A little slice of New Orleans

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Since my first visit to New Orleans on a business trip (no, really, someone thought it was a good business decision) around Halloween 1998, I’ve remained a huge fan of the scene there. Over the next few years I returned there three times, twice for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, an annual celebration of the region’s music and culture.

Almost every element of American culture got a little better once it passed through New Orleans – the food, the style, and arguably most important, the music. It is known after all as the birthplace of jazz. Home to a history of musical pioneers such as Louis Armstrong, Professor Longhair, Malcolm John Rebenack Jr (better known as Dr. John), and the Neville and Marsalis families, New Orleans has enough unique culture to be practically his own country.

Bo Diddley and a very young Trombone Shorty

Troy Andrews, otherwise known as singer, bandleader and multi-instrumentalist “Trombone Shorty”, made his first Jazzfest appearance at age four as a guest of Bo Diddley. He led his first brass band at the age of six. Today, in his thirties, he leads a tour: Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threauxdown. It started in 2018 but died out in 2109-2020 due to the pandemic and only started again this year. I was lucky enough to attend the show in Santa Barbara on August 13th.

A traditional New Orleans brass band, Soul Rebels, lit the fuse for an explosive night of all things New Orleans. As if picked from the French Quarter during Mardi Gras, it was the perfect keynote to start the evening.

After Soul Rebels, there was Dumpstaphunk. Founded in 2003 to play a gig at Jazzfest, singer/organist Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville) and his cousin Ivan Neville on guitar, and their band took the stage on Saturday for a set of songs by The Meters, a group including Art Neville, often mentioned alongside James Brown as early funk developers. They were joined by George Porter Jr (original bassist/vocalist of The Meters) and Cyril Neville (Ivan’s uncle) on vocals. The Meters defined the slinky, dirty funk sound with hits like cissy crotch and Look-a-Py-Py. The funk doesn’t get much better, and Dumpstaphunk treated the material with the love and respect due to the former NOLA statesmen who joined them on stage.

Then comes the highlight of the evening for me, Tank and the Bangas with Big Freedia. From New Orleans, Torianna “Tank” Ball and company won the 2017 Tiny Desk competition, combining soul and hip-hop to create something all their own. A Tank and the Bangas show is a sight to behold. The music is tight and groovy and all over the board while Tank’s smart and progressive hip-hop-flavored voice falls somewhere between Beyonce, Sharon Jones and Nina Simone. Freddie Ross Jr “Big Freedia” joined Tank and the Bangas for several songs. The “Queen Diva”, as Freedia refers to himself, helped kickstart the music – a form of rap that shakes the booty with a heavy, mainstream beat. Her voice was sampled by Beyonce in her song Training, and he worked with Tank and Co. on their song and video Big. An already high-energy show turned hotter when Freedia took the stage to Big and some songs form its catalog. I’ve attended countless concerts over several decades, and this was the 2n/a times I’ve been amazed by a Tank and the Bangas show. The vibe is positive, even on songs that tackle heavy subject matter, and the music makes it impossible to sit still. Their presence rolls over you like, well, a tank.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue closed the evening. They’re spinning on the new album Survey. Shorty is a mixologist when it comes to music. He knows New Orleans jazz well but is into rock and soul and you’ll get plenty of that at one of his shows. The music is full of energy throughout with ample room given to its two guitarists, tenor and baritone saxophonists, and backing vocals to solo in the spotlight. Several of them even joined him on a spin around the expensive seats trading solos. Later in the set, Shorty dueled bassist Mike “Bass” Ballard, without the rest of Orleans Avenue, taking their licks into experimental territory. When the band returned, Shorty stepped in as bandleader in a call and response where he clapped a beat and asked them to play it back to him in sync in a grand demonstration of how such a large ensemble can play.

Various circumstances over the past few years have kept me away from Jazzfest. This show will be a good snack to keep me going until next spring.

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