It's about 7:30 in the morning on Monday, and my friend Justin and I are the last two people left from our original Jazzfest crew that numbered well into the double digits. The sun is sort of up, and we haven't slept yet, as is the norm for this trip. We're both wearing our sunglasses even though it's not really all that sunny as we sit at Igor's on St. Charles, the famous bar which, in typical Jazzfest fashion, is more crowded at 6:00 in the morning, than it is at 6:00 at night. "My body is in pain" I say to him, and he nods in agreement. "Seriously" I add, "I don't think I can use my legs." He just looks at me and takes another sip of his beer as a tiny little smirk creeps out. He then makes a face of sheer disgust at the act of consuming the beer and says, "I can't even drink this." He puts it down for a second, looks away, then picks it back up and proceeds to take another sip. It's the last Jazzfest moment of 2005.
We've been in New Orleans since Tuesday night, when we went to see what we've affectionately dubbed "The Tuesday Night Jam Session." Essentially, the evening was everything Jazzfest is about. Originally consisting of a few musicians including Robert Walter, Skerik and Rob Mercurio, it became an all-out throw-down until the sun came up, as musician after musician filed in and took the stage, swapping instruments with whomever happened to be playing at that moment. Needless to say, if you are imagining this madhouse and are not interested, than you are either dead or Jazzfest just isn't for you. Conversely, if the idea of twenty musicians trading instruments and jamming until well after the sun rises sounds intriguing, well then, I'd start saving for next year immediately.
And it's that non-stop musical assault that makes Jazzfest the peak, the pinnacle of many people's musical lives. Year after year, New Orleans delivers, and this year was no different. From local acts to jambands, to funk bands to jazz acts, to one of the biggest acts in the world, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has everything you can ask for. And I haven't even mentioned the Crawfish Monica.
Coming off a difficult year in 2004, the festival was looking to rebound. Attendance was down last year, and, adding insult to injury, the festival suffered the loss of an entire day due to rain. Jazzfest's future was definitely in doubt, but behind the scenes an additional investor or two was secured and the result was the monster of a lineup we had this year. First weekend was as strong as it's been in years, highlighted by the reunion of the original Meters. The second weekend as well, was just fantastic. Of note on Thursday was Papa Grows Funk, Drums and Tuba, Nickel Creek and huge stars Jack Johnson and BB King. Friday was highlighted by John Butler, Jamie Cullum and Widespread Panic. Saturday featured Astral Project, Dirty Dozen, Galactic, Toots and the Maytals, Nicholas Payton, Ike Turner and two more huge stars by way of Dave Matthews and Elvis Costello. And then on Sunday, perhaps the strongest day of the four, fans were treated to sets by Michael Franti, North Mississippi Allstars, Los Lonely Boys, Steel Pulse, Trey Anastasio, Hydra, Issac Hayes, The Radiators, The Neville Brothers, Bonerama, Anders Osborne andKDTU,. And all this was in addition to the usual fantastic artists you can only see in New Orleans. It goes without saying that this year's Jazzfest was a knockdown success and anyone who was there will say the same.
But, as we all know, these days the nighttime shows are every bit as important as the festival itself. Superfly has done a great job of bringing jambands and their friends down to New Orleans, making an already enticing weekend even more appealing. And while this year's Superfly lineup was not as strong as it's been in the past, there was still plenty of music to see.
Personally, I experienced Jazzfest in a whole new way this year. In the past, my friends and I have been somewhat rigid about our schedule. I like to plan in advance and it's worked out well for me. But this year, with a more open night schedule, we decided to "wing it" to some degree. The result? Clearly the most spontaneous Jazzfest I have experienced to date, and one of the most musically pleasing.
Without our decision to play it by ear, I never would have seen the Tuesday Night Jam Session, something that in addition to being incredibly fun, set the tone for my week as it was the first night I saw the sun rise, something I believe I was able to do almost every night I was down there. As well, I experienced some music I would not have otherwise been privy to, specifically the Saturday night show at One Eyed Jacks from The Brotherhood of Groove, a venue I've never been to and a band I've never seen. Quite simply the biggest surprise of the weekend, the show was more than could have been expected, even with a lineup of stars. Led by Brandon Tarricone on guitar, the band featured a who's who of the horn scene including Dave "The Truth" Grippo, Michael Ray, Jeff Watkins, Sam Kininger, Geoff Vidal, Jon Massing, Eric Kalb, and Marc Pero and John Gros from my new favorite band, Papa Grows Funk. A funky fusion of several styles of music, the BoG show proved to be the highlight of the weekend for the same reasons that any show becomes a highlight; the surprise factor, environmental and musical quality, and the BoG show had all three in spades.
As well, I had originally planned on not attending the Superfly Super Jam. But after some coercing from friends, I made the trip over the State, and was very much surprised on multiple levels. For starters, Trey's new band was surprisingly good. The new songs varied between focused rock tunes in the style of "Night Speaks" and slower ballads. But the upbeat tunes were perfectly enjoyable, specifically "Come as Melody" which I found to be an exceptionally enjoyable song. And of course, there was the second set. Most people have seen pictures by now, but if you haven't, lets just say that everyone sat in, including Mike Gordon for a take on "Sneakin' Sally" that, simply put, sent the crowd into the stratosphere. Dave Matthews, clearly as drunk as anyone in the crowd, also appeared and had fun with the night with his take on "Three Little Birds." As a Dave fan myself, I was plenty happy to have him there, and he did get an enthusiastic response from the crowd. While I would've preferred a take on "Too Much" for instance, his appearance was both humorous and enjoyable.
However, this isn't to say that other shows didn't deliver musically. Karl Denson's Thursday show at the House of Blues always has those factors working in his favor, except this year, the second set of the show was lacking something else; sound. Les Claypool's show at TwiRoPa was also a throw down musically (Skerik is a pleasure to see with Les), however a packed TwiRoPa is never the most comfortable environment in which to see a show, and thus the show, specifically my enjoyment of it, suffered as a result.
But of course, for all the moments of musical spontaneity I participated in (including a spur of the moment, turn-on-a-dime decision to see Tea Leaf Green on Sunday night with quite a cast of characters and bunnies), there will always be shows at Jazzfest that are, at least for me, "must-see." And tantamount among those shows are both Robert Walter's 20th Congress at the Maple Leaf and The Funky Meters Sunday night close out at Tipitina's Uptown. The former show, a staple in many people's itinerary, was typically and expectedly one of the best shows of the weekend. Robert Walter really has something special right now with Wil Bernard, and the Maple Leaf show is routinely one of the peak musical experiences one can have at Jazzfest. Their brand of JamJazzFunkFusion or whatever is just the perfect music for the throw down that occurs year after year at the Leaf. Add in that the rain held off until about 7:30 AM, after the show was done, and the ingredients were there for a stellar evening, and it delivered on all accounts.
The latter show at Tipitina's is, for many, the only way to close out Jazzfest. That's not to say that people don't see a show afterwards, because most do. Think of The funky Meters at Tips as the end of the second set, and anything you see after, an encore if you will, is just bonus. And with that in mind, the Tips funky Meters show was among the best performances I've ever seen this quartet put together, and that's saying a whole lot. Moving seamlessly through song after song, the band, arguably one of the best live acts on the planet, had the crowd in the palm of their hands. The band is just an absolute joy to see live, and not only because their song repertoire is a monster and their musical skill is nearly unparalleled. Few people appear to have as good a time on the stage or are as fun to watch, as George Porter. Few people are able to touch Brian Stoltz's skill on the guitar. Virtually no drummer commands the audience's attention the way Russell Batiste does, and no one has the respect of the audience in New Orleans the way Art Neville does. The combination makes this band, and offshoot PBS, an absolute must see and a thrill each and every time they take the stage.
So what have I learned from this trip? For me personally, I now know that I will never miss another Papa Grows Funk show. Their set at the fairgrounds was just great however I unfortunately missed their night show due to time constraints, and I was literally "angry" about that. Who knew I liked Papa Grows Funk so much? In addition, I was privileged to be in attendance for the PBS CD release party at the Southport Music Hall. Yet another jaw-droppingly good show from this band cemented my belief that its only a matter of time until this band takes over the diverse jamband world. They combine all the funkiness of The Funky Meters, with the balls-out rock of a Gov't Mule, with the improvisational skill of any band you can name, and top it off with musical ability that is simply put, unmatched. Hopefully their domination happens sooner rather than later.
And so that's how Jazzfest goes, year after year…Music after music after music after music. It's tough on the body, mind and soul. But coming out the other side is as rewarding an experience as a music fan can have. Looking at the ticket stubs, and the digital camera one can begin to put together a picture of exactly what they've experienced, where they've been, and what they've accomplished. And that picture is one of the best things I've ever seen.