Day 10 / Saturday, May 2

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The next to last day this year was without a doubt the most crowded we have ever experienced at Jazz Fest, even more so than when Bruce Springsteen was here last year. The reason was a perfect storm of perfect weather (coupled with the rain last weekend) and three diverse headliners, each with his own distinct set of fans: Elton John, Ed Sheeran, and T.I. The organizers of Jazz Fest estimated the crowd at its peak numbered more than 100,000. It made for a challenging day. 

However, we have become intrepid Jazz Festers and quickly adapted to the situation once we realized what we were dealing with. Read on!

One thing that the throng definitely did today was take away some of the emotional vibe of the next-to-last day of Jazz Fest. That was a short-term positive, but it moved that emotional impact to tomorrow, the last day, which will make that an interesting mix of celebration and sadness. 

As you might expect, the day started with the 2015 drill: get up ... get ready ... slather on sunblock ... gather tickets, cameras, and phones, but not our blue and white umbrella and used poncho-type pieces of plastic. Why no umbrella and ponchos? More perfect weather, basically an exact repeat of Thursday and Friday. The official high was again 82, with humidity in the low 50's, meaning more direct sun. Breeze was light to nonexistent today. As we headed out to the shuttle buses at the Sheraton, the temperature was already in the mid-70's. So let's face it, it was hot today. 

The shuttle bus line was even longer than on Springsteen day last year. That said, once the line got moving, the Gray Line people did a great job of getting everybody to Jazz Fest, and the people doing the security-checking and ticket-taking did a great job getting everybody in with plenty of time to spare. Kudos to all of them, and to the skywriter!

As usual on the last Saturday of Jazz Fest, it was also Lemonade Day in New Orleans. Lemonade Day is a national program that teaches young people entrepreneurial skills. There a lemonade stands everywhere! Seeing all of these kids with their yellow tents and stands, yellow signs, yellow shirts, and yellow lemonade just puts you in a good mood, no matter how long you've waited in line. As you head off of Canal Street onto Broad Street toward the Gentilly neighborhood, they are everywhere!

After leaving the Staybridge earlier than usual and the longish wait in line for the bus, we were definitely ready for some food. I opted for a multi-repeat, meaning something that I have had more than once, the Cajun jambalaya from Catering Unlimited's booth in Food Area I. 

I had this on Day 11 in 2013 and Day 2 in 2014, and merciful heavens it is always good. I mean, doesn't that massive pot look good enough to dive into? And not only do they make good jambalaya, they give you a heaping helping out of that pot, too. 

It's not the first time I have had jambalaya for breakfast, either at Jazz Fest or as leftovers from Mother's. Maybe it's the andouille sausage that makes it seem morning-worthy. 

Laurie got something new, at least partially, by getting the fried catfish almondine and potato salad from Stuff Hapn' Event Catering of New Orleans. Last time she went there (Day 3 in 2013) she had their stuffed crab with the potato salad. My question would be, why, for a mere $1 more, wouldn't you get all three?

To start the day's music (for the record, here are the cubes), we headed to Congo Square, where the extremely talented saxophone player Khris Royal was playing with his band Dark Matter. We've seen Khris sitting in with Toubab Krewe (Day 2 in 2013) and a couple of times (Day 2 in 2013 Day 11 in 2014) as a member of George Porter Jr.'s Runnin' Pardners, in which he excels.

Khris and his band clearly came of age in the digital era and aren't shy about incorporating technology into the act. Instead of sheet music, the players consult laptops and though most of the instruments are traditional, much of the sound is somehow altered or augmented by the time it reaches the audience's ears. At least once, a sampled spoken-monologue was part of the soundscape. And while he plays the majority of his riffs on an old-school saxophone, he also uses an odd, rectangular reed instrument that distorts his vocals into electronic abstraction. 

Khris Royal, to quote from a movie, is bona-fide. During a recent Dark Matter radio interview and concert broadcast on WWOZ, Art Neville called in four times to praise the band, telling the DJ to tell them that "their shit is cold-blooded!"

Music has been his passion since age 7, when he first picked up the horn. "I always wanted to play," he says. "I would sit in church behind the drums and watch the band. At first I wanted to play organ. Then it was trombone, but since my mom was paying the bills and my cousin already played trombone, I started on the saxophone."

Growing up in New Orleans, he was exposed to a musical culture that allowed him to learn and develop what he loved to do. He attended the creative arts magnet elementary school McDonogh 15 in the French Quarter. Generations of outstanding musicians went there, and graduates include trumpet player Nicholas Payton and drummer Joe Dyson.

"It was a perfect place for Khris," says his mother, Karran Harper Royal. "He always had so much energy, and McDonogh 15 really fostered his abilities. But the best that McDonogh offered was that he could play music every day. He's been doing that for 20 years and hasn't stopped. He has always had endless energy."

Royal has directed this energy toward improvisation since he started learning music. He played in McDonogh 15's Red Hot Jazz Combo as well as the marching band, and maintained his jazz music focus through his studies at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA).

"Khris is one of those guys with a great ear," guitarist Danny Abel says. "It's kind of frightening how good he is at getting through changes. You know, he's very energetic and very responsive to contribution. He's open to other people's songs, and he's gotten a lot more mature about his ego over the years. If he ever had an ego about the music, it was only for lack of confidence. Now we've been playing so long, we're starting to get a sound. What makes him unique is that he has an ability to think as everyone in the band. He thinks about the music from a producer's point of view."

He developed his approach during his studies at Berklee College of Music in Boston, to which he got a full scholarship at age 16. His major study was in studio engineering, and he learned to produce music on his laptop while playing in an environment of abundant talented musicians.

"I composed all the tunes on my first recording on my computer," he says. "It helped that I can play each instrument well enough to show everyone exactly how I want it to sound. The whole song is in my head and I just put it out. It's a visceral feeling." This visceral feeling lies at the root of Royal's improvisations, a skill and art that he brings to all his music.

Royal was recruited from Berklee to play in a horn section called the Regiment in Los Angeles. Regiment provided background for popular hip-hop and R&B artists such as Mary J. Blige, Neyo, Erykah Badu, and Ashanti. While he thought the job was a good experience, Royal did not like working in a studio setting as a back-up musician.

"It was cool because if anyone wanted a horn section, they would call us," he says. "We would make something right on the spot. But it's not very satisfying playing. You have to play everything exactly like they want it, and you rarely get a solo. If I did get a solo, nobody really cared. I put too much craft into my playing to just be in the background."

His time in L.A. didn't last long. In the summer of 2008, Royal returned from a trip to New Orleans for Jazz Fest to find out that the trombone player in Regiment had been looking for a replacement saxophone player. Angry that he had to find that out second-hand, he was back at home in New Orleans within two days, leaving Regiment without a sax player — a parting slap in the face.

Royal restarted his career in New Orleans with an emphasis on "playing out." He would sit in at whatever clubs he could, meeting and impressing musicians with whom he would play for years to come.


"I would be on Frenchmen Street literally from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m. every night, sitting in, jamming and meeting people," he says. "I was playing in Pat Casey's band, the New Sound, and with Delfeayo Marsalis before he got the big band thing started. I was playing all night long. The thing about New Orleans is that you can play anything anytime. I'll do a straight-ahead gig, then a traditional gig, then funk, then rock the next night. I could play what I wanted to here, and it's also nice that it only takes about 20 minutes to get anywhere in the city."


As he worked his way into a regular seat as the funk-fueled jazz band New Sound’s regular saxophone player (although for some reason he was not with them on Thursday), Royal made inroads into the funk community. After meeting trumpeter Leon Brown (also a NOCCA graduate) at the Hookah on Decatur (since closed), Royal got a Friday night gig within a few weeks of his arriving back in town. Having entered a community of musicians — most of whom had played with the New Sound — Royal began to form Dark Matter. The "space-funk jazz fusion band," as Royal describes it on his website, began rehearsing, and they have been playing together ever since. 

The music blends rock, funk, and hip-hop, using modern electronic instruments and the prominent distorted guitar sound typical of rock. It's a common thread in almost all modern New Orleans music, but there is definitely nothing wrong with that. "A lot of people hear this and say, 'That's jazz, and I don't listen to jazz.' You want to do what sounds good and makes you happy, but really you have to play for people if you want to make a living. So it's a balance."

On stage with Khris today were Danny Abel and "Big D," Darwin Perkins, on guitars, Drew Meez on keyboards, Terrence Houston on drums, DJ Raymond on electronics and bass, John Michael Bradford on trumpet, and Sage Rogue and Brad Walker on saxophones. They were augmented by singer Nell Simmons. We didn't have a real good view, but it was a cool way to start the day. Here is my short video of this really, really good band, and here's something longer, although with a smaller lineup, from the French Quarter Festival in 2012. Finally, here's Funkin' in Denial from a Jam in the Van session. I have not plugged Jam in the Van lately; if you love music you should be spending time there!

Next up? Fais Do Do of course. We were there to see another all-woman Cajun band called Bonsoir, Catin. Their name, taken from a tune by the founding father of recorded Cajun music, Amédé Ardoin, loosely translates to "goodnight" (bonsoir) and then "sweetheart," "doll," or "sassy little girl," depending on who is doing the translation. 

Since they formed in 2005, Bonsoir, Catin has been creating a fresh Cajun sound that is a unique blend of ancient ballads, dancehall-era gems, swamp-pop stylings, and rocking blues. Their sound rides a wave of rhythm, augmented by electric bass and guitar. It's a stunning new brand of Cajun music that pushes the limits of imagination and form. It really was that good.

Leader Kristi Guillory became a child prodigy on the accordion in the early 1990's and has since earned her place among the modern masters. She says she is obsessed with sad, pitiful Cajun songs, raunchy drinking songs, and the fantastical lyrics of old Cajun accapella ballads. Not only is she brilliant on the Cajun accordion, she is also a songwriter, a scholar of all things Cajun, and an emotional and passionate vocalist. Her vision for creating new Cajun music is uncompromising.

Christine Balfa is one of the most respected Cajun rhythm guitarists and singers. She is an inspired musician, fueled by her passion for her culture and the Balfa family legacy. Christine grew up watching and playing alongside her father Dewey Balfa and has since become a mainstay in Cajun music in her own right, first with her own band Balfa Toujours and now also with this band. Christine is a gifted French speaker, writer of Cajun songs, and a youth teacher for the Acadiana Symphony Orchestra. She is a founder of the Louisiana Folk Roots organization.

Ashley Hayes began her musical journey with Feufollet (see tomorrow) at the age of 11 as a guitarist. She traveled and performed with that young group and played on thier first two recordings in 1999 and 2002, which at the time were considered to be some of the most innovative Cajun material ever recorded. Ashley moved on to join Kevin Naquin and the Ossun Playboys and contributed to that band's repertoire as a vocalist and songwriter. A gifted songwriter in both English and French, she now plays bass guitar with Bonsoir, Catin.

Three-time Grammy-nominated Anya Burgess, who we saw last week with the Magnolia Sisters, is one of the most important figures in Louisiana fiddle culture. She is a renowned luthier who owns and operates a violin shop, SOLA Violins, in downtown Lafayette. Originally from Boston, Anya came to Bonsoir, Catin as an old-style fiddler. With them, she has taken the Cajun repertoire and infused it with her own unique style. Her fiddling and singing are powerful, rich and infused with a deep reverence for the old ways of doing things.

Maegan Berard is a recent addition to the group on electric guitar. She began playing guitar at age 12 and says her guitar heroes are Jimmy Page and her father, the late, Grammy-nominated Cajun musician Al Berard. She has toured extensively with her father's band, the Basin Brothers. A recent addition to the group, her melodic playing, rock stylings, and energetic presence has added depth, soul, and excitement to their sound. Her guitar playing ranges from searing, concise fills to languid, soulful guitar solos. Another prolific songwriter and native French speaker, Maegan also performs with the group Sweet Cecilia.  

There is one male in the group, drummer Danny Devillier, who has been a staple of the southern Louisiana music scene for more than 20 years. He is yet another gifted composer, holding a Master's degree in theory and composition. His drumming is deeply rooted in rock n’ roll and jazz, which brings innovative and fresh approach to the rhythm of the group's Cajun music.

The idea for the band came about at Chicot State Park in Louisiana, during Dewey Balfa Heritage Week, a week-long event that features music classes, performances, and nightly dances. The annual event is sponsored by Louisiana Folk Roots, the multi-dimensional nonprofit founded by Christine Balfa.

Three of the four original members were drawn to each other and got along so well that they decided to form a band. "After spending a week together and hanging out, we all recognized how easy it was to play with each other. We were sitting around a campfire talking about how much fun it would be to get together and have some girlfriends and play some music," Guillory said. Their main goal was simply sustaining the pleasure of playing music with like-minded souls. 

Shortly thereafter, Christine nominated fiddler and violin-maker Burgess as another crucial member of the band, and they got themselved booked at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette, ground zero for a burgeoning, young Cajun revivalist movement.

"We started rehearsing and everyone brought different tunes to play," Guillory remembers. "Before long, we were playing like we've been playing together for years."

Since then, the core of Bonsoir, Catin has remained intact in the face of outside obligations with other bands, individual side projects, and family responsibilities. During the same time period, the band's basic repertoire has relied on new interpretations of a crazy quilt of Cajun folklore, honky-tonk tunes, original compositions, and straight-ahead blues, the common denominator being dance floor-ready rhythmic drive.

All of them come by their love of Cajun music honestly. Guillory, a Louisiana native whose grandparents didn’t speak any English, was drawn to her instrument after hearing someone play the accordion at a music festival. "I told my mom I wanted to play one of those," she said. "I fell in love with it right away."

The secret to their eclectic play list may be the fact that by day, Guillory works as a media archivist, digitizing more than 2,000 hours of recordings made at festivals in Louisiana in the 1930's. "We embrace all sorts of styles in Cajun music," she said. "We just play what we like."

Another source of their inspiration to form the all-woman band lies in an experience Balfa had at a store: "Somebody had introduced me as Dewey Balfa's daughter, and the guy said something like 'Since he didn't have a son, I had to take up the music.' That coupled with another time when Balfa was pregnant, and her band Balfa Toujours was playing at Whiskey River. Somebody asked if she was having a boy or a girl; Balfa told the inquiring mind it would be a girl. "And the guy said something like, 'Maybe the next one will be a musician.'"

So with that for fodder as well, the women decided that, since both Balfa and Guillory have girls, "We kind of want to let our little girls see us play music, and, you know, see that it's cool," Guillory said. "So, it's sort of a quasi-feminist movement, you know," she said with a laugh.“

Guillory did emphasize that the group wants people to come out to hear the band, not because they’re women, but because they can play. She does, however, point out that there have been very few nods to the heritage of generations of female Cajun musicians because, with a very few exceptions, there are none. She postulates that since the advent of commercial Cajun music in the 1920's and 1930's, performance spaces tended to be rough-and-ready joints, barely safe for a male musician. As a result, the recorded history of women in Cajun music is relatively meager, especially since commercial recordings were few and far-between until the 1930's and 1940's, when first Western swing and later roadhouse honky-tonk dominated the market as enriched Cajun imports.

Bonsoir, Catin's music is complex, multi-layered and enriched with the insight that you might expect from a generation inspired either by family or a deep understanding of the history of the Cajun culture, all of it finely integrated and extraordinarily well-crafted. This was one of those shows at Jazz Fest that you just didn't want to end. To see and hear for yourself, here is my video, and we are in luck because that that great Swamp 'n' Roll TV show has almost an hour of this wonderful band.

Jazz Fest was getting more crowded by the hour. Moving around the walkways in the infield was starting to be a struggle, and the food and beverage lines were stretching to ridiculous lengths. It was going to be just one of those days. Staying with the smaller venues, we slipped out across the track to the Blues Tent, where Chris Thomas King was playing. We saw this outstanding singer, songwriter, and guitarist on Day 4 last year, and you can read a lot more about him there). He was very good then and he was just as good this year.

While King is not a household name, he is a face and voice that you may from his performance as the soul-selling blues musician Tommy Johnson in the 2001 cult movie classic "O Brother Where Art Thou?" He continued his successful acting career with a role in "Ray." His music, however is hardly throwback Delta blues in the vein of Robert Johnson as his role in "O Brother Where Art Thou?" would have you believe. 

The son of respected Louisiana bluesman and club owner Tabby King, Chris Thomas is considered a pioneer in fusing blues and rap music. His 1994 recording "21st Century Blues... From the Hood" was lauded as a groundbreaker for its use of sampling.

In a live setting, King's impressive guitar skills are front and center. King and his equally talented band seamlessly blend blues, funk, soul, rock, and hip-hop influences into a performance that is a showcase of the diverse melting pot that is New Orleans. Here's my video from today's performance, and here's a nice acoustic performance of John Law Burned Down the Liquor Store from the Beaches Jazz Festival in Toronto. From the same show, here's St. James Infirmary and I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow. And here's an older, electric one, Baptized in Dirty Water at the Berkeley Cafe in Raleigh, North Carolina

After this show, we wondered, now where can we go to stay out of the crowd? The answer was the little Lagniappe stage in the courtyard of the racetrack's grandstand. Even it was crowded, but that may have had more to do with the performer, the fantastic Helen Gillet. We found a good place to stand, fairly close to the stage with minimal traffic, meaning people walking in front of us, which can be a problem at that stage.

How does one describe this incredible talent? A whirling dervish on cello, her sets incorporate live tape looping, expressive songwriting and a beautiful, passionate voice. And, apparently when the mood strikes her, you'll see a few swinging dance moves, cello in one hand, microphone in the other. Her sets are full-body endeavors, as she plucks, bows, and pounds out beats with her head bent over her instrument and pedal board and her hair covering her face and swinging back and forth to the beat. It is a performance that is nothing less than astonishing. 

With her French name and devotion to jazz, one could easily assume that Gillet is a native of New Orleans. In fact, she was born in Belgium, and has a strong background in classical music. "My father is a Walloon, a French-speaking Belgian," Gillet said, "and I was born over there in a French-speaking household. But my mother's from Chicago, so we also spoke English at home. Then we moved to Singapore, where I spent nine years in a French school in the middle of the tropical jungle in Asia." She began playing the cello when she was nine years old.

At the age of 12, Gillet moved with her parents to Chicago, where she received a thorough grounding in the standard classical repertoire at a high school with a good classical music program. "I was lucky to get really good training, but it seemed like there was more in the music world for me than just classical music," she said. "After hearing all of this music of my Belgian family — we’d get together and sing songs around the table — and in Singapore hearing all these strange, weird Chinese New Year cymbal crashings, I knew there was a lot of world music out there, and I was very attracted to it. I knew I wouldn't be satisfied with just one type of music."

While attending Beloit College in Wisconsin, Gillet met a woman who added another exotic color to her musical palette. She was a master of classical Indian cello, and she shared her knowledge with Gillet. "She was the first person to give me a lesson that was entirely off the page," Gillet said. "She just sang to me, and I played what I heard. I was very bad at it. I had won a concerto competition, but I didn't know how to find a very simple phrase. She really opened up my ears and put me in my place. I owe a lot to my Indian teacher in Madison."

One hears many influences in Gillet's sound. Whether tenderly cradling her instrument or rocking out with flailing arms, she performs with intensity. So it's not surprising to learn that she played drums in an all-female punk rock band. "My brother was a drummer, and I thought you’re not supposed to play very well to be a punk band anyway, so I'm going to try playing drums, and it worked out perfectly," she said. "It was really fun. My girlfriends and I were all in our raging early 20's with lots to say. It was a fun experience, and I loved it."

Gillet realized the jazz potential of the cello when she attended the New Directions Cello Society Festival in Connecticut in 2000. She heard a cellist playing avant garde jazz and her mind was blown. It was then she decided she was going to be a jazz cellist. As she searched the country to find a school to help her in her quest, she made the fateful decision to pursue her Master's degree in musical performance at Loyola University in New Orleans.

The tropical climate and vegetation, the French history of Louisiana and the openness of the music scene made Gillet feel at home. She set out to make her career as a jazz cellist in the New Orleans. "I had three months worth of savings when I moved to New Orleans and was a very poor master's student," she said, "but I didn't take a job outside of playing music, to force myself to get on stage with players. And it worked.

"There wasn’t any other cello player on the scene when I arrived that was doing improvised music in jazz. There also weren't very many women instrumentalists, even though there's a long, beautiful history of female vocalists in New Orleans. Since I just came out of a punk band with strong-minded, very smart women, I decided to go for it. I don't know where I got it from, but I had some sort of drive to make it happen. 

"I was convincing bands left and right that they needed a cello player. I'd tell them 'You know, your trombone player can't play that gig, but I can read a trombone chart. Oh, your violinist has just left town? I'll just bring it an octave down.'" And just like that she became an important part of the New Orleans music scene, performing at Jazz Fest in any number of bands and on her own and jamming regularly at various venues around town. She’s been warmly embraced by the community, and recently received the 2014 Big Easy Award for best female performer.

She now call New Orleans home. "I don’t know if I had a choice really," she said. "New Orleans kind of chooses you. I've seen it happen where you you think, 'I'm going to move to New Orleans and it's going to be great.' And then you go there, and it either decides that you're good for New Orleans, or it decides to spit you out. I was lucky because it got me.

"Katrina sealed it for me. It's like when you have a sick friend in the hospital, and you realize, 'Oh my gosh, I need to be by that friend's side.' That's what Katrina did. It sealed my love for New Orleans even more. I'm a New Orleans musician now.

"I am presenting who I am, and I have an inherent broad mix of genres in my background as a human. It wouldn’t feel like I am fully sharing myself to the audience if I left any of those genres out of my show. Somehow, it all makes sense. The Hungarian rock opera, the covers of Patsy Cline and Velvet Underground, and the French chansons all share a cinemative quality. I feel I weave that together through the cohesive factor of the looped cello backing track and my vocals."

We had first seen Gillet on Day 2 in 2013 as a member of the Mardi Gras Indian Orchestra. The last year we saw her play and sing last year on Day 9 as a member of the trio called the Gloryoskis!, along with Debbie Davis and Myshkin. They were very creative and engaging, but nothing like this. Here's my video of this performance, and here is one other that I could find, an entire clip of I Live Off You. Here is a performance of Renard filmed in the outdoor space at the Bacchanal Wine Bar in the Bywater neighborhood downriver from the French Quarter. Here is another from that location, title unknown. Finally, here are one and two and two from the Louisiana Music Factory. Gillet's music really does defy description. You must hear her for yourself!

Next, we went from the sublime to the absolutely ridiculous, again staying on the periphery of the crowd, sneaking in through the entrance to the infield that passes Economy Hall to the Jazz and Heritage stage via Economy Hall to see the brass-band all=star amalgamation known as the Midnite Disturbers. This is Jazz Fest number three that we have seen this rollicking extravaganza, and we have just loved it every time (even in the torrential rain on Day 4 in 2013; last year it was sunny on Day 10). What's not to love? Big, bold brass band music with the great personalities of all of the players to boot. We had a blast. The Jazz and Heritage stage was an island in the middle of the throng, which as you can see was by this time incredible.


The Disturbers only get together around Jazz Fest time, which makes sense because each member individually has a highly successful career. Led by Galactic drummer Stanton Moore, they included today Big Sam Williams, Corey Henry, Shamarr Allen, and Ben Ellman. The raw power of brass band music was on full display, with each member taking turns blowing minds with extended solos that attempted to one-up the one before it. Seeing these big names on stage together with absolutely no ego is a true testament to the camaraderie of New Orleans musicians. Here's my video, and one more that I could find, when they brought out Trombone Shorty for a while.It's really had to use the camera when you (and everybody else) can't stand still!

We wanted to check out the Fais Do Do stage, and fortunately it was time for a snack, so that meant a stop at the La Divina booth, for the I-don't-know-how-many-th time. Today it was bourbon pecan gelato for Laurie and creme brulee gelato for me. Wow.

The Fais Do Do area was pretty crowded, too, so we just hung about in the back to enjoy the gelatos and listen to Roddie Romero and the Hub City All Stars. We've encountered Roddie a few times last year, playing with Jimmy Breaux and then Wayne Toups (Day 2) and Zachary Richard (Day 3), but we've never had a chance to see him with his band, which features a great combination of traditional Cajun and Crèole music with a roots rock twist. It's in the style of the easy rocking, highly danceable mix of Cajun, swamp pop, and 1950's rock that has fueled Cajun country bars and dancehalls for decades. 

Romero grew up in Lafayette, in the Southside, which at the time was a rural part of Lafayette. His family had 30 chicken coops in the backyard, while other parts of the city continued to develop around them. He was the youngest of four siblings by 10 years, and feels his brothers and sisters played a large part in shaping who he is today. "It was an interesting way to be influenced by what was going on in their lives in terms of music," he says. In between bourré games and dance parties, he would observe the way they embraced music, and he began to develop an interest in experiencing it for himself.

In a tradition that still lives on in the Romero family today, every Sunday they would visit their grandparents in the country. While the adults cooked and socialized, the children would climb fig trees and pick pecans until lunch was ready. After everyone had their fill of rice and gravy, they would gather around to watch Romero’s grandfather play the few songs he knew on accordion. When he was finished, he would pass off the accordion to Romero, who would spend the rest of day teaching himself how to play the sounds he had previously heard.

"Accordion is my first and only instrument," he said. "I just mess around on other things."

Soon after, his father purchased an accordion for Romero and his brother. Besides taking a natural interest in the instrument, the accordion has a sentimentality to it. "To me it’s an instrument that is one foot in the past," he explains. "It's a direct connection to my ancestors because it's a simple instrument. There are simple melodies that are played on that kind of a box. The things that I'm able to express bring me back to my childhood."

Although he was under age, Romero sought out Cajun and zydeco performances at clubs and was enamored with local legends like Buckwheat Zydeco. His dedication paid off and he quickly became a professional touring musician of some note while still attending high school. His success was generated buzz among the local bar and club circuit while simultaneously controversy because of his under-age status. With the help of his mother, Romero drafted the "Roddie Romero Bill," which allows minors the right to perform in adult venues if accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. The bill was passed in 1992. Future members of the Hub City All Stars took advantage of this law before they met Romero.

While he considers the accordion his primary instrument, Romero recalls a defining moment where he first discovered the slide guitar. In his late teens, he was in Canada for the Montreal Jazz Festival and heard an unfamiliar sound coming from a guitar. Following the sound, he found himself at the sound check for renowned Lafayette slide guitarist Sonny Landreth. Hearing what Landreth could produce inspired Romero to embrace Cajun and zydeco music in a new way. "All my influences are within a 20-mile radius, and they still influence me," Romero says. Discovering a different take on the style of music he grew up with inspired him to develop his own spin on the genre. The timing was impeccable, as Romero was beginning to feel burnt out by his touring schedule and needed his own creative outlet.

As a teenager, Romero had built a band, called it the Hub City All Stars, earned a name for himself as a touring musician. Other young musicians began to take notice. He was introduced to pianist Eric Adcock through his brother, and the two quickly bonded over musical influences like Clifton Chenier, Fats Domino, and Otis Redding.

When they met, Adcock was building up a reputation himself, playing professionally with legendary blues guitarist Lil' Buck Sinegal and other well-known local musicians. When Romero's original keyboardist left the Hub City All Stars, Adcock was a natural choice for a replacement and has been with the band for more than 20 years. Together they formed the current version of the band more than 15 years ago, and it it still going strong.

"When Roddie really digs into a song vocally, it makes it very believable for the band, which hopefully transfers to the audience," Adcock explains. "We're all trying to play from a very soulful place. When you have a frontman like Roddie, who can not only play soulfully but also sings his tail off, it really makes making music that much more enjoyable."

Bass player Chad Viator, guitarist Chris French, and drummer(s) Jermaine Prejean and Gary Usie were all introduced to the band through current members and a similar musical vision. "Even if we’re not playing traditional Cajun or zydeco, but we're in Canada (or anywhere north of Ville Platte for that matter), the way we play and the way it sounds hopefully really feels like Acadiana and ultimately Lafayette, Louisiana," Adcock said. "And that's why we're the Hub City All Stars, because Lafayette is the hub to all the surrounding Cajun and Creole music and culture, and it's where we come from."

Aside from producing a unique take on traditional Louisiana roots music, the band has an unconventional approach to live performances. Romero tailors each performance to the energy of the crowd, and nothing is off limits. There are no set lists. There are no guarantees that songs will be played in their original form. The possibilities are endless and it creates a truly memorable experience for both the audience and the band itself.

"He might take a song that we've been playing for 10 years and play it twice as fast as he normally would," French explains. "Or take that same song the next night and play it as slow blues instead. He keeps us on our toes. It's a little bit like I think it would be like playing with James Brown."

Adcock describes performing with Romero as an organically creative experience. "He lights the match when he starts the song and then he lets it burn."

Their music is a bit of a departure from the Cajun and zydeco norm. "Evolution is an appropriate term," Adcock says. "It’s no holds barred, no apologies."

He continues, "The most common theme throughout all of our original music is sense of place. And that's Lafayette, Louisiana."

I got a nice long video of this set from the back of the crowd, and here's an entire concert from the Downtown ALive series in Lafayette.

At this time we decided that we would try to slip into the back of the crowd at the Acura stage to see Jerry Lee Lewis. As we followed along the walk, the entire area from the Congo Square food stands on around to the back of the viewing area was wall to wall people moving in one direction or another, making it very difficult to get around. We did get to a point where we could hear the Killer and get a glimpse of the stage and the big screens, but at 80 he does a rather short show and by the time we got there it was almost over. 

Nonetheless, what from what we did see it was obvious that Jerry Lee Lewis still has the same fire that he always had. Lewis, born in Feriday, Louisiana, seemed frail as he walked but was comfortable as ever wailing and rolling into the ivories, including his signature stacatto shredding into the high notes. Though his voice has withered, he still smiled, joked, and tossed in his stutters and lyrical nonsense as he sang. The whole crowded mess was worth it to me just to hear him say "Mercy." 

Here is AXS-TV's recording of this performance. Their view was a lot better than ours, believe me! The video also has crowd shots and views from the blimp that give an idea of the size of the crowd.

At this time we wanted some food, but the crowd was so big that you couldn't even tell where the lines for the infield food areas were for all the people, so we plowed our way through the throng over to the relative calm of Heritage Square, between the Jazz and Blues tents, and found a reasonably short line for two of our go-to Jazz Fest dishes at the stand of Ba Mien Vietnamese Cuisine. Laurie had the spring rolls with tofu, while I had the spring rolls with shrimp and pork. Beyond the reasonable line, the spring rolls are light and fresh, perfect on a very warm afternoon. The peanut sauce is awesome.

While we ate, and for a good bit of time afterward, we sat on a low wall outside the Jazz Tent and heard almost the entire set by tenor saxophone giant Charles Lloyd. We took turns walking up to an opening at the back of the tent to see the performers and get a break from the sun. 

"I'm still drunk on the music, I was even before I was a teenager," says Lloyd, now 77, a man who remains passionate about the inherent humanitarian nature of music to communicate and foster understanding. Of music, he says "It is our flight. It is our wings."

Lloyd grew up in Memphis, Tennessee, a place, like New Orleans, of music. He got his first saxophone at age nine, and it was the great pianist Phineas Newborn, also a Memphis native, who became his first teacher. 

"When you love music," he says, "you love a lot of it. I grew up around the blues, gospel, and jazz. The great Phineas Newborn was my first mentor. He introduced me to the music of Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, Bird, Prez, and Lady Day. In high school I discovered Bartok and how he transformed the folk songs of Hungary into miraculous compositions. It inspired me greatly."

Even as a teen, Lloyd got to share stages with jazz and blues greats, including his good friend trumpeter Booker Little as well as pianist Harold Mabern and saxophonist George Coleman. Growing up in Memphis meant that he was surrounded by those musicians who would eventually become blues legends, including Howlin’ Wolf, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Junior Parker, and B.B. King. He played with them all.

"I'm a bluesman on a spiritual journey," says Lloyd. In 1956, that journey took him to Los Angeles to further his education. At the same time he gigged with the West Coast giants like saxophonist Ornette Coleman and drummer Billy Higgins. Next up was working as the musical director in drummer Chico Hamilton's band and with the great saxophonist Cannonball Adderley's group. In other words, Lloyd was blowing with the hottest jazz men on the scene.

In 1965, Lloyd formed his own formidable quartet with now-legends pianist Keith Jarrett, drummer Jack DeJohnette, and bassist Cecil McBee. It was with this group that he would produce some of his most noted works, "Dream Weaver" and "Forest Flower: Charles Lloyd at Monterey." These recordings found cross-over support from popular and rock audiences new to the jazz arena. "Forest Flower," with its beautiful melodic and uplifting quality, became the first jazz album to sell a million records. The tune, as Lloyd describes all jazz music, remains "younger than springtime." Lloyd's stunning quartet was also the first jazz group to perform at San Francisco's previously rock- and psychedelic-oriented Fillmore Auditorium.

Except for a brief sabbatical in the 1970's, when, as he says, he was "off the bus," Lloyd has continued his commitment to his musical and spiritual search. "I come from the tradition of explorers," he explains. "For me, music is my service. It's my way of making an offering to the human condition. We are all seekers whether we call it that or know it. Whatever I play, the spirituality is there. It is where I live. It pours forth through me and my musicians.

"I am a 'sound seeker,' It has been a lifelong quest to find the one sound that says it all. When I find it, I will be able to put my horn down and go back into the forest."

Many people would be surprised to learn that Lloyd played with groups like the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead, and the Doors. "I don’t have lines of demarcation," he says. "In most of those cases those guys were fans of my music. That's how we sort of met up. In the 1960's, a lot of that cross-pollination was going on. The Grateful Dead would want to play with me on shows at the Fillmore and around the Bay Area. They were very supportive of me.

"I came up in the south. I'm from Memphis, so I played with the guys who created this music, so there was nothing alien to me. Most of those bands from the 1960's, they drew from those people who I grew up playing with as a child. So I grew up with the source.

"Our indigenous art form, so called jazz, it's deep music. People were drawn to the deep music. I took from the experience that it was a time of idealism and we wanted to change the world. And I'm still a dreamer and I still want to do that. I'm just not as naive as I was.

The last time Lloyd played Jazz Fest was 1999. When asked about any connections to the city, he said, "My love for master Louis Armstrong has no bounds. As a kid in Memphis, I heard Pops and Fats Domino when they came to town. When I was in college at USC in the 1950's, the great Ellis Marsalis was stationed at Camp Pendleton. He would come to Los Angeles on the weekends and take me to jam sessions at various clubs. We would turn the places out and then explore the local cuisine together. He is a great master and teacher." He added that three "great" New Orleans drummers played with him: Earl Palmer, Ed Blackwell, and Idris Muhammad, in that order.

In the Jazz Tent today, Lloyd wrapped all of his diverse experience together with his tenor, his flute, and a quartet that was up to the task. His group of young players let it be known that this was not going to be a nostalgia trip with the 77-year-old leader.

Drummer Kendrick Scott played with polyrhythmic aplomb, adjusting to the dynamic variety of Lloyd's music -– flute whispers to tenor roars -– with precision and sensitivity. Gerald Calyton used half as many notes as the average pianist and got twice as much feeling into them. He was perfect for the airy lyricism of Lloyd's music and knew how to dig deep when extended jams turned raucous. On bass, Joe Sanders was incredible as well. He created a warm foundation for the quartet, tugging at the pulse, nudging with smart harmonic choices, and stepping out as a soloist to spin impassioned melodic variations.

Lloyd is one of the most distinctive soloists in jazz. When he picked up his flute, he conjured a whole world of music, from Native American drum circles to Japanese temples, and he made them swing. With every portion of every song, he took risks. That part of the performance was described by one reviewer as jazz for a top-down convertible ride on the Big Sur coast while watching the moonrise over the sea.

Lloyd was just as effective on tenor, where his jazz lineage and his distinctive approach to it came through strongly. Like so many West Coast players who came out of Lester Young's pockets, he can float over the wildest material, stretching a phrase over the top and snapping back with panache. 

This was a wonderful performance, and we were thrilled that we just happened to be in the right place at the right time today to hear it. Here's what I recorded from the very back of the Jazz Tent, and here are one and another from today's show that I found. Here's another one with this group later this year at Umbria Jazz in Italy.

At this time Laurie felt the need to walk around the corner on the track to see if she could see some of the Elton John performance. She didn't stay too long. Not sure if it was the crowd or the show or both. Here is some of it, though, should you be interested. A lot of reviewers thought the world of it. 

At the risk of sounding like a snob, there is far more interesting music going on at Jazz Fest to waste time at an oldies show, no matter how good. Obviously, however, about 50,000 people do not agree with me!

I declined the Sir Elton opportunity. I decided to end the day at the Jazz and Heritage stage, and that I would see what was going on at the three tents that I would pass along the way, as there was some time before the last artist started. Aaron Neville was just wrapping up in the Blues Tent, so it was in transition, but Jermaine Landrum and the Abundant Praise Revival Choir were thrilling the crowd in the Gospel Tent, so I peeked in there from the back, and, as usual for the Gospel Tent, I was astounded by the great musicians, wonderful voices, and enthusiasm.

Landrum is pastor of the Holyghost Headquarters Ebenezer Baptist Church in New Orleans. Members of Pastor Landrum's family are members of the choir, including his mother and his 79-year-old grandmother (that's her in the picture above). Here's my video taking you into the Gospel Tent, and here's a much longer video of this group singing in their church.

On the way to the Jazz and Heritage Stage, again through the back way we used earlier this afternoon, I passed Economy Hall and got to hear a bit of Gregg Stafford and His Young Tuxedo Jazz Band. It's really one of the neatest little walks at Jazz Fest. You enter the infield from the track in front of the Grandstand and pass Economy Hall, which features the traditional jazz unique to New Orleans, and then approach the Jazz and Heritage Stage from the side. As the traditional jazz fades into the distance, the funk and chant of the Mardi Gras Indians or the blast of the brass bands, each also unique to the city, takes over. 

Today in the last cube it was funk and chant, provided by Cha Wa. We'd seen Cha Wa twice before, for a short time at the Trombone Shorty Foundation benefit on Day 8 in 2013 and also at Jazz Fest for a bit longer, but not a complete set, on Day 10 that same year. This time I did the whole show, and Laurie joined me soon after it started.

After honing their explosive sound in clubs and festivals around the city, Cha Wa has taken their red-hot combination of two of New Orleans’ best traditions, Mardi Gras Indians and street level funk music to the next level. Their music combines deep funk, percussive polyrhythms, and a mix of singing and Mardi Gras Indian chanting. All three make for an intoxicating, hypnotic blend of culture that could only come out of New Orleans. "The music is based on the Mardi Gras Indians, the brass bands, and the street culture of New Orleans," says band leader and drummer Joe Gelini. 

"Cha Wa" is a slang phrase used by every Mardi Gras Indian tribe. It means "We're comin' for ya." Cha Wa definitely comes at you. It is an incredible sound that pours off the stage, but their performance is a visual delight as well, with three Mardi Gras Indians in full regalia.

The band can be considered directly related to the seminal Mardi Gras Indian funk recordings of the 1970's by the Wild Magnolias (backed by the Meters), the Wild Tchoupitoulas, The Neville Brothers, and Dr. John. But this time there is a contemporary twist. As a result, Cha Wa's version of Dr. John’s All On A Mardi Gras Day is a wild reimagining of the original. The song takes you straight to the street corners of Uptown New Orleans, instilling the energy of seeing the Indians dancing in their traditional feathered suits. Another classic, Jock-A-Mo (the original version of the song which later became a hit and has been covered by many artists as Iko Iko) is also infused with the band’s upbeat brand of funk. The deep New Orleans roots of the song are also made clear on their version.

The two leaders of Cha Wa, singer and percussionist Irving "Honey" Banister and drummer Joe Gelini, have been involved with the Mardi Gras Indians for years. Honey Banister, Big Chief of the Creole Wild West tribe, represents both the Mardi Gras Indian tradition and the history of New Orleans rhythm and blues. His father, Irving Banister Sr., is an unsung hero of New Orleans music, having played with everyone from Danny White to Eddie Bo to Allen Toussaint. It is his guitar on "Sugar Boy" Crawford’s original version Jock-A-Mo. Honey's mother, Big Queen Ledell Banister, is also a member of the Creole Wild West tribe, which is recognized as the oldest of all the tribes, dating back to the late 1800’s. She got Honey involved when he was six years old, and he has been with them ever since, recently rising to the highest rank of the tribe.

Gelini moved to New Orleans after graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston. "That’s where I first heard of the Mardi Gras Indians," he recalls. "I went to see Idris Muhammed (the seminal New Orleans jazz-funk drummer) play, and I asked if I could have a lesson. When we got together, he told me, 'Man, you got to understand what I'm playing is the Mardi Gras Indian tambourine parts when I'm playing the snare drum.'"  After Gellini moved to New Orleans, he saw the Mardi Gras Indians emerging to march on Mardi Gras day and, he says, "I was hooked. It's a spiritual thing. It's more than the music."

The third major component in the sound of Cha Wa is Spy Boy J'Wan Boudreaux. He is the grandson of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux of the Golden Eagles, one of the most respected Mardi Gras Indians and one of the greatest Indian singers ever. J'Wan combines the lyrics and style of his grandfather with a 21st-century take on the music. Like Banister, Boudreaux learned the traditions when he was little, and has absorbed it as his own.

Cha Wa started when Gelini and Banister met at a Mardi Gras Indian practice one Sunday night on Dryades Street, the epicenter of Uptown New Orleans street culture. Indian "practices" are gatherings of Mardi Gras Indians from various tribes in assorted bars and backyards around New Orleans. There, the Indians rehearse their rhythms and singing. Gelini was in the back learning drums from the percussionists who provide the rhythmic base of the practices, and Banister was leading the session up front, doing most of the singing and keeping all the other Indians in line.  

They eventually became friends and performed together, sometimes as part of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux's band. "Joe used to call me up to put on the Indian suit and come to the gig just to be up there, not sing," says Banister. "But one night, the usual singer didn’t show up, and I said, 'I got this.' Joe liked what I was doing, and I became the singer. I've known J'Wan all his life, and we needed another Indian singer, so we thought, 'Let's bring J'Wan up.' He's young, but he's learned quick."

Other members of the group are John Fohl on guitar, Stephen Malinowski on organ, Yoshi "Z2" Tsuji on piano, Kerry "Boom Boom" Vessell on bass drum, Haruka Kikuchi on trombone, and Devon Taylor on sousaphone. There were a few others on the stage as well, but like many of these bands, it's hard to find out who they were. Tsuji plays in Kermit Rufins' band, and you never know where Kikuchi will appear next.

The origins of the Mardi Gras Indians are mysterious. Some have traced their existence back to the 1700s, when official records noted the presence of Africans in New Orleans wearing Native American attire. Native Americans later helped escaped slaves by hiding them in their settlements. There was also intermarriage between the two groups. There is no question that the Mardi Gras Indians were well established by the late 1800s.

Today, Mardi Gras Indians sew beautiful, intricately beaded suits featuring huge, bright-feathered headdresses known as crowns. On Mardi Gras Day they assemble and march through the streets singing, chanting, and playing various percussive instruments. When two tribes meet, they have a "battle" involving declarations of their skill and beauty and the displaying of their suits, to determine who has the "prettiest." In the past, these confrontations might turn violent, but in recent years they have been more about who has the prettiest suit, not the sharpest weapon. This tradition was once very much underground and confined to the "back of town" New Orleans neighborhoods. With the release of  Mardi Gras Indian recordings, and the work of artists photographing them and anthropologists and ethnomusicologists researching them, the deep cultural traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians are now much more accessible.

Cha Wa fuses these traditions, and some of the authentic practioners of them, with the funk music that also originated in New Orleans. Onstage, the band's music takes off into the stratosphere while still maintaining a connection to the streets from whence it has come. Like New Orleans, there is a little taste of the Caribbean and a little jazz involved, but it’s all rolled into a heady mix dominated by serious funk. The music is spontaneous and spiritual at the same, and no two shows are ever the same. "We're improvising. We're playing, and we can hear each other," says Gelini. "We just hook up. It's something that we're not even thinking about. I think we've reached that point where we can feel the direction of the music intuitively and we just go with it. It's like having Indian practice with modern recordings and modern production and using it all together. It's classic and contemporary at the same time." 

Cha Wa has done a great job of creating a modern sound with great energy and enthusiasm, but one which also draws from the deep well of New Orleans culture. The result is a show of nonstop funk. See for yourself! Here is my video and here's a YouTube page with a bunch of other festival performances.  Cha Wa was a great way to end the day's music, a day of incredible quality and variety. 

It will come as no surprise to hear that it for-freaking-ever to get on a bus out of the Fair Grounds this evening. By the time we got back downtown it was dark -- the first time that has happened. We went back to the Staybridge to remove the day's dust and sweat, and by that time we were ready for some food. For that, we walked into the French Quarter but soon discovered that the day's heat and crowd had taken its toll. 

Since it was already after 10, we opted for the first place we came to that was still serving. That turned out to be the Crescent City Brewhouse. We ate here last year in the afternoon of one of the daze between so we knew that it was pretty good, even if it had the French Quarter tourist-area markup in price. All of their beer is brewed on site. I had the pilsner, light and hoppy, and Laurie had their Black Forest, a full-bodied dark mahogany beer, rich, malty, and sparsley hopped in the traditional Munich style. 


For dinner, Laurie had a savory cheesecake made with crawfish, shrimp, and a blend of imported cheeses. It was topped with fresh Louisiana crab meat, roasted red pepper mayo, and jumbo fried shrimp. Very interesting. I had grilled Louisiana redfish topped with a fried soft-shell crab and roasted red pepper crabmeat aioli. It was served on a bed of fresh asparagus. Also very good. For dessert, we shared fresh fruit topped with whipped cream and served in a very edible almond-toffee basket. We had this the  other time we were there as well. It's a winner.

And that's Day 10. We walked around a little bit but basically just headed back to the Staybridge.

Cha Wa 4


© Jeff Mangold 2012