Jazz Fest Breaking Records And Stereotypes

Jazz and jam bands descend on New Orleans for annual festival.

Having surpassed all previous attendance counts with this year’s opening weekend of Jazz Fest (April 27-29), Louisiana Heritage Fair personnel expect to break those records again during the longer second weekend (May 3-7), weather permitting. The chances look good that they will, as there’s been no real threat of rain while the harsh southern sunshine has been offset by brief reprieves of overcast coolness.

Scanning the lineup for the 2001 Fair, the second weekend of Jazz Fest could have been renamed Jam Fest. Widespread Panic, the Dave Matthews Band, moe., Galactic and other jammers are among the acts booked this year that could be expected to attract big crowds with their dedicated audiences.

Outside one of the Jazz Fest entrances opening weekend, a young girl in raggedy jeans and an apron shirt sold Jello shots while a young guy lounged on a nearby lawn next to a case full of glass paraphernalia for sale. An offer of “nugs for extras” to a sold-out non-Jazz Fest String Cheese Incident gig didn’t even seem so out of place considering some of the bands on the bill. Yet beyond the gates was quite a different world.

The fairgrounds were riddled with flags — a rainbow Phish logo on white, a Grateful Dead “Steal Your Face” on black, a rubber chicken with a doll’s head and a touching banner that read “Gabba Gabba Hey Joey” attached to a fishing pole. It was in front of the main stage and amidst all these flags that the local jazz fans, there to see the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s set, most noticeably overlapped with the jam fans who were there to claim space early for two sets of Widespread Panic.

Introduced as the band that “created the modern brass band” and “changed the New Orleans sound forever,” the Dirty Dozen hit hard with their unique brand of funky jazz. When Widespread Panic singer/guitarist John “J.B.” came out to sing during a scorching rendition of “It’s All Over Now” (a favor the DDBB would return for several tunes during Panic’s set), ’Spread heads went wild.
Meanwhile, the House of Blues/Old School 102.9 stage held Chris Thomas King, who was busting a more mellow blues vibe with father Tabby Thomas. The Banks Family occupied the Gospel stage under the tent o’ the Lord, whipping a crowd full of house shakin’, foot stompin’, hand clappin’ believers into a soul sparkin’ frenzy. On the BET/WWOZ stage, Irvin Mayfield was laying down the straight jazz for a rapt seated audience that was ready at all times to jump up for a standing ovation after a hot solo. Czech swingers J.J. Jazzmen’s set was in perfect keeping with the Louis Armstrong 100th anniversary series of exhibits and panel discussions that were taking place during the festival. The five-piece outfit gave Satchmo’s style a whirl in the Cox Communications Economy Hall tent. There, old folks with parasols floated past the front row and a wooden dance floor in the corner gave several couples, a few young children and a lone tap dancer a place to find their own thrills. On the Sprint PCS/LG
stage, across the fairgrounds from thousands of happy heads, roots rocker Lucinda Williams accumulated an equally impenetrable mass of twang-inclined fans for her first ever Jazz Fest appearance.
With acts like Williams and upcoming performances by Paul Simon, Mystikal, Keb’ Mo’, Wilson Pickett and Ellis Marsalis, the neo-hippie invasion predictions had thus far been — and most likely will continue to be — proven false for the fest proper; the grounds were far from overcome with tie-dye wearing, patchouli doused, dreadlocked stereotypes.

The annual During Jazzfest nighttime music series by Superfly Presents (unaffiliated with the official festival), however, has added to the jam focus by pitting bands like local favorite groove funkers Galactic against southern rockers Gov’t Mule, the String Cheese Incident against Ben Harper and Jaques-Imo’s or moe. against Deep Banana Blackout and Ozomatli by booking them at the same times in different venues. While some fans were wandering around with a finger in the air looking for extra tickets to sold-out shows and some “lot venders” were spotted selling burritos and goo balls on the street, the series was more about the music than the scene surrounding it.

Superfly sponsors at least one SuperJam series a year. Last year’s historic meeting of Les Claypool (Primus), Stewart Copeland (The Police) and Trey Anastasio (Phish) was followed this year by two SuperJam groups. This year, the festival unofficially began Wednesday night at the Maple Leaf with the first of two performances by the Jaques-Imo’s Café AllStars, featuring Jon Fishman (drums, Phish), Jamie Masefield (banjo/ mandolin, Jazz Mandolin Project), Gregory Davis (trumpet, Dirty Dozen Brass Band), Kirk Joseph (tuba, former DDBB), Lucien Barbarin (trombone) and Tim Laughlin (clarinet). The group played Wednesday and Thursday to packed crowds, blasting local flavors like “Mardis Gras New Orleans” and a requisite jam of “Iko Iko.”
String Cheese Incident and Ben Harper and the Innocent Criminals went toe to toe across the street from one another at the Saenger Theater and the State Palace Theater respectively. A percussion and horn-driven Ozomatli (a Santana for the hip-hop generation), opened for Harper, who appeased his audience with his soulful lap guitar funk, then floored the lot of them with a four-song encore, three of which featured the Blind Boys of Alabama. Overcome with emotion, he buried his head in his lap, collected himself and then exited the stage. He and the band returned for a second encore that included “Sexual Healing” and a thunderous “Faded”-into-“Whole Lotta Love”-back-into-“Faded” medley.
Over at the Saenger, String Cheese gave their rambunctious glitter-happy, glow-stick-wielding audience two sets, separated by a 20-minute set break. Opening act Femi Anikulapo-Kuti joined the Colorado jamgrassers for a rendition of “Outside and Inside” (from String Cheese Incident’s upcoming CD), and closed the first of a two-night run with the Allman Brothers Band classic “Jessica.”
Medeski Martin & Wood, Joshua Redman, Robert Walter’s 20th Congress, DJ Logic, Gov’t Mule, Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and moe. are all scheduled at New Orleans clubs and theaters throughout the city for the festival’s second weekend, as is a different SuperJam, featuring Carter Beauford (drums, Dave Matthews Band), Meshell Ndegèocello (bass), John Medeski (keyboards), Joshua Redman (sax) and Marc Ribot (guitar).