Last Saturday morning I was walking around Lafayette Cemetery #1, the above-ground "City of The Dead" in the Garden District in New Orleans. Strolling the oak tree shaded avenues of beautifully decrepit tombs on the site of a former sugar plantation, I listened in as a tour guide told her charges about a particular kind of plant that grows there called the Resurrection Fern. The creeping greenery thrives in the graveyard, she explained, because it feeds on plentiful nutrients provided by rapidly decomposing dead bodies often piled on top of one another in the cemetery's family mausoleums.
I don't know much about botany - and subsequent research suggests that pleopeltis polypodioides got its layman's name not because of a hunger for human remains but an ability to appear desiccated and dead until brought back to life by just a few drops of water. Either way, I know a metaphor when I hear one. And all during the first weekend of the 2012 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which picks up again at the Fair Grounds race course today and carries on through Sunday - I had already been thinking about death and rebirth, destruction and renewal, and the ways in which, in New Orleans like nowhere else, cultural traditions - music and otherwise - are carried on from generation to generation.
Lafayette Cemetery #1.
In New Orleans, you're surrounded by living musical history everywhere you go. A bike ride from the French Quarter to the Fair Grounds leads through Congo Square - where slaves gathered and brought African rhythms to life in the New World, and where statues of Satchmo, Sidney Bechet and Mahalia Jackson watch over Louis Armstrong Park - before passing through the historic Treme neighborhood that gives the HBO series its name. At Jazzfest, the music goes on during daylight hours on 12 stages, and then carries over into clubs until the wee hours. The first thing I went to see last Thursday night after enduring a 14 hour travel day (don't ask) and fortifying myself with shrimp and grits at the Uptown restaurant La Petite Grocery was a zydeco battle of the bands at Rock 'n' Bowl, the bowling alley / music venue on Carollton Avenue in the Mid-City section of town.
Lil Nathan & the Williams Family Band at the Rock n' Bowl.
I have vivid memories of seeing now deceased accordion slingers Beau Joque and Boozoo Chavis at the second floor Rock n' Bowl there in the 1990s and feeling the floor bounce with the weight of the dancers. That building took on seven feet of water during Hurricane Katrina, so the venue moved to a gleaming new space in 2009. When I walked in, Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural, who popularized the peppery dance music in the 1980s, was making the two steppers move. He gave way to the family band led by Lil' Nathan Williams, scion of a squeezebox family led by his father, also named Nathan. Two of Lil Nathan's middle school aged younger brothers were on washboard and drums, and Lil Nathan was doing his part to keep tradition alive while subtly modernizing it, melding Louisiana dance rhythms with R. Kelly style contemporary R & B.
Seun Kuti & Egypt 80.
That sense of sons and daughters carrying on the music handed down by their forebears was present all weekend, from native Louisianans and outsiders. At the Fest's Congo Square stage on Friday, Nigerian Sean Kuti shirtlessly served up intoxicating polyrhythms and praised the healing powers of marijuana while backed by Egypt 80, the group which includes musicians that used to play with his Afrobeat inventing father Fela. It was wickedly good.
Augie Meyers, Flaco Jimenez and Shawn Sahm of the Texas Tornados.
At the Fais Do Do Stage on Friday, the latest incarnation of the Tex-Mex rock and roll band Texas Tornados were unexpectedly excellent, with Shawn Sahm carrying on in the shoes of his late father Doug alongside original members Flaco Jimenez and Augie Meyers, and Nunie Rubio, who filled in for the also dead Freddy Fender when it came time for "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights."
Savoy Music Center of Eunice Saturday Cajun Jam.
The next day at Fais Do, there was more multi-generational music being made, when the Cajun jam session that's been held every Saturday for 46 years in Eunice, La. moved east to New Orleans for the days, led by folklorist musicians Marc and Ann Savoy. From an 84 year old grandmother playing the accordion to a teenage guitarist, they won the largest age range within one group prize. They made me put down my red beans and rice and get up and dance.
David Hidalgo of Los Lobos.
That night at Republic, east L.A. (as in Los Angeles, not Louisiana) Chicano band Los Lobos headlined. Picking up his own accordion, David Hidalgo sang "Emily" a song that featured the late Levon Helm on vocals in its recorded version, and talked about the late zydeco patriarch Clifton Chenier. Then he switched over to play drums when his co-bandleader Cesar Rosas led the band through Doug Sahm's "She's About A Mover" with help from members of the Iguanas.
Irma Thomas in the Gospel Tent.
Along with Cajun, African, roots rock, gospel (like Irma Thomas' glowing tribute to Mahalia Jackson) and brass bands galore (the best of many I saw were the powerfully groovalicious Soul Rebels), and pop headliners both flaccid (The Beach Boys, who sounded soggy on the opening date of their reunion tour) and formidable (Grammy winning indie heroes Bon Iver, whose leader Justin Vernon was in fine voice on the Gentilly stage), there's also jazz at Jazz Fest.
Big Chief Monk Boudreaux with Irvin Mayfield and the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra.
Some of that was satisfyingly old timey, as was the charming set I caught by pianist Butch Thompson in tribute to Jelly Roll Morton. And some was sophisticated in its ambition and diversity of approach, as in the case of trumpeter Irvin Mayfield and his big band known as the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra, which featured standout solo turns and cameos by Cyril Neville, Kermit Ruffins (singing "I've Got The World On A String"), Big Chief Monk Boudreaux, superb clarinetist Evan Christopher and trumpeter Jamil Sharif.
Theresa Andersson at Cafe Istanbul.
One of the kicks of Jazz Fest is to hear how musicians of different genres and generations interpret a shared repertoire of songs. On Friday night in front of a crowd of 50 or so at Café Istanbul, Swedish born New Orleanian Theresa Andersson played a one woman show in which she used a multiplicity of instruments and foot pedals to have her way with the gospel standard "O Mary Don't You Weep" and Allen Toussaint classic "On Your Way Down."
Two days later in front of an estimated 65,000, Treme born bright young bandleader Trombone Shorty funked up the latter, and Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, who closed out the first weekend with a full-length, characteristically cathartic set that included his raging George W. Bush-directed take on Blind Alfred Reed's "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live" and a quietly gripping reading of "When The Saints Go Marching In," made raucous work of the latter.
Jazz banjo player Danny Barker.
On the day Springsteen performed, there was a also tribute to Alex Chilton, the native Memphian leader of The Box Tops and Big Star who died in New Orleans in 2010. The trip over to the Gentilly Stage involved walking past a multi-colored memorial field of painted placards in honor of deceased Jazz Fest notables, from musicians like Danny Barker, Snooks Eaglin and Al Hirt to music lovers like Fest organizer Alison Miner and superfan newsman Ed Bradley.
At the Chilton tribute, singer Susan Cowsill, who played along with Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner and her sister-in-law Vicki Peterson of the Bangles, among others, said "We're sending our love to Alex." And after communing with the dead, she shared one of the guiding principles of Jazz Fest: "Have fun," she told the audience. "It's good to be alive."
In closing out the first weekend of Jazz Fest, Springsteen was revisiting the venue where he kicked off his 2006 tour with the Seeger Sessions band and played an emotionally stirring, spirit-lifting show at the first post-Katrina fest at a time when the wounds of the flood-damaged city were still quite raw.
Dr. John on the big screen.
This time, The Boss brought out piano great Dr. John, who had played an equally angry, deeply funky set before him, to sing "Something You Got," a tune by New Orleans R & B singer Chris Kenner. ("We can't play that groove in New Jersey," Springsteen said with a laugh, afterwards. "It's too slow!")
That bit was playful, but Springsteen was serious minded, too, of course, from the indignant, partly-inspired-by-Katrina "We Take Care Of Our Own," to the theme of living with the spirits of the departed that suffuses his Wrecking Ball tour, in which the shoes of sax man Clarence Clemons are being filled by his nephew Jake.
Bruce Springsteen and Miami Steve Van Zandt.
Springsteen called The Rising's "My City Of Ruins," a song "about the things that you lose that never come back, but … also a song about things that can never leave you." And in a customized introduction that he's further honed since playing Philadelphia in March, he added, "We're here to summon up ghosts, ghosts that are powerful enough to haunt the rest of the nation." In New Orleans, you don't have to look hard to find them.
Below, the Young Pinstripe Brass Band, and Dancing Man. To see more of NOLA pictures, follow me on Instagram @delucadan.