Lettin’ it ride in the Big Easy: Jazzfest 2010 recap, Part III: Lady Soul bailed out by three of the four elements

Part three in our five-part series, where a gaggle of Hall of Famers step in to replace another Hall of Famer.

Most of my comrades decided to take this day off, since Friday seemed to present perhaps the least best overall lineup of the weekend. But they missed out on some great stuff. It was an overcast day that threatened rain, but the weather gods were most kind as the precipitation held off until just after the festival ended on Sunday.

Astral Project, WWOZ Jazz Tent
Jazzfest brings in lots of great rock bands to up the fun factor and sell more tickets, but I was definitely of a mindset to catch some jazzy jazz too. The Astral Project’s 1:30 pm set delivered in a big way. In contrast to the main stages, the jazz and blues tents feature rows and rows of seating. It can still be hard to find seats though, and the tent was pretty packed for this performance. But there’s an usher who works to help stragglers find seats, and it was nice to get one after the late night out. Local daily paper The Times-Picayune has called the Astral Project the city’s “premier modern jazz ensemble,” and there were few who would disagree after this great set. Drummer John Vidacovich, saxman Tony Dagradi, guitarist Steve Masakowski and bassist James Singleton form a dynamic quartet. The songs were mostly up-tempo with lots of changes, hot solos and just plain great playing that received numerous rounds of applause from the appreciative audience.

Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers, Congo Square Stage
Trumpet ace Kermit Ruffins came up with the Rebirth Brass Band (which he co-founded) and now fronts his own unit. Ruffins and his current band mix the jazzy jazz with elements of funk, pop and hip-hop for a genre-bending unit that has become a New Orleans classic. Some might also recognize Ruffins from a recurring role on HBO’s new show “Treme,” which takes place in New Orleans. A groovy take on “I Can See Clearly Now” was a hit with the crowd in the mid-afternoon time slot. The sky was gray, but with no rain it felt indeed like a “bright, sunshiny day.” The smooth horn lines sounded great over the upbeat groove, while Ruffins’ vocals conjured a nostalgic big band era. Ruffins then stepped up and delivered one of the best trumpet solos of the weekend, exploring the melody with full jazzy flair.

Forgotten Souls Brass Band, Jazz and Heritage Stage
This small stage near the main entrance of the fairgrounds featured a series of great brass bands throughout the weekend. Almost any time you walked by, there was a brass brand making sure things stayed jazzy and funky. The Forgotten Souls had a big lineup and a classic sound that drew in most who walked by.

Allen Toussaint, Acura Stage
Allen Toussaint is one of the patron saints of the New Orleans music scene and as such, drew a huge crowd to the main stage. The man is a legend, having worked with a practical who’s who of music legends. He had a big band that entertained the crowd with a classic sound that mixed jazzy elements with rhythm & blues, led by Toussaint on piano and vocals. Toussaint’s stylishly melodic piano playing had the ladies dancing with some great grooves. I definitely would have liked to see more of this set, but it conflicted with what seemed like another must-see event.

New Orleans Social Club, Blues Tent
I also would have liked to have caught some of the Nicholas Payton Sextet in the Jazz Tent, but this supergroup demanded to be seen. The tent was packed with fans waiting to see the group, which featured bassist George Porter Jr., and guitarist Leo Nocentelli from the Meters with keyboardist Ivan Neville, piano man Henry Butler and drummer Raymond Weber. It was an hour-long funk fest that quickly became the Henry and Leo show. Butler stole the show on multiple occasions with his charged piano solos that energized the crowd time and again, with Nocentelli following most of those with incendiary guitar solos that burned up the fretboard. Musicians know him well, but the general public is behind in recognizing this guy as one of the hottest guitarists on the planet. “Talkin ‘Bout New Orleans” was a super funky highlight, where Neville also laid down a jamming keyboard solo. He followed that with deeply soulful vocals on a way groovy cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son,” a song that seems tailor made for New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

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The Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Band, Blues Tent
Trucks and Tedeschi followed up their stellar House of Blues show the previous night with another superb 75-minute set to close out the festival on Friday. The tent was jammed with fans who wanted to dance, packing the one aisle that wasn’t cleared, while fans that wanted to sit battled with them over blocking their line of sight. How so many people could stay seated while this incredible band was rocking the stage remains a mystery. The band opened the set with Eric Clapton’s “Coming Home” to get things going, and then ran through many of the same new songs they played the night before. It still felt fresh though, with Trucks throwing down one beautiful slide solo after another. Tedeschi’s compelling vocals impressed again on “Don’t Drift Away” and “Nobody’s Free,” as well as on the smoking cover of the Beatles’ “I’ve Got a Feeling.”

But the highlight of the set came toward the end with “Midnight in Harlem.” The tune had dazzled early in the show on the previous night, but went to an even higher level here at the end of the set, as bassist Oteil Burbridge led the band on a huge jam that was simply transcendent, as it seemed to keep going deeper and deeper into ecstatic groove ecstasy. Everyone in the aisle was moving and grooving to this stellar jam that is sure to become a classic, because there’s never going to be a day when this fantastic melodic groove isn’t going to hit the spot. Trucks’ stellar slide work continued to wow throughout the set and especially on this incredible jam.

Earth, Wind and Fire, Acura Stage
Aretha Franklin was supposed to be headlining the main stage to close the day, but canceled at the last moment, with rumors saying that she had found herself unable to perform after a tour of New Orleans’ blighted 9th ward left her overcome with emotion. Jazzfest moved quickly to pull in the legendary Earth, Wind and Fire to fill the bill, though. They were supposed to end at the same time as Trucks & Tedeschi, but it was pleasing to see that they were still playing so fans could see the end of the set. I’d been wanting to catch this group ever since “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” (“When are those Earth, Wind and Fire tickets coming in? Because I’m going to take my little brother, you know.”) The band was throwing down some funky grooves with great multi-part harmonies, and the crowd was loving it.

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After exiting through the main entrance to the fairgrounds, it was less than two blocks before I came upon a brass band playing on a street corner while some enterprising locals were serving up fresh-made mojitos for $5 – score! Then as I continued down Esplanade, I traveled past a young keyboardist who was putting on a live show in front of his house for family and friends. Soon thereafter, I came upon a Hare Krishna church that was serving up free vegetarian food while what looked like a husband-wife-daughter trio played some ambient Krishna jams. The music was everywhere.

Gov’t Mule + 7 Walkers, The Mahalia Jackson Theater
My accomplice and I were scrambling to get across town to this show after discovering that Bill Kreutzmann’s 7 Walkers were going on at 7:45 pm, an unusually early start for Jazzfest evening shows. But the theater apparently has an actual curfew (as opposed to most venues in the Big Easy.) We were out on the street trying to find a taxi when a local musician by the name of John William picked us up and drove us over there for free! New Orleans hospitality got us there by the set break, but too late for 7 Walkers, unfortunately. I’d been looking forward to seeing them again after their recent Austin show, as Kreutzmann and Louisiana/Austin guitarist Papa Mali conjure a festive mix of Grateful Dead songs with Southern flavor and new material written with longtime GD lyricist Robert Hunter. The sound is a unique mix of West Coast and Gulf Coast. With his gray dreadlocks, rotund figure and melty licks, Papa Mali brings to mind how Jerry Garcia might have turned out if he’d grown up in New Orleans instead of San Francisco.

Gov’t Mule came out and got right back to the hard rocking, bluesy business they’d thrown down at the fairgrounds the day before. A “Third Stone from the Sun” tease was appreciated early on, and Warren Haynes went deep into the blues well on Led Zeppelin’s “Since I’ve Been Loving You.” The first set proceeded in somewhat underwhelming fashion though, as I started to get the same feeling as the past few times I’ve seen the band. This feeling was that the band’s covers are always amazing, but that their own material seems to be stagnating a bit. Haynes is an undisputed guitar master and has been one of the hardest working men in rock ‘n’ roll over the past 20 years, but after witnessing the fresh sounds of the Derek Trucks & Susan Tedeschi Band, I couldn’t help but feel that the Mule is coming up a little short these days. Most of their new material tends to fall into the same hard-edged blues rock territory, with less and less in the way of song diversity, as opposed to the wide range of classic rock the band covers with such aplomb. Of course Trucks is in his prime at age 30 while Haynes is 50, but it just feels like Mule’s bag of tricks has become too small.

Haynes upped the ante when the band opened the second set with an epic cover of Doors classic “When the Music’s Over,” which electrified the assembled. Haynes has become one of rock’s greatest chameleons and you could feel the presence of Mr. Mojo Risin during this spine-tingling rendition of the epic ode to music and revolution. A later jam on the Dead’s “The Other One” recalled the ’60s once more, while “The Shape I’m In” was a rocking homage to the endurance it takes to do Jazzfest right.
Eric Krasno popped up yet again for a hot jam on “Sco-Mule,” followed by Funky Meters guitarist Brian Holtz sitting in next. The encore saw Ivan Neville join Mule and Holtz for “32/20 Blues,” which raged with intensity before the band closed it out with “Broke Down on the Brazos.” Serious Muleheads might beg to differ, but it once again seemed like it was the covers that stood out over the band’s own material. After the show, we retreated to Fritzel’s on nearby Bourbon Street again for more jazz.

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