Lettin’ it ride in the Big Easy: Jazzfest 2010 recap, Part II: Bringing the ‘phunk

The second of our five-part series, Greg Schwartz spends five days in New Orleans, absorbing more music than one thought humanly possible, grinning ear to ear the entire time.

Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, Acura Stage
Music started at the fairgrounds in the 11 am hour, but I felt like I was doing well to make it there by 1:30 pm for the main stage set by Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk. I’d caught Dumpstaphunk opening for Phil Lesh & Friends at their January 2008 Mardis Gras show in San Francisco, so I knew this was a band not to miss. Ivan is of course the son of one of the legendary Neville Brothers, so the band’s sound is rooted in that classic New Orleans funk style pioneered by the Meters (which featured Art Neville, and later also Cyril Neville.) It was a picture-perfect beautiful, breezy sunny afternoon and hearing these funky sounds kicked things off in high style. Bassist Tony Hall, who some might recognize from his time served with the Trey Anastasio Band, was a star of the show. He laid down a bright punchy low end that made every tune bounce, and also sang with soulful flair on songs like Sly and the Family Stone’s “You Can Make it if You Try.”

Amanda Shaw & the Cute Guys, Gentilly Stage
The Gentilly Stage is the second biggest stage and the furthest walk from the main stage, but it still only takes five to ten minutes to get over there (as opposed to some festivals where certain stages can be much farther apart.) Local lass Amanda Shaw drew a large crowd to hear her high-energy, rootsy country rock sound as she led the band on fiddle. A spunky cover of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” got things rocking as the charismatic Shaw sang with punk energy, but then injected Cajun-rooted fiddle runs for a unique take on the punk classic. Shaw’s instrumental talent shined brightest on an instrumental tune that closed the set with a bluesier flavor. The 19-year-old New Orleans native soloed brilliantly, while also moving and grooving with a dynamic stage presence making her one to watch moving forward.

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Gov’t Mule, Acura Stage
Warren Haynes and his blues rock quartet took the main stage at 2:50 pm and rocked out for the next hour. “Broke Down on the Brazos” from the band’s latest album By a Thread was an early highlight, with Haynes riffing out on the high-octane jam. “Beautifully Broken” slowed things down a bit, but sounded great on such a sunny afternoon. An instrumental jam went in a decidely Allman-ish direction, and even featured a “Blue Skies” tease that unfortunately did not fully materialize (the Allman Brothers Band had however played the festival on the previous weekend.) Haynes then sang a little bit of the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” before returning to the jam. Mule standard “Thorazine Shuffle” cranked the blues rock back up to peak level, with Haynes throwing in a “Get Up Stand Up” tease on his guitar. The man is a classic rock encyclopedia, which makes every Mule set an adventure since you never know what tune might pop up.

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Soul Rebels, Congo Square Stage
The Soul Rebels brass band was throwing down their groovy sound on the Congo Square Stage, the festival’s third largest. The band blends Mardis Gras-style funk with jazz, rock, reggae and hip-hop flavors for a festive sound that is pure New Orleans. The tuba player provides the bass line while the other horns pump out various melodies and lead lines. The drummer and percussionist also know how to get busy. I was definitely digging it and wanted to see more, but my friends were keen on checking out Steve Martin so I allowed myself to be pulled away. The festival has 11 stages (!), so there are a lot of tough choices to be made.

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Steve Martin w/ the Steep Canyon Rangers, Gentilly Stage
It turns out that actor/comedian Steve Martin is also a lifelong banjo fanatic and the word is apparently getting out, because he and his group drew a massive crowd. One friend who’d been to Jazzfest many times said that it was the largest crowd he’d ever seen at the Gentilly Stage. It looked like somewhere in the vicinity of 10,000. It’s no gimmick either, as Martin was rocking the banjo like a seasoned pro.

Widespread Panic, Acura Stage
The Spreadheads were settling in back at the main stage, where Panic was due to close out the main stage action for the day with a set that started at 4:30 pm. The Georgia jam-rockers decided to pass on a set break and threw down a massive two-and-half-hour show that capped off the day in rocking style. “Space Wrangler” was an early highlight as the song’s classic groove and melodic riffs never fail to energize a crowd. Another tune featured a big jam that saw the band click and open up “the hose,” as Carlos Santana would say, with a captivating jam as bassist Dave Schools and keyboardist JoJo Hermann locked in to a tight groove to generate Panic’s unique sound.

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The set seemed like it was starting to wane a bit halfway through, to the point where I was considering going to check out the Average White Band and/or Blues Traveler. But then the band brought out the MegaBlasters four-piece horn section and launched into “Up All Night,” one of my favorite tunes and easily the anthem of the week for Jazzfest fans. The melodic number took on an extra jazzy sparkle with the horns and the band used it as a launchpad into their classic party anthem “Tall Boy,” which saw strangers dancing with strangers as the crowd came alive once more. The combo reinvigorated the set and the band was off and running again, as the MegaBlasters sat in on the entire second half of the show. Virtuoso lead guitarist Jimmy Herring even seemed to have dialed down his sometimes overly searing tone to a level that was just right.

The Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Band, House of Blues
After a brief respite back at homebase, my accomplice and I were off to the House of Blues for what promised to be one of the week’s top highlights. Slide guitar prodigy Derek Trucks and blues babe Susan Tedeschi have been married since 2001, but only began playing shows together on summer tours in 2007 and 2008 billed as their “Soul Stew Revival.” As I wrote three years ago, these two are like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups – two great tastes that go even better together. With their young children now a little older, it appears the couple have finally decided the time is right to merge their sensational talents and move ahead together with a full-time band. And what a band it is with Oteil Burbridge (who has been playing with Trucks in the Allman Brothers Band since 2002) joining the team on bass, along with his brother Kofi Burbridge on keyboards and flute (who was already in the Derek Trucks Band), and two drummers for the polyrhythmic jams.

The band played mostly brand new material, and strong material it is. “Nobody’s Free” was an early highlight for Tedeschi, who sang some soulful lyrics about the limitations of modern society. The entire band soared on “Midnight in Harlem,” which Tedeschi said was written by backing vocalist Mike Mattison. Oteil Burbridge’s fluid bass catalyzed a huge melodic jam that had the whole room grooving, with Trucks dropping sweet licks on top. “Don’t Drift Away” was another bluesy gem for Tedeschi’s heartfelt vocals, while a smoking hot cover of Eric Clapton’s “Coming Home” ignited the room. “Butterfly,” from Tedeschi’s strong 2009 album Back to the River, was another rocking highlight, followed by the super funky jam “Serve It Up,” with Soulive’s Eric Krasno sitting in. Krasno and Trucks traded hot licks on the bouncy groove, while the Grateful Dead’s Bill Kreutzmann was seen rocking out sidestage. A cover of the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling” was another winner, with the crowd eating it up and Tedeschi shining once again. The chemistry between Trucks and the Burbridge brothers is higher level stuff, enabling deep jams on almost any tune. This show was just one highlight after another, capped off with a great “Trenchtown Rock” encore that summed up the festival so well – “One good thing about music, when it hits, you feel no pain.” This band is primed to be one of the best on the planet for the next 20 years.

After the show, we walked up Bourbon Street looking for an old school jazz club to wind down in. We had to walk past a huge number of cheesy neon bars with cliché cover bands, but we finally found just what we were looking for in the form of Fritzel’s, a “European style jazz pub” that bills itself as the oldest operated jazz club in New Orleans (open since 1969.) It’s a small place, but the jazz is great, the vibe is festive and the drink selection exotic. A great spot to wind down an evening.

Coming up next: Friday, where one Hall of Famer is bailed out by another Hall of Famer.

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