From the June issue of OffBeat Magazine
These are my contributions to the annual “Jazz Fest Redux.” which has been printed every year since 2000. This year, due to the pandemic, the feature appears only on line. The full piece is here. Please consider a subscription to OffBeat magazine to keep this important part of New Orleans culture alive.
Photos by Noé Cugny
FIRST WEEKEND: APRIL 29 – MAY 1, 2022
The first few times I saw Leyla McCalla at Jazz Fest she was assigned the Lagniappe Stage and presented a mostly acoustic show, where she played a variety of stringed instruments with minimal accompaniment. For her 2022 performance, she was on the Fair Do-Do Stage with a new band and a new sound. The music is closer to rock than anything I have heard her play before, with a lead guitarist playing angular lines right out of the indie playbook. Though I loved the new sound, the highlight was a cool version of “Eh La Bas” with rarely-heard lyrics based on a version from the 1940s.
Dr. Brice Miller
Jazz Fest 2022 was bittersweet for many of the performers and culture bearers who lost loved ones over the past three years. Though several got official memorials as part of the Jazz Fest scheduling, many more did not. For trumpeter Dr. Brice Miller, his 30th year performing at the fest was particularly emotional because he lost his father and musical mentor in March 2020. He eulogized his dad and then played the traditional jazz funeral hymn, “A Closer Walk With Thee.” Miller also brought up Glen David Andrews to bring it home gospel-style before closing the set with Danny Barker’s feel-good classic, “Palm Court Strut.”
The Hardhead Hunters brought big time spirit to the Jazz and Heritage Stage with seven suited Black masking Indians on stage and two female backing vocalists more focused on funk and R&B than the usual Indian chants. They also had a full band with a tuba, guitar, sax, drums, keys and congas. At one point, in a first for this aficionado, someone brought out a leaf blower to cool off the Indians! Towards the end, the chief told a tale about the conflicts between being an Indian and having a relationship. He said, “I can’t quit being Indian and I can’t quit my wife.” Then they launched into a great version of The Meters’ classic “Ain’t No Use” and the line “You got me where you want me, shackled to your love” never made more sense.
Boyfriend’s sets are always a hoot with special guests, costumes, props and her always-compelling stage presence. On the first Friday, she had The Revivalists backing her up with her dad—a well-known music writer in his own right—on guitar for part of the set. Special guests included vocalists Maggie Koerner, Kristin Diable and Alexis Marceau. But the icing on the cake, and cause for possible censure from the Jazz Fest powers that be, was the appearance of a male stripper on cowboy boot roller skates dancing and prancing around the stage during “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone.”
While various reports, including the official one from the Jazz Fest press office, indicate that the festival was equally as well-attended as the 2019 version, I noticed nearly deserted stages all over the Fair Grounds. Don Vappie had a tiny audience for his closing set in the Economy Hall tent. When I used a Port-a-Let following Death Cab for Cutie’s set on the Shell Gentilly Stage, I was pretty sure I was the first one in there all day. But most telling was the set by Grupo Sensacion NOLA closing the Jazz and Heritage Stage on the first Friday. There was literally no one there.
Big Chief Walter Cook
Big Chief Walter Cook of the Creole Wild West has assumed a lower public profile over the past few years, essentially passing the baton to Big Chief Howard Miller. But Cook is clearly still involved behind the scenes. The Creole Wild West presented “Queens of the Nation” in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion on the first Saturday of Jazz Fest for a performance that had Cook’s imprint all over it, even though he was not on stage. Four big queens and three little queens in matching bright green suits demonstrated the female side of the time-honored tradition. On the second weekend, Cook was playing tambourine on the side of the stage during the set by the Comanche Hunters.
SECOND WEEKEND: MAY 5 – MAY 8, 2022
Tommy Malone is best-known for his work with the subdudes, but he is a serious solo artist as well. For his set on the second Friday, he stripped his sound down to just his guitar, Rurik Nunan’s fiddle and the upright bass of Myles Weeks. Malone’s first words on stage were about the pandemic. He asked how everyone in the audience handled it. He answered his own question in his own inimitable deadpan style—“I got a puppy.” Then he proceeded to open the show with “Happy Little Nobody’s Waggy Tail Dog,” an obscurity from Earl King’s voluminous catalog. The rest of the set was an intimate showcase of his soulful voice. My only complaint was I had to move twice due to loudmouths ignoring the music and the glares from the real fans.
I didn’t know what to expect from Ranky Tanky’s set, but the self-described purveyors of African-derived Gullah music from the coastal area of South Carolina have clearly transcended any particular genre. The music was indescribable, containing elements of jazz through the stellar work of trumpeter Charlton Singleton. His soaring trumpet lines were akin to the South African jazz of Hugh Masekela combined with roof-raising gospel due to the outstanding vocal skills and stage presence of Quiana Parler. Guitarist Clay Ross ripped rock-like solos and the rhythm section had everyone dancing frenetically, especially towards the end when the drummer, Quentin Baxter, came out front with a ringing tambourine.
Keiko Komaki performs with Neo-Tokyo 2020
Neo-Tokyo 2020 was the last act in the Cultural Exchange Pavilion on the second Saturday, one of the so-called “Easter eggs” on the schedule. The small number of adventurous festers that showed up got to witness a special treat. The group features three Japanese musicians who make New Orleans their home—keyboardist Keiko Komaki, trumpeter/trombonist Saturu Ohashi and guitarist Takeshi Shimmura, who is best known for his work with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. With Donald Magee on drums and Edward Washington on bass, this band went off the charts with a set of all original music. Some of it was super funky, other tunes pushed toward jazz fusion and one had a reggae feel.
Bon Bon Vivant
When we got to the Lagniappe Stage for the last act of 2022, Bon Bon Vivant was already tearing it up with a bunch of people dancing wildly to their music in and among the hedges of the planted garden. There were a lot of choices for the grand finale of the first Jazz Fest in three years, but this was the right decision by far. The family band, which features songwriter and frontwoman Abigail Cosio and her husband, saxophonist Jeremy Kelley, as well as her sister Glori Cosio on harmony vocals, were in their element. Their songs referenced worldly affairs, like “We Missed Our Chance to Die Young” and “Ship is Sinking,” but they were played like it really is the end of the world, and the band was right where they wanted to be—and so was the entirely exuberant crowd.