Live Shots

NEW ORLEANS JAZZ & HERITAGE FESTIVAL

New Orleans, Louisiana, April 24-May 2

R. L. Burnside
R.L.Burnside
at La Zona Rosa May 2

photograph by John Carrico

You will be pardoned if you felt a little numb. It's a long damn haul, after all, this yearly patch of excess known as Jazz Fest -- an 11-stage, seven-day, 500-band Louisiana par-tay that mounts a full-bore assault on every one of your five precious senses. There are the alarming sights, from the brilliant blue of the Mardi Gras Indians to the dilapidated red of 17,000 discarded crawfish husks. There are the queasy feels, from the fleshy press of crowds that reached 70,000 to the slick tickle of sweat running from your forehead to your ears. There are the intriguing smells, the trademark New Orleans aroma of mixed effluvia and sausage gumbo spiked with the festival skank of cheap weed and sunblock. And there are those divine tastes, from the shrimp étoufée to the crawfish monica to each of the 4,000 ways a Cajun can cook a pig. Mostly, though, Jazz Fest is about the incredible sounds, a medley of sweet Louisiane that triumphs again and again over the crush of sheer numbers. Crowded or not, there's nothing quite like wandering the grassy infield on a Jazz Fest afternoon. It's akin to taking a slow spin on a particularly good AM dial, the sounds drifting gently between jazz, blues, gospel, Cajun, Dixieland, and anything else that's built to move. You stop when it catches you. The highlights of '99 easily outnumbered the lowlights -- it would be much easier to list the bands who didn't deliver -- but a short list of fine shows would have to include the Dixie Hummingbirds, Dr. John, Dave Brubeck, Terrance Simien, Eddie Bo, the Jackson Travelers, Walter "Wolfman" Washington, Buckwheat Zydeco, Balfa Toujours, Los Lobos, and the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. As usual, it was the kahunaesque Ray-Ban Stage that drew the big, bold, and often bland (Widespread Panic, Steve Miller), while the real treats were tucked away on smaller stages, from the hotly anticipated (Hugh Masekela) to the simply unexpected (chalk one up for Sunpie Barnes and the Louisiana Sunspots). Take the first Sunday: Squirming away from the sweaty gridlock at the Ray-Ban stage, where Ray Charles hey-mama'd his way through a passable set of Ray Charles covers, one could wander a scant hundred yards to the Congo Square stage and watch Benin's Angelique Kidjo thrill her much-smaller crowd with an electrifying set that, judging from the last three songs, was one of the fest's highlights. Indeed, at the end of each night, filing into the streets of New Orleans, it was tempting to name highlights: Terence Blanchard in a positively smoking set in the Jazz Tent; Prince Eyango on the Congo stage; gospel's Rance Allen proving that Howlin' Wolf ain't the only 300 pounds of heavenly joy around. Still, it was abundantly clear that you missed twice what you saw, and that a highlight was best defined as when your mood matched the music playing. And so it did, more often than should be legal. Sensory overload, to be sure, and damned exhausting at that, but as the last strains of Michael Doucet's fiddle winged their way into the coming dusk, born aloft by a sad and sweet Beausoleil blues number, the sense you got most was pure happiness -- happiness at having been there -- and a vow to come back. --Jay Hardwig


HOUSTON INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL

Downtown Houston, April 24 & 25

The Houston International Festival is about celebrating the diverse cultures and communities that make up the largest city in Texas. For 10 days, it takes place in a unique setting, occupying 20 square blocks in the center of the downtown district, among towering skyscrapers, parks, plazas, and City Hall. This year's event was attended by an estimated 550,000 people who mobbed the area for an incredible variety of food and drink, arts & crafts, street performers, parades, and six stages filled with world-class music. While not yet the equal to New Orleans' Jazz Fest, the International Festival was impressive for the range of music presented. This year's Fest placed a spotlight on the nations of Southern Africa and featured moving and entertaining performances from Hugh Masekela, Abdullah Ibraham, Oumou Sangre, Thomas Mapfumo, and Angelique Kidjo , as well as exciting exhibitions from dance troupes from Soweto and Johannesburg. However, all types of American musicians, especially those from Texas and Louisiana, were included. One of the best parts of the weekend was the ability to stroll from the energetic honky-tonk of the Derailers to the smooth down-home blues of Texas Johnny Brown to the propulsive rhythms of Haiti's Boukman Eksperyans. One of the more interesting stages was the International Dance Stage, where groups from Panama, Mexico, Poland, Germany, Japan, Chile, and Ireland performed to an authentic, at times enthralling, accompaniment in colorful, traditional garb. Austin was well-represented by Trish Murphy, who put on a blistering performance featuring new material from her soon-to-be-released CD, Vanilla Sun. Jerry Jeff Walker had folks whooping and hollering, Nathan & the Zydeco Cha Cha's had people kicking up dust, and Jesse Dayton was impressive with his mix of country, rock, and guitar histrionics. One of the big surprises of the weekend were the Red Elvises, a Russian rockabilly band with a taste of surf and theatrics thrown in for a refreshing twist. The festival ended with a powerful set from Lucinda Williams, whose near-constant touring schedule has made her band a well-honed machine. The large crowd didn't want her to go, but the weekend and the party was over. The memories of a superb event will get us all to return next year. --Jim Caligiuri


HUGH MASEKELA

Flamingo Cantina, April 27

The bright and shiny sounds of Austin's Tamasha Africana spilling out of the Flamingo Cantina's doorway onto a lazy Sixth Street last Tuesday night were nothing short of infectious. Inside the club it was even more so. Clear, high melodies on guitar, a rock-steady backline full of percussion, and three-part African vocal harmonies made it really hard not to dance, so why fight it? Sway in time, move the feet, smile a lot. After all, Tamasha Africana is nice music -- not stunning, not technically brilliant or groundbreaking or cerebrally challenging, just nice-sounding songs to dance and laugh to. The simple feeling that this is exotic music, a special treat here in Texas, was sufficient cause for attention and celebration. And with South African trumpet legend Hugh Masekela taking the stage later, there'd be plenty of time for the serious stuff. Right? Wrong. From the very beginning of Masekela's set (on the fifth anniversary of South Africa's independence), it was apparent that a simple appeal for the exotic was the basis of the evening. Masekela has been around; his was the first black band to ever record a jazz record in South Africa. Over time, the "township bebop," procured from his African heritage and his affinity for American musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker slid into the arenas of African pop and funk, and that's what Masekela and company brought to town this time through. His trumpet and flugelhorn were accompanied by two electronic keyboards, guitar, bass and drums. The lack of a second horn was lamentable; a certain local sax man in attendance said it best: "Synthesizers are never an adequate substitute for a horn." Worse than that was the fact that the one horn that was on stage was criminally underplayed. Masekela sang and chanted and led cheers far more than he actually blew his trumpet, and while he is undoubtedly a top-shelf showman, when he did dive into a solo that lasted for more than six bars, it gave a hint at the skill and power lying dormant in the shimmering brass. Not too long ago, in a time where all things weren't immediately available to anyone anywhere with the push of a button or the click of a mouse, just the fact that something was different and fun and exotic was enough to create and justify interest. Ultimately, with Masekela, the interest was certainly justified. --Christopher Hess


¡CUBANISMO!

La Zona Rosa, April 29

The difference in sound when one stands directly in front of the La Zona Rosa stage as opposed to just off stage left is as marked as the difference between a band just starting a road trip and a band just ending a tour. Returning to Austin six weeks after their canceled South by Southwest showcase (due to visa problems), the 14-man Cuban street party was perhaps a bit tighter than they were last October at the same venue, but they were not nearly as incendiary. They sounded tired. Looked tired. The well-traveled jazz ensemble, headed by trumpet player Jesus Alemañy and featuring four horns, four percussionists, two keyboardists, a drummer, bassist, and singer, played their usual souped-up, high-energy blend of salsa, mambo, merengue, and myriad other indigenous musical styles for the club's first official "Latin Night" (every Thursday), but the difference between this night and last year's date was like standing off to the side of the stage: less engaging. Not that the happy throng of returning locals noticed. Rolo Martinez, ¡Cubanismo's!'s touring vocalist, kept attention away from the slightly sagging band, his gravelly tenor cry evoking some Latin American open-market barker. Alemañy, a festive, energetic front person, got the crowd hip-shaking more with his dance moves than with his trumpet, while no one seemed to notice a curious lack of solos coming from a backline of alto, tenor, and baritone sax and trombone. In fact, it wasn't until approximately an hour into the two-hour-plus performance that a particular solo even stood out, pianist Nachito Herrera taking one during "El Perico." It was this long, drawn-out jam from the group's third release for Rykodisc, Reencarnación, that proved the show's turning point -- the song that propelled one to move in from the fringes to as close to Alemañy as possible. From that song until the end of the show, the front-line harmonies of Martinez, Alemeñy, and tres player Pancho Amato drove home song after song with a smile, another long number, "¿Donde Está Coto?" proving the evening's highlight. Pianist Herrera took too few solos after his initial standout, maybe one other really distinguishing itself, but the band valiantly wrung every last ounce of energy from their obviously exhausted psyches. "It's always a wonderful time for us in Austin," said Alemañy just before the encores. "We promise to come back. Dalé Mambo!" Muy bien, señor, just rest up good before you do. --Raoul Hernandez

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