Come hungry, leave soulful. Jazzfest 2014, New Orleans

You’ll know from my musings on this page that New Orleans isn’t like anywhere else in America or indeed anywhere else on Earth- bringing together European, African and Caribbean heritage, credited as the birthplace of jazz and phenomenally unique RnB syncopated sound. This is also a place where the concept of normal doesn’t really exist- you’ll be standing on a street corner and a full on brass band will parade out of nowhere complete with dancers, tambourines, colour and life. It stands then, that a festival showcasing local talent and beyond reflects this uniqueness.

 It’s also the little moments that contrast with some of the huge acts you can see and the mix of genres that blend together across 11 stages in a gumbo of sounds and styles- you can catch Bruce Springsteen on the same bill as a Cajun punk folk band or harmonies from an ageing doo-wop band in the Gospel Tent, creating a fervour that leaves you elated for hours. It’s also the quirky customs (watermelon sacrificing, papier mache porkchop suspended on a 10 ft stick?) and idiosyncratic characters you meet and the fact that despite being one of the longest running US festivals (in its 45th year), it has retained its warm, down-home atmosphere. It’s a place where you can see native American Indian dances, witness a totem pole being built, catch a second line and some parading Mardi Gras Indians and all the while fuel yourself on some of the most delicious food the South has to offer.

This is my third Jazzfest and I’d describe it as one of discovery. More so than usual- it’s commonplace to wander past one of my favourite smaller stages, the Fais Do Do showcasing folk, bluegrass and more and see something amazing. This year the stage outdid itself as I discovered The Lost Bayou Ramblers- an energised punk bayou Cajun band- singing only in Acadian French and featuring an ensemble of steel lap guitar, fiddle and bass, mixing up the traditional undulating Cajun sound with bass heavy rock that had the bass player leaping from the drum kit…in between bouncing I stopped for a free hug from the woman dispensing, well, Free Hugs as her stickers and hugs stipulate.

This Fest was particularly exciting as my long-time friend and co-founder of Mardi Gras Mambo, Dom Pipkin played numerous times throughout our trip. Firstly on a solo slot at Piano Night- the ‘Oscars’ of the New Orleans piano world; a long running celebration of the New Orleans piano tradition including acts like Jon Cleary and Marcia Ball.  It was a whirlwind of styles and approaches- originally scheduled for the Parish Room, Dom stepped in at the last minute and did an additional set in the intimate, harem-like Foundation Room. Focussing mainly on originals like the playful ‘Mi Calle, Su Calle’ with the exuberant Professor Longhair-esque ‘Smile and Get on Down’. He then made his Jazzfest debut as the closing act on the rootsy Lagniappe Stage with singer-songwriter and all-round local legend Paul Sanchez on his track

‘Foot of Canal Street’ (co-written with John Boutte, featured on the Treme soundtrack). As my friend Brian put it “It’s a tough call between Springsteen and Dom Pipkin”..we all opted for Pipkin, of course.

Bruce Springsteen fans were not disappointed as he delivered an epic 3 and a half hour set with the E-Street Band that crackled with energy. He was truly indefatigable. Not being a fan myself, I went more out of intrigue but enjoyed his hit parade delivered with verve and audacity. Springsteen and special guest John Fogerty (guitarist and lyricist of Creedence Clearwater Revival) delivered a blissful ‘Proud Mary’. In his own set Fogerty played “Proud Mary” with Allen Toussaint and amongst others the To Be Continued Brass Band, and Zydeco hero Rockin’ Dopsie.

 As a swing dancer, I adore the vibe at the Economy Hall Tent- spiritual home of trad jazz and the fest’s swing dance lovers- the average age of punters here is over 50 and they take their second lining (street parading) seriously- my kind of place. Vibrant home-made umbrellas are often found bouncing around to the infectious beats and you can find swing dancers from around the world.

Away from their spiritual home, the Economy Hall tent, an energised Preservation Hall band unleashed a mighty new sound- progressive and a marked evolution into a super, almost rock sound. They presided over the Blues tent stage with vigour that perfectly captured the spirit of New Orleans- a deeply respectful nod to the past by taking the best bits and creating an evolved, ‘bigger’ sound including two tubas.

 Arcade Fire finished up their Reflektor tour delivering their trademark bombast, marching forthrightly into the audience accompanied by the (all female) Original Pinettes Brass Band playing “Iko Iko”. A combination of sleep deprivation and the emotional outpouring of the soulful Alabama Shakes, led to more than just one tear being shed during their heartfelt on the more alternative ‘Galaxy Samsung’ stage (aka The Gentilly stage). Playing deep, gritty Southern soul and showcasing the gravelly voice and excellent rhythm guitar of front lady Brittany Howard. I love local journalist Keith Spera’s description of them as “sob-and-throb country soul to bring you to your knees”

Of course there are the performances I only caught bits of but enjoyed regardless- Chick Corea, (with a supremely talented flamenco guitarist) and Chaka Khan, Bobby Womack..

Then there are the night shows in between the two festival weekends- the city literally hums. Tough to pick highlights but experimental brass band Magnetic Ear unleashed a barrage of brass that electrified the audience (a handful of very delighted people at new venue, Gasa Gasa) mind bending grooves of originals playing with time and space and switching between flamenco, dub and street parade brass, often on the same track.

King James & The Special Men, residents at the down-home locale BJ’s, swayed the party crowd with their special take on classic Nola RnB- Professor Longhair’s Boogie becomes The Special Men Bounce as the crowd sparked up cigarettes for all kinds of sleazy fun.

Having seen their inaugural gig at Chazfest (a small spin off festival led by local washboard player Chaz), two years ago, Rory Danger and the Danger Dangers wooed a packed crowd at the leftfield Hi-Ho Lounge. Headed up by the wonderful Aurora Nealand, their strange mix of arthouse rockabilly had people moshing and swing dancing alternately. Warm-up was by The Valparaiso Men’s Chorus featuring 15 or so ne’er do-well musicians performing tongue in cheek sea shanties- blarney and fun don’t even come close to describing this band.

 It was outside this gig we discovered a van called Guideaux- I can’t quite explain it. This van, it had charisma. (How you can you have a good feeling about a van?!) One Hot Sausage and Parm Po-Boy and discussions with off duty musicians about American Vs European adaptations of the Nola sound, had me wondering why late night street food can’t be this good in London?

Talking of food, oh how we gorged. Cochon de lait po’ boy (suckling pig, slow cooked served in a bun brimming with juice), crawfish etouffee (seafood stew smothered in creole spices) served on the back of a pick-up truck that served as our table at Jaques-imo’s, or cochon, (mushroom sliced up in a salad with fried beef jerky,) fried oysters, crab stuffed shrimp. Or beignets (fried, square donuts covered in piles of icing sugar) and smoky, chicory coffee available 24hrs a day at Café Du Monde, best served with a slightly inebriated, wise cracking lovely new group of English friends at 2am.

 I mentioned those special moments like the smell of camellias on the warm breeze as it darted across our faces cycling through the boho Marigny into the beautiful sunset to Jon Cleary’s house for a post Jazzfest party. Being greeted there with plenty of music royalty who just kicked back. We were lucky to have two amazing Cajun bands- the supremely talented with Joel Savoy on fiddle taking centre stage and Jon Cleary using a fiddle as a mandolin one stage, hosting a mix of local musicians, out of towners and misfits in his tasteful Aladdin’s cave of house.

One of the happiest memories was being interviewed on WWOZ- cult radio station providing exposure to local musicians who play the genres heard in New Orleans- that means jazz, rhythm and blues, brass band, gospel, Cajun, zydeco, Latin, bluegrass and more local and streamed for the world to enjoy. This amazing volunteer-run radio station has got me out of many dark moments in London, when missing New Orleans or badly in need of spiritual sunshine, WWOZ rarely fails to provide. Interviewed by the lovely Lauren Mastro and her brother John (standing in for Mark Stone) Dom played more heady originals and we both chatted about the New Orleans scene and events we’ve helped to create here in London. The modest building belies a thriving, vibrant community preserving and celebrating local sounds.

 I arrived home, hazy, tired, my body repelling all forms of fried food, baying for broccoli but whirring in happiness, nourished in the rich musical currency that New Orleans instils in abundance.

Not mentioned but one of the best record shops in NOLA: Euclid Records