Day 8 / Thursday, May 2


On Thursday morning we went back to 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. Once again the weather did not look promising, but we arrived at the Fair Grounds and passed through the friendly security people and ticket takers under a bright, breezy, overcast sky. The track was reasonably dry, and the viewing area at the Gentilly Stage, where we went first, was damp, but tolerable. 

The Thursday cubes and the recommendation of Swag, a blogger who provided enough good background information on Jazz Fest to make our trip last year feel like we had already been there, led us to Gentilly. Opening today were the Mercy Brothers, from Lafayette, Louisiana. We were right up front on the railing for this outstanding revival meeting honky-tonk (what?) performance.  

Louisiana musicians often blend zealous religious lyrics with the most raucous, rowdy accompaniment, straddling the line between Saturday night blow-outs and Sunday morning reflection. Formed in 2011, the Mercy Brothers blend the spiritual fervor of an old-time tent revival with the rambunctious feel of a rural roadhouse. The result is heavenly honky-tonk music.

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These guys are not born again, nor are they representatives of anyone's denomination; instead, they take their pulpit right to the people with songs of faith and devotion and love and despair ... tales of the spirit from the high and low sides alike. They do so with deliberate, intriguing ambiguity.

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Four of the fivesome began onstage: keyboardist Garland Theriot, guitarist Jason Leonard, bassist Matt Thornton, and drummer Dave "Papa Puff" Nezat. Theriot then introduced lead singer and sometimes guitarist and kazooist Kevin Sekhani. "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen," Theriot called at the crowd. "Amen for the holy man of honky-tonk, Brother Kevin Sekhani!" 

Sekhani joined the others onstage, all dressed in an array of seersucker vests, rolled up sleeves and straw boaters, the showmanship straight out of Prohibition-era America. "Amen, brothers and sisters!" shouted Sekhani. "Thank you, brothers and sisters!" And off they went, playing originals (here are Move Up Oh Lord and Holy Ghost Power and All the People Who Died) and traditionals (here's a rollicking version of Down by the Riverside). From another festival, here are I Saw the Light and The Devil's Food Tastes Like Cake.

Thank heaven for Swag's recommendation; the Mercy Brothers' unexpected honky-tonk gospel revival was a great start to the day.

When you are going from the Gentilly Stage to any other stage via the walkways in the Fairgrounds infield, you pass what is known as Food Area I, and the first booth in that long row is that of Panorama Fine Foods, which you may know by now is home of crawfish bread (yes, it's on Facebook), shrimp bread, and sausage and jalapeno bread. Since it had been almost a week since we had some, and it really is hard to resist, I had a crawfish bread and Laurie had shrimp bread. 

By this time the skies had darkened and it wasn't long before it started to rain again. It was another hard rain, this one wind-blown so it was coming down more or less sideways. We had our sights set on the Jazz and Heritage Stage for the set by the Kora Konnection, a local band that combines West African music and instruments with acoustic post-bop jazz. The rains of the week had turned the area in front of this stage into a muddy mess, and now that it was raining again, huge puddles were beginning to form. 

Ever resourceful, we located a good place to see and hear, right next to the sound booth, which provided shelter from the driving rain. From there, we were able to enjoy this fascinating group of artists, which features Morikeba Kouyate from Senegal on the kora (the 21-string African harp we saw last year with Regina Carter's Reverse Thread and also last Friday with Toubab Krewe). Kouyate is a seventh-generation kora player, known throughout West Africa for his performances and skillfull play. He sings in his native Mandinka language.

"It was no choice for me to say if I want to play kora or not," he explains. "When you’re born into the Kouyate family, you have to play."

Also in the group: Guinean native Thierno Dioubate on balafon (a West African wooden-keyed percussion idiophone similar to the xylophone) and djembe (an African hand drum), local jazz greats Tim Green on sax and Vince Mitchell on bass, Hamid Drake on the drum kit, and percussionist Jeff Klein on djun djun (an African drum). 

"We’ve combined acoustic jazz instruments with traditional West African instruments," Klein says. "These are instruments that are not traditionally ever together. There may be one other African-styled jazz group in the world, so it’s fairly unique."

Indeed. Their music is an exotic and melodic blend of West African music and jazz improvisation. It spans the cultures of two continents and seven centuries in its mission to bring American Jazz back home to its African roots. Here, here, here, and here are some videos from other performances. Of these, the fourth has the best sound. Here's my video of the Jazz Fest show this year, complete with rain. 

In the picture above and in my video you'll see some really hardcore music lovers in front of the stage ... in the rain. One of them, in the blue chair on the left, with no rain gear, not even a hat, never budged for the entire performance. The guy in the middle with the cowboy hat just danced the whole time, completely oblivious to the rain, which actually did stop during this show. We eventually moved, very gingerly, closer to the front to enjoy this music even more.   

As the day continued, so did the rain, but not in downpours, just off-and-on light showers. It wasn't that bad, but the grounds were taking a tremendous beating. I do want it known, though, that we never set foot in a tent today; we were strictly outdoors in spite of the weather!

Continuing today's theme of unique music, we headed back over to the Gentilly Stage to see the tattooed and sassy Meschiya Lake and her Little Big Horns do their completely modern take on classic swing music. Meschiya is no supper-club swing stylist. She knows her stuff. Her knowledge and love of traditional jazz and vintage blues go far beyond that. 

However, scholarship doesn't get you gigs. Showmanship (and chops) do, and Lake has both in spades. The music she and the Little Big Horns play is stunning in its quality and originality. "I was a teenage goth punk rocker," Meschiya said. "I inject that passion into our performances." Indeed. The ballads smoldered and the swing tunes were hot!

"We definitely don’t want it to sound like novelty music," Meschiya said. "It means something that’s very powerful to me, and I want it to sound like that, not emulate someone else. This music isn’t a passing fad of youth; it’s a form of expression that can sustain and nurture you for your entire life." 

As the interviwer said, "Rather, in fact, like the New Orleans music scene itself." 

Meschiya began her musical career at the age of nine, when she won a singing contest in a South Dakota steakhouse. In 2000, she was picked up by the Know Nothing Family Zirkus Zideshow and End of the World Circus, which traveled all over the country but spent winters in New Orleans. "The circus had a band," Meschiya said. "At night we’d make a fire and sing old New Orleans blues music. That’s how I learned the repertoire." She fell in love with the city and has lived there for the last 10 years with no plans to leave.

In 2007, she began singing with a band of street musicians called the Loose Marbles (see them here and here). Along with jazz dancers Chance Bushman and Amy Johnson, they became leading contributors to a revival of traditional jazz and dance in the city and across the country. 

She delighted in participating in and watching the jazz revival unfold around her, and formed the Little Big Horns Jazz Band in 2009. This superlative group provides the perfect backdrop for her own compositions and material from the early 20th century. Her rich, warm voice and their swinging jazz and blues feel old but at the same time completely of the here and now.

Members of the band are Jason Jurzak (bass and sousaphone), Russell Welch (guitar), Charlie Halloran (trombone), Ben Polcer (piano and trumpet), and Mike Voelker (drums). Here they are on the street (here, too, and also here) in the French Quarter, with Bushman and Johnson dancing, as they were on the Gentilly Stage at Jazz Fest as well. Note she is singing with no amplification. What an incredible voice. Here and here are some of what we saw at Jazz Fest, and here are 30 minutes of the group playing at the Spotted Cat nightclub on Frenchmen Street and 90 minutes from a club in Holland. Finally, a duet performance of Bessie Smith's Back Water Blues with Tom McDermott on piano. Another highly recommended artist. 

It's a good thing Lake's music kept your feet moving, because if you stood in one spot for any length of time in front of the Gentilly Stage a puddle would begin to ooze up from the ground beneath you! 

We had a bit of a beak before the next show we wanted to see in its entirety, so we had time to do some sampling. On the Fais Do Do Stage were Rosie Ledet (pronounced led-dett) and the Zydeco Playboys. We grabbed ouselves a WWOZ Mango Freeze from the conveniently located booth near the stage and enjoyed a few minutes of this completely original zydeco chanteuse. 

Rosie hails from the rural town of Church Point, Louisiana, and she can write, sing, and play with the best of them. Brimming with coy sensuality, her music is fresh and daring while still retaining its links to its bayou Creole heritage. Among the few zydeco artists who still sing and write some of their own material in Creole French, her hip-shaking tunes are filled with double entendre; for example, You Can Eat My Poussiere, which, it turns out, translates in Cajun French to mean "You Can Eat My Dust." Mirth and joy are clearly two of Ledet's best friends, and it comes out in her music. Yet another fascinating artist.

Videos from Jazz Fest: here and here. In the videos you'll see a guy on the stage in a very strange get-up. He is not part of Rosie's act. He is Zydeco Shamat, a North Carolina resident who travels around the country to festivals. He's known for joining bands on stage with his high-energy dancing while playing a tambourine or shakers. O.K., then ...

Rosie was scheduled to be at Wolf Trap this summer, so we did not venture into the Fais Do Do muck to get up close. Instead, we walked over to the courtyard of the Grandstand and the Lagniappe Stage (pronounced lan-yap), where a local progressive rock band called Gravy was playing. We found Lagniappe to be a perfect place to chill out for awhile. It has covered seating yet enough open air that you still feel like you are outside. The seats are arranged around nicely manicured hedges, and a beverage concession and food vendor selling oysters on the half shell are in the courtyard as well. If you want, you can go upstairs to watch from some chairs on a balcony. All in all a pretty cool place to hear music by local artists you no doubt have never heard of but, because they are from New Orleans, are definitely worthy of the time.


So we were sitting there listening to Gravy, who turned out to be a really cool band, doing Pink Floyd's lovely song Fearless (which incidentally they never performed live), extending it into a jam, with just a touch of sunshine mixed with occasional raindrops falling, and we both reached that place where music can take you, completely away from where you are. That is some kind of successful jam banding, Gravy. Well done! The members of Gravy are Marcus Burrell on bass, Stephen Kelly on guitar, Aaron Walker on drums, and Chris Dibenedetto on keyboards. Nick Ellman, Travis Blotsky, and Mark Levron joined them on brass. Here, here, and here are some videos of Gravy at a club in Mobile, Alabama.

We snapped out of the jam-band nirvana and headed over to squishy Congo Square, tiptoeing through the mud to get as close as we could to see Shamarr Allen and the Underdawgs do their jazzy, hiphoppy, R&B-tinged brand of New Orleans funk rock. He calls it hip-rock. No zoning out here. Allen, who we saw last Sunday in the Midnite Disturbers, leads this band with his trumpet and personality. This incredible set showed his band-leading skills, his songwriting, his sly personality, and his overall chops. 

Part of Allen’s appeal is his solid grounding in New Orleans music. When he shouts with his pocket trumpet, he taps the street energy of the second-line parades that he led in a host of local brass bands. When he whispers sweet nothings with his horn, he’s the jazz artist who honed his skills with trad jazz masters like Bob French. But Allen looks beyond his roots with the Underdawgs. He is an entertainer; his songs with themes like 'You Must Be Wasted' and 'My Girlfriend Doesn't Have Enough Sex with Me' pull the crowd in until he is in total control. Typical Rock Star pronounces that you will not catch Shamarr in skinny jeans, eye liner, or any of the trappings of predictable rockers. 


The Underdawgs give Allen plenty of help, starting with the powerful rhythm section of drummer Floyd Gray, percussionist Herbert Stevens, and bassist William Terry. Together they accommodate the many musical shifts in Allen’s set, from driving, on-the-beat rock, to swaying hip-hop, to loping Caribbean beats. On keyboard, Jason Butler adds outstanding fills and bursts. Guitarist Matt Clark drives home the genre-busting message with power chords and soaring leads.

Allen pulls that variety together with his joyful stage presence, his great voice, and songs that reveal a self-deprecating sense of humor. Toward the end of the show he gets out his cell phone, announces its number and gives out CDs to any woman who calls. He really does this, it's not an act. At the beginning of the show he talks about his recent run-in with the St. Bernard Parish police, and at the end of the show he is led off the stage in handcuffs and an orange jumpsuit by "police."


Shamarr's story is lengthy but worth telling. He grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans, practicing his trumpet at home and playing with his childhood friend Dinerral Shavers. But like so many other such New Orleans memories, Allen’s childhood recollections are clouded by the void that’s left behind. His house was so close to the levee failure that destroyed the Lower Ninth Ward that there’s not a toothpick’s worth of it left standing. Dinerral Shavers was shot and killed in 2006. 

"It’s so many memories," says Shamarr. "All the kids outside playing in the street and I’m sitting on my porch, practicing my trumpet. It was more like a family. Everybody was so close. It was just like one big family."

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He decided to play the trumpet at age seven after his father played him a Louis Armstrong record. "I was like, 'Dad, whatever he’s playing, I want to play that.' It seemed like he was having so much fun with his singing and his playing, the way the band played. It was so much fun that it made you want to have fun, too." On the streets of the Lower Nine, he and Shavers practiced leading their own second-line parades. "We always were together. We played music together for our whole lives. Everybody thought we were brothers and we let them think that." They called their first band Wolfpack, after their mentor, Keith "Wolf" Anderson from Rebirth Brass BandAs a teen, he auditioned for both the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and the New Orleans High School for Science and Math. He was accepted only by Science and Math.

Another Rebirth member, trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, took Allen under his wing and would often show up in the neighborhood to teach the kids about the jazz tradition they were a part of. Allen would later play with Rebirth himself, but not before he learned his craft on the streets of the French Quarter alongside Troy Andrews (Trombone Shorty) and Glen David Andrews. "We’d all get together and play in the Quarter, my band and their band. Then people started to drop out so what was two bands actually became just one band." Allen and his friends eventually found themselves playing in Jackson Square with Tuba Fats (watch this if nothing else!)

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"A lot of us learned a lot about traditional music from Tuba Fats," Shamarr says. "He would call a song, and I’d say, 'Tuba I don’t know that one.' He’d say, 'Sink or swim, we’re playing it. One, two ... .' You had to go home and learn it, and the next week when you came back, you had better be able to play it." 

Allen played his first French Quarter Festival with Tuba Fats when he was 14. Shamarr, Shorty, Glen David, and their friends were the future stars of New Orleans music, a fact they didn’t realize at the time. Between Wolf and Fats, Allen got all the street cred he needed to roll with the Hot 8 Brass Band and then Rebirth. He credits that experience as the basis of his sound.

"My dad told me from the first time I picked up the horn that I always had that personality, but I think the personality came from playing in the streets, playing in the French Quarter, playing with the brass bands, learning this and learning that. That’s where the personality came from, as opposed to just learning the technical side of it. When you think about all the people that have that talent in their playing around here, they all played in brass bands."

Allen was playing with Rebirth when the Federal flood hit. He spent time in Atlanta, where he worked mostly in hip-hop production sessions. By the time he moved back to New Orleans in 2007, Shavers was gone. Allen became involved with the Silence is Violence teaching program in memory of Shavers. Taking a cue from his own history, Shamarr shows the kids film of Armstrong.

After he returned to New Orleans, he tried to pick up where he left off with Rebirth, but he’d changed to the point where he felt he had to do other things. He's collaborated with Paul Sanchez and began branching out as a songwriter, including Meet Me on Frenchmen Street, which became the title of his 2007 debut album. People who listened to that record decided he was a traditional jazz player, so he immediately did a second album that featured rock, pop, and hip-hop elements, including a recasting of the Gnarls Barkley song Crazy as a post-Katrina song.

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Allen has veered wildly all over the musical landscape, recording and playing with Sanchez, playing with Galactic, going on tour with Willie Nelson, doing Bourbon Street jazz gigs at Irvin Mayfield’s Jazz Playhouse, and working on his own material with rapper Dee-1 (above). He released a sharply political song about the BP oil spill in the Gulf, Sorry Ain’t Enough. "The Underdawgs are my main focus," he says. "This band is exactly where I want it to be. First it was like a bunch of jazz cats playing jazz, then it was like a bunch of jazz cats trying to play rock music, but now we’ve found our sound. I think if Louis Armstrong was born in my generation, his music would sound like the stuff that I’m doing now, because Louis Armstrong was a rock star. He was a star." 

Here's 70 minutes of Shamarr at the Kennedy Center's Millenium Stage this past summer, and here's 15 minutes from the Louisiana Music Factory that includes My Girlfirend Doesn't Have Enough Sex with Me

This show was just so much fun it made us completely forget about the rain and sloppy conditions at Congo Square.

One more performance to go, but first some food. I did a repeat from last year, the Cochon de Lait Po'Boy from Wanda Walker's Love at First Bite in New Orleans. Laurie had Shrimp and Grits from Fireman Mike's Kitchen in New Orleans. The po'boy is high on everyone's list of favorite Jazz Fest foods. I did not disagree last year, and it was no different this year. It is just sooo good. Laurie reported the shrimp and grits to be creamy and delicious. 

Back over to the Gentilly Stage we trekked, to see Patti Smith. Patti freaking Smith for crying out loud! In spite of the weather, we had seen some frankly stunning music over the four days so far. This one soared onto the list. Some national acts get where they are when at Jazz Fest and some don't. Patti Smith got it.

We didn't venture into what had to be by this time some serious mud in front of the Gentilly Stage; instead, we hung out near the sound booth, just under the second bank of speakers so that we heard the show perfectly. We could see the stage and had a real good view of the jumbo TV monitors. 

As the godmother of punk rock, Smith has, over the years taken many personas. She showed them all during her set today, a set that began in the rain and ended in a glowing sunset. She sampled from all of her albums but bookended with songs from "Horses," starting with Redondo Beach and ending with Gloria

After the first song, she stepped out to the edge of the stage and scanned the crowd as if, as one reviewer said, she wanted to recall everyone's face at some point in the future. She broke into a big smile and reached out her arm to the crowd, palm up, as if to invite us all into an embrace.

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When the sky was gray and rainy, it seemed like she played to the weather, with a mellow pace and surreal tunes like Dancing Barefoot and Distant Fingers, which she introduced by recalling how she and Tom Verlaine used to stand in the alley behind CBGB and watch the UFOs hover over the club.

She dedicated Ghost Dance, with its refrain of 'we shall live again,' to all who lost their lives or their homes or were displaced in the floods of Katrina. "You are never forgotten," she said, "and the sun will shine again." No sooner had she said it than the sun came out in full force for the first time today. No kidding.


As the sun emerged, Lenny Kaye, her longtime guitarist, and Smith led a medley of snarling garage-rock tunes: the Strangeloves' Night Time Is the Right Time, the Seeds' Pushin' Too Hard, the Blues Magoos' We Ain't Got Nothin' Yet, and the Heartbreakers' Born to Lose. Pissing in a River was plaintive and intense as was Beneath the Southern Cross from "Gone Again."

She then did an anthemic Because the Night, during which the crowd tried to but could not out-sing her. This led to frantic versions of Banga (with Kaye doing the dog barks) and People Have the Power. We were now completely under Smith's spell; everyone was going absolutely wild. There was a short breather for Neil Young's It’s a Dream

Then came the final 15 minutes, comprised of a slow, feedback-filled build into an absolutely epic run of Land/Horses and GloriaSmith added a freestyle spoken-word verse to Land/Horses, paying tribute to New Orleans ("Where Joan of Arc sits on her horse and blesses the children of the city"). After that, the song continued to ascend ever upward into pure rock and roll. As the song peaked for the third or fourth time, Smith proclaimed, "We have our blood. We have our imaginations. And we are fucking HERE!" Whatever it meant, it just felt transcendent.

When this show was over, it was one of those moments when you just stand there trying to process what you just experienced. A trying day of persistent rain and mud suddenly turned sunny by the high priestess of punk. Go figure. 

There was more tonight, after the bus ride back downtown. We de-mucked, grabbed a snack, and then walked up Tchoupitoulas Street into the Warehouse District and then down Andrew Higgins Drive to an event facility called Generations Hall. Here, we were attending the signature event of the Trobone Shorty Foundation, also known as Shorty Fest. This was a benefit concert, so like the Instruments-a-Comin' show at Tipitina's last Monday, just being there accomplished a lot. Good thing, too, because we found this event to be really crowded. 

We started out listening to a band made up of high school students and led by famed drummer Zigaboo Modeliste from the original Meters. We heard them, but never really got a good look at them. 

Next was a performance by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. They were in the big room and we did see some of this, but the room kept getting more crowded by the minute. As shorter people, this just isn't all that comfortable for us, so we backed off and finally out. You can enjoy this video of them at Jazz Fest this year. We did have some nice conversation with a bartender in the reception area outside the big room, and there was a trio of young musicians playing in that area.

Simultaneously, a cool group known as Cha Wa was playing in the other performance space. We spent some time in this area also, but again, the crowd prevented any kind of view of the artists. I spent some time with Cha Wa on Saturday, so tune in then for more on them them.

By the time Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue appeared, the main room was so full that we couldn't even hope to get inside. Even the areas around the entrance to the room, where you could still hear if not see, were crowded! So we wrote this one off as money provided to a good cause and headed off to the Staybridge. 

Once back at the Staybridge we met up with Laurie's mother and her husband, henceforth known as Ellie and David. They had arrived a few hours earlier and had been out walking around the French Quarter. Everyone was ready for some food.

Just a block or two away from the Staybridge on the upriver side of Tchoupitoulas Street is Lucy's, the Retired Surfer's hangout bar that we hit last year after a day of Fest-ing. They have a pretty good late night menu, and since it definitely was late and night, that's where we went. I ordered a Fiesta Burger (a burger served between crispy tortillas with jalapenos, pico de gallo sauce, and shredded lettuce) while Laurie had a Breakfast Taco (potato and egg wrapped in a flour tortilla). We devoured the food while recounting all that we had experienced over the past week and looking forward to tomorrow.



© Jeff Mangold 2012