Sunday, May 8, 2011

Strong performances highlight Jazz Fest

Sunday, May 8, 2011

NEW ORLEANS ? Whatever boredom may have accrued from six straight ideal-weather days at the city's Jazz & Heritage Festival was demolished by the strong performances blowing from the dozen tents and outdoor stages. National acts such as The Strokes (they started late and left a bit early), Ms. Lauryn Hill (she started a little late but played slightly past her slotted time) and Jimmy Buffett (had no concept of time except the good one in front of him) were interspersed with regional and long-time festivals favorites Marcia Ball, Allen Toussaint, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Dr. Michael White and C.J. Chenier.

  • Lauryn Hill performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday.

    By Patrick Semansky, AP

    Lauryn Hill performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday.

By Patrick Semansky, AP

Lauryn Hill performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Saturday.

Some highlights from a sizzling Saturday:

Tour de fest: Troy "Trombone Shorty" Andrews was introduced as the King of Treme before his mid-afternoon set, which is true enough except that it gives the rest of his vast realm short shrift. Now 25, he and his six Orleans Avenue mates rule wherever they play, and recently that has been all over the world. During their phenomenal set before a jam-packed crowd at the Gentilly main stage, they offered a master class in the lineage of contemporary urban music, connecting Louis Armstrong to the Isley Brothers, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, John Coltrane, Bootsy Collins and the city's latest brass bands. Those artists inform the group's recent Grammy-nominated Backatown album, from which they drew the title track, Hurricane Season, Suburbia and several other selections. Shorty, dressed in a sleeveless black T-shirt and looking thin and trim, is a premiere showman, a bit of a ham but respectful of the music. He's in full control of his instruments: a rude machine-gun trombone, a laser trumpet and a fine, clear tenor. His band plays meteor-force funk and R&B, but they aren't aimless jammers — they have a full arsenal of strong songs and arrangements and know how to vary dynamics and tone. After blasting through several Backatown tunes, Shorty paid tribute to "my hero" Louis Armstrong with a thoroughly charming and up-to-date rendition of Sunny Side of the Street. He sang it his way (not Louie's way) and blew trumpet, at one point holding a single note for what seemed like a full minute. The crowd bellowed its approval and the showman responded by bending halfway backward, jumping around and climbing atop a monitor to flash the peace sign.

On the ball: Marcia Ball was seemingly everywhere this week, playing multiple club dates and sitting in on numerous sets of other artists, and the slight wear and tear on her voice began to show by the time of her afternoon Fest set. Nevertheless, her unflagging energy and upbeat, up-tempo roadhouse blues-belting and boogie-woogie piano-playing made her a delightful opener to the day's lineup. Though now based in Texas, she was raised in Vinton, La., and tales from that upbringing showed through in some of the songs, particularly the poignant, environment-themed This Used to Be Paradise, from her new Roadside Attractions album. Ball's image has become iconic at the festival: She crosses her long legs at the knee and dangles the top one while playing electric keyboards, and a patch of white hair above her eyes stands out from her dark mane. When her limber fingers attack the piano it's impossible to stand still.

"This is the best gig in the world," she said toward the end of her set, which featured a guest appearance by "my slightly older sister," New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas, on Sing It!. Ball paid tribute to the resilience of the people of the region, saying "they dust themselves off and the party just keeps going on." That led into the closer, the new The Party's Still Going On.

Their land is our land: The Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, a fluid coalition of regional artists led by guitarist Tab Benoit that was formed to raise awareness for wetlands preservation, has become a must-see act at Jazz Fest. It provides one-stop listening to the region's dominant musical styles of funk, country, Cajun, pop, blues and rock, and carries a message. This year's group included George Porter Jr. of The Funky Meters, Johnny Sansone, Anders Osborne, Cyril Neville, fiddler Waylon Thibodeaux, Stanton Moore and Johnny Vidacovich, and they played an evocative mix of their own solo tunes plus songs from the groups new Box of Pictures album, including Row, Row, Row That Pirogue.

In a nutshell: Festival organizers announced recently that presenting sponsor Shell Oil Co., which often is credited with helping to save the event in the post-Katrina years, has extended its sponsorship through 2014.

Blow, Gabriel, blow: Charles Neville blew heavenly sax alongside his angelic-voiced brother Aaron in the Gospel tent on a medley of I Saw the Light/Down By the Riverside/This Little Light of Mine/Amen.

Vivid Bland: Though his famous vocal squalls are trending toward more of a quiet storm these days, Bobby "Blue" Bland still offered a powerful presence in the Blues tent. Now in his seventh decade of performing, the 81-year-old sat in front of a brass-led band and spun out a selection of songs from his 1950s and 1960s heyday, including St. James Infirmary and I'll Take Care of You.

Paradise for parrots: Jimmy Buffett's "Parrothead" fans would argue that the singer is at home just about anywhere he breathes, but that was unarguably true here during his headlining show at the Acura stage. The 64-year-old singer was born in nearby Pascagoula, Miss.; raised in Mobile, Ala.; started his career as a French Quarter busker and owns a club here; and lives in comfort on the far side of Florida. To the massive and mellow crowd he could do no wrong, especially when he summoned Jesse Winchester (who sang earlier on the Fais Do Do stage) and Allen Toussaint to perform early classic Biloxi, Rumba Man, Volcano and I Will Play for Gumbo. The last song was dedicated to artist Garland Robinette, who painted the Buffett portrait that adorns the official festival poster. And this being a "Saturday night in New Orleans" gave him incentive to trot out Why Don't We Get Drunk.

What in blazers?: Ms. Lauryn Hill's band noodled and vamped for nearly 15 minutes before she emerged, but when she did she was a sight to behold. Though the temperature was in the low 80s, she apparently was in an Annie Hall mood: She wore a floor-length green dress, a striped smock, a gray-ish jacket and a jaunty gray hat with a big black band. After knocking the mike stand in the Congo Square audience, she sweated along with the crowd through a well-received 90-minute set that included openerEverything Is Everything and The Sweetest Thing.

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