Each year the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival offers a sub-theme highlighting a particular world music culture. The native American theme of this year's Jazzfest offered a spiritualized, healing overview to the proceedings. An oral culture, the Native American performers relied heavily on their tradition as storytellers and demonstrators in their presentations, although some interesting musical bridges were crossed by Robert Mirabel -- who added rock, R&B and rap elements to his set, and the Hopi reggae of "Reggae Inna Hopiland."
The festival really got mileage out of these acts, some of whom performed on three different stages the same day. It would be interesting to know if the entire Native American entourage made as much money combined as Melissa Etheridge did to play the festival.
On the final Saturday the Indian Village was finally transformed into a real concert stage when Bill Miller's terrific set drew a steady stream of passers-by into its orbit. Miller, backed by two Native American percussionists, finished up with a rousing version of Bob Dylan's "All Along the Watchtower" with new verses addressing Native American issues.
Miller was already back in the trailer when the rousing cheers from the audience made the Master of Ceremonies go get him and bring him back for an encore. Miller slayed them with an emotional rendition of Dylan's "Knockin' On Heaven's Door."
One of the new features of this year's festival was a relocation of the Blues Tent, which was exiled to the most remote corner of the facility. It was a miserable place to see or hear music, with lousy sound and no ventilation that made the heat unbearable, but worst of all, no place to dance. Several musicians I talked to complained that the sound was terrible. Nevertheless there were a number of shows at the Blues Tent that were must-sees.
Shemekia Copeland dazzled at the Blues Tent. She showed a lot of poise as a bandleader and let her outstanding voice carry the day in an ecstatic performance that had the crowd buzzing. At one point she sang away from the microphone and her voice carried through the tent. She is a direct link to the blues singers of a century ago who knew how to electrify a large crowd without amplification.
If you're familiar with her father Johnny "Clyde" Copeland's work it's uncanny how much Shemekia sounds like her dad.
Eddie Bo also put on a terrific show at the Blues Tent, singing and playing up a storm while mixing in his own classics like "Check Mr. Popeye" with R&B staples from the New Orleans tradition. Elvin Bishop, a tremendously underrated guitarist, engaged in a furious raveup with George Thorogood at the end of his set, and Walter "Wolfman" Washington and the Roadmasters really tore things up.
Grateful Dead fans were heartened by the stirring back-to-back performances by two of the group's offshoot bands, Bob Weir's Ratdog and Phil Lesh & Friends, on the last day of the festival. Lesh's band, which features the great two-guitar lineup of Warren Haynes and Jimmy Herring, was joined by Weir for the second half of its set, a program of all Grateful Dead material with Weir singing lead. The music never stopped.
Jazzfest began as part of an eruption of outdoor music festivals in 1969, a byproduct of the immense forces of change at work in the 1960s -- the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam War and the rise of a music culture that expressed the need for wholesale reevaluation of American values. Local and federal authorities squashed the festival culture in most of its incarnations, but not Jazzfest, which has gone on to be the King of music festivals. Over the past few years we've seen the children of the Baby Boom reach their maturity, and their numbers are legion at Jazzfest.
Once again they're faced with a world torn by war and a music culture that may well provide an alternative. At the end of an absolutely blazing set from Papa Grows Funk, keyboardist John Gros asked the predominantly young crowd to "flash me the peace sign," a gesture that late 20th century rockers would have certainly have sneered at. But it's the 21st century now and the future belongs to the young and hopeful. The crowd at the stage Gros played, some 5,000 people strong, cheered and waved outstretched arms with the extended "V."
At the end of his set on another stage at the opposite end of the infield, Allen Toussaint told the crowd: "Remember, people, no one of us is any better than the other."
If we could ever take that advice to heart, maybe, just maybe, we could put an end to the religious hate and the greed and slaughter that is tearing the world apart.