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April 30, 2008

Ponderosa Stomp Notebook Dump, Night 1

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 4:18 pm

This is a short post because I only saw the Wardell Quezergue section with Tony Owens, Jean Knight, Tammy Lynn, Mac Rebennack and more. Before Tammy Lynn, Nick Spitzer introduced “the New AFO Executives” as Rebennack, Zigaboo Modeliste and Herbert Hardesty walked onstage, continuing the New Orleans traditions of keeping band names alive even when there are no original members in the band (Zion Harmonizers, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, the Original Tuxedo Jazz Band), but it was tough to argue with the band. Quezergue’s band rolls back the clock to the glory days of New Orleans R&B, but no matter how hard he tries to dial back, Modeliste can’t help but be funky, so the groove was a little more modern. Some songs it helped, but it hurt one of the set’s draws – Dr. John on guitar to play the instrumental “Storm Warning.”

The song is a Bo Diddley re-write with Rebennack playing sheets of heavily tremolo’ed guitar. With the song re-grooved and the guitar more sensibly played, “Storm Warning” became a little pedestrian. More effective were other songs from the same era, “Junco Partner” and Jerry Byrne’s “Lights Out.”

For me, one of the best things about the Stomp is the moment that happens yearly when someone who has toiled largely in obscurity for the last 20, 30 or 40 years suddenly has a hot band behind him or her and an audience that goes nuts – maybe moreso than any ever did. Last night that star time moment was slightly recast when OffBeat contributor Mike Hurtt sang a few songs. Hurtt and his band, the Haunted Hearts, are a part of the Stomp entourage, regularly backing Jay Chevalier and the country and hillbilly singers. Last night, he sang flanked by Hardesty and Dr. John, with Zig behind him and Quezergue leading the band, and it was pretty clearly a lifetime moment for him.

I took a break from the main stage to see Lazy Lester on the House of Blues patio, where he played backed by a drummer and Li’l Buck Sinegal. Lester took the guitar and sang Merle Haggard’s “Wanted Man” in the key of L Sharp, in process making Sinegal’s guitar sound like it fell out of the back of a speeding pickup.

After that, it was an hour-plus until Mary Weiss and I decided I’d rather see my wife since I want to hang around longer tonight.

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April 29, 2008

Inside the Food Booths

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 3:17 pm

Food writer Todd A. Price passed me this story from New Orleans City Business on some of the costs of running a Jazz Fest food booth.

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Louisiana 1927

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 2:06 pm

Geoffrey Himes’ recent piece on Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927″ appeared Sunday in the New York Times. The idea that it has become “Stagger Lee”-like in its ability to re-employed and rewritten since Katrina is an interesting one, but equally interesting is the thought not addressed. The song is the Battle Hymn of the Persecuted. They’re out to get us. They’re trying to wash us away. I recognize that “They’re putting almost every wealthy man and corporation’s interests ahead of protecting human life in New Orleans and they’ve been doing for over 50 years” doesn’t sing very well, but it’s closer to the truth. Still, we’re a city that has embraces conspiracies and sees malign intent somewhere behind everything that goes wrong, and it’s no surprise that we can turn paranoia into a warm, fuzzy sing-along.

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April 28, 2008

In the Mail

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 6:15 pm

Periodically, CDs and such arrive that can’t be ignored, but for all the wrong reasons. Today a CD arrived from MASS, which is short for “Music, Architecture, Sight & Sound). You can tell them because they look like the cast of Cats and Starlight Express who got dressed too quickly in the same change room. On Planet String, they play such unique instruments as the Earth Harp, the Aquatar, Wing Harp, Drub [their spelling] Orb and Drum Clouds, and on the cover, one is wearing the Violin Jacket. The press release suggests that they’re the next phase in “multi-faceted entertainments like Circue du Soleil and Blue Man Group.” My one of the ad rep’s reaction is any indication, the next phase won’t be easy to take. “If they want to torture me in Guantanamo Bay, this is what they should play,” she says.

Another artist represented by the same firm – Christina Linhardt – has already been to Gitmo “to perform as the coquette opera singer with the VampHear Circus.” You can imagine the CD from this: “One minute, she’s a hip h’opera singer, the next an exotic ethnic dancer (performing at luaus, Cinco De Mayo and St. Patty’s Day festivals) and later a performance artist exploring the passions of fairies, ghosts and witches in a festival dedicated to German song and literature.

And one solution to falling CD sales is to turn your album into a contest. McKenzie-Bruce released Berner Street, an album/puzzle based on the Jack the Ripper story, and if you solve the puzzle, you can win $10,000. Of course, you have to listen to the album to get the clues, and there’s the rub. No surprise – it’s bad, overly dramatic metal.

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Jazz Fest Notebook Dump, Day 3

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 2:23 pm

Sunday started with the low point of this year’s fest (aside from the rain): the Zac Brown Band, whose “Toes” promised an hour of Jimmy Buffett-like coastal rock free from Buffett’s dogmatic moralizing and thorny political sloganeering.

A local trad jazz player told me you have to play the standards or no one will buy your CDs. That equation treats music like a can of peas, where the only thing distinguishing characteristic is the label. In that case, people will go with the familiar. But there are a host of other sales-influencing elements at play with music, and traditional jazz as smart and attractive as Tim Laughlin’s “The Isle of Orleans” is as viable if not moreso than a collection of re-re-re-re-re-re-retreads. Of course, the audience is crucial to this equation. If all you want it to sell to tourists who want a souvenir; play the standards. If you see music as art and want to reach that audience, there’s still a world of possibilities in trad jazz.

Tough food fest continues – The Cajun duck po-boy sounded great, but rather than be strips of meat forked off the bone, the duck appears to have been fed into a wood chipper and reduced to a mulch closer to the texture of canned tuna salad than a proud waterfowl. With the texture went much of the duck flavor.

Rob Walker predicted we’d hear “St. James Infirmary” during Jazz Fest in his liner notes to an imagined SJI compilation in the new issue. My first version was Shamarr Allen’s – a fine one, but not revelatory. Allen seems to continue to search for his musical voice, but a version of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” that flirted with Chuck Mangione-era disco jazz might be a blind alley.

It was hard to get into the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars set because the clouds rolling in threatened to turn the Fair Grounds into wetlands.

The rain, a better time slot and the star power/notoriety that Hamid Drake brings meant that Rob Wagner played to his largest Jazz Fest crowd (that I’ve seen, anyway). The Jazz Tent was full except for most of the Big Chief bleachers, and many had to stand in rising water or have spray from outside hit them so that the bleacher space was available in case 30 or so Big Chief members all chose to brave the monsoon mid-set.

From the start, the set was a model for what thinking artists committed to their vision can do. Rain on a tent roof is really loud, but Wagner still started quietly and when Drake took his first solo, he started on the cymbals, close to the sound of the rain. It almost seemed perverse, but it was also brilliant, drawing the ambient sound into the music. Within 10 minutes, the background din seemed to have receded, but in fact it was raining harder. Their playing focused listeners’ hearing.

Jamaican-born Roy Young has lived in England, Europe and Israel for most of his adult life, and he recently cut Memphis in Memphis with Willie Mitchell producing. His set underlined the idea that “soul” as a music and a notion is a construction. When he was at his most interesting, he was intense, that intensity manifesting itself in a vocal rasp. But then there were songs where he was less intense, where the song didn’t loan itself to seeming heartfelt, and those were just another flavor of pop. Similarly, the best song I saw – “So Strange” – expertly arranged the parts that we associate with a soul song.

Young pointed to an answer to the question I was left with the day before – why does the Ponderosa Stomp work so well? Part of it is the bands that back the stars of yesteryear, all of whom love the the sounds of the original records or the vibe of the times and work to present that, but it also has to do with the artists themselves. They either define a genre, or they’re so distinctive that they exist on the outer edges of their genre. When you imagine a ’50s rockin’ blues singer, Dennis Binder comes to mind. You hear Tammy Lynn and Roy Head and you know why neither was bigger; both are such idiosyncratic musical voices that it’s almost a miracle they had a moment in the sun at all. On the other hand, you have people like Young and Zac Brown, for whom their genres are safe, comfortable places with boundaries that don’t need to be explored or tested.

After the rain, the track was such a mess that it really wasn’t fun anymore. Food II was shin-deep, and there was a lake in the middle of the festival that I had to go around to get to Congo Square for Calle 13. “We started as a hip-hop group and kept growing and growing. Now we don’t know what we are,” rapper Residente explained. The Latin Grammy winners were pretty compelling, and the front of the stage was really into the reggaeton (though the band tries to distance itself from reggaeton, I read).

If you ever wondered why you never hear bluegrass reggaeton, it’s because they don’t really go together, as Del McCoury’s set next to Calle 13 demonstrated.

I admired Tim McGraw’s star quality as I headed for the exit. He clanked three high (but not that high) notes in 10 or so minutes, and that CPM – clams per minute – ratio wouldn’t get you into the finals of American Idol. But McGraw’s enough of a star to get away with it.

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April 27, 2008

Jazz Fest Notebook Dump, day 2

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 1:25 pm

Note: Yesterday I said I thought the version of “Bon Temps Roulet” performed by T Bone Burnett was by Clifton Chenier. I’m told it was originally by Clarence Garlow.

So far, this has been a shaky fest for food for me. The crawfish bread really isn’t any significantly more than a grilled cheese sandwich (not saying anything bad about a grilled cheese sandwich!), and mine literally was one, with only a crawfish or two. Out of curiosity, I tried the paneed chicken po-boy, but it was little more than the breaded chicken cutlets you can by frozen at the grocery, and the usually reliable quail and pheasant gumbo was thin and a muddy color rather than the thick, brick-colored gumbo we’re used to.

Some bands don’t make the transition to the big stage well, but Big Blue Marble was a revelation on it. Whether with the band’s core lineup of seven people or with the expansion modules – two horns, the Craft brothers on strings – for the first time you could hear how big the band’s sound is supposed to be. Dave Fera’s voice was also pushed far enough to the front that I heard many lyrics clearly for the first time.

As far as interviews go, Texas R&B wildman Roy Head was flop. Dr. Ike of the Ponderosa Stomp asked questions for the record geeks in the room, giving the less obsessed few handholds or explanations of who people are. And Head – always on – finished enough tall tales and hilarious stories by saying, “This is true,” and “That’s a true story,” giving you reason to doubt him. As a performance, though, it was hilarious – a stand-up routine with Dr. Ike and Li’l Buck Sinegal only there to give him foils.

Sax man Big Jay McNeely spent as much time singing as playing, and I’d like to think it was to save his breath or his chops, but he sang so hard that it’s not likely the former. He was born in 1927, so maybe some sense of self-preservation is important. As a singer and showman, he’s fine. When he doubled over to play honking, bar-walkin’ sax instrumentals, he was transporting.

I forget about the intensity of Bobby Lounge’s voice, as he commits to each song completely. I went to see Lounge to say hello to friends and was caught up in the show in minutes.

It’s startling how much noise rain makes on a tent roof, and the roof of the Blues Tent rippled with rain. I heard that Dr. John’s set ended a half-hour early because of the rain.

The Ponderosa Stomp Revue wasn’t it’s strongest lineup, but it did present some of the Stomp’s signature performers (along with Barbara Lynn, who played Friday) . Roy Head was money, still a rambunctious ball of dance and mic moves, and kissed Dr. Ike and gave Stanley “Buckwheat Zydeco” Dural, Jr. a big hug while Buck was playing the B3 as part of the house band. But no one else had was as distinctive a performer. Dennis Binder embodied a ’50s rockin’ blues singer, but by the end of his part of the show, he’d become a little generic. New Orleans’ Tammy Lynn segment was better structured, opening with “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” and closing with her hit, the psychedelic funk song “Mojo Hannah,” but she’s an acquired taste. Archie Bell got time for an extended “Tighten Up” – his one song before the rain forced the closing of the tent and the festival (though I thought I still heard Congo Square through the rain as I went to my car.

The prospect of dealing with the muddy festival today doesn’t make me happy.

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April 26, 2008

Jazz Fest Notebook Dump, day 1

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 12:54 pm

Jazz Fest started at the Figs, the all-female Lafayette string band, who wore great, retro, summer dresses. I saw them at the Ogden a few months back, where they played acoustic instruments, and I thought that suited them better – the warmth of the sound and the focus it put on their voices. With some electric instruments and the unforgiving festival drum sound that makes everyone sound like Max Weinberg whether they want to be or not, their rhythmic fragility was more evident. That frailty was endearing, but it was there.

Susan Cowsill played the Acura Stage for the first time, and debuted two new songs (that I saw – I missed the start of the set), one that she finished that morning and the band learned before the show, and a stronger pop song titled “Dragonfly.” Underused fiddle player Tom Maron joined her for the set, and she brought James Andrews, Craig Klein and Derek Huston out to add horns to “Crescent City Snow.” I wasn’t sure where horns went in the song, but they fit beautifully, adding texture and intensity more than punctuation, and Andrews’ trumpet played the bright blare associated with New Orleans.

While at Cowsill’s set, I had time to marvel at the horror of the new Grand Marshal area. The audience was backed up at least five yards – now approximately 10 yards from the stage – so that those wealthy enough to make the $450+ price tag had room to wander up and loiter comfortably during the show while fans were pressed against the railing. The area runs the width of the stage, so it’s not just a pocket at stage center. It’s a strip of prime real estate that has been turned over to the rich.

It brings to mind the baseball lockout of 1990, which almost killed baseball. Everybody knew baseball was a business, but fans could focus their attention on the more romantic elements of the game and ignore the economic realities. The lockout underscored how thoroughly it was a business and the owners could care less about the things that fans cared about if they affected their bottom lines. It took the steroid-fueled home run derby between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa to get fans back to baseball. Similarly, we all know Jazz Fest is a business, but people will deal with the ticket prices as long as they can tell themselves it’s all about the music and all about the culture. They can even deal with the rich folks accommodations in the Big Chief section because the wealthier festgoers aren’t getting a significant advantage when it comes to the one thing they care about – seeing the show. Now there are clearly two classes of people, and the upper class can buy the most valued seat in the house. Some dude who’s been psycho for Robert Plant for years would have had to get to the fest early enough to make a dash for the railing at the front of the stage, see all the acts in front of Plant and Krauss, and deal with the crowd around him to get that prized position. Then someone who’s heard secondhand that the album’s supposed to be good could wander up at the last minute and comfortably watch the show from right in front of him.

There’s a similar chasm at the Gentilly Stage, and for Ozomatli, it provided ample dancing space for the seven or eight Grand Marshals who came to the show. It’s a brutally unsubtle reminder that Festival Productions and AEG Live are in the business of selling New Orleans culture.

Back to music – The Robert Plant/Allison Krauss set was excellent. When it was over, no one I watched it with wanted to hear any music right away to digest the moment. Live, it was clear that Raising Sand and the subsequent tour are the T Bone Burnett show, and Plant and Krauss were the featured performers he cast in the roll as the tumultuous lovers. Live, Burnett’s arrangments and sounds retained enough of their Threepenny Opera feel, but they sounded less fussy at the same time. The sense of the show as theater was underscored by the comfortable-in-his-rockstardom Plant and slightly-distant-for-self-preservation Krauss. They sang a slow, sexy “Black Dog” only sneaking sideways glances at each other, as if she’d blush if he looked at him and he’d jump her if she looked at him.

At one point, Burnett stepped up to the mic for “Bon Temps Rouler,” a song he has been singing and I’m 99 percent sure it’s the Clifton Chenier song, but since I don’t have it to confirm and I can’t find his lyrics online, I’ll have to wait to confirm it with more Chenier-savvy folks. Sunday Morning Update: I checked and am told it’s “Bon Temps Roulet” by Clarence Garlow.

The most Led Zep moment in the set came during the cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Nothin’,” which became a mysto-stomp, and they revisited the Led Zep catalogue twice more, once for “The Battle of Evermore,” which came in the guise of Fairport Convention). It provided the most hair-raising moment when, after a pause, they exploded into the “Bring it back” section. The way it was cut loose from the rest of the song, the lyric fragment could be talking about New Orleans as much some mythical Hobbitville. There was no mistaking the statement in “When the Levee Breaks,” a version defining by Krauss and Stuart Duncan’s wailing fiddles.

After they closed with “Gone Gone Gone,” they encored with “One Woman Man” with guitarist Buddy Miller joining in on vocals and making Plant and Krauss’ tribute to George and Tammy a threesome.

I closed the day at Ozomatli, and the Los Angeles Times’ Steve Hochman (also an OffBeat contributor) made a convincing argument for thinking of the band as the inheritor of the Los Lobos tradition, reflecting the multicultural mix of Los Angeles and the varied musical styles young Angelenos grow up with. The band worked hard and was a lot of fun, but I was distracted by the relatively small crowd for a closing act on the Gentilly Stage. Considering the day’s lineup – Vivaz, the Iguanas, Anders Osborne – and Saturday’s lineup – Big Blue Marble, the Imagination Movers, the Benjy Davis Project, Cowboy Mouth and O.A.R. – it looks like much of the money that went to establishing three strong stages – Acura, Gentilly and Congo Square – since 2005 has been redirected to make two big stages with even bigger acts.

My day ended with seven members of the St. Augustine’s Marching 100 joined Ozomatli for “Magnolia Wind,” a song the band performs in tribute to New Orleans. Earlier in the day, I saw the band do workshops with 40 or so members of the St. Aug band, teaching them the horn parts and looking for a few to join them onstage. When I left St. Aug, the plan was for all 40 to play, and as chaotic as it would have been onstage, that’s how it should have gone down. The version at Jazz Fest was big, but not six tubas, eight trumpets, seven or eight trombones and four drummers big.

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April 24, 2008

Jazz Fest: Plant/Krauss preview

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 6:28 pm

At the Bruce Springsteen set two years ago, a coupld of guys standing near me couldn’t believe that he wasn’t going to do his own songs, and even though the set was clearly billed as “The Seeger Sessions,” they yelled for “Backstreets” for most of the show. Should Led Zeppelin fans get excited about the prospect of Robert Plant dusting off some classics during his set Friday with Allison Krauss? Check out Grant Alden’s review from the No Depression Web site.

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Tribeca Film Festival

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 2:46 pm

For readers in New York City: Faubourg Treme: the Untold Story of Black New Orleans, a recent documentary on the oldest African-American neighborhood in the city, screens at the Tribeca Film Festival. Written by Treme resident and Times-Picayune columnist Lolis Eric Elie, it tells the story of a neighborhood just outside the French Quarter, and one that has long served as the place where cultural traditions – music certainly but not exclusively included – were passed from generation to generation. Here’s information on showtimes and theaters.

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April 22, 2008

President, Gang Leader or Enforcer?

Filed under: Pop Life — Alex Rawls @ 7:13 pm

Last night I heard a soundbite with Hillary Clinton reassuring Pennsylvania voters that she had their backs. Literally. “I’ve got your back; I’ve got all of your backs,” she said. I suppose if that was my idea of campaign rhetoric, I’d disparage Obama and his speeches too. Besides the ridiculous context – someone’s going to shiv a soccer mom if not for Clinton’s protectorship? – it was easily as condescending and elitist as anything Obama said, particularly when she expanded the thought to speak to the audience, the state and the country. It became clear that for her, the line is associated with a lower class or a way of life she has no connection to, and it came out her mouth with the awkward enthusiasm of someone who just mastered a phrase in foreign tongue that they’re using for the very first time.

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