It's Only Rock & Roll

By JOHN SWENSON, United Press International  |  April 30, 2003 at 7:37 PM
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The music of New Orleans constitutes its own idyllic world. It's a wild country with its own rules and standards, completely set apart from the burnished marketplace of corporate pop, nourishing itself at the wellspring of human joy.

Something about the Louisiana culture allows this music to exist in a state of nearly unconscious purity. Unlike all other forms of contemporary popular music it springs not from a youth culture bent on smashing the templates of whatever preceded it, but rather is passed down from generation to generation as a precious legacy that is part of the fabric of the community itself, a form of communication that binds the members of that community from birth to death.

Fortunately this ritual music is not a jealously guarded secret but is openly shared with anyone willing to participate in the ongoing festival of life that occurs in the City That Care Forgot, which is why the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which takes place over two weekends at the end of April every spring, has become the world's most popular music festival.

The music of Louisiana and special guests from around the world pours off of a dozen stages for eight consecutive hours at the Fairgrounds racetrack, swirling and eddying like the currents in the Mississippi River itself.

This year Jazzfest expanded its program to include an eighth day of music. The opening Thursday concluded with a performance by native son Fats Domino on the main stage that offered a summation of everything remarkable about the city's music. Domino had been rumored to be in poor health but he struck a robust figure as he powered through an astonishingly vital set of New Orleans R&B, backed by the roaring glory of his Dave Bartholomew-led backing band.

Domino was in exceptionally strong voice, pulling all the beauty and nuance out of the ballads "Walking To New Orleans" and "I Want To Walk You Home" and giving his talented band ample space to stretch out with rhythmically adept solo passages. At the end of the show Domino showed he was in the pink by employing his legendary technique of pushing the piano across the stage with his stomach as he pounded through a rousing version of "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Later in the weekend Dr. John played another great New Orleans set on the main stage, backed by a band that included the great trumpet player Charlie Miller and the venerable Herman Hardesty, who also played with Domino's band, on tenor saxophone. Dr. John played memorable versions of "Back To New Orleans," "Such a Night," "Right Place, Wrong Time" and offered tribute to the late Earl King with a version of "Big Chief."

Bob Dylan showed he knew the significance of playing before a New Orleans audience with one of the most riveting sets of music I've ever heard him play. The ageless Dylan, playing piano for most of the set, delivered a fierce version of the apocalyptic "It's A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and leaned on the line "look out now, the Saints are coming through" from "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue." Dylan also offered two gems from the "John Wesley Harding" album, "All Along the Watchtower" and "The Drifter's Escape," and reminded everyone there that "Highway 61" was just up the road.

Over on the Louisiana Heritage stage Anders Osborne provided another highlight, playing his remarkable Creole mix of rock, brass band and Mardi Gras Indian music. John Gros of Papa Grows Funk sat in on organ for a wild finale of the Jimi Hendrix classic "Machine Gun" and Osborne's "Stoned, Drunk and Naked."

At the Blues Tent the Fabulous Thunderbirds tore it up with a fierce set of blues rock featuring some circus-like solo feats from group leader Kim Wilson on harmonica. When the band finished playing "Tuff Enough" the several thousand fans in the blues tent stood up and roared for an encore. Even though the bluegrass music of the Hackberry Ramblers stretched back over 60 years of American history, at the end of the set the band brought up a 5-year-old girl as a guest musician.

She stood there in her best deadpan and shook a tambourine, looking for all the world like she was born to the role. After his own wonderful set of Cajun country had the crowd in front of the Fais Do Do stage dancing a spirited Cajun two-step, D.L. Menard offered the quote of the week in his wizened, cackling patois: "If I live until I die, I'll be back next year!"

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