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New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival

(23 Apr 2010: New Orleans Fair Grounds — New Orleans)

“You know what they say: if you can’t sing, sing anyway!” These words of wisdom from zydeco showstopper and Louisiana native Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural summed up the carefree mission of the 2010 Jazz & Heritage Festival, and the New Orleans ethos at large. It doesn’t matter if you feel you can’t sing, dance or move on from tragedy; you have to anyway.


Under a grey, humid sky that stood in contrast to the vibrant sounds emanating from the New Orleans Fair Grounds, the second weekend of the 40-year-old festival showcased a vast array of music styles and personalities. From gospel and blues to hip-hop and Cajun music, almost no genre was excluded from the festivities, making for an extensive trip through American culture. Here then is a cross section of some of the acts that participated in the sprawling “fais do-do”.


Photo: Megan Slowikowski

Buckwheat Zydeco / Photo: Megan Slowikowski


Your Returning Champion
The aforementioned Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural brought his endlessly touring eight-piece (Buckwheat Zydeco and Ils Son Partis Band) and a hunger for audience participation to the Gentilly Stage. “I’m gonna be greedy” was the refrain throughout as he continuously implored the audience to sing along with his R&B-tinged zydeco. Both entertainer and audience reached a fever pitch during the extended classic, “Walking to New Orleans”, a ditty made famous by Fats Domino in 1960. The song retained its potency 50 years later as Buckwheat allowed his horn section and two guitarists ample room to solo. As accomplished as the band proved to be however, none could match Buckwheat’s solitary work at the Hammond B-3. Although Buckwheat is best known as an accordion player, he appeared most at home behind his original instrument of choice, the organ. With elbows, forearms and fingertips, he treated the crowd to a three-minute display of abandon and ability before finishing with the witting summation: “It be like dat sometimes.”


Photo: Megan Slowikowski

Kermit Ruffins / Photo: Megan Slowikowski


If You Want Me to Stay
HBO fans know him for playing himself on Treme, but New Orleans knows Kermit Ruffins as the perpetually laid-back jazz trumpeter/frontman for the Barbecue Swingers and the Rebirth Brass Band. Bringing a sense of “devil may care” attitude to the proceedings, Ruffins was happy to let fellow band members and special guests take the lead throughout the hour-long set. What resulted was a community come alive on stage, with unexpected covers of “More Today Than Yesterday” and “Try a Little Tenderness”, which saw Michael Baptiste take over vocal duties while Ruffins sipped quietly from a can of Bud Light in the background. The most inspired stretch came when drummer Derrick “Mr. Smoker” Freeman took the mic for a medley of covers that opened with Sly & The Family Stone’s “If You Want Me to Stay.” After a verse or two reciting Sly’s ode to leaving town, the band seamlessly led into the Gnarls Barkley anthem “Crazy”, this time equipped with refashioned lyrics about leaving New Orleans during the storm, only to come right back and rebuild. Anyone who’s ever risen from the ashes knew the answer to the question of the chorus: “Does that make me crazy?” As if this weren’t enough, Freeman then directed the band into the chorus of the Rob Base popularized, “Joy and Pain”, before finally bringing it all back to Sly for the big finish. It was here that Ruffins himself shone brightest, letting the trumpet do the singing for him.


Photo: Megan Slowikowski

Elvis Perkins in Dearland / Photo: Megan Slowikowski


Buddy Holly Meets Arcade Fire
If you can imagine that mating of musical heroes, you’d find something akin to Elvis Perkins in Dearland. Put simply, this quintet of shaggy-haired virtuosos was the best that this weekend of Jazz Fest had to offer. By constantly switching instruments and conjuring new sounds, the group managed to distill the many genres of the fest into one hour; youthful exuberance that minded the elders of folk and jazz. Oddly enough, the least dynamic member of the group was frontman Perkins, who was content to sing in place while a cacophony of brass, wind and strings raged around him. The drummer switched to clarinet, the bassist to sax and organist to trombone as they sang in unison, like the ghost of The Band. It was in this dexterity that they found a unique voice, loud enough to charm anyone with a pair of ears and a speck of energy.


Photo: Megan Slowikowski

To Be Continued Brass Band / Photo: Megan Slowikowski


To Be Continued
The brass band is one of New Orleans’ oldest traditions, a more than century-old mixture of European and African styles of music that developed into one of the most popular forms of jazz in the region. Which makes it all the more remarkable that the most riveting brass band of the weekend was fronted by a group of young men, the To Be Continued Brass Band. Started in 2002 by friends at a local high school, the group was disbanded after the events of Hurricane Katrina. Their recent revival made them a much buzzed about band at the fest, and for good reason. With an inventive form of call-and-response that covered “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, the theme song from Scrubs and “Come Together”, TBC breathed new life into a traditional art form, proving that perseverance can triumph in the face of tribulation.


Photo: Megan Slowikowski

Band of Horses / Photo: Megan Slowikowski


Patrick Swayze & Jennifer Grey: Songwriters?
When thinking of the perfect music for festivals, the words “expansive” and “sing-a-long” immediately come to mind; no one nailed these two qualities better than Band of Horses. The necessary opener “The First Song” showcased the shimmering pedal steel and soaring falsetto of lead singer Ben Bridwell, who went on to introduce the next song thusly: “This next one’s a Patrick Swayze song.” Just when the anticipation for “She’s Like the Wind” couldn’t grow any further, the band launched into the guitar attack of “The Great Salt Lake”. But Bridwell wasn’t through with Dirty Dancing references for some reason, because the following song was introduced as a “Jennifer Grey song”. Alas, the audience wasn’t treated to some unknown gem by the former Jeanie Bueller, instead settling for the frantic Horses tune, “Is There a Ghost”. Apparently, non-sequiturs make the best song introductions. While the band’s poppier new material was well received, the biggest ovation was saved for the set-closing “Funeral”, with thousands of people singing along to the “brilliant day funeral”.


Death & Rebirth
The funeral is a major theme of any Jazz Fest, but not in the way the rest of the world conceives. The “jazz funeral” is much more a celebration of life than a mourning of death, with a brass band leading a procession of instruments and dancers through the city streets in commemoration of the recently deceased. Groups like the Pinstripe Brass Band performed a joyous offshoot of the jazz funeral known as the “second line”, funneling through the pathways of the Fair Grounds every few hours. Swaths of people surrounded the bands, creating yet another show, this time off stage and with a much higher degree of audience participation.


Round & Round
Speaking of audience participation, the most remarkable kind of it came in the form of a merry-go-round. This carousel, like everything else at Jazz Fest, housed music. Literally. As adults and children alike rode forever around on wooden horses, a quartet in the center of the ride would play music native to the Caribbean island of Martinique, known as “chouval bwa”. Something about this carnival staple signified the fest and the city at once: a ride that never ends.

Tim Slowikowski has been writing for PopMatters since the halcyon days of 2003. His favorite record that year was Outkast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below. A graduate of the University of Iowa, Tim has also written for Chicago Innerview and Kevin Smith's now-defunct (and unfortunately titled) Movie Poop Shoot. Tim studied at Chicago's famous haven for improv and sketch comedy, Second City, where he formed a comedy group and traveled across the country performing for the unwashed masses. Currently shopping a screenplay with the rest of America, Tim lives in Chicago with his wife Megan.


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