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New Orleans notes
Is music ‘better’ with a po’ boy?

A trip to the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival confirms that it’s always more than music that makes music sound good. Did Irma Thomas sing as well at the Regattabar back in February as she did at the 35th annual Jazzfest a couple of weekends ago? Well, probably, but who’s to say? And would the post–riot grrrl trio the Hazard County Girls sound as good on a triple bill at T.T.’s on a Saturday night as they did at 11:30 on a sunny Saturday morning at the Fest? ("Sunlight — we’re not used to this," deadpanned the Girls’ lead singer between songs.) Context is everything, so we like to say, but if context informs meaning, then meanings are constantly jumbled at Jazzfest, making everything sound just a little bit better because it means a bit more.

So yes, there’s nothing like hearing Irma, the Soul Queen of New Orleans, in New Orleans. In part, that’s because this is where her career began, by her count, 47 years ago. (Singing her hit "Time Is on My Side," without mentioning Mick Jagger or the Rolling Stones by name, she reminded the crowd that the Stones’ version was a cover of her hit and added, "I know I look better at my 63 than he does at his 61.") But it’s also because, as any fan will tell you, as the years pass and you begin to feel that time isn’t so much on your side as against it, a shared history with a performer begins to outweigh "objective" musical criteria. If you’ve seen a favorite performer at Jazzfest for 10 years, well, then, your relationship with that performer has some depth to it — simply because it has a longevity tied to a particular time and place — that it might not otherwise have. And all of that stands apart from the quality of a given performance.

You also become tied into the relationships among performers, relationships that cross musical styles and generations. Musicians in New Orleans are almost always identified by their neighborhoods, the particular ward they hail from. There are performers like Dr. John who have moved on to international stardom, others with decent mid-level success like Irma and Marcia Ball (originally from Vinton, Louisiana), and others who are famous, it seems, only in New Orleans, like Eddie Bo, the ageless pianist, singer, and songwriter whose performances are a highlight of Jazzfest every year, and whose de facto stage-managing of the annual "Piano Night" festivities held during the fest and sponsored by local non-commercial FM station WWOZ galvanizes the event and results in tumultuous impromptu all-star finales. When you see Marcia, Dr. John, and younger New Orleans stars like Joe Krown, Davell Crawford, and Joshua Paxton on a single stage at the same time, it’s probably because they all know and love Eddie Bo.

This generosity of spirit translates into a love of craft that has "objective" musical payoffs. Frankie Ford is another performer who’s strictly a one-hit wonder — his "Sea Cruise" spent 12 weeks on the pop charts in 1959, peaking at #14. When he shows up at Jazzfest, he tends to camp it up, making requisite jokes about his home town of Gretna. But he also happens to play wonderful barrelhouse piano and sing his heart out in front of a crack band of seasoned veterans — back-up singers, horn section, the works — most of whom have probably played with him on and off over his 45-year career. This year, my wife and I made only the first of the fest’s two weekends (April 23-25), so we missed Frankie, but we were excited about seeing Jean Knight, who hit in 1971 with "Mr. Big Stuff" and gave a thrilling performance a couple of years ago. Her performance this year disappointed, not necessarily because she sang less well but because an extra synthesizer replaced horns and back-up vocalists. It just didn’t have the heart of her previous show.

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Issue Date: May 7 - 13, 2004
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