For those tired of fighting the dense crowds and waiting in the endless lines at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival (traditionally held the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May at the sprawling Fairgrounds Racetrack), the more intimate French Quarter Festival offers a manageable, relaxing homegrown alternative. And while native New Orleanians have been complaining for years about Jazzfest’s inclusion of decidedly “non-jazz” national names like Dave Matthews, Phish and Billy Joel at the expense of worthy local artists who have been increasingly shut out of the annual clambake, all of the bookings at the French Quarter Festival are local and regional artists. From hometown favorites like the Treme Brass Band, Storyville Stompers, Trombone Shorty and the Soul Rebels to popular singers like Charmaine Neville, Banu Gibson, Lillian Boutté and Marva Wright, to Cajun stars like Waylon Thibodeaux and Bruce Daigrepont, to promising offspring of Louisiana icons, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. and the Zydeco Twisters and Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers, this three-day event provided locals and tourists alike with plenty of food, fun and sun.
The 26th edition of the free French Quarter Festival took place April 17-20, on more than a dozen stages: three set up on spacious Woldenberg Riverfront Park on the banks of the Mississippi River, one in Jackson Square, two down by the Old U.S. Mint on the Esplanade Avenue side of the French Quarter and one at the French Market, along with three separate stages set up on Bourbon Street, two on Royal Street, one on Chartres Street and one in Dutch Alley on Decatur at Dumaine. And being mid-April, the weather was still tolerable (in the low 70s as opposed to the sweltering heat that can sometimes accompany the Jazz & Heritage Festival, particularly during the second weekend).
On Friday at the Abita Beer Stage, the biggest showcase of the FQF, local funksters Billy Iuso and the Restless revved up the crowd in Woldenberg Riverfront Park with classic covers like the Meters’ “Cissy Strut” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away,” mixed in with savvy originals with telling lyrics about Hurricane Katrina and their uplifting “Keep on Smiling.” They were followed in succession by the Latin-fueled Fredy Omar Con Su Banda, the enigmatic N’awlins troubadour Coco Robicheaux, the hip-hop-flavored Big Sam’s Funky Nation led by trombonist Big Sam Williams, and veteran funkster, guitarist-singer Walter “Wolfman” Washington and the Roadmasters. Harrah’s Louis-Louis Pavilion Stage (a tribute to Louis Armstrong and Louis Prima, initiated by the latter’s estate) presented the charismatic Gal Holiday (with her five-piece Honky Tonk Revue), who shifted nimbly from heartbreaking Patsy Cline country ballads to buoyant western swing numbers to obscure rockabilly fare like “Barefoot Baby” (a 1957 hit by Janis Martin, who was billed as “the female Elvis”) and country classics like the Carter Family’s “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.”
The Louis-Louis Stage also hosted the exciting Latin jazz band Otra, the wildly eclectic acts like Zydepunks (a kind of klezmer meets zydeco meets punk rock outfit) and an engaging trio known as The Tin Men consisting of Washboard Chaz on zydeco washboard and vocals, Alex McMurray on guitar and vocals and Matt Perrine on sousaphone. This raw, funky street trio, a crowd favorite, delivered a wealth of rich material ranging from McMurray’s sea chanty “The Ballad of Cap’n Sandy” and Danny Barker’s “Palm Court Strut,” a naughty N’awlins classic full of sexual innuendo, to covers of Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and Cab Calloway’s “The Man From Harlem.”
At the Jackson Square Stage in the heart of the French Quarter, revered vocalist Banu Gibson charmed the crowd with early swing fare like “You Don’t Know My Mind,” “He Ain’t Got Rhythm” and “It’s Too Hot For Words,” performed with her New Orleans Hot Jazz ensemble. At the same stage, the Pfister Sisters, a popular tight-harmony vocal trio that has been entertaining New Orleanians since 1979, turned in faithful renditions of the Boswell Sisters’ “Fare Thee Well, Annabelle” and “Everybody Loves My Baby,” along with the Andrews Sisters’ “The Carioca.” But it was their stirring rendition of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927” (sung with goosebump intensity by original Pfister member Susie Malone Tenor, appearing in a rare reunion with the group, with vocal backing on the chorus by the teenaged daughters of the three Pfisters) that provided the emotional highpoint of their upbeat and thoroughly entertaining set. Another surprise on Friday was the guest appearance of clarinetist Pete Fountain with former Dukes of Dixieland trumpeter Connie Jones and the FQF All-Stars on the Jackson Square Stage. And at the French Market Trad Jazz Stage, Swedish pianist Lars Edegran paid a loving tribute to New Orleans icons Danny and “Blu” Lu Barker.
On Saturday, Walter “Wolfman” Washington,” who had headlined the previous night at the Abita Beer Stage with his Roadmasters, shifted gears and appeared in a more intimate soul-jazz organ trio setting at the Louis-Louis Stage with local Hammond B-3 burner Joe Krown and Funky Meters drummer Russell Batiste. Together they turned in funky renditions of Herbie Hancock’s “Watermelon Man,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” and a couple of greasy instrumentals, with Washington strumming surprisingly jazzy, augmented chords behind Krown’s solid basslines and B-3 comping.
Down at the Esplanade in the Shade Stage at Old U.S. Mint, jazz diva Ingrid Lucia wove a spell with her alluring, Billie Holiday inspired vocals while Astral Project (a modern jazz institution in New Orleans since 1978) pushed the envelope with their signature blend of bebop, free jazz and second line grooves. Recently reduced to a quartet after decades of operating as a quintet, Astral Project delivered the most creative, provocative sounds of the weekend while appealing to its core constituency of avant-inclined fans. In Tony Dagradi, they have a potent tenor saxophonist who can seamlessly shift from sublime lyricism to latter-day Coltrane shrieks in the altissimo range while also delivering an earthy, deep-toned quality on a blues.
The underrated guitarist Steve Masakowski provided cascading single-note thrills and lush harmonic voicings on his seven-string axe while upright bassist James Singleton alternately held down the groove with Pops Foster-styled slapping and experimented with occasional distortion textures and digital loops, bringing an audacious cutting-edge quality to the band’s on-stage telepathy. And in drummer Johnny Vidacovich, a bona fide New Orleans legend, they have a remarkably loose-limbed, polyrhythmic whirlwind who is capable of embellishing a rubato section with ethereal percussive colors or laying down a funky N’awlins street beat with uncommon authority.
Another highlight on Saturday was the colorful bluesman Lil’ Freddy King, who enthralled the Abita Beer Stage crowd with his real-deal delivery on John Lee Hooker’s “Boogie Chillun” and other spirited shuffles that showcased his stinging Telecaster licks and hearty, downhome vocals. And a special treat was provided by the all-star world music ensemble Fatien, consisting of African percussionist Seguenon Kone, clarinetist Dr. Michael White, sousaphone ace Matt Perrine and drummer Jason Marsalis.
The French Quarter Festival came to a close on Sunday with rousing performances by trumpeter Irvin Mayfield, the gospel group the Friendly Travelers, the eccentric New Orleans Nightcrawlers brass ensemble, the crowd-pleasing R&B band Bucktown All-Stars, the trombone heavy Bonerama, swamp-rockers The Radiators and the high energy funk of Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue.
But the most moving performance of this final day at FQF came from Bo Dollis, the proud and dynamic Big Chief of the Wild Magnolias, one of New Orleans’ most prominent Mardi Gras Indians tribes of the past 35 years. Clearly in failing health, the once-mighty vocalist came on stage to perform only one song while sitting on a chair, occasionally struggling to his feet to incite the crowd when the spirit moved him. His son, Bo Dollis Jr., carried on throughout the invigorating set of funky rhythms and Indian chants, flanked by two members of the Wild Magnolias in full Mardi Gras regalia. It was yet another stark reminder that in this city below sea level that has seen so much tragedy and suffering since Hurricane Katrina, the spirit always prevails.