The atmosphere at the New Orleans Musicians for Obama
benefit was near-euphoric. Here, after all, was a self-selected crowd of music
fans and musicians, on the Tuesday night between the two weekends of the 42nd
annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival - a drop of blue in a blood-red
state. The talent was top-heavy with old-school NOLA royalty - the Nevilles,
Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, the Meters. Around Generations Hall, video monitors
silently played the Obama 2012 campaign film The Road Traveled - the inauguration, health care, Mitt's op-ed
"Let Detroit Go Bankrupt," speeches and talking heads. Celebratory images, and
then the necessary but incongruous party montage: night-vision goggles in a helicopter, a
satellite image of the compound and the title legend, "The Killing of Osama Bin
Laden." Onstage, the Meters were roaring through "Fire on the Bayou."
>> PHOTOS: New Orleans Jazz Fest 2012 by Jean Hangarter <<
Well, okay then: a night of all-stars and
Barack Obama's greatest hit.
It's hard to imagine that there are any
New Orleans Musicians who are not for
Obama. This city was notoriously crushed by government ineptitude following
Hurricane Katrina ("a man-made catastrophe," as John Goodman so righteously put
it in the first season of Treme). And
though the city has made strides, with new construction visible everywhere and
a reinvigorated tourist economy, the wounds of that storm have left scars and a
lingering pain: the occasional spray-painted FEMA code on a shotgun house on
Broad Street, a still mostly vacant Lower Ninth Ward, a diaspora of the city's
tight-knit communities, and too many people who are gone not just from New
Orleans but from this earth, for good.
Here as in 2006 (the Festival continues
through Sunday, May 6), it was Bruce Springsteen who set the keynote. Laugh at
his so-called bombast all you like, indie-rock kids, but in the first Jazz Fest
after Katrina, it was Bruce's Seeger
Sessions project, with its activist-folkie Dust Bowl agenda, that reduced
much of an audience of tens of thousands to tears. And this year, with the E
Street Band, the Reverend Bruce did it again, hoping "to summon ghosts and
stimulate sexual organs." The huge field in front of the Acura Stage was packed
beyond capacity, but even from a spot between the food booths a football-field length
and half away, with the Jumbotron view obscured by a magnolia tree, the power
of "My City of Ruins" communicated. How Springsteen can orchestrate an
emotional narrative, address social concerns to an audience of thousands with a
big, "bombastic" sound, and still maintain a sense of one-to-one intimacy, is a
marvel. To paraphrase Jesus Christ via Martin Scorsese: "Those who are laughing
now will be crying later."
But social commentary is nothing new to New Orleans. It's typical
for Dr. John to introduce a song with, "This is for all the boys out at the
Ponderosa." Dr. John lingo for Angola State Prison, where any number of New Orleans musicians -
not to mention everyday civilians - have served time. Dr. John's latest CD, Locked Down, serves up plenty of anger.
At the Jazz & Heritage stage, it was Chief Larry Bannock who, before a
traditional Mardi Gras Indian chant with his Golden Star Hunters tribe, gave a
shout out to the incarcerated and "those boys who are never coming back." Then
the drums and tambourines kicked in, and it was the call-and-response of
"Shoo-fly (Don't Bother Me)."
It wasn't all grim, of course. It was
still a party - about drinking, eating, carrying on, stimulating sexual organs.
About heaven and hell. Bobby Rush did
his bump-and-grind blues with two amply proportioned onstage dancers. When he
sang "Goin' Night Fishing," it wasn't clear that he was talking about fish. The
Texas Tornadoes sang their ode to a long-ago hooker, "Velma from Selma," the great Flaco
Jimenez conjuring a church choir on his accordion. Ironing Board Sam ran
onstage after his band's warm-up, ebullient, in a gold suit. I seem to remember
him more than a decade ago at the Fest playing Casio keys propped on an ironing
board - his namesake. Now he had a gleaming red Korg and a full, cranking band.
When he sang "See-Saw," how "it goes up and down," it was about life. Then
again, when he put the keyboard on the stage floor and straddled it, maybe it
was about something else. Maybe Cee Lo was shy of singing the tag of "Fuck You"
at the family venue, but he didn't have to - the audience sang it for him. On
the other hand, Iron & Wine's Sam Beam broke through the plinky-plink of
his band's folk-rock to sing, "We were born to fuck each other, one way or
another." Heaven and hell in one.
"Soul Queen of New Orleans" Irma Thomas paid tribute to
Mahalia Jackson, working her way to heaven with vocal leaps during her
testifying "How Great Thou Art," her voice rising ever higher on that last
syllable. D.L. Menard, the now 80-year-old patriarch of a vibrant Western Louisiana style, the "Cajun Hank Williams,"
explained his song "Les flammes d'enfer," "It's not where you're going; it's
where you're going to stay." Feist, in her Jazz Fest debut, sang about "making
dangerous choices in your youth," conjuring earth and air in the groove of her
¾ time and catching vocals.
The biggest impact of the first weekend
was made by Seun Kuti, son of the great Fela, who marshaled call-and-response
vocals, snaky, anthemic unison lines, and cross-rhythms that spanned every
timbre of percussion, from clattering, popping sticks to bass-drum bombs. "This
is no Afro-pop," Kuti announced over a vamp. "This is not Afro-jazz. This is
none of that bullshit. This is original African music." And he repeated:
"Original. African. Music."
Band's like Kuti's or New Orleans super-group brass band the
Midnight Disturbers, for all their complexity, deliver a concentrated sound. Boston's own Debo Band
(another Jazz Fest debut) offered grooves in a glorious, diffuse mess of colors
and rhythms - violins, accordion, brass, Ethiopian vocals (with the occasional
bicycling high kicks by lead singer Bruck Tesfaye). Holding down the bottom end
were sousaphone and tuba, as if one bass
line weren't enough.
Still, it's the elemental simplicity of
some music that stuck with me. The Golden Star Hunters - just chanted vocals
and percussion, ratcheting up and ratcheting down in tempo, a second group of
Indians in the audience enacting a mock street battle, exchanging screams and
glances with the tribe onstage. Some private communication we outsiders were
privileged to witness and be included in. As Springsteen sang in "How Can a
Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live," "You use what you got and you learn to