, and his onstage chemistry with vocalist Adryon de Leon is undeniable.
Flirting with sexy-time but never too on the nose, the kinetic energy and unadulterated swagger of Orgone’s Bayou set was guaranteed to make us sweat, and I left the room pretty hot and bothered. Kelly Finnegan of Monophonics (who also performed at the NOMC fund raiser that same evening) joined in on keys and vocals, while a four-piece brass section kept the booties bumpin’. Highlights included the opener “Hey,” “Higher,” “Don’t Stop,” and Sergio and company getting the Led out on a vehement gallop through “Trampled Under Foot.”
Big Lil Baby Jesus Peasant Party at the Maple Leaf Bar
It’s hard to put into English what transpired from 4 to 7 a.m. uptown at the Maple Leaf Bar on Friday into the subterranean night, this one will go down in the annals of Jazz Fest lore. An unholy army of cosmonauts converged to turn loose what might be the defining performance of this writer’s fifteenth Jazz Fest—the Big Lil Baby Jesus Peasant Party was fantastic voyage from a band beyond description. Lettuce bassist/vibe-guru Jesus Coomes enlisted his older brother Tycoon Beats on the drum kit, and Break Science/Pretty Lights keyboardist/producer Borahm Lee to confound the masses ’til well beyond sunrise. The entirety of both sets were improvised, and this battalion dove twenty-thousand leagues into the virtual viscera. Joining this trio was The Shady Horns‘ Bloom and Zoidis, as well as NOLA’s omnipresent Khris Royal who played both B3 and saxophone, and longtime Bloom buddy Mike Tucker on tenor sax. The first set was spiritualized electro-bass music, psychedelic yet controlled, mystical in it’s mayhem. Lee and Tycoon were crucial co-pilots, as each lent their fearless virtuoso to the cornucopia.
For the second set, the squad went subaqueous, then drilled even further on down the golden road. The Peasant Party was joined by The Nth Power’s Nikki Glaspie and Nicky Cake Cassarino, and this infantry began to probe the galaxies unknown. The group harnessed the lionhearted focus of Sun Ra, organically blending in the wonky and whacked-out beat-science of J Dilla, Flying Lotus and more while still maintaining their unique sound for the entire gig. The extra-terrestrials traversed the abyss, and conjured emotions recondite; the pulsing, filtered low-end from the Big Lil Wizard of Danger steered the spaceship skyward. The militant boom-bap and heavy metal head-nod of Tycoon’s demonstrative drumming and the kaleidoscopic color-ways emanating from Zoidis’ alto horn shall forever be burned into the recesses of my mind. The Peasant Party penetrated a sorcerous portal, taking us on a wonder-fueled bicycle ride up Oak Street and an excursion into the ethereal.
Soulive with Ivan Neville, Oteil Burbridge, and Shady Horns at Maison
Soulive’s core trio have been blessed with other opportunities in recent years, so the Big Apple dub-hop organ trio champs back-burnered the band as the members chased new challenges. Leave it to Fiyawerx Productions, who coaxed Eric Krasno and siblings Neal (keyboards) and Alan Evans (drums) back to the NOLA stage for a late-night engagement second Saturday. Absence made our hearts grow fonder, and on this night, boy, did Soulive ever come back through the Quarter with unwavering vengeance. Beginning with the savage, slamming “Hat Trick,” Kraz and the brothers Evans gave few fucks and barred fewer holds for over two hours of the crunkest funk heard all week long. Adding four hornsmen in the form of longtime sax maven Ryan Zoidis, OG trumpet player Rashawn Ross, and trumpet guru Eric Benny Bloom, and Beantown ‘bone assassin Bryan Thomas, the wall of brass empowered Soulive, who made it clear they were bent on destroying the Maison down to its foundation of funk.
Classics like “El Ron,” “Alladin,” “Uncle Junior,” “Tuesday Night Squad,” “Flurries,” and “Vapor” were stimulating and provocative, and the old jams unfurled something unruly. “Uptight” was particularly ferocious, as Alan Evans broke out the “Apache” break mid-rage for the hip-hop heads in the building. Deep into the night, Ivan Neville emerged to sing, alongside bassist Oteil Burbridge, and the results were nothing short of astounding. Neville and Burbridge set about raging through elongated takes on “Soul Power” and “The Message.” A breathtaking Soulive send-up of Stevie Wonder’s “Jesus Children of America” saw Lettuce bassist Erick “Jesus” Coomes tearing up sidestage as his hero Oteil tore up a lyrical solo, atop a Neal Evans B3 bass line. Surprisingly, Eric Krasno again played nearly the entire show on his Gibson SG—he’s been almost exclusively strapped with a hollow-body axe for nearly two decades. The SG tone that Kraz dialed up gave the old Soulive joints some new teeth, and Kraz used those chompers as weapons of mass destruction. This show proved to wake a sleeping giant.
New Orleans Klezmer All Stars featuring Skerik, Henry Butler, and Mean Willie Green at Jazz Fest Fairgrounds
Between high-profile Jazz Fest Fairgrounds sets from Trombone Shorty and Orleans Ave, The Original Meters, and Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, on the tiny Fais Do-Do Stage was the enigmatic troupe New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. Celebrating their 25th year in existence with a late-night hit at d.b.a. and a Jazz Fest set to close down Sacred Sunday, the assembled players concocted a raptured and raucous rendezvous of klezmer music—heritage melodies born of the Eastern European Jewish traditions. Featuring Ben Ellman (sax, Galactic), Jonathan Freilich (guitar, Tin Men), Glenn Hartman (accordion, organ), Joe Cabral (bass, Iguanas) and Stanton Moore (drums, Galactic), the group’s narration to NOLA’s silly, splendid, sardonic musical culture was remarkable. To mark the group’s silver anniversary, the Klezmer krewe sizzled under the late afternoon sun as a swelling crowd basked in the Ashkenazic arias .A freewheeling dose of freedom and a loving hark back to yesteryear, the All-Star lineup welcomed a slew of special guests to the stage including the marvelous blind pianist Henry Butler, a local legend in his own right, “Mean” Willie Green of Neville Brothers drum fame, and the always bewildering Skerik.
Marco Benevento at Maple Leaf Bar
Marco Benevento‘s solo trio rolled into the Maple Leaf for his traditional second Sunday late-night rager with a head full of steam. The quirky pianist feels quite at home at the Leaf over the years. After killin’ sets at Rage Fest on Thursday and a special “Friends” engagement late Saturday at the Blue Nile, the stage was ready for a uniquely-weird Marco menage-a-trios. With ball-of-fire bassist Karina Rykman burning up the bottom end and new drummer David Butler lending a choice dance-groove throughout both sets, Benevento was unhinged in the best way imaginable. The Leaf was packed to the gills, and a line led out the door and into Oak Street as Jazz Fest threw one (final) real morning party.
Songs from Marco’s most recent release, the quirky The Story of Fred Short were fleshed out from their skeletal indie-form into rollicking rides, careening with reckless abandon. “Bus Ride” and “Greenpoint” were given the Jazz Fest jam treatment, as was the Mike Dillon-assisted “Pepper,” a Butthole Surfers’ tune sung by the riotous Rykman. Benevento shocked and awed with a twisted take on Lorde’s titanic smash “Royals.” All night, his sound and energy felt far more LCD than MMW. True to the room and to the moment, Benevento called out to the ghost of James Booker by gallivanting through “Slowly But Surely.” The capacity crowd bore witness to an amalgam of Leon Russell and Elton John carousing up and down the walls of the Maple Leaf Bar, howling toward the heavens in homage to the notorious ivory tickler who crashed on the couch upstairs. This boisterous Benevento blowout burned Fest 2017 to the ground and solidified the Maple Leaf Bar once again, as the best reason to bring up the sun around this time of year.
The Nth Power featuring Cheryl Pepsii Riley at Blue Nile
The Nth Power has been holding down the Monday after Jazz Fest at the Blue Nile for as long as they’ve been a band; the tradition is now known as “The Last Hoorah,” and it brings together the remaining fans and musicians who are still lingering after the official end of Jazz Fest a day earlier. The members of The Nth Power kept incredibly busy over the two weeks in NOLA, playing five hits as a band, and then spilling out into a series of solo sit-ins and collaborations. Somehow, this spiritual juggernaut managed to save some juice for their final performance, this one featuring the enrapturing gospel-tinged vocals of one Cheryl Pepsii Riley.
After a touching introduction from Blue Nile owner Jesse Paige, The Nth Power got onstage, taking a cue from the God-MC, Jay-Z, as each band member was dressed from head-to-toe in all black everything. The krewe then immediately kicked things into high gear with an aggressive run through “Alter Call” and “Freedom,” before Riley stepped to the front of the stage for the immaculate “Only Love,” complete with searing vocal harmonies and levitating choruses. The first set concluded with “Holy Rain,” another gospelized dart that penetrated our collective heart chakrah.
After their short intermission, The Nth Power plus Pepsii returned to a still-invigorated audience and the band heaven sent to bring it on home. Kicking off their final frame with 2016’s single “Right Now,” the black-on-black attack reached full bore with quickness, and the emotional quotient was tangible in the air—pretty much the norm for all things Nth Power. However, there was a somber air floating around the room, as people started to see the Fest finish line coming up on the horizon. Undeterred, Nikki Glaspie spearheaded an hour of some of the most ferocious music I’ve heard from this brigade. Anchored by Nate Edgar’s cacophonous capoeira, Glaspie unveiled a domineering display, detonating her drums with fury. Nicky Cake Cassarino, forever the road-weary, axe-slinging R&B troubadour leaned into the pitch and once again hit it out of the park. The frontman’s fuzzy voice the Makers Mark to Riley’s Krug Vintage Brut, Cassarino gruelingly romanced those still standing like Springsteen circa ’75. To deliver us to the promised land one mo ‘gin, The Nth Power cued up a J-Dilla-fied rearrangement of their metaphysical “Spirits”, before appropriately revealing EWF’s “Devotion” to seal the proverbial deal, channeling Maurice White, Col. Bruce Hampton, and saluting our music community’s collective spirit with the reverence, zeal, and vitality that we have come to expect from this prodigious faction.
Laissez les bon temps rouler!
Just like that, another NOLA Jazz Fest in the books! Sending big love to the all the musicians, managers, taxi/Lyft/pedicab drivers, venue staff, bartenders, chefs, service industry folks, and everyone else who works so hard to show us out-of-towners a good time and make us feel so welcome. A fatty bag of gratitude to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the incredible city of New Orleans—the greatest musical fantasy-land on earth.
Signing off on Jazz Fest 2017, saying goodbye and Jah-bless, ’til we return to the Crescent City ’round the same time next year.
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