Jazz Fest 2014, The first weekend in review
5th May 2014 · 0 Comments
By Geraldine Wyckoff
There is something ritualistic about how many people do Jazz Fest. It could begin on first awakening and the preparations one makes before heading out to the Fair Grounds. For instance checking and rechecking your ticket to make sure you’ve got it and it’s the correct one for the date or even setting out the right change for the bus. On arrival, some folks start the day at a specific venue year after year whether it’s to set up chairs at the Acura Stage, be blessed in the Gospel Tent or be invigorated by the Mardi Gras Indians at the Jazz & Heritage Stage.
A particularly strong line-up of Black Indian gangs opened the intimate Jazz & Heritage Stage each day last weekend. Led by Big Chief Ke Ke, the Comanche Hunters kicked things off on Friday backed by a rhythm section filled with special guests from the around the Indian Nation. On hand were Big Chief Little Walter Cook and Spyboy Honey Bannister from the Creole Wild West, Big Chief Kevin Goodman of the Flaming Arrows and in from California, an obviously happy Big Chief Hatchet of the Wild Apaches plus more. With such great voices and percussive abilities, they added another element to the pretty gang from the Ninth Ward.
On Saturday, Fi-Yi-Yi & the Mandingo Warriors took over the same spot. Big Chief Victor Harris, who’s been masking 49 years and leading this gang since 1984, stalked the stage with such animated determination that it brought back the times when many people were fearful of the Black Indians. “I live like a warrior and fight like a brave,” the chief declared.
It was with much sadness for the Black Indian Nation, the Afro-New Orleans culture and all of those who admired Big Chief Larry Bannock when they learned that he passed on Wednesday, April 30, 2014. Bannock began masking Indian in 1972 and took over leadership of the Golden Star Hunters in 1979. “I live Mardi Gras 365 days a year,” the much-respected Big Chief once said. That he stood so tall and proud on stage on Sunday, just three days before his death, speaks of his dedication and strength. More on the life of Big Chief Larry Bannock and the funeral arrangements will follow. Latin rhythms filled the late afternoon air with the arrival of first Panamanian vocalist/poet/-political activist Ruben Blades backed by a host of his countrymen in the excellent Roberto Delgado Orchestra. Blades and the band brought a certain, appreciated sophistication to the festival this day though it certainly didn’t distract from the genuine spirit of happiness. Blades’ political nature showed itself when, gesturing to the talent-packed band he quipped, “They all have visas,” referring to previous difficulties for Panama residents to obtain them. Blades and company made for a perfect lead into Carlos Santana’s set. He too has also his strong opinions on social issues and voiced them. They share the Latin rhythms though Santana’s brand is fused with his many musical influences. Early on Santana pleased the crowd with the mega-hit “Black Magic Woman.”
“A Lifetime Tribute” to the great Buckwheat Zydeco turned into nothin’ but a zydeco party with the Fais Do-Do Stage brimming with special guests. With his big, beautiful piano keyboard accordion strapped on, Buckwheat and his beefed-up band that included guitarist Lil Buck Sinegal, were up first. He revved it up on “Hard to Stop,” offered a tune sung in French Creole and headed to the city on “Walking to New Orleans.” At one point, Buckwheat and his son both played the keyboard side of the same instrument at the same time. Never saw that before. “It’s not the breed, it’s the bloodline,” Buckwheat declared. Then the guests started filling the small stage with C.J. Chenier up first. Buckwheat pointed out that he and Chenier, who both tour heavily, are often on opposite sides of the country. That they were sharing the same proscenium was the true beauty of this unique event. Rockin’ Dopsie took over washboard duties and then Terrance Simien joined the festivities followed by Zachary Richard – everybody was just beaming. This set felt like a family reunion and maybe it’s not just “the bloodline” as Buckwheat said, but the “love-line.”
New Orleans modern jazz musicians represented this city especially well with saxophonist Branford Marsalis and his excellent bandmembers topping the day on Saturday. This group definitely works as a democracy with each artist taking and sharing the spotlight on such tunes as the celebratory “The Mighty Sword,” from Marsalis’ latest CD. Many folks were interested in hearing the quartet’s newest member, drummer Justin Faulkner, in a live setting. He proved to be very athletic and dramatic behind the drum set –he’s got it. Switching from soprano to tenor sax, Marsalis’ fluid brilliance made the intricacy of the music appear easy to pull off. His father, Ellis Marsalis and brother, Jason watched from the sidelines until they were called up to take over the piano and drums, respectively, for the final number, “St. James Infirmary.”
Saxophonist Khari Allen Lee & the New Creative Collective brought a sense of spirituality to the session before things got funky and then ended on a groove. Drummer Geoff Clapp, who headed his own, similarly manned ensemble the day before, became so enthused he’d jump up to play the kit standing. It seemed like pianist Michael Pellera hit the piano keys more aggressively than ever while Lee soared on both alto and soprano. Standing — and dancing — at an easel erected on stage, artist Marcus Akinlana endeavored to capture the spirit of the music and then, with equal vigor, expressed himself on congas. Kudos to Baritone Bliss, led by the Dirty Dozen’s baritone sax man Roger Lewis. Ah, all the deep rich tones pumped by the drums of Ocie Davis.
The Congo Square Stage was wonderfully transformed with the elimination of the central barrier and an enlarged no-chair zone. It made for tons of fun dancing to the music of vocalist/pianist Davell Crawford who helps keep New Orleans rhythm and blues alive at the festival with tunes like “Jock-A-Mo” and “I’m Walking” before moving on to his own, brilliant, “Creole Man.”
The same setting proved great for getting down with vocalist Charlie Wilson, who never stopped moving and dancing, and, well, changing from one sparkling outfit to another. As particularly observed from the crowd this day, Wilson appeals to young and old alike – teens and twenties and what could be their parents or grandparents knew all the lyrics of his songs and how to step to them too.
New discoveries could be found all over the Fair Grounds. From Niger, guitarist and vocalist Bombino electrified the crowd at the Blues Tent. Folks were up and dancing at the venue – that is a rare sight as such activity is usually (ridiculously) discouraged and even prohibited. Hopefully, this reflects a change of attitude in the Blues Tent. On the other hand, the Jazz & Heritage Stage promotes fun that made it the perfect setting for the New York-based, Brazilian group Forroteria. Utilizing an accordion and triangle in the mix might have been reminiscent of zydeco music though lively rhythms spoke of the Caribbean where those instruments are also very popular.
As at the beginning of each Jazz Fest day, rituals are often followed as the event winds up. To end at the Gospel Tent with the 40-voice choir of Craig Adams & Higher Dimensions of Faith singing “Just Can’t Stop (Praising His Name),” once a signature closing number for the Gospel Soul Children (many of the members here were a part of that ensemble), felt just right.
This article originally published in the May 5, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.