By Mark Guarino
It wasn’t mentioned much onstage, but the “K” word was in the air — literally — during the first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival after the flood. During sets the first weekend in late April, planes flew overhead, streaming two banners. The first advertised high-rise condos. The other simply said, “Impeach Bush.” Guess which got a standing ovation.
Both told the story of today’s New Orleans, a city in a fight to save its identity one citizen at a time. Opportunity and anger floated through the streets, the real residue of last year’s devastation. While on route to the festival grounds were endless signs offering to either buy your home or raze your home. On the corner, activists sold stickers insisting “Bush Lied” and down the block, were signs on front lawns demanding to “Hold The Corps Accountable!” Add to that a mayoral election in full gear, and New Orleans was a city not just of rich mystique this past spring but one deeply conflicted about what to do next.
But did the tourists care? Not so much as they dutifully arrived in droves. According to festival organizers, this year’s make-or-break Jazz Fest brought between 300,000 and 350,00 people to New Orleans. (Last year the number was 400,000, but there was an extra day.) The fear that tourism would sink was unfounded. Brass bands stomped through the French Quarter just like before and tourist sleaze (“c’est levee” read one T-shirt) followed accordingly.
The weather was bright, the food designed to drool and the music first-rate, but Jazz Fest’s success came at a price that was trickier to negotiate. Now that Katrina has quietly been ushered out of the news cycle, New Orleanians fear that, with the absence of TV crews comes the reliable fantasy of mission accomplished. New Orleans never fit the sound byte world before the flood and with the story swept under the media rug eight months afterwards, it compounds the anxiety people here have that they will forever be marginalized as a third world pocket in a first world nation.
Jazz Fest was camouflage. Tourists trafficking between the French Quarter and the fairgrounds were shielded from Katrina’s devastation since the majority of the wrecked neighborhoods were out of sight, making them out of mind. It took curiosity seekers strong enough to put down their $5 Hurricanes to see how the mother of all hurricanes left this town.
If the French Quarter was rollicking with revelers, the streets of Gentilly, Lakeview, the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard and other neighborhoods were eerily silent. Overturned cars, wrecked rooftops, smashed storefronts, fallen trees, foundations with missing homes and boats wrapped around electrical poles were visuals that repeated in different incarnations for miles. Birds sang but there were no people. Pleas, in spray paint streaked across houses, reported on the fate of neighborhood pets: dead dog here, one cat saved, goldfish to be posted on petfinder.com. Makeshift voodoo dolls — stuffed animals adorned with Mardi Gras beads — were posted at front gates to ward off grave robbers. A sign fastened to the fence of Fats Domino’s home in the Lower Ninth screamed, “no bulldozing!” As the fates of some neighborhoods are still in debate, this side of New Orleans was a testimony to the ugly consequences of inertia.
The spirits at the fairgrounds were no doubt high. But while white faces seemed to always trump black faces during Jazz Fest time, there was no mistaking that this year much of the city’s black population was in exile. The crowds were even sparse at Congo Square, the festival area dedicated to hip-hop, R&B and funk, the largest coming together when local hero Juvenile took the stage.
The most notable absentees were The Neville Brothers. Aaron’s asthma is the official reason for the brothers’ decision to sit this one out, ending their yearly streak for bringing the festival’s second weekend to a close. The band is hardly defunct, the same month of Jazz Fest, the band played casinos and community colleges in the Midwest. Their busy touring schedule outside New Orleans — coupled news accounts of Cyril Neville saying he would never return — gave the impression that they had officially abandoned their home city. When Art Neville — the only brother who returned home to stay — played his set with The Meters, he had difficultly competing with the Bruce Springsteen fans camped out en mass on the opposite end of the fairground.
Star power was a matter of contention this year. Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, Jimmy Buffett, The Dave Matthews Band, Paul Simon and Keith Urban crowded the main stage, a chokehold move to force tourist dollars back into city coffers that was both cheered and derided.
Despite being perceived as hijacking the party, most stars tailored their sets to fit the circumstances. Springsteen came with his Seeger Sessions band in tow, fashioning older songs (“Johnny 99”) into fully calibrated picking and grinning. He deferred to the group whole while barking his way through the old-time standards. Wise to keep the local warhorse “When the Saints Go Marching In” at the end, he also rewrote “My City in Ruins,” transferring the Sept. 11 lament to this city saddled with reconstruction woes.
Elvis Costello stepped into a set by venerated producer/arranger/songwriter Allen Toussaint to sing songs they wrote together in New Orleans with the floodwater receding just outside the studio doors. By the title alone, “Tears, Tears and More Tears” summed up that volatile time while on “The River in Reverse,” Costello sang, “there must be something better than this/because I can’t see how it can be worse,” his voice cracking.
Bob Dylan’s set was streamlined to surprise — “Highway 61 Revisited” was re-imagined as swinging jazz. Dylan, dressed in Southern white with large block sunglasses, looked to the broken river walls by strategically matching two songs together — “Lonesome River Blues” and “High Water (For Charley Patton)” — that both spoke of floodwaters in apocalyptical tones. “The road’s washed out, weather not fit for man or beast,” he sang. “Funny how the things you have the hardest time parting with are the things you need the least.”
Outside the crowds, in tents or on smaller stages, native Louisianans sang of heartache and joy. “Katrina tried to knock us down, but we’re still here,” said Chief Iron Horse of the Black Seminoles, a Mardi Gras Indian tribe. Seated in a wheelchair, he led his group in a group bone-bare version of “Indian Red” — just chanting and tambourines — that turned it into a funeral march. When they finished, he told the crowd he just buried one of his stickmen, a hurricane casualty.
The gospel tent is typically the spot to cool off, but this year it was the where you went for release. Choirs up to a hundred members or more rocked harder and louder than some of the mainstage stars just yards away. The Franklin Avenue Baptist Church Choir got everyone to their feet with their 60-plus voices and pounding rhythm section. After the blood and tears, here was the sweat.
Jazz Fest days typically lead to long nights in the clubs. This year, despite the turnout at the fairgrounds, the club scene was lighter than usual. Greg Izor, a local blues harmonica player who lives one block from the fairgrounds, watched foot traffic, hoping at least a small portion of it would lead to his gig later that night at a neighborhood bar. He appreciated the support from stars like Springsteen. “I think it’s changed Jazz Fest. If anything, it brings more people in town,” he said.
“A lot of musicians left town. The Nevilles have moved, which is fuckin’ absurd,” said Bill Davis of Dash Rip Rock, sipping a beer at 2 a.m. after a gig at Carrollton Station. He said live music in New Orleans was healthy depending on what neighborhood you lived in. Downtown thrived while outlying areas struggled after Tulane and Loyola shut down.
“The things that feed live music are the universities. The things that feed music downtown are the tourists. What I found is the tourists are willing to come here to feed money to the city. They know it’s a fucked-up city but they’re here,” he said.
Because New Orleans is such a small city, it is very likely that the musician before you onstage is either a hurricane casualty or knew one intimately. In December, the drowned body of Barry Cowsill was discovered; his sister Susan played his songs at her show at Carrollton Station. She ended the first half of her set with a cover of Lucinda William’s “Drunken Angel” dedicated to her brother. “He’ll never be forgotten, that’s for sure,” she said.
At the Jazz Fest, the crushing moment came when Fats Domino, scheduled to replace The Neville Brothers, couldn’t perform due to a health scare earlier that morning. In a quintessential New Orleans gesture, the 78-year-old rock legend made the announcement himself, apologizing to the crowd from the stage. Not up to speed but showing up to prove he was still here? Eight months after Katrina, this was New Orleans in a snapshot.