New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: 29 April – 1 May 2011 – New Orleans

The Avett Brothers

“Who dat?” It’s a simple refrain that says it all for the city of New Orleans. Two years ago, it was used as the rallying cry for the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. The banners from that time still hang from Superdome corners to Bourbon Street windows, serving as a constant reminder of victory amidst hardship. In two words you receive all the city has to offer: swagger, defiance, flash, and convocation. One of the great convocations the Crescent City provides is the Jazz & Heritage Fest. Just another reason to get together and enjoy the three things New Orleans does best: food, booze and music. Not necessarily in that order.

As always, the fest runs the gamut musically from mainstream to eclectic, and the 2011 version didn’t disappoint in the search for intermingling styles and moods. What follows is a highlight reel of sorts from the famous Fair Grounds Race Course turned concert venue.

Fais do-do

It’s a French saying that originally meant “go to sleep” in pre-World War II Louisiana. Oddly enough, it also became the representative phrase for a Cajun dance party. If a baby would cry, the mother would gently tell her newborn, “fais do-do” so as to quickly return to the dance floor before her husband’s eye could wander. Leave it to New Orleans to conjure up images of new life and sordid ways in one breath.

In Jazz Fest terms, the phrase means something else entirely: it is the namesake for the single best stage at the fest. Offering a variety of “down home” music, nothing gets closer to being born on the bayou than the vibe created from the Fais Do-Do Stage.

Perhaps the best representation of this energy was provided by the Cajun sextet, Red Stick Ramblers. A microcosm for the entire fest in one act, the group effortlessly mixed styles ranging from zydeco to swing to bluegrass. Accordion solos never sounded so good set amidst several tracks sung in Louisiana Creole, an apt delivery system considering the language itself is a gumbo of French, Native American, Spanish and West African dialects.

For sheer amount of showmanship, the winners of the weekend were another Fais do-do act, Keith Frank and the Soileau Zydeco Band. Keith Frank is a man that does the Chuck Berry “duck walk” with an accordion, which in a way is all you need to know about the guy. A frontman just as comfortable talking to the audience as he is playing bandleader, Frank displayed a natural affinity for getting the crowd to dance to covers of War (“Low Rider”) and the show-stopping extended jam of Wilson Pickett’s, “Do You Like Good Music”. Instead of pulling out all the trite demands to “make some noise”, the band simply led by example. At one point, the entire group (save fantastic drummer Brad Paul Frank) laid down on their backs and continued to play their instruments while bicycle kicking their legs in the air. Add it to the list of things only seen in New Orleans.

More Than Just Happy Talk

From the fest’s best venue we move to easily its worst setting: the Lagniappe Stage. Festivalgoers had to search pretty hard to find this venue, hidden away in the middle of the grandstand and surrounded by horse stalls. Any band would have to work for the audience’s attention there and, luckily for Happy Talk Band, the songs did the work for them. Sporting a Son Volt vibe with more swing, the New Orleans sextet was at its best singing brokenhearted pleas over barroom piano and twanging guitars. Throughout the set, pianist Casey McAllister did his best Floyd Cramer impression, as the country piano pierced the clutter of distortion. But it wasn’t all heartbreak and lost chances. Happy Talk was at their best on “May Day 1945”, a loping ode to handclap music that was recently featured on HBO’s Treme. One could see where that show’s creator, David Simon, would be interested in no B.S. rock n’ roll that offers up cynical musings on what should have been.

Mumford & Sons

Battle of the Bands

Never before have this many people yearned for the mandolin. England’s Mumford & Sons, a band whose appeal lies in distilling the best of old school Americana (think The Band on tea and downers) drew perhaps the largest crowd of the weekend to the Gentilly Stage.

A direct comparison couldn’t help but be drawn with that of the band immediately following them on the same stage, the Avett Brothers – North Carolina’s version of Americana with a big, messy heart and a punk approach. Add in the fact that both bands played at last year’s Grammy’s with Bob Dylan, and it’s clear that these two up-and-coming groups require a comparison. Who won the award for “Best Emotional Music with a Touch of Banjo”?

Mumford & Sons took a little while to get the key in the ignition by opening with the harmony glacier of “Sigh No More” before kicking things into gear with “Roll Away Your Stone”. In large festival settings such as this, it’s best to lean heavily on your up-tempo numbers, which always keep a sweaty crowd alert and ready for more. Unfortunately, Mumford & Sons specialize in tunes that take time to develop, if they develop at all. Songs like “Winter Winds” work well at a backyard party with the folks, but not as an impetus for crowd participation.

The songs that did work, as usual, were the hits. “The Cave” and “Little Lion Man” inspired mass sing-a-longs, a natural reaction to plaintive ballads touched by American beauty with the ever-present Mumford kickdrum. But at the end of the day, Mumford & Sons failed to really lift the crowd because they’re so slovenly tied to a formula for success, a sub-genre that could be called Grey’s Anatomy banjo music.

A Deering banjo happens to be the stock and trade of one Scott Avett, co-singer/brother in the very next act, The Avett Brothers. How he employs that banjo tells you all you need to know about the differences between the two bands. Where Mumford & Sons derive lessons from Fairport Convention, The Avett’s learn a thing or two from the Clash, mostly about when to march and when to retreat. When they march, it manifests itself in the “London Calling”-like stomp of “Colorshow”, a song that generates controlled screams from each brother throughout. In retreat, a ballad like “When I Drink” benefits from the stripped down appeal of only harmony and strings. Where they’ve really taken their act to a new level however, is with the push and pull of both aspects on the anthemic “Head Full of Doubt”, a missive of trepidation and release. It was enough to move a nearby female fest-goer to notice the ring on Seth Avett’s ring finger and intone, “Dammit, he’s married too”.

And therein lies the main difference between the two bands. Mumford & Sons are suitable enough to bring home to mom and dad. But it’s the Avett Brothers that beg for hopes of impromptu marriage proposals. In the end, the Avett’s signify something much like New Orleans at its best: swagger, defiance, flash and convocation.

The Avett Brothers