Jazz & Heritage Festival: 27 – 29 April 2012 – New Orleans

“This is a song about things you lose and never come back. This is also a song about things that never leave. Let’s go look for ghosts.” With this intro to Rising track “My City of Ruins”, Bruce Springsteen defined a city, his band and the 2012 Jazz Fest in one fell swoop. In using the strange bedfellows of longing and perseverance, the Boss summed up the spirit emanating from stages across the overcrowded and overheated New Orleans Fairgrounds. The search for ghosts of music’s past, present and future proved fruitful, with many highlights permeating the first weekend of the fest.

The “Night Tripper” Returns

Perhaps no one at Jazz Fest mined the ghosts of his own past better than hometown boy Mac Rebennack, a.k.a., Dr. John. At age 71 and with five decades of music under his belt, Dr. John sounded most vital when performing the newest tracks from his Dan Auerbach-produced LP, Locked Down. Recalling the funky arrangements and voodoo spirit of debut album Gris-Gris, the music of Locked Down is a showcase for the doctor’s greatest asset, his band. Dubbed The Lower 9-11, the collective showed why they were the tightest group in town as they whirled through tracks like “Revolution” and “You Lie”, horn and rhythm section laying down a groove for Dr. John’s vibrant keys. Although “vibrant” is not the word you’d use to describe Dr. John’s stage persona these days, it’s certainly an apt descriptor for his personally curated costume department. From the ever-present chapeau to the animal teeth necklace to the miniature skull guarding his piano, Dr. John certainly knows how to add flavor to his comparably subdued playing style. But just when you thought he was permanently glued to the piano bench, he up and donned his original instrument of choice, the guitar, for a surprisingly rousing solo on “Ice Age”. Things got so vital he even brought out a young rapper named L.G. Meyer who, in the guise of a Bryant Reeves(!) Vancouver Grizzlies jersey, helped Dr. John dance his way off the stage. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly.

A “Good Southern Girl” Rises

On the other side of the fairgrounds, someone exactly five decades younger made her presence known to many festival-goers for the first time. And if this performance was any indication, it will be the first of many more to come. Amanda Shaw, a 21 year-old, five-foot tall fiddle player in 4-inch heels, led her band The Cute Guys through one of the more rousing sets of the weekend. By mixing Creole flavor with country and rock, the band managed to sound like Los Lobos with Cajun swagger. Though small in stature, Shaw more than made up for it with personality and showmanship. Looking like she stepped from behind the counter of a ’50s thrift shop, the native Louisianan commanded the stage with infectious joy, tearing through songs like “Good Southern Girl” with abandon. Jazz Fest may have a future headliner on its hands.

Latter Day Captain Fantastic

Apparently, having a TV show does wonders for crowd size. Such was the case with the coolest judge on NBC’s The Voice, Cee Lo Green, who sang for an overflowing crowd of thousands at the Congo Square stage. Not that a man of his encyclopedic wardrobe needs much help getting noticed. Perhaps the only person on earth who can raid Elton John’s wardrobe and get away with it, Cee Lo somehow managed to rock a twenty-pound jersey on a 90-degree day. Undeterred, the Atlanta native tore through an eclectic catalogue ranging from Goodie Mob to Gnarls Barkley and solo cuts to surprise covers. Opening with recent hit “Bright Lights Bigger City”, Cee Lo’s solid backing band slowed down the tempo, allowing the “Billie Jean” bassline to take center stage. The band’s versatility shined brightest on covers like David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and the Violent Femmes “Gone Daddy Gone”, leaving room for Cee Lo’s dramatic tenor to soar above the rumbling rhythm section. They even found a way to recreate the cymbals and horns trademark of Earth Wind & Fire during the throwback, “I’m a Fool”. As if this wasn’t enough, there was also a Goodie Mob reunion carved into the middle of the set, with old tracks like “Soul Food” providing a jolt of raucous energy to the proceedings.

Delicacy and Power

“Raucous energy” isn’t the description usually conjured up by the dulcet, Starbucks sound of Feist. But at this year’s Jazz Fest, the Canadian singer-songwriter was on a mission to supply more energy than her catalogue suggests. Looks were deceiving as well, for on this day Feist resembled a Manhattan socialite vacationing in the Hamptons. But the yawp provided by her Gibson was much more akin to that of the Queens-based Ramones. With surprisingly vigorous front(wo)man chops, Feist led her band through reworked versions of hits like “My Moon My Man” and “I Feel It All”. The former employed piano as the main percussion, leading to a full-band march that recalled “London Calling”. The latter brought the drums front and center, allowing “Lucky” Paul Taylor to take precedence over the jagged guitar riff. And then there’s that voice. What lends Feist real beauty is the sense that at any moment her voice could soar or crack into a million pieces; an unrivaled mix of delicacy and power.

Janelle Monae vs. Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band

To most people, this matchup would sound like a lopsided affair, with Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band bringing four decades of unequaled live prowess to New Orleans. Many in the record-breaking throngs yelling, “Bruuuuuuuce!” would only respond with a perplexed look to the words, “Janelle Monae”. But no one should give short shrift to the self-proclaimed “ArchAndroid”, who matched the Boss every step of the way in the performance department.

Monae’s musical bloodlines emanate down in this order: James Brown, Sly Stone, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince and Andre 3000. Fuse these personalities into a tuxedoed female shell and you get “the ArchAndroid”, a forward-looking musician who wears retro influence with ease. She employs these influences best with her taste in arrangement, specifically on “Locked Inside”, which is right out of the Quincy Jones, Off the Wall playbook.

Perhaps most impressively, Monae has the confidence to rely on the purity of her tone instead of vocal gymnastics, no small feat in the age of Mary J. Blige wannabes. Respect must also be paid to guitarist Kellindo Parker, who expertly weaves through the many different styles that Monae’s palette demands.

Monae also impressed in her choice of covers by picking out the majestic “Take Me with U” from her “dear friend Prince”. The rendition sounded so good you could almost picture her capping it off by hopping on the back of Prince’s 1981 Hondamatic. Instead, she followed that up with a note-perfect tribute to the Jackson 5 and their classic, “I Want You Back”. And yes, she even moonwalked.

In the end, nothing topped her performance of the aptly-named ArchAndroid track, “Come Alive”. By stalking the stage with a possessed demeanor she embodied the lyric, “Like a schizo runnin’ wild.” Monae is certainly schizophrenic in the sense of musical fragmentation, which she somehow pieces back together into a greater good.

There’s no artist more focused on the greater good these days than Bruce Springsteen. With his latest record of working-class anthems, Wrecking Ball, Springsteen again has the proper theme and energy to imbue his marathon sets with purpose. This same vigor was slightly lacking during the Working on a Dream tour due to the largely uninspired source material. But the Boss and his band are having no such problems with songs like “We Take Care of Our Own”, which travels better in the endless open air. Similarly, there are no constraints to the Celtic stomp of “Death to My Hometown”, which features the entire band on a mission to discover life after the wrecking ball.

The pinnacle of the set was indeed the aforementioned requiem, “My City of Ruins”. With his proclamation to “go look for ghosts”, Springsteen used the moment as a sort of Irish funeral, beating jubilation into the specter of death. The extended, quiet opening allowed Bruce to speak to tens of thousands in the most intimate way possible. You could see he was using the moment to work through unfamiliar territory, using his allies in the crowd to help replace those lost on the stage. As the music built and the refrain echoed, the plea to “rise up” became a demand. And while the usual roll call had some painful omissions this time around, the band sounded bigger than ever playing their way through the pain. All in all, it was proof that some things really do never leave.

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