Story by Cree McCree
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival—a nonstop musical orgy better known as Jazzfest—has always been a 24/7 party. Years ago, hardcore festgoers greeted the dawn at Benny’s, a funky little Uptown dive where all the cats came to jam after their gigs. These days, official 5 AM “breakfast shows” are routine, and jam bands like Phish (1996), Dave Matthews (2001) and Widespread Panic (2003) have spawned a thriving neo-hippie scene, complete with nitrous tanks, killer kind, and designer organic drugs. (Best Jazzfest buzz: chocolate-covered ’shrooms). But lest we forget, what feeds this hydra-headed monster is Jazzfest itself, held on multiple outdoor stages over two consecutive weekends in late April and early May at the Fairgrounds Racetrack. The festival’s 34th incarnation ranked among the very best in recent memory, highlighted by a megadose of Bob Dylan, soul-searing sets by Lucinda Williams, and the sonic alchemy of Ornette Coleman.
And that was just the first weekend.
Blessed by cool and breezy weather and lighter-than-usual crowds, the inaugural Thursday—newly added this year—was a delightful throwback to the old days, when Jazzfest was less of an institution and more of a family affair. After paying respects to my elders at the Fais Do Do stage, where the Hackberry Ramblers were celebrating their 70th anniversary of playing good-time Cajun swing, I segued into a close encounter with Lucinda Williams at an interview conducted by Hackberry drummer Ben Sandmel. Sporting a cool “Local Talent” tank top, the former New Orleans homegirl—who laces her lyrics with Louisiana references—spoke of everything from her art (“you can find a song anywhere you go”) to her new tattoo (“it’s a two-headed Toltec serpent”). But mostly, gloriously, she sang, riveting us with acoustic versions of songs from her superb new album, World Without Tears (Lost Highway), including the title track. Later that day, while Fats Domino rocked the other end of the Fairgrounds, Lucinda upped the ante with a scorching set that literally brought me to my knees with “Atonement” and left the crowd gasping for more. By way of benediction, she offered us “Essence” as a few raindrops fell from the skies like sprinkles of holy water.
Friday took flight with one of those omigod random moments: I wandered into the Jazz Tent just in time to catch a phenomenal single-note flutter by young New Orleans horn hotshot Troy Andrews on “St. James Infirmary.” Equally random in its own way was Bob Dylan’s positively Jazzfest set. Wearing a spiffy black cowboy suit and backed by a crackerjack band, the counterculture’s poet laureate reinvented his classic songs on the keyboards, twanging up “Baby Blue” and putting a reggae spin on a deliciously goofy “Tambourine Man.” He had even more fun the next night, in an evening concert opened by lady Lucinda, when his voice was well-oiled by his Fairgrounds stint and fans were dancing in the aisles. This man ain’t no living legend, he’s a present-tense artist who lives in the moment as fully as he did in his Freewheelin’ days.
The same could be said of 73-year-old Ornette Coleman, who was so far ahead of his time he would have emptied the Jazz Tent of all but a handful of devotees just a few years back. In 2003, festgoers’ ears have opened, and he turned it into a hushed cathedral for overflow crowds. Venturing farther out than even Charlie Parker had gone, Coleman raised the bar for improvisers. Just being in the presence of the master, who glowed from the inside in his silk turquoise suit, gave me goose bumps. Then he began to play. Building sonic structures note by note with supple runs on his sax, Coleman constantly surprised, turning an elegiac lament into a gypsy dance and a flight of bumblebees into a hard-bop minuet. The emotional highlight came when he was joined onstage by Ellis Marsalis and Alvin Batiste.
Though nothing could top Coleman, who literally moved me to tears, the second weekend was also great fun. The North Mississippi All-Stars got an exuberant crowd “marching on the freedom highway,” while sacred-steel phenom Robert Randolph spread the joy in his heart as fervently from the Acura Stage as the Mighty Chariots of Fire did in the Gospel Tent. Best of all was Saturday, when I headed off to the Fairgrounds with a major pot buzz. The result was one of those rare Jazzfest days when every move you make lands you in the perfect place at the exact right moment.
Stilt-walkers from Martinque led me to the Chouval Bwa, a hand-powered carousel with an eight-piece band in the middle, where I boarded a wooden horse that spun me ’round the Fais Do Do. There I discovered Mary McBride, a young alt-country queen smart and sexy enough to give Williams a run for her money down the road. My roll continued with Widespread Panic; I arrived just in time for my favorite song of theirs, “Imitation Leather Shoes.” The day peaked with Irma Thomas, who lustily reclaimed her “Time Is on My Side” from the Stones. Looking hot as hell in tight white Capris and a rose-emblazoned tank, the Queen of New Orleans Soul got the crowd second-lining with New Orleans classics like “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way,” bringing Jazzfest back to its roots.
It was a fitting capper to a year that may not have been bigger; a mere 452,000 music lovers showed up, down slightly from 2002. But everyone agreed it was qualitatively better, including producer Quint Davis. “It was a renewal of vows,” he told the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “People fell in love with Jazzfest all over again.”