Day 4 / Sunday, April 28


On Sunday morning we once again did the 2013 drill: get up, get ready, scrounge food at the Staybridge breakfast buffet, go back to the room and slather on sunblock and gather tickets and cameras and phones and our trusty black and blue umbrella, and head out to walk to the shuttle buses at the Sheraton. Before leaving I checked the weather and radar, and the radar was ominous at best. A large area of heavy rain was bearing down on New Orleans from the northwest over Lake Ponchartrain. After six days of great weather (including last year), it looked like dealing with rain was going to be inevitable today. 

Radar notwithstanding, we arrived at the Fair Grounds, passed through the friendly security people and ticket takers, and were on the grounds in plenty of time for a stop at the New Orleans Coffee Company booth. We then ambled over to the Acura Stage, where we were planning to see local alt-folk-rock sensations Hurray for the Riff Raff. It was still dry as people poured in and set up their blankets and chairs at Acura (today's headliner was the Dave Matthews Band), but there was a feeling of anxiousness.

We got a great spot at the railing in front of the Acura Stage, but a rumble of thunder and a flash of lightning in the distance sent us scurrying off to one of the General Stores to purchase a piece of plastic with holes in it, otherwise known as a poncho. The two General Stores at Jazz Fest are places where you can get everything from sun block and spray fans if it's hot to umbrellas and ponchos if it's not. Spare batteries, hair ties ... you name it, they got it. And let us not forget that Jazz Fest also has a post office, a book store, and a music store in addition to all of the really high-quality craft vendors. It's a good thing the music fills the day.

We did a quick check of the Sunday cubes and decided that for the short term a better choice than Acura might be the Jazz Tent. We got our ponchos on just in time; as we crossed the racetrack into the Heritage Square area, the skies opened and a torrential downpour began. No light rain preceded it; no, someone just turned on a faucet over the Fair Grounds.

Our umbrella and our lovely new ponchos enabled us to get into the Jazz Tent relatively unsoaked. There, we sort of regrouped and then settled in to listen to Tulane University's jazz combo. 

One of the cool things about Jazz Fest is that the Jazz Tent has a longstanding tradition of giving the first slot of almost every day to colleges and universities. This year, you could see students from Xavier University, Loyola University, the University of New Orleans, the Henry Mancini Institute of the University of Miami's Frost School of Music, and the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts. Tulane's group had various members on stage at different times, numbering anywhere from trio to big band, and including singers. They were really polished, very impressive. And the tent was very dry. Here's videos 1, 2, and 3 of them that are so bad they could have been done by me.

After awhile, the rain abated enough to let us catch some of Hurray for the Riff Raff. We huddled under our umbrella in the rain, listening to the unique voice of lead singer Alynda Lee Segarra, the band's songwriter and creative force. Segarra's music is described as a dustbowl cluster of folk, roots, and blues. NPR said it "sweeps across eras and genres with grace and grit." Segarra, a 26-year-old of Puerto Rican descent, grew up in the Bronx, where she developed an early appreciation for doo-wop and Motown from the neighborhood’s longtime residents. She also went down to the Lower East Side every Saturday for punk matinees. 

She headed out on her own at 17, first to the West Coast, then roaming the South before settling in New Orleans. She fell in with a band of fellow travelers, playing washboard and singing before learning to play a banjo she’d been given in North Carolina. "It wasn’t until I got to New Orleans that I realized playing music was even possible for me. The travelers taught me how to play and write songs, and we’d play on the street all day to make money, which is really good practice. You have to get pretty tough to do that, and you put a lot of time into it."

"The community I found in New Orleans was open and passionate. The young artists were really inspiring to me," she says. "Apathy wasn’t a part of that scene. And then the year after I first visited, Katrina happened, and I went back and saw the pain and hardship that all of the people who lived there had gone through. It made we want to straighten out my life and not wander so much. The city gave had given me an amazing gift with music, and it made me want to settle there and be a part of it and help however I could."

Segarra's music is wonderful, and we're really looking forward to an opportunity to see a complete set someday. Until then, here's a quarter-hour performance from the Louisiana Music Factory. And here's a really nice half-hour set outdoors at the Art House on the Levee. I could say this for virtually everybody we've experienced in New Orleans, but Segarra is something special. Seek out Hurray for the Riff Raff and you will be rewarded.

It was still raining, not that hard, but still raining. We soldiered on toward the Fais Do Do Stage. On the way we passed one of the food areas, and there, like a shining beacon, was the booth of Kajun Kettle Foods of Elmwood, Louisiana, creators of Crawfish Monica. This is a simple yet unbelievably tasty dish comprised of rotini, crawfish tail meat, onion, garlic, Creole seasonings, cream, wine, salt, pepper, and butter. The dish was created by Kajun Kettle's head chef Pierre Hilzim, who named it after his wife, Monica Davidson. 

Crawfish Monica may be the most popular dish at Jazz Fest. What made it even better for us today was that, I guess because of the rain, there was no line. Very unusual. We walked right up to the booth, and the very friendly people there even gave us each a sheet of foil to cover our bowls until we got to one of the covered eating areas. Covered, yes; dry, no. 

This was the 30th year that Crawfish Monica has been dished out at Jazz Fest, with more than a million bowls served. Here's an interview with Chef Hilzim that was in the Times Picayune this year.

Crawfish Monica was really, really good. It is often imitated, never duplicated.

Let's get something out of the way here. New Orleans is below sea level. We all know that. Jazz Fest is held at an old, old racetrack that does not have great draininge, especially in the infield. In fact, inside the main race track is a turf track, and on the inside of that is a trench that, for example, runs the length of the Acura, Gentilly, and Congo Square viewing areas and the areas in front of the Fais Do Do and Jazz and Heritage stages. That low area becomes a muddy no-man's land for all but the hardiest souls ... a place where we saw flip flops go in and bare feet come out. On top of that, the paved walking areas puddle up, the grassy areas get waterlogged really fast and turn into mud, and the racetrack itself turns into a squishy wet sand. All in all, the place is a mess. And then there is the matter of the aroma of horse racetrack mud, a not-so-delicate mixture of hay and horse manure. But ya gotta deal with it. Experienced Fest-goers wear shrimp boots. If the mud gets deeper than those, it might be time to think about leaving town.

At this point, though, the Fais Do Do Stage was still wet grass, and we were comfortably up close to see the Zydeco Boss, Keith Frank, and the Soileau Zydeco Band from Soileau, Louisiana, (pronounced so-lie-el), whose zydeco party was not about to be deterred by a little rain. In fact, the rain stopped about halfway through his set, a really nice mix of old and new propelled along by a driving beat that, as usual for a zydeco band, hardly stopped for a minute.

The oldest son of a family of Creole musicians that can trace its history back to the 1860s, Keith, his sister Jennifer on bass, and his brother Brad on drums got their start backing their father, Preston Frank, a southern Louisiana zydeco legend, in his family band. When they began performing on thier own as the Soleil Zydeco Band, they added Chuck Leday on the scrub board, Aquais Benoit on guitar, and Lucien Hayes on pedal steel guitar. 

Frank is one of those zydeco artists who works the balance between tradition and innovation. He is deeply rooted in southern Louisiana tradition, and his zydeco style is classic. But he reportedly is also a bit of a gearhead, with an ear for modern sounds and pop culture, and since the 1990's he has been incorporating elements of hip-hop and contemporary R&B into his sound.  

Truth be told, zydeco came to be exactly because musicians were bringing contemporary sounds into rural music. In the 1950's, for artists like Boozoo Chavis and Clifton Chenier (see below), that was rock 'n' roll and R&B. In a way, artists like Frank (and Nathan Williams Jr., who we saw last year), who update zydeco with bits and pieces of popular music, could not be more faithful to its essence.

Frank kept the enthusiastic crowd engaged throughout the set, and his energy was infectious. Like a hip-hop MC, he pitted both sides of the crowd against each other to see who could party harder, and we stepped up to the challenge. By time the Soileau Zydeco Band ended the set playing while lying down on their backs, we felt like they had earned the rest!

Here is a four-part concert that Keith Frank did on KDCG TV in 2012. No room on this stage to lie down, though, as there are lots of extra musicians packed in the studio (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4).

So despite the rough start, maybe this day wasn't going to be so bad after all. What next? Perhaps a trip to the Gentilly Stage for some more zydeco could be just what the doctor ordered. Playing here were C.J. Chenier and his Red Hot Louisiana Band. Perhaps it was the threatening weather, but for whatever reason there was not a huge crowd, so we got pretty close to the stage with plenty of room to dance.

C.J. is the son of Clifton Chenier (pronounced shen-yay) (on the right and see above). Clifton was the undisputed King of zydeco music. By mixing Cajun and French two-steps and waltzes with blues, R&B, and rock and roll, he created the infectious sound of modern zydeco. Chenier was famous for his flashy onstage gear of cape and crown (and natty gold tooth), but it was his creation of joyful, exuberant, and highly danceable zydeco music that made him a legend. 

Clifton Chenier was born on June 25, 1925, in Opelousas, Louisiana, to sharecropper parents, and he was taught to play the accordion by his father. In 1947, he moved to Lake Charles (where his brother Cleveland Chenier already resided) to work in the oil fields. He and Cleveland, a scrub board player, would perform at taverns, weddings, and picnics all over the Texas-Louisiana bayous. The Chenier brothers were influenced not only by their elder Cajun counterparts, but also by the R&B sounds of Professor Longhair and Fats DominoClifton first garnered national attention in 1955 when Specialty Records released a zydeco version of the Professor's Eh, Petite Fille (Hey Little Girl), produced by Little Richard's producer Bumps Blackwell. He was finally able to leave his day job in 1956, hitting the road and touring throughout Louisiana and Texas with his band. His son Clayton Joseph (C.J.) Chenier was born September 28, 1957.

In 1966, Clifton Chenier made an appearance at the Berkeley Blues Festival in Berkeley, California. The performance was a huge success and began a national interest in zydeco. He then hit the road hard, for 20 years touring virtually nonstop all over North America and Europe, becoming the ambassador of zydeco music. He died from complications of diabetes on December 12, 1987, and the zydeco torch passed to C.J., who took over the Red Hot Louisiana Band. Here's a video of Clifton Chenier in a vintage Jazz Fest performance.

C.J. spent his childhood in the tough tenement housing projects of Port Arthur, TexasNot surprisingly, his earliest musical influences were an eclectic mix of funk, soul, jazz, and Motown. His first musical instruments were piano, tenor saxophone, and flute. It wasn't until his 21st birthday, after winning a scholarship and studying music at Texas Southern University, that he first performed with his famous father and the legendary Red Hot Louisiana Band. On the road, his father showed him how to front a world class touring band, how to run the family business, and how to develop his lifelong passion for music into a career.

C.J., like his father, plays straightforward zydeco. "I used to be the youngster in the band and now they call me Pops," he said with a laugh. By now there was actually some brightness in the sky, but I think that only served to agitate the atmosphere. Nonetheless, the sun sparkled off Chenier’s beautiful, keyboard-style accordion as he walked around the stage. 

C.J. does not try to imitate his father's playing. "I play it the way I play it. All my father really told me was to do the best I could do with my own style." And there is definitely nothing wrong with that! Here's a one hour performance by C.J. at the Smithsonian in D.C. The video is kinda dark but the music is just fine. Here is one I found of them on the Gentilly Stage at Jazz Fest. We were stationed on the other side, so don't look for us! And here is a YouTube page that has a whole lot of numbers from an outdoor show in Buchanan, Michigan, last summer. Members of the excellent Red Hot Louisiana Band are Tim Betts on guitar, Glenn Griffin on bass, Clifford Alexander on scrub board, Michael Morris on drums, and David Macejka on percussion. 

After dancing through two sets of zydeco, it was time for a refreshing Mango Freeze which is dished up as a fundraiser for the venerable NOLA radio station WWOZ. And it's a great thing that the booth selling it is near the Fais Do Do Stage, so we could listen to more southwest Louisiana music, this time Cajun from Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, while we enjoyed. We'd seen these guys in 2011 at the annual Wolf Trap Swamp Romp, and they are scheduled to be there again this year, so at Jazz Fest we just sampled. They are more on the traditional side, singing virtually everything in French, but they do add some contemporary electric touches and they are very, very good. Here's a sample from this year's set at Jazz Fest that shows the contemporary, and here is another that is a bit more on the traditional side. Members of the band are Riley on accordion, David Greely on fiddle, Sam Broussard on guitar, Brazos Huval on bass, and Kevin Dugas on drums. 

Nearby, on the other side of the infield, the Cubano band AsheSon (Ashe is Cuban for good karma; Son is a Cuban rhythm) were performing on the Jazz and Heritage Stage. Since our next choice for music was on this stage, we stayed in the neighborhood and listened to the end of this set. Each member of this group of mostly Cuban musicians brings a different professional experience to the band, ranging from the worlds of classical music, traditional Latin, jazz, and contemporary Cuban. The Cuban and Latin American music they play is full of energy and creativity. Yet another completely unique listening expeience at Jazz Fest. Here's an excerpt of a performance at Maison in New Orleans.

What we were waiting for was the Midnite Disturbers, an all-star brass funk band headed up by Stanton Moore of Galactic and Kevin O'Day, another versatile New Orleans drummer. Today the band was: on trombone, the Funky Nation's Big Sam Williams, the Tremé Funktet's Corey Henry, and Bonerama's Mark Mullins; on trumpet, the Underdawgs' Shamarr Allen and the Rebirth Brass band's Kenneth Terry; on saxophone, Skerik, Galactic's Ben Ellman, and Ellman's brother Nick Ellman; on baritone saxophone, the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's Roger Lewis; on sousaphone, Matt Perrine; and of course O'Day and Moore on drums and percussion. 

The whole point of the Midnite Disturbers is that there’s a lot going on at all times. With 10 horn players upfront, nearly all big names and leaders, you just have to enjoy the overload. The 15-minute "Buckin’ Like a Horse" alone had full-throttle solos from Skerik, Mullins, Williams, and Allen, then Allen took the mike to call out audience members who weren't doing the buckin' move during the music. 

More highlights (but the whole show was a highlight): Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, who was to close the stage for the day in the next cube, appeared and sang Ho Na Nae. Moore and O'Day sustained second-line beats during the brass doings without being repetitious (Moore threw in cool accents while Allen held a note on his trumpet for a minute). Special mention goes to Matt Perrine who was in the middle of a solo on his sousaphone when another downpour suddenly began. He quickly morphed it into Singin' in the Rain. Allen led the crowd in a call and response of "The Rain Don't Stop the Party!" Solos by Moore and Lewis were also outstanding. Gotta love the baritone sax.

Each member of the Midnite Disturbers was wearing a red t-shirt that read "Listen to ..." with a different New Orleans legend imprinted. Moore’s shirt, for example, read Listen to James Black, while his Galactic bandmate, saxophonist Ellman, saluted Fred Sheppard. But this was anything but a history lesson. Skerik's said Listen to Yourself!

By the way, the name of the band comes an old New Orleans tradition where musicians would go out at night and knock on people’s doors. The door would open, and the musicians would be playing, and they’d ask for money. They called them the Midnite Disturbers. 

You could wonder how a group with so many leaders and some of the really big names in the world of New Orleans funk could possibly work. But you can tell from the beginning that the Midnite Disturbers are more concerned with the vibe they bring as opposed to who is playing what. That's what brass band music in New Orleans is all about. The only city where such a supergroup could form for more than a one-off is New Orleans. Of the 2013 videos I have found, mine is the best. But I don't have the complete Buckin’ Like a Horse, so here that is. And here's the complete 17-minute Baker's Dozen. I love the drumming and the sax section on this one.

So yes, there was another downpour during the Disturbers' set, but it stopped before that set ended. There was one more cube to go, and we had no idea which way to head. It was time for some food, though, that we knew. I had the soft-shell crab po' boy from the Galley Seafood Restaurant of Metaire, Louisiana (Laurie had this last year, and we found a video telling all about how it's done). The crab is appropriately served on a roll with shredded lettuce and pickles, but I say ditch the so-so bread and just eat the tasty and well-fried main event. Laurie had mushrooms with a sophisticated crab and crawfish stuffing from Prejean's Restaurant in Lafayette, Louisiana. Well reviewed by her, and me (the sampler).

The Dave Matthews Band was already playing over at the Acura Stage. We had tickets to see them locally later in the summer, so dealing with that crowded, muddy mess wasn't going to be necessary. The Gypsy Kings were at Gentilly, not really our thing. Earth Wind and Fire at Congo Square? B.B. King in the Blues Tent? The Tremé Brass Band in Economy Hall? Jesse McBride's Next Generation Big Band in the Jazz Tent? Big Chief Monk Boudreaux at Jazz and Heritage?

While we were reviewing the options, we were in a covered eating area in one of those marvelous parts of the fairgrouds where you can hear several stages at once: Dave Matthews from behind the food booths, Earth Wind and Fire just getting started in front of us, and the Mardi Gras Indian chants of Monk Boudreaux over to the right. Just then, the skies opened up again. The third time was not a charm. We looked at each other and said you know what, there are four more days to come and nothing is really calling to us here, so let's head to the shuttle bus and get back downtown before we have to wait in a long line full of drunk, wet, and muddy people (well, at least those from the Acura Stage). 

As we walked across the infield in the rain, we got to hear some more music, but this one wasn't just a downpour like the previous two rainstorms, this one was a biblical deluge. Between the three storms that passed over the Fest today, more than 3.25 inches of rain came down. We were very happy to get on the bus.

Downtown at the Sheraton, the bus let us out into another incredible rainstorm. Or maybe it was the same rainstorm catching up to us, who knows? Anyway, Canal Street was, well, like a canal. We hung out under the Sheraton's canopy waiting for it to calm down a bit before heading back to the Staybridge.

We were almost there, crossing Poydras Street with the side door to the hotel in sight when I suffered the final indignity: I could hardly see the curb for the rain heading to the storm drain and my leap didn't quite make it. Instead I landed in about 5 inches of water, completely soaking my sneakers and socks. Yuk. But it was good to be back in the room and reflect on the first three days while drying out and warming up, with one more experience to come today.

That experience was a late dinner at Emeril's original restaurant, four blocks up Tchoupitoulas Street from the Staybridge. Our reservation was for 10 p.m. We entered the old building in the Warehouse District (it is actually a renovated pharmacy warehouse) from the relative quiet of a Sunday evening after a rainy day to find a bustling restaurant full of people and conversation. When you walk in you are in the bar area, with dining areas to the left and right, one of which has a view of the kitchen. We were seated in the other area, a quieter room lined with wine cabinets on one side and windows looking out onto Julia Street on the other.  

For dinner, Laurie asked if the kitchen could prepare a custom vegetarian entree, to which the waiter said sure, no problem. It arrived on a long plate with four items artfully arranged side by side. 

I had an Emeril salad (baby mixed greens, sun-dried tomatoes, pepper jack cheese, and seasoned croutons) followed by a double-cut pork chop with caramelized sweet potatoes, tamarind glaze, and a green chile molé. 

For desert we selected the key lime icebox pie with a honey graham crust and torched cinnamon meringue ... but they were out. I have been listening to Laurie whine about this for months now. We "settled" for upside-down whiskey pecan cake with butterscotch sauce and sweet potato ice cream. A really nice meal to wash away the day's travails. But make no mistake, despite the rain, no complaints! And tomorrow we get to sleep in!


© Jeff Mangold 2012