Saturday, May 7, 2011

Top acts converge as Jazz Fest continues

Saturday, May 7, 2011

NEW ORLEANS ? Day two of weekend II of the city's Jazz & Heritage Festival presented one of those typical diabolical dilemmas for attendees as a half-dozen can't-miss acts performed at the same time to close the day. Willie Nelson or Arcade Fire? A centennial tribute to native Mahalia Jackson or the New Orleans Klezmer All-stars' 20th anniversary celebration? Gregg Allman's blues moaning or the classic jazz of the Mingus Big Band or the booty-shaking songs of Nathan & The Zydeco Cha Chas? Somehow, the sizeable crowd figured it out under clear, sunny skies.

  • Arcade Fire performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Friday.

    By Patrick Semansky, AP

    Arcade Fire performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Friday.

By Patrick Semansky, AP

Arcade Fire performs at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival on Friday.

Some highlights of the festivities:

Horn of the Century: Lionel Ferbos, a mainstay of the city's traditional jazz scene for most of his life, turns 100 on July 17. As a reward for reaching that milestone, and for playing in his 39th Jazz Fest (he missed two), he was the subject of a tribute show from his own Palm Court Jazz Band in the People's Health Economy Hall tent. But he had to work for the honor: The trumpet player/vocalist took his place alongside his fellow brass players in the front line of the seven-piece ensemble and blew away like always during the 50-minute presentation of traditional jazz standards. Miraculously, he didn't appear to be fazed by the steady stream of flashbulbs firing off at close range. He exhorted the crowd to get up and form a second-line parade inside the tent on Little Liza Jane, and a river of parasols opened instantly. Ferbos contributed strong lead vocals to Bill Bailey Won't You Please Come Home, and when the band launched into When You're Smiling, he did too.

Super-charged: The Electrifying Crown Seekers began searching for their eternal reward in 1965 and have been living up to their wholly appropriate name all the while. Guitarist James Williams, Sr., is the sole remaining original member, and he anchors the group, which is known both for its scintillating falsetto vocals (from Gregory Sanders) and James Brown-style choreography (led by co-vocalist Lloyd Fradieu). Their high-energy treatments of gospel standards such as Walk Around Heaven All Day and Old Revival brought down the gospel tent and spurred the audience to its feet. It happens every year here: The group is the essence of Jazz Fest's rootsy spirit and more explosive than any rock headliner.

Zyde-animal: Buckwheat Zydeco's shows are invariably one long, loud non-stop party. His insistent accordion and commanding voice are framed by brass and rhythm sections, a guitar, keyboards and, of course, a rub board, and the combo is relentless. And soulful. After stretching Bobby Charles' Walkin' To New Orleans into a loping, brassy jam, Buckwheat (Stanley Dural is his real name) switched to the Hammond organ for a funky R&B instrumental and then brought things back to Cajun country with the rave-up Hot Tamale Baby.

Huba-a-hub-a: Lafayette, La.'s Roddie Romero & The Hub City All-stars recreate the easy-rocking, good-timing, highly danceable mix of Cajun, swamp pop and '50s rock that has fueled Cajun country bars and dancehalls for decades. The Grammy nominees (for 2008's The La Louisianne Sessions) are led by accordionist/guitarist/vocalist Romero and pianist Eric Adcock, and they had the Fais Do Do stage crowd swaying, waltzing and two-stepping in the dust under the relentless mid-afternoon sun to classics like Hey Bob-A-Ree-Bop and Walkin' To New Orleans and originals like It Ain't Easy. Think of them as the less bombastic version of Buckwheat. Speaking of their home base, Adcock said, "If you ever get down that way, stop by Roddie's momma's house and she'll feed you some chicken sausage gumbo." The sentiment seemed utterly sincere.

Outlaw outdoors: Even with a giant video screen towering over them, the overflow audience at the Gentilly main stage couldn't read the emotion on Jamey Johnson's face, covered with a long, thick, unruly beard and hidden behind black wraparound shades. But once he opened his mouth and aired out his manly baritone voice, there was no mistaking his reformed-outlaw, working-man's blues message. Starting strong with High Cost of Living, he followed with a mesmerizing (though not exactly festival-friendly) set of hard-core country and classics, drawing extensively from his acclaimed The Guitar Song album. Among the excellent covers propelled by his electrifying band: Merle Haggard's That's the Way Love Goes and Waylon Jennings' Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way. He closed the show by inviting the Blind Boys of Alabama onstage for two songs. Johnson co-produced their new Take the High Road album, and he played guitar behind the gospel group on I Know a Place. He then stepped to the front to lead the ensemble on the rousing closer, Hank Williams' I Saw the Light.

All blues:Allman Brothers Band co-founder Gregg Allman says he's feeling healthier than he has in years, thanks to a recent liver transplant, and he's celebrating by taking a new band on the road to perform songs from his recent Low Country Blues album, a collection of covers of R&B and blues classics. The ensemble he brought to the festival included a four-piece horn section and an incredible guitarist, Scott Sharrard, along with a solid rhythm section. Allman played Hammond organ, strummed a little rhythm guitar, sang with this trademark moan and looked entirely comfortable in his role as a big band leader. His set drew from the new album but also included early solo hit I'm No Angel and the Allman Brothers' nugget Dreams.

Gospel voice of the Century: When Irma Thomas was growing up in Louisiana in the 1950s she listened to gospel great and fellow New Orleanian Mahalia Jackson on the radio. On Friday, Thomas, who went on to become an acclaimed soul and R&B singer, channeled the late pioneer during a set honoring the 100th anniversary of Jackson's birth and showed that the spiritual connection was still intact. After John Boutte opened the show with two numbers, Thomas emerged wearing a white choir robe and took the packed gospel tent to church. After a forceful Didn't It Rain, she launched into an intense, almost meditative version of Take My Hand Precious Lord. Midway through she appeared overcome with emotion and was led to a chair by a choir member. After resting for a few moments she returned to sing the coda as the crowd stood and roared. She rebounded with a clap-along version of Just A Closer Walk With Thee, her voice filling the tent and spilling out to mingle with the sounds of Gregg Allman and Arcade Fire performing nearby.

Encore, encore!: Headliners Arcade Fire and Willie Nelson surprised the crowds by bringing out special guests to close their sets. The multi-Grammy-winning Canadian alt-rock group had drawn the day's largest crowd and didn't disappoint during their typically dynamic set. For the first encore they brought out Thursday headliner Cyndi Lauper to sing Girls Just Want To Have Fun, then Lauper joined keyboardist Regine Chassagne on Sprawl II. The band sent everyone home with a joyous sing-along on Wake Up.

At the same time on the other side of the Fairgrounds, headliner Willie Nelson welcomed Jamey Johnson and the Blind Boys of Alabama to the stage to sing This Little Light of Mine.

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