Pinching his nose with his thumb and forefinger in the universal sign of peee-eeww, pianist Eddie Bo turned to the audience at House of Blues in New Orleans on April 30th, bouncing happily in time on his stool to the volcanic strut of George Porter Jr. of the Meters, ex-Herlin Riley, organist David Torkanowksy and, at a second set of eighty-eights, pianist Marcia Ball –- somewhere in town, when the festival reconvenes for three more days on May 4th.
Lest we forget: New Orleans is no longer under water, but it is still living under heavy weather. Nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina, more than half of the city’s pre-flood population has not returned, and many of those who have come back are still living in FEMA trailers. Medical services are sporadic, and the few reopened schools are overcrowded and underfinanced. Meanwhile, real estate speculators devour ravaged land, and the natives have as much faith in their elected representatives, at every level, as they do in the rebuilt levees. As one taxi driver told me , “Bush wants to rebuild Iraq. What about us?”
It was hard to imagine that there was anything wrong in the world outside the blue-sky perfection of the Fairgrounds during Jazz Fest 2007’s first weekend. But the frustration was never far below the surface of a song. On Saturday, singer-pianist Leo Nocentelli, organist Henry Butler), singer John Boutté introduced the magnificent rage and helplessness in his version of the Eurythmics’ “Why” by shouting, “America, can you hear me? Can you hear me now?” He wasn’t talking about his cell phone or the sound system.
But the true fighting spirit of the local and regional musicians dominating the festival’s eleven stages was in their indivisible determinations to party and innovate. Former brass band prodigy Trombone Shorty, leading his own crew Orleans Avenue and looking like a street-parade P. Diddy in a sharp white suit, made true heavy metal with his horn in a thrilling recasting of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” while, one stage over, the trombone army Led Zeppelin’s “The Ocean,” Black Sabbath. Young Cajun sensations the Pine Valley Boys fused rockabilly and Canned Heat-style boogie with the country poise of bayou waltzes and, in one acapella number, the ecstatic chanting of the Mardi Gras Indians. The supercharged funk of Backyard Groove, led by ex-Dirty Dozen Brass Band sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, included, in one number, the slicing-Santana effect of two harmonized lead guitars.
Other highlights far from the main stages: Amazones, a dynamic troupe of women drummers from Guinea; electric country-blues guitarist Freddie King but, at 66 years young, can definitely duckwalk better than you and plays a mean version of the real King’s “Hide Away”; J.D. Hill, a blues singer and harpist unafraid to sing his original “My Baby Don’t Wear No Drawers” first thing on a Sunday morning; and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, who have arrived at the sweet-spot intersection of Dixieland, Cajun dance music and Seventies funk via Eastern Europe. One wild reel they played was called, in Yiddish, “Celebrate the Pig” — which you could also do at the hot-sausage po-boy and cochon de lait stands across the field.
Jazz Fest organizers did not release attendance figures for the initial weekend, although there were rumors of a record-breaking Saturday, when Rod Stewart, Norah Jones and Ludacris closed the afternoon on three separate stages. Bonnie Raitt, Lucinda Williams and country singer Brad Paisley also played headline-slot shows. John Mayer, the Allman Brothers Band, ZZ Top and, bizarrely, New Edition are among the out-of-town heavyweights set for this weekend. It’s a good bet, though, that none of them will beat the surrealistic showmanship of Mississippi singer-pianist Bobby Lounge, whose Sunday-afternoon blues explosion of Bessie Smith, Jerry Lee Lewis and white-trash-William Burroughs included a song about the mythical Delta beast Squirrelsquatch and an actual sighting – or what was more likely a guy in a giant, truly ratty, rodent costume, probably hammered as he raced through the crowd, chasing girls and dumping people’s beers.
New Orleans may be the city that time and Bush forgot. It is also a city that refuses to give up — or stop laughing.