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Festival Review: New Orleans Jazz Fest 2013 – Weekend One

on April 29, 2013, 11:25pm
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The Internet’s constant rush of new music is great. But time and time again, audiences come back to the old stuff. As of last year, catalog sales outpace new music sales. People who lived in the era of whatever that “old stuff” is seek it out for nostalgia and young people who never lived in that music’s era long for a time in music history they never lived in. But how does the constant rush of quality new music get winnowed down and become “old stuff” or canon? Converting the varied ages at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (or, Jazz Fest) sure helps.

It’s all too apparent the Jazz Fest is about the old stuff: legacy acts who barely tour anymore (Billy Joel), the progenitors of modern roots music (B.B. King), and so on. This year was Jazz Fest’s 43rd go ‘round, making it no festival-circuit spring chicken.

It’s worth noting that most of Jazz Fest’s events since the ’70s have been two weekends long, a point of boasting for major players on the festival circuit like Coachella and Austin City Limits. But give the middle-aged fest it’s due, those guys have nothing on their fortysomething poppa. Jazz Fest has in many ways quietly defined the modern music festival in the gaze of history, as much as, if not more than, Woodstock or Monterey Pop did with its legacy.

What’s beguiling to some is its misnomer: it’s not a 100 or even 75 percent jazz festival, so rid yourself of that notion right now. It’s as much jazz as New Orleans music is jazz: one element of a complex tapestry. Heck, it’s not even that “old stuff” exclusively. There’s a tip of the hat to new fluff (younger, often indie-leaning acts like Andrew Bird, Band of Horses and more) and so much non-American music (Brazilian, African, Caribbean, Latin, etc.) to discover, too. And, of course, a celebration of local culture: Mardi Gras Indians, Native American tribes (the official cultural theme of this year’s fest), and more. All this old stuff can be New to You if you don’t know about it. Jazz Fest is ripe for discovery for all ages, all backgrounds.

Sometimes if you want to discover some new music, you just have to go back to American music’s source, back where it was all along. This is New Orleans. And New Orleans is Jazz Fest.

Photography by Diana Talyansky.

Friday, April 26th

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Dr. John and the Nite Trippers - Acura Stage – 3:50 p.m.

Who is Dr. John? Well, if there’s a mayoral election of New Orleans Music, Mac Rebennack would be the running favorite. And that’s why he plays right before John Mayer on Jazz Fest’s largest stage. The Doctor has a storied career dating back to the ’50s in New Orleans music. Which is why his brand-new band of sidemen (and women, namely trombonist Sarah Morrow, who played a strong featured role in this set) was quite the reveal on Friday afternoon, with Dr. John acting as voice and facilitator, not leader. The band’s set pulled heavily from some New Orleans Songbook standards, which included an exceptional rendition of Earl King’s “Let the Good Times Roll”, in addition to his most recent work alongside The Black Keys’ Dan Auerbach — last year’s Locked Down, noted for exposing him to a new generation of roots music listeners. No doubt, the Doctor converted a few more listeners Friday afternoon.

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Gary Clark Jr. - Gentilly Stage – 4:00 p.m.

For better or worse, Jazz Fest’s Gentilly Stage is the “main stage” usually reserved for younger talent, often within various niches of rock. This is well exemplified by the Rolling Stone-touted psychedelic/hard rock guitar virtuoso Gary Clark Jr.. Of course, it just so happens that Clark can outplay experienced guitar players thrice his age. Through bouts of wordless guitar worship, woozy psychedelic passages, and focused, pained fretting, Clark exuded a Jimi Hendrix-like mystique with songwriting more akin to ‘60s and ‘70s heavy blues acts Led Zeppelin or The Guess Who.

And did I mention already that he can SHRED? Yeah. Set closer “Bright Lights” was a monster, with a groove that lumbered through the audience like a rock ‘n’ roll monster bent on destruction. Clark’s solos dancing on the tip of the audience’s ears, with people’s delight giving way to screams and cheers. “You gonna know my name by the end of the night,” Clark repeated in the song’s refrain. With a killer set like his, he’s damn right we will.

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John Mayer - Acura Stage – 5:30 p.m.

People underestimate, or at least misunderstand, John Mayer. Maybe it stems from his often-tepid radio singles not showcasing his undeniable guitar prowess that you see live. Some see Mayer as a tabloid heartthrob that happens to play music for a living, a reputation that’s stuck over the last few years (see: Battle Studies, Jennifer Aniston, Katy Perry, et al). Veterans at Jazz Fest in upwards of twice Mayer’s age might see him as a promising but ultimately untested young singer-songwriter/guitar wunderkind. But what they forget is that Mayer was a student at the prestigious Berklee College of Music. And when it comes to his live sets, he can REALLY play.

At 35, Mayer has five studio full lengths plus live records and releases with other projects. He’s paid his dues, even if the New Orleans old guard isn’t quite sold. And after an untimely cancellation of his scheduled appearance at last year’s Jazz Fest due to a throat condition that left him unable to sing, Mayer seemed ready to let his guitar speak for him, showing that old guard what he was all about.

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He covered Muddy Waters’ “I Got My Mojo Workin’” to show his blues bonafides and the Grateful Dead’s “Goin’ Down the Road Feeling Bad” for classic-rock bonafides. But he wasn’t about to let people forget he’s a modern ladies man either when he played “Something Like Olivia”. Mayer’s better-known songs like “Who Says” (with a New Orleans twist) and the hit single “Waiting on the World to Change” were crowd pleasers as well. It’s easy to forget the impressive collection of hits he’s amassed.

And you know what else is easy to forget? John Mayer is hilarious. He referred to new material he was working on as a “sonic Molly fest… just sonically, just sonically” yet, sadly, he only talked about it, playing none of it. He boasted about a new “version 2.0” of himself, warning that “It’s going to be getting incredibly groovy and funky over the next couple of years.”

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Band of Horses - Gentilly Stage - 5:45 p.m.

Full disclosure right up front: this marks the sixth time I’ve seen Band of Horses live. I’m a huge fan who’s seen the band repeatedly since its inception. And I say with confidence after the band’s Friday evening set at Jazz Fest that there’s no better young band doing what it does today. The riffs, hooks, and anthemic arrangements of Horses’ own are there. The rockers hit like a mule kick, the ballads soothe, all warm and tender. They do exactly what a rock band should do. Take heart, Band of Horses fans: this band is here to stay for the long haul.

On its fourth and most recent effort, Mirage Rock, the band roots around a Glyn Johns-assisted rootsy sound, perhaps searching for its own Significance. Whatever soul searching Band of Horses may have done as a band has enabled it to hit a serious stride live Friday, with its finest performance I’ve witnessed. It was under-attended, as many headlining young acts’ sets are at Jazz Fest, but look out. To quote LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy, “The kids are coming up from behind.”

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The band left no room for small talk, interludes, or silence between songs. The set started off with, appropriately, “The First Song” and shifted into high gear from there: “Ode to the LRC”, “Weed Party”, “Laredo”, “Islands on the Coast”, “NW Apt.”, “Knock Knock”, and the list of fist pumpers goes on. The band played them so fast and excitedly, even aggressively, it suggested The Ramones playing Neil Young and Crazy Horse songs, the latter being obvious touchstones for Band of Horses’ sound.

The heavily licensed BoH “hit” “No One’s Gonna Love You” made some in the crowd swoon and slow dance, sating them for sentimentality until the opening riff of “The Funeral”, eliciting roaring cheers to end out the set. Unassailably, “The Funeral” is one of the best and most recognized songs and opening riffs from the ’00s and it gets a visceral reaction every time it’s played at a show or double-clicked on over a P.A.

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On record, Band of Horses provides a polished beauty, but live there’s a tactile push of what Southern rock could be in the New South with a new set of influences to pull from: punk rock, indie rock, and Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” reconciled at last.

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