NEW ORLEANS To paraphrase former New York Yankee Yogi Berra: No one goes to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; it's too crowded.
Due to the Saturday appearance of the Dave Matthews Band on the seven-day event's second weekend, the festival set a single-day attendance record of 160,000. This figure shattered the earlier record of 98,000 visitors set in 1998, when Jimmy Buffett appeared, a festival spokesperson said.
While festival organizers may have been elated by this tally, the press of flesh made enjoying the music a challenge, turning a traditionally crowded day at the Fair Grounds into an often frustrating and occasionally frightening experience. Crowds pressing into the Acura Stage area, where Matthews performed, created an immovable mass through which concert-goers could neither enter nor leave.
Matthews is the mainstream manifestation of a diverse array of so-called jam bands that could be heard on and off the Fair Grounds during Jazz Fest's April 27-May 6 run. His two-hour set of love songs set in apocalyptic scenarios were often embellished with "jams" that were more set pieces than actual improvisations. Kicking off with "Two Step," Matthews' show included guest appearances by Lenny Kravitz and Paul Simon.
Kravitz joined him for a version of "All Along the Watchtower" that seemed to portend a Jimi Hendrix musical as arranged by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Simon reprised "Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard," which he had performed on the same stage only 24 hours earlier during his own show.
Saturday's other big draw was local rap star Mystikal, who added to the day's frustration by arriving onstage 85 minutes late (10 minutes after his show was scheduled to conclude), keeping thousands of fans waiting in the hot sun. By way of assuaging the increasingly testy audience, a stagehand attributed the delay to a late flight, adding, "Nothin' but love, people, nothin' but love." Mystikal's tardiness was an aberration in a festival that usually runs with military punctuality. When he finally appeared, he was limited to a 30-minute set that included PG versions of such hits as "Danger (Been So Long)."
The North Mississippi Allstars, who performed earlier Saturday, distilled the spirit of this year's festival with their knowing fusion of Mississippi Delta blues and its late-'60s psychedelic mutation. Led by Luther and Cody Dickinson, the Allstars performed nearly all of their 2000 album Shake Hands With Shorty, concluding with their famous version of Junior Kimbrough's "All Night Long," which weaves together echoes of the Grateful Dead's version of Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Turn on Your Lovelight" with the Allman Brothers' "Jessica."
Medeski Martin & Wood, who performed at the State Palace Theatre Saturday night (across the street from where local groove purveyors Galactic were playing and around the corner from Gov't Mule's Southern-fried wall of sound) were among several jam-oriented groups that haunted Jazz Fest with late-night shows that blended improvised rock and R&B music with local flavor. MM&W, for example, added a local four-piece horn section, giving a brass-band bounce to fractured yet funky compositions standing somewhere outside the jazz or rock categories.
Sunday's diminished crowds came as a relief after the navigational difficulties presented by Saturday's onslaught. The day's big names were almost exclusively local and included 22-year-old rock and R&B improvisers the Radiators, R&B legend Fats Domino, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the timeless Neville Brothers, who closed Jazz Fest as they have for many a year.
It was also a great day to dig into the pleasures of Louisiana Cajun and zydeco music as one great group after another including Balfa Toujours, Rosie Ledet and the Zydeco Playboys, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha-Chas, and C. J. Chenier and the Red Hot Louisiana Band hit the corporately branded Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do Do Stage.
Much of their music had an elegiac edge, insofar as 70-year-old zydeco bandleader Wilson "Boozoo" Chavis had died Saturday in Austin, Texas, following a heart attack. Chavis' "Paper in My Shoe" is generally acknowledged as the first modern recording of zydeco, Cajun music's rural Creole relation.
The crowds and corporate logos sometimes suggest that, after 32 years, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival may be a victim of its own success. But it's easy to forgive a festival that also presents such unrecognized talents as South African guitarist Philip Tabane, who turned in a set of spacious avant-traditional sounds Sunday, or that honored Louis Armstrong with a performance as stirring as clarinetist/bandleader Dr. Michael White's Saturday afternoon reanimations of Satchmo's classic Hot 5 and Hot 7 repertoire.