I’m looking for that most elusive and hard-to-define quality — authenticity. Or, let’s say I’m diving into this sea of music (55 bands per day, on 11 stages at the Fair Grounds race course) to get a bead on what’s authentic for me.
By Jon Garelick
No serious fan of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which just finished its 45th anniversary, goes there to see Bruce Springsteen (who played the second weekend of the festival earlier this month). Or Eric Clapton or Phish (who played the first weekend).
Well, okay, let me modify that: I don’t go to JazzFest for Bruce — or God. And I never go anywhere for Phish. (Sorry, I just don’t.)
I, like a lot of aficionados of the Fest, go there to hear acts that rarely — if ever — tour north of I10. That would be people like Frankie Ford (“Sea Cruise”), Al (Carnival Time) Johnson, the Mardi Gras Indians. I’m there to see New Orleans brass bands, the famous (Rebirth) and the not-so famous (the Original Pinettes Brass Band, “the world’s only all-female brass band”). Hopefully, as with the Pinettes, I’ll discover something I’ve never heard before.
Mostly, I’m looking for that most elusive and hard-to-define quality — authenticity. Or, let’s say I’m diving into this sea of music (55 bands per day, on 11 stages at the Fair Grounds race course) to get a bead on what’s authentic for me. Like anyone, I want it to be real. And, of course, real-ness, authenticity, is purely subjective. One man’s truth is another man’s fraud. Fortunately at JazzFest, there are no artificial barriers to authenticity. One of my favorite moments of that second weekend wasn’t musical at all. It came during a set by the Gloryoskis!, a trio of female singer-songwriters. One of them, Debbie Davis, announcing coming shows by the band, mentioned one that would be happening that very night at 9. “It’s a real 9,” she said. “Not a Rebirth 9 . . . which is 11:30, as you all know.”
The crowd did know, and they laughed. The joke was worth savoring. On the surface, the music of the Rebirth Brass Band and the Gloryoskis! have nothing to do with each other. One is a trio of white female singer-songwriters, the other is an all-male African-American brass band straight out of the ’hood. But that’s the New Orleans music scene — at least as I’ve come to know it over 20 years of visits: non-sectarian, a mutual appreciation society that crosses genre, class, generations, ethnicities. Of course the Gloryoskis! know about Rebrith. Everyone in New Orleans knows about Rebirth. They’re famous. As is their weekly residency as the Maple Leaf. And if you make a joke about them going on late, everyone gets it.
Of course, there’s a downside to community spirit. You’ll be trying to escape the heat and get a place to sit in the festival’s trad jazz tent, awaiting the arrival of a singer whose name is vaguely familiar, and all you can think is the worst: “Sub-par standards with lots of innuendo. Local fave.” Or maybe some youngster has a famous surname: “Talentless grandson of. . . .”
But “talentless” is hardly ever the case — maybe a bit slick, a bit generic. Not very interesting. Not especially “real.”
New Orleans, though, can also get you to recalibrate your own notions of real. Maybe for you it was punk or latter-day indie rock (Arcade Fire got a big crowd this year), or avant-garde jazz (Kidd Jordan is a local hero). But at JazzFest, that sense of community, of continuity, has a value in its own right. And there’s no crime in getting all show-biz. Pride in craft is not a bad thing. So you learn to appreciate the one-hit wonders — Al Johnson or Frankie Ford or Jean Knight (“Mr. Big Stuff!”) — because they have a high standard: careful arrangements, back-up singers, horn sections. Yes, they want a reaction from the crowd, but there’s something else besides show-biz calculation going into their set lists and dance moves. (Though there’s that too.) You watch shows by musicians who’ve been at it, some of them, for 40 or 50 years. They’re not rich, they’re not especially famous (Twenty Feet From Stardom, as the recent documentary on back-up singers had it). But they’re not fooling around up there. They’re bringing it. Getting real.
So you watch bands that are working the tradition, you watch bands that are inventing something new. You watch the Louisiana Repertory Ensemble who unapologetically work the tradition, right down to the wonderful trumpeter Charlie Fardella’s pretty much note-for-note rendering of Louis Armstrong’s 1927 solo on “Potato Head Blues.” And you watch the New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra in their white steamboat uniforms, replete with string section, playing pre-jazz like “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (by Irving Berlin, yo!) and “Lena, Queen of Palestrina.” It was real in its own sweet way.
It’s also odd what strikes you as fake. Even though singer-songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra has a great back story — teenage runaway who rode the rails and survived on busking — her band Hurray for the Riff Raff seemed both generic folk-rock and too earnest by half. When Segarra went on sententiously about how the victims of most old-time murder ballads are women, I felt the paradoxical urge to smack her. I know, I know. Let’s just say she’s welcome to walk these hills — and step on my grave — in a long black veil.
I much preferred the Honorable South — a local psychedelic rock band, or as they call it: “electric soul rock-and-roll.” The singer, Charm Taylor, was all over the place, but I enjoyed her going for it, the Karen O half-shouted/half-sung lyrics of empowerment, and the name of their new album: Faithful, Brave and Honest. I also liked Taylor’s urgency about the new album. “It’s available tew-DAY! Tew-DAY!” (Too bad Lousiana Music Factory didn’t have it in stock.)
Part of what’s real is defined by where the music’s coming from, who it’s about, and who it’s for. We each define what’s real by our own frame of reference — that’s why, for some people, “that’s so punk rock” is an accolade that can refer to the Clash, John Lennon, Frank O’Hara, or Beethoven’s late quartets.
In this regard, the standout for me during that second weekend of JazzFest (and I didn’t see nearly everyone) was Alejandro Escovedo. Escovedo was playing the Fais Do-Do stage, generally reserved for Cajun, zydeco, and other regional specialties (though the Decemberists did play that stage a couple of years ago). So it was something of a shock to come upon Escovedo and his band the Sensitive Boys mid-set, grinding out guitar punk. Escovedo is from San Antonio, and his ’80s band Rank and File were part of that era’s cowpunk scene (along with the Blasters, Mojo Nixon, the Beat Farmers, the Long Ryders, Lone Justice, the Knitters, and even the Gun Club).
But Escovedo is a punk rocker at heart, and he could as easily be touring with X as appearing at JazzFest. He embodies that tension between community and individual that’s at the core of rock-and-roll and that gets some country artists labeled outlaws. So here he was singing “Everybody Loves Me” (“I believe in truth/ but sometimes I lie!”), “The Bottom of the World” (about Austin, in “occupied Mexico”), and about his struggles with Hepatitis C (“Have another drink on me/I’ve been empty since Arizona”).
Escovedo was charming and generous, but the punk edge was undeniable and, in some ways, antithetical to the community spirit of JazzFest. He was a subversive, and he was inspiring. “My name is Alejandro Escovedo,” he said, “and I’m not Rodriguez like some gentleman insisted I was.” Everybody got that joke, too.
Escovedo segued from “Arizona” to Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane,” where he dug into a guitar solo with plenty of distortion and liberal use of the whammy bar, then got everyone to sing along on the chorus while he laid out. As if for good measure, he encored with the Clash’s “Straight to Hell” and Tom Waits’s “Goin’ Out West.” Sometimes being real is just a matter of making absolutely clear where you come from.
Jon Garelick is a freelance writer who lives in Somerville, MA. He blogs at jongarelick.com and can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter at @jgarelick. He is former arts editor of the Boston Phoenix.