There are two things that I have not done since arriving in Louisiana three days ago: take a shit and attend the 35th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The latter--an eight-day bacchanal featuring more than 500 performers from across the musical spectrum--was originally supposed to be the reason for my trip, but my dysfunctional bowels are starting to overshadow any interest in music. That's because the one activity that I have been engaging in during the last 72 hours, with a devotion that would impress a Carmelite nun, is eating.
Since stepping off the plane in Baton Rouge and heading directly to Joe's "Dreyfus Store" Restaurant for a lunch of pork tamales, chicken smothered in crawfish and gravy, and green beans (cooked until any possible nutritional value had been neutralized), it's been a nonstop trough feed. This is what I consumed my first morning in Louisiana: eggs, an English muffin, tasso sausage, ham, pork boudin, more eggs, pickled pigs' lips, and fruit. This is the first time in my life that I've digested four different types of pork products before 11:00 a.m. I'm starting to worry about gout.
My failure to attend JazzFest is not entirely my fault: The event on Friday, April 30--which should have featured trumpet prodigy Nicholas Payton and zydeco royalty C.J. Chenier, among others--was canceled because of torrential downpours. And in between meals I've managed to see quite a bit of music. In Lafayette on Wednesday, the 28th, I took in a wonderful acoustic set of skewed folk songs by Sam Broussard, guitarist for Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, on the outside deck of a youth hostel/bar. The next night, at the Funky Butt in New Orleans, I witnessed some tedious jazz noodling by saxophonist Wes Anderson and a handful of other guys who have played with one or another member of the Marsalis clan. And last night, Friday, I listened to enough white-boy electric blues, courtesy of Tab Benoit and Sonny Landreth, to leave me regretting that I was too bloated on crawfish étouffée and beignets (essentially fried dough covered in powdered sugar) to get properly drunk.
But this morning, with less than 48 hours of JazzFest remaining, I'm determined to finally set foot on the Fair Grounds Race Course. After a modest breakfast of salmon eggs scramble, biscuits, and fruit, I set off with my friends. There are 10 stages scattered across the festival grounds featuring a bewildering number of acts. The first music we witness is some basic Cajun-flavored blues from Sonny Bourg and the Bayou Blues Band. This holds our attention for roughly 15 minutes.
At the next stage we stumble across Feufollet. They're a five-piece outfit from Lafayette who look to have a cumulative age of less than 80. An apple-cheeked beauty is belting out tunes in French and occasionally dinging a triangle. She's joined by two equally winsome boy fiddlers who play with disarming poise and skill. They're kind of like a Cajun version of Nickel Creek.
We move on to a tent where the Chosen Few Brass Band is saluting the late "Tuba Fats" Lacen, a notorious New Orleans figure who made his name playing in the city's streets and funeral parades. Appropriately, the band features a fabulous fat tuba player spitting out bass notes. They blow through a spirited version of "I'll Fly Away" while revelers dance through the tent wielding elaborately stitched umbrellas.
All their activity is making me hungry. The food booths are even more baffling than the musical selections. There are several cordons of stalls offering every possible permutation of po' boys and crawfish imaginable. I settle on a bread bowl of oyster and artichoke stew. After a regrettable set of generic electric blues by Lil' Buck Sinegal, I'm back for a heaping pile of fried chicken and potato salad. And then--after napping through the "Cajun Hank Williams," D.L. Menard, and a token attempt to push through the crowds and catch some of Santana--crawfish beignets, oyster pie, and a crawfish sack. We contemplate catching a bit of Lucky Dube's old-school political reggae before calling it a day, but the skies are about to break open--as are our bellies.
Sunday morning I finally take a shit. I also resolve to limit my caloric intake. We arrive at the festival in midafternoon. It's still cloudy and threatening to rain. I take in the three-guitar rockabilly of Kenny Bill Stinson and the ARK-LA-Mystics, but grow bored after hearing them blaze through "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "Johnny B. Goode."
I weaken and purchase a turkey andouille po' boy. Roots rockers Reckless Kelly are just starting up when I wander into the racetrack paddock. They pull off a swell cover of Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," and immediately afterward the sun comes out. The temperature immediately jumps 10 degrees. Everyone begins cheering and dancing.
Hugh Masekela is headlining the Congo Square Stage. This year's festival is a tribute to South Africa. The fiery 65-year-old trumpeter, whose music helped inspire the struggle against apartheid, seems a fitting act to close things. Strangely, there's not much of a crowd. Everyone seems to have opted for the Neville Brothers. Or Dianne Reeves.
Masekela begins awkwardly, distracted by problems with his microphone. Throughout the first two songs he engages in a frenetic pantomime with the soundman, neglecting his fluegelhorn play. Eventually Masekela settles down. At one point, he lets loose a several- minutes-long a capella scat/scream in some language other than English that literally yanks people out of their beach chairs. He's a world-class, James Brown-caliber screamer.
Vusi Mahlasela, wielding an acoustic guitar, joins Masekela on stage. He's a stout man with a square jaw, and seems to shrink from the stage next to the charismatic Masekela. Mahlasela's voice is stunning, though, sweeter than the key lime tart being peddled nearby. He sings an inspirational tune about the power of African music that would be utterly cheesy if it wasn't so damn moving.
These two legends are then joined by fellow South African Busi Mhlongo--who somehow upstages both of them. She enters wielding a three-foot-high wooden staff, wearing an expression of stern admonishment. Mhlongo circles the stage, then leans down on the staff and shakes her hips at the crowd. They scream as if those hips are a magic talisman. The impact is even more impressive when she opens her mouth. Mhlongo's voice somehow oscillates between a throaty growl and an ethereal, unnerving falsetto. I have no clue what she's singing about. It could be bowel movements and pork products. Regardless, it's beautiful.
As soon as the music ends, I become obsessed with getting a colonic. The festival is over, and I need someone to suck the toxins from my system. Can anyone recommend a decent colon hygienist?
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