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Jazz Fest

What I had intended was a series of daily updates. Of course, I also thought that I was going to use my hotel’s gym several times this weekend, so I clearly had some misunderstandings about how general time management was going to function while in New Orleans. But then, time management issues are not unusual in this city: there’s a reason why so many waiters and bartenders in NOLA are, or were, at least, in the years before Katrina, fortyish men whom we used to refer to collectively as the Lost Boys. Many of them moved to New Orleans at 18 or so, found themselves caught up in the music and the food and the nightlife, and next thing they knew two decades had gone by, and whatever plans they’d come here with had drifted away, like smoke in the breeze.

Fortunately, this was only a weekend, and one that was meant to be lost, anyhow.

I spent Friday morning in my hotel room, writing a couple of posts, catching up on email, and waiting for my mother to get down here from Baton Rouge. She had a morning meeting, and was a bit delayed, so by the time we left the hotel to catch the shuttle over to the Fairgrounds, it was around 2.30. Catching the shuttle was easy, though the ride from the center of Canal Street’s tourist district to the flood-ravaged Mid-City was dramatic, and shocking. Claiborne Avenue runs on both sides of the pillars of the elevated 10 freeway as it passes through the city, and now the parking lots directly under the freeway are filled with junked cars, cars with their hoods and trunks open, cars once submerged in the muck that Katrina left behind. St. Bernard Avenue is lined with the rubble of buildings that have been gutted. Many of the houses in the neighborhood still bear the spray-painted signs of the search and rescue crew. And nearly all of them still bear a high-water mark, somewhere in the middle of the first floor.

Jazz Fest itself, however, seemed an oasis away from all that, a defiant statement that New Orleans would not be allowed to die without a fight. Friday’s Times-Picayune carried a front-page article about what exactly it took in order to make Jazz Fest happen this year at all, ranging from desalinating and reseeding the racetrack’s infield to housing musicians who’d been displaced. Given that — and given the organizers’ sense that the festival was a hair’s-breadth away from collapse, had it not been for the corporate sponsorship they worked out this year — both the event and the turnout seemed miraculous. Everything moved fluidly, from transportation to admission to food and beverage service to the many fantastic performances, and everyone was there, from locals to out-of-towners, from those who came for the first time to those who come every year. Every venue we wandered into or past was full, and every moment was a celebration of a culture and a city that would not be washed away. There is, needless to say, an overwhelming amount yet to be done, but these crowds seemed, at least, to be insisting that it will get done.

As to the music: Friday afternoon we wandered a bit, before cramming our way into the area in front of the Acura Stage, where Bob Dylan was due to start around 3.35. He did finally take the stage about 4.00, and… well, for me, at least, was disappointing. His band sounded great. He, however, sounded pretty bad, but not “bad” in the practiced way that Dylan was always bad, the rough-around-the-edges whiskey and cigarettes voice, the ostensibly untrained, improvised, shooting from the hip style. He instead sounded like he wasn’t actually there, a pale (and I do mean pale) shadow of his former self. The music was still the music, but the performance felt a bit hollow. After a bit, we fought our way out of the crowd — which took some doing, and required a very conscious squelching of my crowd-panic — and headed over to the BellSouth WWOZ Jazz Tent, where we caught the last couple of numbers by Charmaine Neville and her band. It was a study in contrasts — she was astonishingly energetic, at the end of an hour-long set, and her voice was rich and powerful. This was a woman, it was clear, who had survived what I hope is the worst event ever to face a major American city, and who would not be beaten down by it. Finally, after Neville’s set ended, we headed back over to the Acura Stage, where we found a much less crowded spot in the back, and settled down to people-watch and wait for Dr. John‘s set to begin. Dr. John is one of the official voices of New Orleans, and one who has done the most to preserve and rebuild the New Orleans music scene, and he was greeted with a hero’s welcome, from a city that wants all its displaced to come back home.

Saturday morning we headed out to the Fairgrounds a bit earlier, and after a bit of poster and t-shirt shopping, found a spot in front of the Southern Comfort Blues Stage and parked ourselves for the day. Mom and I caught the end of the performance by Cajun music Hall of Famer Belton Richard and the Louisiana Aces, followed by ‘50s R&B legend Clarence “Frogman” Henry. Mom had to leave after that, but I hung around, defending my little patch of ground as the crowd poured in to hear legendary blues guitarist Snooks Eaglin. Just after his set, R. showed up, and we sat back and listened to Luther Kent and Trick Bag. But finally, the thing I’d been waiting for, the highlight of my day — hell, the highlight of my spring: Etta James. I’ve wanted to see her for as long as I can remember, and boy, was she worth the wait. But she wasn’t what I was expecting. I knew that she hadn’t been well recently, and given the image of her I had in my mind, based on the last pictures I’d seen, I was expecting her to be, well, large, and somewhat disabled by that largeness. I was stunned when she walked out on stage: according to her website, James has very recently lost more than 200 pounds and, not to put to fine a point on it, but she’s really, really hot. Her voice hasn’t lost any of the rich growl it’s always had, but her performance is now raunchy and gorgeous, all of the sexual subtext of all her songs laid right out on the surface. She sang for a little over an hour, and I’ll say that it was an hour that will be hard for anyone today to match.

That said, today’s lineup includes Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello and Bruce Springsteen with the Seeger Sessions Band. Springsteen has rewritten Blind Alfred Reed’s song “How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live” for the city of New Orleans, which he’ll be performing today:

He says, “Me and my old school pals had some mighty high times down here
And what happened to you poor black folks, well it just ain’t fair”
He took a look around, gave a little pep talk, said, “I’m with you” then he took a little walk
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

There’s bodies floatin’ on Canal and the levees gone to hell
Martha, get me my sixteen gauge and some dry shells
Them who’s got got out of town
And them who ain’t got left to drown
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?

I got family scattered from Texas all the way to Baltimore
And I ain’t got no home in this world no more
Gonna be a judgment that’s a fact, a righteous train rollin’ down this track
Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?


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