Where… was he?

When I first picked up this new megaphone to yell about music, I promised – teased, really – some particular episodes and anecdotes. I teased, “What veteran soul singer answered my impulse-driven phone call having just signed his first record deal in years?

It was one of those “where are they now” musings, of the wistful sort that seldom leads anywhere. And it happened on a slow day in the teletype office – the “wire room” – at the old Gazette building on State Street in downtown Schenectady. 

This was actually the second wire room for me, a windowless room on the back of the building, noisy with machine clacking, where the news from outside first came into the newspaper. My job was simple. For 13 hours a day, three days a week, I cut apart the stories printed on long rolls of thin paper and delivered them to editors in the newsroom who edited them. I rolled type-setting tape corresponding to those stories and placed them on a pegboard, waiting for delivery to the composing room for typesetting. The 17 machines around me ran smoothly in good weather, less so when the air grew humid. 

The first wire room was on the third floor at the front of the building, a floor above the newsroom, so I dropped news stories down a chute to land behind its horse-shoe shaped desk. It was a pleasant enough space, apart from the clatter, with wall-to-wall windows offering a view of Baum’s Newsroom (Harry Leva, proprietor) across the street. There, bookies awaited the racetrack results to see which bets they’d have to pay*. Next door, radiating class, was the Imperial, a fancy women’s fashion mecca. Both are gone now, the Imperial converted into a restaurant called Mexican Radio, Baum’s leveled for its patio. Passenger and freight trains rattled on elevated tracks over State Street to the left, just past the Press Box – an adjunct staff office, with booze. Reporters and editors went out the Gazette door after their shifts – after the paper was put to bed – and into the Press Box just steps away. One woman, a comprehensively Gazette person, worked in the Gazette composing room, then at the Press Box and dated several editors in succession.

To the right from the Gazette and the Press Box, State Street passes with straight-line efficiency through a block of retail and restaurant energy; then, between two churches, it curves up hill past the Plaza, an ornate cinema still showing first run fare when we moved to town. It still housed goldfish in its lobby fountain, but stood defunct that day in 1978 when I picked up the wire room phone. 

One summer night around then, State Street was filled with yelling, marching men. An early wave of layoffs hit GE, among the first salvos of cost-cutting that “Neutron Jack” Welch aimed at the workforce. Like a neutron bomb, he “killed” people with layoffs, leaving buildings intact. Our longtime car mechanic Belechew Emaelaf then worked at GE; he escaped being laid off since his supervisors considered him so essential they hid him for nearly two years. 

Thousands of hourly union workers paraded down State past the Gazette that noisy night, having fun, not angry yet. Protesting but mostly playing, they laughed and joked around, like very big little boys headed into a bowling alley or baseball stadium. If they’d known how doomed they were, they might not have hunched in mock-clandestine crouches to peel off from the demonstration-march and pour into the Press Box. 

Above that straight block where I saw that oblivious throng sat Veteran’s Park where, in the ‘Nam years, demonstrators stood stoic behind signs. Drivers honked in support or spat in derision. Steep enough to sled down, the park widens around a fountain. One surprising night, when I was too briefly home on leave from the Navy, years before, I waded there with the first woman I ever loved, both of us blissfully drunk. 

That first wire room, speaking of love or the search for it, was on the same floor as Classified Advertising, a room of phone-bound young women. Some career types worked the day shift, others came in after high school. One afternoon, one of those high school girls, from a longtime Gazette family, brought in a thermos of whiskey sours to share. I had to pass Classified, then through the Sports Department – quiet by day when its editor took the longest lunches in journalism history, bustling and full of cigarette smoke by night – to get to the wire room. Those newspaper people were my social life until I met the dozens of working class hippies at Stereo Sound on Jay Street a block east.

State Street in the late 1970s was busy; there was lots to watch; so I did, between reading science fiction books borrowed from the library a ten minute walk away. To see directly below to the sidewalk, I had to perch on the desk. I was on all fours once when a touring school group – a handful of high school kids and two nuns – came in behind me, so silent under the complex treble roar of 17 teletype machines that I never heard them and was startled to turn around and find them silently gawking at my ass.

No such fun in the second wire room; no spectacle of State Street flowing cars and walkers in fluid parades, no demonstrations, no whiskey sours, no chance to watch the loitering eccentrics of the sort Schenectady indulged then.

That second wire room was all brick echo and isolation. So, I was bored one uneventful day; when the machines were all running in cooperative smoothness and I didn’t have to phone the Associated Press and United Press International offices in Albany to request repeats or repairs. 

I wondered: “Where is Wilson Pickett now?”

Once a big deal, he’d charted radio hits since 1963, my junior year at Bishop Gibbons High School. But his best years were behind him, that day I wondered about him in the wire room. From 1965 through 1968, “In the Midnight Hour,” “634- 5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.),” “Land of 1,000 Dances,” “Mustang Sally,” “Funky Broadway,” “I’m In Love,” “Stagger Lee,” both “Hey Jude” and “Hey Joe” climbed both Hot 100 and R&B charts.

Born in Alabama, raised in Detroit, and first heard in Gospel groups, he made most of his music in Memphis. Southern soul-style, Pickett’s records layered wild Gospel-y shouts on funk grooves that hit hardest on the two-beat after Jerry Wexler suggested this rhythmic shift. Pickett sang raw, the studio band – Booker T’s MGs, without Booker T – cooked hot. As MGs guitarist Steve Cropper recalled for Kevin Phinney’s liner notes for a Pickett compilation album, “Basically, we’d been one-beat-accenters with an afterbeat; it was like ‘boom dah,’ but here was a thing that went ‘um-chaw,’ just the reverse as far as the accent goes.”

Hits put Pickett on the radio and on the road. He played here as the Union College Concert Committee, linked to the school’s radio station WRUC, brought top pop, rock and jazz groups to campus. The girl-group Shangri-Las and British Invaders Eric Burdon and the Animals once played here on the same show; jazz genius Louis Armstrong played on campus the next night. Shows on campus were for students only then, so I only heard about them years, decades, later. As I reported in the October 22, 2018 Gazette, when Little Richard played on campus, WRUC DJ Jeff Hedquist recalled their in-studio interview was wild as the stage show. Also in Union’s 60s hit-parade, as Hedquist and his Concert Committee colleague Bob Saltzman told me: the Kingston Trio; the Beach Boys; the Buckinghams; the Blues Project (featuring Schenectady guitarist Steve Katz); Otis Redding (seven months to the day before his fatal plane crash); B.B. King, Jimi Hendrix in an all-star revue. Saltzman said they paired Wilson Pickett with comic Flip Wilson as “Wilson Weekend,” April 27, 1968, in the Memorial Fieldhouse, which then had a dirt floor. Pickett’s single “She’s Lookin’ Good” was no. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 that week.

Pickett made a big noise, then left a big hole.

Where was he now? Why no hits in more than a decade? Was he alive? Had he lost that exuberant claxon of a voice?

In 1978, years before Pickett was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, years before the internet, finding out such things took more work than now.

I think I reached out to somebody with more show-biz industry savvy than I and found “The Billboard Guide” was the go-to source for information on music stars. A fat compendium, published annually, it listed performers by their agents and managers.

So, I phoned Billboard, in Manhattan, and asked. I doubt I knew enough to request contact information on Wilson Pickett as a free sample, pending possible purchase; but I did manage to persuade a kind young guy on the other end of the phone at the magazine to tell me Wilson Pickett was represented by one Jimmy Evans, in mid-town. I don’t recall the street or the number, but I do remember I dialed it right away.

A laid-back sort of guy answered, a southern black man from his drawly, molassess speech cadence. I asked for Jimmy Evans, the guy on the phone acknowledged he was the man, Wilson Pickett’s manager; and he told me he was with Wilson Pickett at that very moment. 

Evans reported that they had just walked into the office, five minutes before, and that they were happily toasting, with a good champagne, their elation at having just signed a new record deal. This was Pickett’s first chance to record in about two years, with Big Tree, an Atlantic Records affiliate. “Hold on,” said Evans amiably. Then, way too soon for me to collect myself and in any sense get ready, that astounding voice boomed through the telephone: “Hel-LO!”

I was so astonished by THAT Voice – the voice that launched 1,000 dances, that energized many a “Midnight Hour” – that I stood right up. I stayed on my feet throughout the conversation, and I addressed him as Mr. Pickett, which still seems only proper. He was in the best possible mood and talked at length about his career and his life. I don’t remember much of what he said, but I do remember very clearly a strong feeling of awe. When I told him where I was, he told me he used to come up there, to hunt and fish.

He told me about his new album and claimed – convincingly – that his voice was just fine and all there. He’d recorded it in Alabama, with cats who’d rocked his earlier records, and he felt comfortable making it and proud of the result.

Later that year, Pickett’s A Funky Situation album came out, exploded out, really. It erupted with the best-ever version of the Rascals’ “Groovin’” – as good as his Beatles cover, “Hey Jude.” “Lay Me Like You Hate Me” packed a similar R&B punch. In my “Electric Music” Gazette column in February 1979, I wrote “’A Funky Situation’ finds Pickett growling, howling and crooning with his old irresistible gusto – backed by super-funky instrumentals.”

When he sang those songs, he sounded as he had on the phone with me, confident, strong, having fun with it – just as he looked in the album photos. On the front, he’s in full force-of-nature sing-down-the-house glee; on the back, he’s more contained, gloating a little, maybe. “I’m back, deal with it – or, not.” In addition to the foghorn strength of his voice, Pickett always sounded happy to be singing, and that feeling came through the music.

The rest of the “A Funky Situation” album was OK, but it was clearly designed to hitchhike on the disco wave. It didn’t sell much; I think there was a follow up album that I never got my hands on. 

Next thing I heard, he was getting busted for a drunkenly destructive drive across the lawn of some small-town Jersey mayor. In another mishap behind the wheel, a man died. I heard there were problems with drugs and drink.

Best thing I heard about his later years: in 1991, he was – quite properly, belatedly – inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame. For some, that’s a green light to renewed career momentum, a fame transfusion that energizes them, often as some younger star takes up the cause of an elder hero and sponsors a new album. Bruce Hornsby brought back Leon Russell, who expressed gratitude for being rescued from “the rest area.” Tom Petty produced Del Shannon’s last album, his first in eight years; while Steve Van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen recharged Darlene Love’s battery before David Letterman and Paul Shaffer made her combustible “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” an over the top holiday tradition.

But that comeback train didn’t stop for Wilson Pickett, Mr. Over-the-Top, himself. He died in 2006 at just 64, before he could complete a Gospel album he’d worked on for years in a return to his church-shout roots.

Little Richard preached at the funeral. In an interview around the same time, Little Richard told me he was proud that Pickett dubbed him the “Architect of Rock and Roll,” a title he cherished.

Now, Little Richard is gone, too – two matchless voices wielded by thrilling wild men giving us intoxicating musical fun. Thinking about them and mourning them both – Little Richard recently and Wilson Pickett more than a decade ago – I realized they both sang happy; Pickett with a raucous but engaging growl, Little Richard in an anarchic spirit, spiced with danger.

How grateful I felt that I got to see them sing, and to hear those voices over the phone.

We’ll take up some other teases later:

What hard-rock singer asked about the size of my unit?

What pre-show bet with my wife Ellie turned into a backstage mini-concert for her alone?

*Race results from the “New York track” – the horse-racing facilities operated by the New York Racing Association, Saratoga, Belmont, Hialeah – produced the “number” – a three-digit calculation that multitudes bet daily before the NYS Lottery began. Betting the right number paid 600 to one, though the odds were 1,000 to one. It worked this way: dropping all the zeroes, adding the digits of the win, place and show results of last three races in order yielded a three digit result. Payoffs for the 7thrace produced the first digit; the sum of 8thrace results yielded the second digit; the 9thrace calculation provided the third and last digit. Gambling lore legend has it that the wire-room staffer would drop the race results out the window to gamblers below who’d dash across to Baum’s and place a bet they knew had won. I never saw this happen, but loved the idea.

Ben Lomio’s Broadway News, half a block from Baum’s and the Gazette, was numbers-betting headquarters. Daily cash pickups required a two-car convoy an hour after the last race. The money car came first, carrying the collectors; then came the gun car, carrying protection. When I told my dangerously witty friend Henry Hunter about this, he immediately hatched a robbery plan. Henry had one arm, and his plan involved wearing two artificial arms. He figured the gun guys would first canvass the area for three-armed stick-up specialists. This wouldn’t take long, but bracing all the two-armed robbers would, before going after the one-armed miscreants. Relating this over lunch to the late, great cartoonist John Caldwell, I concluded my account of Henry’s plan this way: “The key to the caper was his ingenious disguise.” Caldwell lost it, laughing. He sprayed a mouthful of diet Coke across the table and all over Ellie, next to me in the diner booth. To this day, when somebody laugh-sprays a mouthful over their table-mates, THAT’s a “Caldwell.”

Rock in Peace, Little Richard

Late in Sean Rowe’s 80s-themed live-show-from-home Sunday afternoon, a lyric grabbed me by the throat. 

In his now-familiar dining room festooned with tiny hanging lights, he stepped to the mic right in front of the camera, strummed quiet chords on his Takamine acoustic six-string, decorated with bold bars of colorful duct tape and sang this:

“For seven years I could not cry, but that has left me now.”

Me, too.

I hadn’t wept since my parents passed, until last Saturday night when I sat next to my son, stream-watching “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” and sipping the good stuff. Then, for no reason relating to the movie or the Woodford Reserve bourbon, I started thinking about Little Richard.

And the dam broke.

And I sat weeping, gasping, shattered.

There was no stopping this, no way to rationalize away the devastating sense of loss I felt. 

Sitting here now, trying to make sense of it, I reach back almost in vain for some predecessor moment that felt anything like this. 

The first time I mourned a star going out as a personal loss was Nat King Cole, who passed in 1965. But this had a delayed impact for me. In spring 1968, I sat by myself in a barracks on Goodfellow Air Force Base in west Texas, a closed SAC base where I was training in electronic intelligence. Gacked on Dexedrine smuggled from Ciudad Acuna, I wrote a fast blurt. I addressed it to Nat Cole’s spirit, telling him how I felt the world now had a huge, aching hole in it, left by his departure and the silencing of his elegant, polished music. 

Now, Nat’s smooth sound was anything but rock and roll.

He chose songs and sang them in such a restrained, mainstream, low-pressure way that our parents could dig him, and did.  

Yet there I sat, a year after Monterey, when music grew hair and mighty moral force to become a giant noise, and I mourned Nat Cole in words I wrote right to him.

No other loss hit me so hard, not Bob Marley, not John Lennon; not the holy trinity of the Iowa crash: Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper. I was in Seattle when its neon native son Jimi Hendrix died, in the rainy sadness of a whole city in tears. I don’t recall where I was when Janis Joplin followed just a month later.

But I’ll always remember I was quarantined in my house by the trumpandemic when Little Richard died.

Is that it? I thought at first that maybe I felt his loss so acutely because of all the other loss we all feel and fear now.

But, no.

I realized it’s really all about him, the Georgia Peach, the self-proclaimed Architect of Rock and Roll. 

Where Nat Cole was slick and cool, Little Richard was hot, a human high explosive. He came onstage (or screen) with his eyes wild, wide in joy and mischief. You knew on sight that he was trouble of the most delicious, shocking-to-our-parents power. Just check the clothes. Nat wore tastefully narrow lapels, Richard’s reached out to grab you, to cut through the air and close the distance to your pleasure centers. Hair heaped high in a sculpture of challenging effrontery, he was more than bold. He was a walking, strutting, howling, piano-pounding outrage – exhilarating and uniquely empowering, whenever and however I saw or heard him. He was raw, a shout of possibility. He made me feel free, or at least free-er.

At first, I didn’t quite understand it; I knew how his music made me feel, but at some point I wanted to know why. Wikipedia reminded me the answer was New Orleans.

Little Richard’s father was both a deacon of his church and a bootlegger who owned a nightclub; so how could Little Richard have turned out any other way? 

He preached a gospel of forbidden fruit, of in-your-face-transgression that felt righteous because it was so inescapably real. He toggled between the uplift of the divine and the dive bar all this life. His was the church of raw exultation, his nightclub one where forgiveness lived. 

In an early 90s phone interview, Little Richard told me of his famous re-conversion to devout Christianity aboard a plane to Australia as if it had happened to him yesterday. He spoke of the joy of performing with the same immediacy, and I wish I’d known to ask him about meeting Sister Rosetta Tharpe. When she heard him singing her songs outside a Macon concert in 1947, she asked the 14-year-old singer to open her show. Little Richard said he’d decided to play piano after hearing Ike Turner play “Rocket 88;” so he learned from perhaps the two most influential pre-rock and roll giants of his time.

When Little Richard started recording, producer Bumps Blackwell saw him as a new Ray Charles, but Little Richard instead wanted to sound like Fats Domino. So Blackwell recorded him at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M studios in New Orleans with drummer Earl Palmer and saxophonist Lee Allen and others from Fats’ band. When I pilgrimaged there during Jazz Fest, I found the building was a laundromat, as shown in “Treme.” When those records didn’t hit, Little Richard wrote “Tutti Frutti” in the Dew Drop Inn, but Blackwell had to hire songwriter Dorothy LaBostrie to clean up his sex-charged lyrics. In September 1955, Little Richard recorded “Tutti Frutti” and cracked open the radio.

Of course, he went to New Orleans to make that music. 

I should have recognized its Fats-inspired rolling swing right away, but I thought of it then as fully Little Richard’s invention, totally original. I didn’t know for years that it came from South Rampart Street just outside the French Quarter. I just knew how it made me feel. For me, after “Tutti Frutti,” nothing was the same. It was the Big Bang that let that wild, raw, explosive, brash and beautiful man and his music out of the bag, loose into an uptight world where Elvis was just starting to make his mark. Little Richard’s stardom was even more startling, a blast of joy, at once engaging and confrontational.

Others could play his songs – even that whitest of white-bread imitators Pat Boone. But even his most ardent and talented admirers couldn’t sound like him.

I didn’t know until I read Charles White’s authorized biography that Little Richard was gay or, as he described himself, “omnisexual.”  But I wondered if ignoring conventional gender borders liberated him to become the person he invented. 

He arguably invented others, too. Paul McCartney learned his scream from Little Richard and the first song he ever sang in public was “Long Tall Sally,” Little Richard’s follow up to “Tutti Frutti.” As “No Direction Home” shows us, Bob Dylan wrote in his yearbook of his ambition: “to join Little Richard.”

However wide his influence has been, even in those years when McCartney was learning Little Richard’s scream and Bob Dylan was learning his fearlessness, we somehow knew we’d never see another one.

In a moment of humble self-awareness, Elvis once reflected that he’d been fortunate to come along when there was no trend. Little Richard came along when there was nothing like him, and there never will be.

Getting back to Sean Rowe for a moment, let’s give another original his due: the Troy-born troubadour of bottomless voice and spooky resonant guitar.

Rowe was doing house concerts long before quarantine time, so he moved easily into performing from his own dining room. These shows feel all the more human for those moments when he pauses to adjust something; using the clasp of a pen to clip a folded bill into his guitar strings, say; or visiting the bathroom.

As he wrote on his website:

“This is why I do house shows: I want to connect…I want to take you on an intimate musical journey that you and your friends will remember forever. Do I love club shows? Hell, YES. I love the vibe, the energy, the lights, the heat. I want to see you out there, too. But this is a different beast. Maybe a gentler, more homey beast.”

In his May 10 show, Mother’s Day, he sang 1980s pop and indie rock songs, and his own.

And the one that hit me with a vivid evocation of Little Richard – though Rowe writes and sings nothing like him – is “Flying.” Little Richard performed with big bands in matching outfits. A human trumpet himself, he surrounded himself with saxophones. In dark t-shirt and two-tone beard, Rowe is a bass, a cello; and he sounded glorious singing these tunes, familiar or not. He helpfully listed them for his listeners in an email after he put his guitar away.

Gone Daddy Gone (Violent Femmes)]

With You or Without You (U2)

Surprise

Wrong Side of the Bed

Lady in Red (Chris DeBurgh)

We’re Not the Same

I’ll Follow Your Trail

Squid Tattoo

Never Tear Us Apart (INXS)

You Don’t Have to Worry

A Forest (The Cure)

Psycho Killer

Tornado Head

It’s hard, if exhilarating, to imagine Little Richard singing in your house, in ANY house. 

As young confined Catholics, brother Jim and I would imagine a loud rock and roll takeover during mass. The Rolling Stones or the Mothers of Invention would burst onto the altar, elbow the priest aside and rock the joint, to the gaping horror of the pious multitude. 

Now, I believe that seeing prime and primal Little Richard do that would be even better. In clothes you could see from Vancouver, hair up to THERE, pounding the piano as if to demolish it, howling octave over octave, he’d give the congregation something to worship, all right.

In June 1995, Little Richard played here for the last time before retiring. A bit incongruously, he was on whatever SPAC’s Jazz Festival was called that year, a non-jazz box office classic-rocker added to the line-up to sell tickets to mainstream fans; like Chic this year before that Fest, like all fests, was canceled. Though he had to grab a band member’s hand for stability, Little Richard still climbed on top of the grand piano. He was still a force of nature. All the voice was still there – like the clothes, like the hair – and he seemed likely to pound the piano down through the stage. 

It wasn’t 1955, or even 1975, but it was “Tutti Frutti,” and it was glorious.

I didn’t know then that I’d never see Little Richard again.

And so, when the full, awful wrenching pain of that recognition hit me – beside my son on the couch in my quarantined house – I had no way to dance past the grief. 

There’s no hiding from our loss of Little Richard. There’s only gaudy, funny, fierce memories of his brilliantly engaging and noisy nonsense, blurred through tears.

A wop boppa looma, a wop bam boom.

My First Jazz Fest

I was ready to love Jazz Fest when I first pilgrimaged there in 2008

The first music I ever loved was traditional jazz, called Dixieland everywhere but New Orleans, where Jelly Roll Morton, Kid Ory, Louis Armstrong and other street kids, rebels and inventors devised it from African, European and Caribbean roots.

Then came the jovial bounce of Fats Domino, the fierce glee of Little Richard – I know, he’s from Georgia but made his best records in New Orleans – the zooming accordions of zydeco… I could go on, and I think I have, as guitarist Leo Kottke said once onstage at Troy Music Hall.

Crowd enjoys Kirk Joseph’s four-Sousaphone band at Jazz Fest 2008. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

Jazz Fest would happen right soon in normal time: the last weekend of April and first weekend in May. It’s cancelled this year, like almost every other cultural expression that depends on and rewards gathering. But New Orleans public radio station WWOZ presents a virtual Fest on the air.

Here’s how it hit me, my first time, as I reported in my column:

People said for years that I had to go, and they were right; but they also warned me it’s instantly addictive, and I’m afraid they’re right about that, too. My first New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – “Jazz Fest,” as attendees call it, though there’s less jazz than of everything else – was the biggest, best, mellowest music experience I’ve seen since the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967. Words fail, mostly, by which I mean, here are some snapshots.

Jazz Fest may be the only place on earth where I would leave a perfectly fine – well, up and down, really – Stevie Wonder show to see trumpeter Terence Blanchard lead his jazz band and the Louisiana Philharmonic Orchestra in his “A Tale of God’s Will (A Requiem for Katrina).” Raindrops big as crab cakes fell during Stevie’s set, but a rainbow formed – I swear! – as he sang “Ribbon in the Sky” and the sun shone like Blanchard’s trumpet into the jazz tent as he etched an eloquent message of loss and hope.

The enormous devastation of what people call “the storm” was every bit as overwhelming in the direction of heartbreak and desolation as Jazz Fest is in its exhilaration and sheer fun. 

The only possible complaint about Jazz Fest is there’s too much that’s too good, all at once. Asked on my return if choices arose between two good things at once, I said, “Hell no!” – There are usually about five good things at once on its 12 stages. I saw 26 acts in four days at Jazz Fest including two bands with two sousaphones each, one with three drummers (Jason Marsalis’s mighty Max Roach tribute) and ten groups I’d never heard of, and everything was at least good. There’s no wrong choice among Richard Thompson, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, John Boutte, D.L. Menard & the Louisiana Aces and the Ebenezer Baptist Church Radio Choir, but no easy way to choose, either. How could piano fans choose among keyboard killers Art Neville, Henry Butler, and Ethan Iverson with the Bad Plus, all playing at the same time, while the astounding Trombone Shorty was simultaneously playing perhaps the hottest set of all?

The return to Jazz Fest of the Neville Brothers in their first hometown show since Katrina for the closing set promised and delivered a powerful catharsis of sheer homecoming joy that brought tears to many. Guest Carlos Santana played way looser and wilder with the Nevilles than in his own set preceding them.

Randy Newman provided a compelling Jazz Fest anthem with “Louisiana 1927,” singing it in deep sadness after proclaiming New Orleans “my favorite place on earth.” Others sang it there: Marcia Ball, the great but unknown-outside-the-city John Boutte, and Aaron Neville in his reportedly sky-splitting set in the Gospel Tent. 

Late addition Alejandro Escovedo made the most of his too-early slot after thunderstorms drenched the place, playing fierce and touchingly sweet Texas rock to a sparse crew happily standing slack-jaw-dazzled in puddles before the Accura main stage, one of three stages that accommodate SPAC-sized crowds.

Playing solo, as Newman had on the same big stage, Richard Thompson said he’d represent “the northern European tradition of complex poly-rhythms,” his wryly arched eyebrow visible at 100 yards. His musically straightforward but lyrically dark songs connected surprisingly well in the hot sun.

Discoveries worked both ways: Musical pilgrims from afar were knocked out by Kirk Joseph’s Backyard Groove or the Melody Clouds – New Orleans acts that don’t play out of town – and it was fun to see New Orleanians get hip to Thompson or to the Oakland funk of Tower of Power, both in their Jazz Fest debuts.

The 1960s era soul singer Bettye LaVette just tore up the Jazz Tent, singing great at 62 and reveling in a comeback she is working hard to earn. Fans fanned out in rapt, dense deltas outside the doors of the mobbed Gospel Tent during a tribute to Mahalia Jackson by Irma Thomas, Marva Wright and Raychell Richard.

 The food at Jazz Fest is famous as the music, and the T-shirts and other fashions are cheerfully outrageous. Best Fest foods I found were a giant Cajun duck po’boy and a steaming bowl of crawfish etouffe. Best T-shirts: “Boudreaux’s Butt Paste” (for diaper rash and other afflictions of one’s nether parts), “Bowling for Concubines,” and one promoting a beer: “Polygamy Porter: Why Stop at Just One?” A woman in a barely-there black bikini, cowboy hat and white rubber shrimp-boat boots to mid-calf walked arm in arm with a guy in a white suit, starched shirt and tie, pants rolled to his knees and red alligator shoes tied around his neck, both trudging happily through ankle-deep mud with drinks in hand.

For many, Jazz Fest is just the beginning. There’s dinner, and a throbbing club scene. Waiting for a table in the great cajun restaurant Cochon on Tchoupitoulas Street, my two fellow musical pilgrims (Jazz Fest vets since 1995) and I spotted Diana Krall and her band at the neighboring stand-up cocktail table. Actor John C. Reilly bumped into me in the Jazz Tent without spilling his beer or mine.

At Mid-City Lanes, the famous Rock & Bowl (you’ve seen the shirts) offers 24 lanes, on-the-spot embroidery of your bowling shirt and, the night we went there, four zydeco bands playing at 10 p.m., midnight, 2 and 4 a.m. The next night at Southport Hall, a J.B. Scotts-like place tucked against a levee, the subdudes welcomed a parade of old friends to the stage. And the next night, pianist Jon Cleary jammed the Maple Leaf so full that, standing just 20 feet away, the only person I could actually see onstage was the huge guitar player Derwin “Big D” Perkins. Next door, Jacques Ymo’s restaurant was still serving at 1 a.m. An ancient pickup parked in the street and on the sidewalk was part of the restaurant: In its bed sat a couple delighted with the choicest table in town.

The only night I got to bed before 1 a.m. was before a 7 a.m. flight home when the airport was full of hung-over, sunburned, sometimes still muddy but really happy people. 

The deepest funk experience of a supremely funky four days was a visit to Ernie K-Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. (Check Neil Strauss’s NY Times story “All Dolled Up in His Lounge and Shrine.”) K-Doe parlayed his 1961 No. 1 hit “Mother-In-Law” into this cozy two-room tavern, with an apartment upstairs where his widow Antoinette K-Doe lives. In the corner of the bar lounges what Antoinette calls “the statue:” a manikin that uncannily resembles the late singer, dressed on the day we visited in a garish red suit, rhinestone shoes and meticulously tended wig. Warmly hospitable, Antoinette spoke of her late husband as if he were still alive, explaining that his caretaker changed his clothes “when he needed that” – for public appearances. She often takes “the statue” around, in a hearse, to her cooking demonstrations, and to Jazz Fest. 

See, people go to Jazz Fest, at least in effigy, even after they’re dead.

Daily Gazette May 16, 2008

Re-reading this now, during the Big Ugly, reminds me of how Jazz Fest ALWAYS delivers a miraculous experience on your first visit – a peak of surprise fun that is addictive as any drug and brings you back again and again.

Randy Newman sings “Louisiana 1927” at Jazz Fest 2008. Photo (c) Michael Hochanadel

That’s also why Fest veterans love bringing newbies: to be nearby when that novice Fest-goer gets that miracle.

Mine came in that visit to the Mother-In-Law Lounge in the Treme. We were driving by when Mike* shouted, “Look, SHE’s out there!” Dennis* hit the brakes, gliding to the curb before the scabby lawn alongside the Lounge where Antoinette K-Doe and her sister sat at a picnic table sister snapping beans into a big bowl. Nobody was a stranger to Antoinette who immediately invited us to the dinner she was preparing. She told us she’d also invited Dr. John but he was still up in the air. Literal-linear me, I thought this meant his flight from New York hadn’t landed yet. 

She took us inside the Lounge and showed us around, mixing reverence with a matter of fact directness as she brought us to “the statue” – the garish enduring representation of her late husband. Unmoving but not inert, it radiated a presence, a power – conferred and preserved by her devotion to him. Not it, him. She spoke of “the storm, which many surivors won’t, recounting how she hid in the dark, sweltering second floor of the bar, announcing to intruders she heard below that she had a shotgun and would come down and use it. They left. As we left, Mike shook hands with Antoinette. Spotting the sneaky-subtle way he pressed a bill into her palm, folded small, considerately discreet, I wish I’d been as alert to the opportunity to help.

Antoinette’s lesson in the persistence of devotion, through anything, and the permanence of powerful personalities, was worth more than I could ever have paid. Her love had outlived him; just as the Mother In Law Lounge out-lived her. She died of a heart attack, in the Lounge, on Lundi Gras, 2009 – the year after Mike and Dennis and I met her there.

Ernie K-Doe didn’t write “Mother In Law” about Antoinette’s mom. He also liked his first mother-in-law, by all accounts. Antoinette rescued him from living on the streets and helped him buy and run the bar. Get famous in New Orleans, and you stay famous.

We didn’t go back to Antoinette’s dinner that night, just as we didn’t board the converted schoolbus to infinity – “Interstellar Transmission” painted on the side – that roared past us on Esplanade Avenue. It carried a band and fans; happy young black men making music inside, bringing the funk as they rocked the bus, the whole block, as they passed. They waved to us on the sidewalk, inviting us in. The rear emergency exit of the bus was gone and we could see the drummer, just inside, sweat gleaming in the streetlights’ glow as they roared past Buffa’s Lounge, bound for outer space. Mike Gondek and Dennis Bidwell are my Jazz Fest guides, inviting me along on my first (2008) expedition there via Nashville and Houston, then on four returns thereafter. I owe them VERY big. Regulars since 1995, they’d attended the first resumption Jazz Fest after “the storm,” when Bruce Springsteen and his Seeger Sessions Band folk-rocked musical messages of defiant, resilient resolve, on April 30, 2006.

We’ll see what Dennis has to say about the “interstellar Transmission” in an upcoming post.