The first weekend of the first post-Katrina New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival started with the New Orleans Jazz Vipers — a staunchly traditional outfit, but not so didactic as to encase the music in amber — introducing a new song, “Won’t You Come Home to New Orleans,” and reached its emotional climax with Bruce Springsteen’s “My City of Ruins,” as he implored the flood-ravaged city to “rise up.” With much of the city still digging out from the devastating wake of last year’s hurricane and flood, this year’s Jazz Fest is more than a six-day celebration of the musical and cultural traditions of the Crescent City. It’s a densely knotted combination of economic engine, tourist temperature taking, civic boosterism, chest thumping pride and much-needed proof that, even as a storm-battered house tilts precariously across the street from the Fair Grounds’ Sauvage Street exit, New Orleans is on the road to recovery.
For many, February’s Mardi Gras was, if you’ll pardon the expression, a dry run, staged mostly to buck up the city’s morale. Jazz Fest is the real test of New Orleans’ ability to attract and put on a world-class event. If that’s a lot of freight for any event to handle, Jazz Fest’s first weekend (it covers two, concluding Sunday) has to be considered an unqualified success. Even though this year’s fest lost two stages and one day, there was still much to hear, see and eat (if people aren’t asking what band you’ve seen, they’re asking what you’ve eaten) and attendance was impressive.
While the Jazz & Heritage Foundation didn’t release daily ticket sales, fest veterans estimated the crowds to be only about 10% lower than previous years (although they were big enough to overflow the Jazz Tent for Herbie Hancock’s set Saturday). With a lineup boasting nearly 90% local performers, and many evacuated musicians making their first post-Katrina appearances, Jazz Fest was an emotional homecoming for the Louisiana music scene.
New Orleans music in all its wide-ranging glory could be heard. The Gospel Tent thrummed with gravel-voiced preachers and soaring choirs, while brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians ruled the Heritage Stage. Congo Square featured more contemporary sounds, including platinum-selling local rapper Juvenile (whose tossed-off set Saturday set was one of the fest’s rare disappointments). At Fais Do-Do crowds danced to funky piano players such as Eddie Bo, the swinging rock of the Iguanas and traditional Cajun bands such as Beausoleil.
The vibrancy of New Orleans was evident as new blood such as C.J. Chenier and Charmaine Neville continued their family traditions while 20-year-old pianist Jonathan Batiste showed off his impressive chops.
Trumpeter-composer Terence Blanchard premiered an impressive collection of new songs suffused with post-Katrina anger and sadness. Fellow trumpeter Irwin Mayfield, leading the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, played a set of stately, lushly orchestrated songs that ended with special guests Kermit Ruffins, Steve Walker, Trombone Shorty Andrews and Donald Harrison playing a soulfully mournful “St. James Infirmary,” but ended up dancing off the stage in a classic second line. It was enough to make you believe Dr. John, whose headlining set Friday included “Home Sweet Home,” which promises, “We’re going to come back twice as strong.”
But the performance everyone was talking about — and will continue to talk about for years to come — was Springsteen’s. He and his band had toured the Lower 9th Ward the day before, and seeing the desolation and destruction brought an extra dimension to his perf. His show is sure to be a highlight of this summer’s concert season (he plays L.A.’s Greek Theater on June 5 and New York’s Madison Square Garden June 22), but his Jazz Fest set found musician, material and event converging in a genuinely resonant manner, making for a truly special set of music. It was a performance so arresting, with its emotions so close to the surface, that even the temptations of the Meters and Ruffins playing on other stages couldn’t pry you away.
The opening show of his tour for “We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions” found Springsteen and his band already playing with a frisky ease. There were up to 20 musicians and singers onstage at any one time — including two violins, a six-piece horn section, a banjo and singers including Patti Scialfa and Chocolate Genius’ Mark Anthony Thompson (who traded lead vocals with Springsteen on civil rights anthem “Eyes on the Prize” and a sad but resolute “When the Saints Go Marching In”). Songs such as “John Henry,” “Old Dan Tucker” and “Mary Don’t You Weep” (which opened the set on an appropriately consoling note) were joyously overstuffed, mixing elements of gospel, folk, rock, folk-rock and classic New Orleans brass arrangements into a heroically scaled music.
But the set’s highlights were drawn from other sources. There were two vastly rearranged versions of songs from “Nebraska” — “Johnny 99” and “Open All Night,” which became a fuel-injected, hot-rodding romp — and two unreleased folk songs that directly commented on the tragedy of Katrina: “My Oklahoma Home,” a Dust Bowl ballad that Springsteen pointedly called “the nation’s other great disaster that separated families”; and Blind Alfred Reed’s 1929 composition “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live,” which was prefaced by an impassioned speech about the administration’s “criminal incompetence.” He dedicated it to “President Bystander.”
For “My City in Ruins” Springsteen turned into a preacher, both consoling and demanding that the city get back on its feet and rebuild.
Just prior to Springsteen, local producer-singer-songwriter Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello previewed three songs from their upcoming collaboration, “The River in Reverse” (Verve Forecast). As he did with 2004’s “The Delivery Man,” Costello shows New Orleans is a very good stylistic fit for him. “Tears, Tears and More Tears” (which included the lyrics “There must be something better than this because it can’t get much worse,” “You think the sun rises and set for you/but it rises and sets for poor people, too” and “I myself would like some higher ground”) and “Nearer to You” found the sweet spot where Toussaint’s rolling melodies and Costello’s vocals meet. Costello also lent his vocals to a few of Toussaint’s classics, including “On Your Way Down” and “Wonder Woman.”
In their comments from the stage, both Costello and Toussaint echoed the prevailing spirit of Jazz Fest ’06: a heartfelt appreciation for the crowds coming out. More than a few acts expressed a politicized anger. Charmaine Neville, who had told harrowing tales, sang an incendiary cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” that included references to “the Bush-man” and his promises “to take care of you,” to which she responded, “Can you spell swim?”
While thanking everyone who reached out to help his home town, Blanchard expressed frustration with constantly being asked, “Will New Orleans come back?” Of course it’s going to come back, he told the packed Jazz Tent: The city’s vitality is self-evident; plus, he added with a grin, ‘We hate y’all’s food.”