The wooden sign in the middle of the driveway to St. Charles College reads “Retreat” and asks the residents of Grand Coteau to remain quiet, much like those attending the retreat. Retreatants stay for several days of silence and solitude, some up to a month. The visitors seek spiritual nourishment, a fresh take on one’s place in the world, and a source of strength for the days ahead. I know what they are searching for.
Each spring with the same objectives I go on a retreat to the New Orleans Jazz Festival.
My first Jazz Fest was in 1978. Appearing that year were Doc Watson, Ernie K-Doe, Bois Sec Ardoin, Lee Dorsey, Bobby Blue Bland, Professor Longhair, James Booker, BB King, Robert Pete Williams, and Muddy Waters. It was like I hit the Pick Six on my first trip to the race track. How could I stay away?
My most memorable Jazz Fest was 2006. Watermarks were still visible on the barns beyond the backstretch. The crowd that wandered across the Fairgrounds was less eccentric, less diverse, and more distracted just seven months after Katrina. But Allen Toussaint, Elvis Costello, Paul Simon, John Boutte’, and especially Bruce Springsteen offered them musical solace and an opportunity to cry together.
Saturday Bruce was coming back. We arrived at the Acura stage at 11:30 a.m., spread our maximum-allowed 6-foot-by-8-foot tarp, set up our chairs and settled in for Marc Broussard, Allen Toussaint, the Voices of the Wetlands All-Stars, and then Springsteen. The All-Stars were Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, Michael Doucet, Johnny Sansone, Cyril Neville, George Porter, Jr, and Johnny Vidacovich. Neville, Porter and Vodacovich had played at the first Jazz Fest in 1970. Joining them that year were Clifton Chenier, Pete Fountain and Mahalia Jackson.
Jazz Fest history matters to fans but especially to the artists. They pay regular tribute on stage to those who played before and their performances invariably rise to the occasion.
A Fresh Take on One’s Place in the World
The biggest Jazz Fest myth is that people at the big acts are wedged together like Leggos.
We were about 200 yards from the stage, midway in the crowd, with plenty of room thanks to our tarp and chairs, and lounged away the afternoon. Food and drink were a short distance away, the big screens gave us close-ups and the sound system was excellent. Everyone around us had seen Springsteen at least once. A pair of sisters from Dallas had seen him “more than a few times” and kept checking their iPhones for the Atlanta Hawks playoff game. One had a son who was an assistant coach. “If they had been eliminated last week he’d be here today.” I met a man from Philadelphia, one of a group of fourteen, who had been to Jazz Fest ten straight years. A guy from nearby offered the hardiest member of our party a sip from a plastic bag he pulled from his hip pocket. The effect was immediate and long-lasting.
On Sunday (I was on a two-day retreat) as I passed the Economy Tent I heard the unmistakable 1890s sounds of the New Leviathan Oriental Fox-Trot Orchestra. I slipped into an empty seat next to a very frail elderly man. The Orchestra was dressed in Navy whites with captain’s caps. After a couple of tunes the leader announced the next selection would feature Bobby Skinner on the theremin. “About time,” muttered my elderly seatmate. As “The Sheik of Araby” began a guy in the band leaning against what seemed to be a science project started moving his hands as if casting a spell, and it sounded like one, too. High, silky, spooky whines. The crowd roared. After the song finished to wild applause I asked the gentleman about what I had seen and heard. “That’s a theremin (and he spelled it slowly). It’s one of the earliest electronic instruments and the only one played without physical contact.” Apparently the distance of each hand from the two antennas controls the pitch and volume, then oscillators do what they do and the resulting sound is sent to a loudspeaker. “The Beach Boys used one on ‘Good Vibrations.’” He smiled broadly. He may have enjoyed sharing that information as much as the performance.
Earlier Sunday I was at the Fais-Do-Do Stage to hear Joe Hall and the Cane Cutters. Joe Hall plays old style Zydeco in a way that may rekindle my long lost love for the genre: snappy drums, churning accordion, and as a bonus surprise, a sprightly fiddle. Joe may be old school but he’s open-minded enough to feature a traveling scrubboarder from Michigan and 17-year-old Zach Fuselier on fiddle. I enjoyed watching Zach’s parents gaze at their son from the edge of the stage. After the set Joe headed over to the Alison Miner Stage to participate in a tribute to his good friend Al Berard.
A Source of Strength for the Days Ahead
At 4:28 p.m. Springsteen opened with “High Hopes” and led the tightest band since James Brown’s Famous Flames through six songs ending with “Hungry Heart” 28 minutes later. He said hello, introduced Ricky Lee Jones as guest backup singer and began another more somber run with “Jesse James,” “How Does a Poor Man Stand Such Times as These,” “Wrecking Ball,” “Death in My Hometown,” and “Promised Land.” Then he played the opening song that started the tears in 2006, “Mary Don’t You Weep.”
Not everyone “gets” Bruce Springsteen. But damned if he doesn’t know what matters to most of us and how to get there. Next: “Shackled and Drawn,” a searing “Ghost of Tom Joad,” “The Rising,” and then at 6 p.m. with an hour to go I sat down. But I was up again when John Fogerty crossed the stage and “Green River” and “Proud Mary” followed. And then one after another “Born to Run,” “Dancing in the Dark,” “10th Ave Freezeout,” a jazz funeral version of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Lay Me My Money Down” and “Thunder Road.” And he was gone. It was 7 p.m. At 7:30 a policewoman asked us to leave.
The trip from Grand Coteau that morning had taken four hours because, well, we live in Louisiana and things like that happen here. But as long as the Jazz Fest is around we’ll manage.