Yonder Mountain String Band
Story and Photos By Andy ArgyrakisIn a post Hurricane Katrina New Orleans, Voodoo Music Festival was first in line followed by Arlo Guthrie & Friends' Ridin' on The City of New Orleans Tour and then the much anticipated return of Mardi Gras. But even larger than the first two and arguably more important to music lovers than the latter, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is a true staple of the city, culling together flourishes of the genre in its title, along with rock, pop, blues, soul and rap. Split across two weekends, this year's event was a celebration more than any other in recent memory, if only for the fact that a once displaced and desolate city is officially on the upswing from the most destructive natural disaster in modern American history. And though there is still tons of work to be done and countless businesses currently closed, the area's party hearty mood almost felt like the old days all over again.
The first installment may have featured a variety of stars (including Bruce Springsteen's debut of his Seeger Sessions Band, Bob Dylan and the Dave Matthews Band) but the second leg finale night in particular (or at least on paper) was the true attraction. Since Springsteen and the group will touring this summer, Dylan is always on the road and there's no pressing need to ever see Matthews and his eponymous band, those who couldn't make it for the beginning had no reason to fret. Even the Friday and Saturday line-ups of weekend two were somewhat uneventful (headlined by Keith Urban and Jimmy Buffett respectively) though the grand send off Sunday was truly the place to be. Not only was it packed with attendees in upbeat spirits, but the night originally signaled the remarkable return of local legend Fats Domino, who was feared to be dead in the storm but miraculously survived.
And while all rejoiced at his continued life and swooped up festival posters with his picture, that specific celebration was short lived with an extremely disappointing announcement. Just seconds before Paul Simon's set, the stage announcer had the unfortunate task of telling thousands upon thousands of concertgoers that their rescued hero was under the weather and unable to appear. Lionel Richie would be switching stages to close out the night, Sam Moore would now start later and play longer in place of the former Commodore while Simon would begin momentarily.
Although everyone was stunned and even let out some boos at the unexpected news, Simon quickly got the event back on course, kicking up an eclectic set celebrating the release of this month's Surprise (which features co-production with Brian Eno). Unlike most of his middle aged peers who've since slowed down and settled into adult contemporary commonplace (like Phil Collins, Billy Joel and Rod Stewart) this harmony half of Simon & Garfunkel continues to stretch his boundaries and defy predictability. Along the ambitious lines of Graceland, the new cuts ("Outrageous" and "How Can You Live In The Northeast") fused a sonic canvas of experimentation, superb guitar work and the singer's comforting vocals. Thankfully he obliged all in some of the most famous tunes from yesteryear, including the solo smashes "Graceland" and "Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes," plus the S&G staples "Mrs. Robinson" and "Cecilia." Special guests also were peppered throughout his near ninety minute appearance, including Buckwheat Zydeco and Irma Thomas (who also opened for Simon). In fact, Thomas' glorious guest vocals on the classic "Bridge Over Troubled Water" arguably provided just as much inspiration as Domino's "Walking To New Orleans" might have, while the track's message of perseverance proved to be highly emotional.
Across the field, soul man Sam Moore was belting out a stellar series of mighty jams from his glory days with Sam & Dave. Sticking with a similar set list to a recent SxSW Festival performance (including another surprise appearance by country singer Travis Tritt) the Stax superstar coasted through the essentials, from the call and response rapport throughout "Hold On! I'm Comin'" to the resplendent "I Thank You." "Soul Man" rounded out the smoldering R&B rampage, expanding well beyond its radio length to deliver a gospel-like improvisational throw down.
Flashing forward a few decades to the late 70s and early 80s was Lionel Richie, a fun loving chart topper in his own right, but someone who couldn't artistically hold a candle to either of the aforementioned. Considering it's been ages since he had a smash and even longer since releasing a genuinely brilliant ballad, it was strange to find him filling in for Domino, though at least his roots are the southern region. The Tuskegee, Alabama bred pop star made sure to remind the masses where he came from and how he identified with the region, often complimenting the locals on their courage and insisting the city would be rebuilt. That obviously scored him some major points that they somewhat hokey and 80s glazed "Running With the Night" and "Dancing On the Ceiling" couldn't earn, falling much closer to the guilty pleasure plane than that of genuine productiveness. He was much better off recalling his funk-smacked days in the Commodores, from sing-a-longs like "Easy" and "Sail On" to the booty shaker "Brick House."
One of the more unnecessary appearances came from the triple rap attack of Doug E. Fresh, Big Daddy Kane and Special Ed, who despite paving the ways of the genre with some hip-hop nuances are long past their prime. Neither performed with a live band (only a DJ rotating through a series of old school beats) while each seemed more concerned with talking and giving "shout-outs" than they were unveiling original content. Even the folk focused Yonder Mountain String Band was a bit draining to watch, straying away from more Americana oriented possibilities for hippie bluegrass wanderings with nothing much beyond a frat boy appeal.
Regardless of these shortcomings and the headliner's cancellation, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is indeed up and running again likely to thrive well into the future. Tourists were obviously around in ample amounts, dispelling fears relating to the city's safety as neighborhoods pulled back together and attempt to keep the streets clean. If anything, the return of this music mecca was yet another boast of morale for the community at large to continue dipping in that direction, formally declaring victory over the disaster once and for all.
Yonder Mountain String Band
Big Daddy Kane
Yonder Mountain String Band
Paul Simon & Irma Thomas
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