New Orleans Notes: The 2012 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

HEAVEN BOUND “Soul Queen of New Orleans” Irma Thomas paid tribute to Mahalia Jackson at the 42nd annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.

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 make do."

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