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High Times: New Orleans Jazzfest 2004 - Stomp#3 Review

Muddied by rain and shadowed by a senseless killing, the 35th annual New Orleans Jazzfest called down the power of music to celebrate life – and 10 years of freedom in South Africa

05-11-2004
Story by Cree McCree

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival has weathered a few storms that caused it to close its gates, as it did this year when torrential rains washed out the second Friday. But in 35 years, it’s never been struck by violence. The killing of Daniel Breaux, a local artist and beloved Jazzfester who was shot leaving the fairgrounds in a botched street mugging, ended the age of innocence. But it also testified to the power of music to bring people together. And on the last Sunday of Jazzfest, the day after he died, Breaux’s spirit was everywhere.

In Economy Hall, trumpeter Gregg Stafford played a jazz funeral dirge near a shrine friends built around Breaux’s dancing clogs. Over at the Fais Do-Do, the Jazzfest tribe held a traditional “watermelon sacrifice” in his honor, carving “Daniel” into a melon that was massaged by dozens of hands before being cracked wide open and eaten off the muddy ground. Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys dedicated “Bon Reve” to Breaux as the late-day sun broke through the clouds. Next door at Congo Square, the stage was bathed in golden light as Hugh Masekela and other South African stars raised their voices in song to their own “beautiful dream”: 10 years of freedom in South Africa. It was a stirring finale to Jazzfest ’04, which celebrated South Africa’s liberation and offered a rich mix of soulful artists, on and off the fairgrounds, who make “music about struggle, pain, and joys,” as Masekela put it.

Joy was the operative word on the first Friday, when New Orleans roots pop diva Theresa Anderson baptized the Acura stage, looking drop-dead sexy in a slinky gown and stiletto heels. Fiddling while the fairgrounds burned, Anderson made so many converts that her new album Shine (Basin St.) became the weekend’s the top-selling CD. Ladies Day continued with two ascended masters: Emmy Lou Harris and Bonnie Raitt. “It makes you feel good to hear a sad song,” Harris said, midway through a haunting set that included “Love Hurts” and a fiercely gentle “Pancho and Lefty.” Raitt was more raucous. “I’m glad to see all those guys with their shirts off,” she teased, before sliding into a down-and-dirty “Woman Be Wise.” Crowd-pleasing hits like “Push Comes to Shove” got a big boost from New Orleans keyboardist Jon Cleary, who played all over town with Raitt while plugging his funky new album Pin Your Spin, also on Basin St. But the steamiest set of all first weekend was delivered by the incomparable Etta James, who closed out a rain-drenched Sunday by raising the roof of Popeyes Blues Tent.

There was no rest for the wicked between the two Jazzfest weekends, with scads of free in-store performances and Mo’ Fest shows, as well as big-ticket concerts. But the hippest event by far was the 3rd Annual Ponderosa Stomp, an amazing cavalcade of old rockabilly, blues, swamp pop, and R&B stars held over two sold-out nights at Rock & Bowl. Ray Davies, Steve Miller, and Yo La Tengo were among those crowding the main stage to catch killer acts like Barbara Lynn, Dale Hawkins, the Fabulous Wailers, and Bobby “See You Later Alligator” Charles. Some of the best action happened at the “secret stash” stage downstairs, where Little Freddie King did the chicken dance and Lady Bo (Bo Diddley’s secret weapon) made her guitar do things that ought to be illegal. Then there was Rudy Ray Moore, Dolemite himself, who presided over the festivities sporting head-to-toe faux snakeskin and a rhinestone-studded cane. “The whole world trembles when I shake my ass,” boasted Moore, the godfather of rap, who announced plans to put Dolemite in the White House. “You bet your sweet ass I’d legalize grass,” he told the cheering crowd, which included young Brit soul phenom Joss Stone.

Thursday on the Sprint stage, a barefoot Stone delivered a spirited set of old school R&B in voice rougher around the edges than it has any right to be. Though she was just 16 when she recorded her breakout Soul Sessions, Stone’s the real deal and clearly has the chops. But she doesn’t yet have the emotional weight to make you feel the outraged pain of songs like “Dirty Man.” Jazzfesters welcomed her warmly, but were not deeply moved. That job went to the subdudes, who levitated Sprint when they closed it out. From the moment they hit with “Morning Glory,” their soaring harmonies washed over the crowd like “The Rain” – which they waited to sing until the sun was safely out. Proving they were no nostalgia act, the recently reunited ‘dudes played nearly every track off their fine new CD, Miracle Mule (Back Porch), before busting out an oldie for the encore. A tsunami of cheers brought them back to the stage for an unheard-of second encore well past closing time. “This was so much fun,” grinned percussionionist Steve Amedee, kicking up his heels like a little kid. Yeah, you’re right.

After Friday’s washout, a mostly sunny Saturday brought folks out in droves to the fairgrounds, where the muddy paths were littered with beach balls and occasional pratfalls were part of the fun. Just outside the gates, I caught doo-woppers High Demand, then segued into Kidd Jordan and Alvin Fielder in full free-jazz flight. And the hits just kept on coming. Busi Mhlongo’s lilting “Sing Sing Africa” guitar melded into Sonny Landreth’s swampy slide. The Blind Boys of Alabama turned the blues tent into the gospel tent when they sang “Amazing Grace” to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun.” And musical liberator Carlos Santana jammed for a good two hours, invoking Desmond Tutu and calling for “free food and education for all the world.”

I don’t know if Danny Breaux was there when Santana got the crowd to sing “stop the shooting.” But if he were, he would have joined us; Breaux worked with the kind of kids who usually shoot each other and ended up shooting him, almost randomly. I’d like to think he didn’t die in vain. I do know music can bridge racial divides, which it does countless times at every Jazzfest. And at least we had one more day to give Breaux a proper Jazzfest sendoff: Dancing in the mud at the fairgrounds, choking on laughter as well as tears.
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