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.