NEW ORLEANS If any one moment could symbolize the spirit of this year's New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, it was when Nigerian afrobeat star Femi Kuti joined Boulder, Colorado's String Cheese Incident on saxophone late Thursday night at the majestic Saenger Theatre for a lengthy and exploratory version of Talking Heads' "Home."
Jazz Fest's 32nd edition, which concludes Sunday, will probably go down in history as the year of the jam bands. Widespread Panic, Galactic and Moe are on the festival schedule, with other groups including the String Cheese Incident, the Disco Biscuits, Karl Denson's Tiny Universe, Robert Walter's 20th Congress and Medeski Martin and Wood appearing locally thanks primarily to bookings by jamcentric Superfly Productions that comprise a loosely associated minifestival unto themselves.
But Jazz Fest isn't all tie-dyes, smock dresses, blond dreadlocks, facial glitter and makeshift fairy wings, of course (although such accoutrements were readily available). The heady jam-band audience is just one more tribe (albeit a particularly visible one) making its presence known. Jazz Fest is home to numerous and sundry contingents who meet and mingle amid some of the best food (quail gumbo, crawfish and asparagus soup, key lime pie, etcetera, yummy, etcetera) in the known universe.
It only took Paul Simon launching into "Graceland" to fuse his urban sophistication to the soul of the South. Fronting a musically colorful 11-piece band heavy on horns and percussion, Simon, who closed the festival Friday (May 4), authoritatively captivated the tens of thousands who saw him perform on Jazz Fest's largest stage. Simon concentrated on material from last year's You're the One, but also dipped deeper into his extensive songbook.
Drawing from a rich palette of international influences, Simon resembles a musical butterfly collector. His studied arrangements were in marked contrast to Atlanta jammers Widespread Panic, who drew about as many fans to the same spot a day earlier. Widespread Panic also reflect black musical influences far and wide but in a far less self-conscious manner. In fact, it's easy to miss the Latin and African tinges that bolster the improvisations that apparently launched a thousand trips among the Southern rock group's devoted tribe.
The festival's other big draw Thursday was Texas country singer Lucinda Williams, who performed dour, hushed songs such as "Lonely Girls" and "I Envy the Wind" from her forthcoming album, Essence.
Jazz Fest's various tribes have no problem marking their territory. The House of Blues/Old School 102.9 Stage, for example, is ground zero for blues fans. "I saw you drinking Jägermeister and popping those pills," belted out blind "Braille Blues Daddy" Bryan Lee on Thursday. The stage's other highlights included a slinky, soulful set earlier in the day by slide blues great Sonny Landreth, which included the title track of his recent valentine to the region, Levee Town.
It's nearly always interesting when tribes collide, and one such collision almost a car wreck took place when folk-rocker Michelle Shocked pledged her allegiance to the St. Paul Spiritual Church of God in Christ Choir, her new "home church." Shocked promised an experience "more profound and deep than entertainment could ever be," but the choir's set was among the least inspirational of the dozens of first-rate groups that make the Gospel Tent Jazz Fest's inspirational Mecca.
The Gospel Tent's biggest surprise, however, came from the all-female Jackson Family, who applied their more-than-considerable collective girth to raising the roof. More than one Jazz Fest veteran declared their performance as nothing short of a revelation.
Another tribal focus is the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage (it's not only rock that's gone corporate), where traditional Louisiana Cajun and zydeco acts appear and couples, dancing at arms' length from one another, two-step and waltz the day away. Groups such as Filé and Charivari, who represent a younger generation of Cajun (French-Canadian) and Creole (French-African) musicians raised on rock, dominated Thursday's schedule.
Friday delivered the apparently timeless delights of the venerable Hackberry Ramblers, who mix Cajun music and Western swing and boast a 91-year-old accordion player. The Ramblers are no strangers to rock themselves, as their laid-back version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" indicated.
Tribes mixed most thoroughly in the music of the popular New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, who performed Friday on the anything-goes Lagniappe Stage. "Circle dance, you pussies!" shouted accordionist Glenn Hartmann to a tightly packed audience. And damned if they didn't as the group broke in "Bob's Birthday," a tune combining Eastern European dance rhythms with freeform electric guitar squawkery.
As a celebration of musical diversity, the festival is clearly in a league unto itself. And with two more days to go, plenty of barriers will assuredly be knocked down as new traditions are forged.