A tradition like no other, Jazz Fest in New Orleans is an underground culture and lifeblood all its own. Beginning with and anchored by the traditional festival at the racetrack fairgrounds, this entire event is brimming with the best of music and cuisine for two action packed weekends. Each and every spring, we step inside a brave new world, a supernatural gathering in the musical mecca of the Crescent City. A celebration that welcomes any and all practitioners of improvisational live music, from the festival to the nightclubs to the streets, smothering us into her proverbial bosom for nearly two weeks. New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is the gift that keeps on giving.
Die-hard music fans of all stripes and sizes flock to the Bayou and fill its plenitude of live music venues on a quest for the finest purveyors of vibe. For a certain slice of the Fest population, the true magnetism that draws them in is the musical mayhem that takes place in the clubs after dark. All night long until the sun comes up, the biggest ballers and brightest stars sink into the Big Easy, sharing a piece of themselves and channeling the spirits through dialogues in sound. It’s a righteous prophecy that keeps people coming back year after year, to these same clubs, to hear these beloved artisans repeatedly co-create an authentic tapestry that is never, ever the same thing twice. A healthy gumbo of NOLA’s best and dozens of the finest players from around the country come together in the nerve center of improvisational music, the Super Bowl of Rage, it’s Jazz Fest beybeh… Welcome to New Orleans!
Beneath the magical collaborations, the copious imbibing, the crazy performances at even crazier hours, the crystallized allure of Jazz Fest is undoubtedly its community—a loose-knit collective of kindred souls who share a thirst for the thrilling. Every year, it seems we mourn a beloved artist who recently passed (Charles Neville) and sometimes also a member of the greater festival family (Stephanie Devine Rath). This mutual belly of musicians and fans annually swarms together like a family, huddling to honor fallen comrades, dancing to celebrate life, spreading the culture(s), and emboldening the free exchange of artistic traditions. This community has become transformative and again was lovingly on display in brilliant living colors all over New Orleans during Fest.
In one form or another, I feel it necessary to add this disclaimer to my Jazz Fest After Dark feature every year. One human cannot possibly take in all the divergent musical offerings available over the course of two weeks in NOLA. With respect to three days at the Fairgrounds, and in spite of my fervent efforts to hit as many shows as I could (without overdoing it), inevitably I was not present for a number of incredible events that took place this year during Jazz Fest. But, as is custom, word travels back about the magic that transpired.
During Jazz Fest, one will almost certainly get hipped to new artists and bands that are pushing the envelope, taking the scene by surprise, or just doing the damn thing proper—sometimes all of the above. The Eddie Logic Project was a pleasant diversion, as what seemed a novelty turned into some super sick shit with a quickness. DJ Logic juggled breakbeats while Eddie Roberts, Khris Royal, Mike Olmos, Chris Spies, Jermal Watson and company matched the grooves and then launched the jams skyward. That show also put Bay Area bassist Victor Little on my radar, as the dude popped up all over town, all week long.
Then there is something to be said for consistency, too. In this case, Karl Denson has made his bones in this city for over two decades now. The man they call “Diesel” has delivered the goods in nearly every room in this town, whether it be with the Greyboy Allstars, his own now-legendary funk/soul band Karl Denson’s Tiny Unvierse, or in any number of combinations and superjams. The band enlisted Stanton Moore and Kenneth Crouch to reprise their “Eat A Bunch of Peaches” revue at the Joy Theater second weekend. I’ve been lucky to catch Karl play at every Jazz Fest I’ve attended, going back to the year 2000, and this year would be no different. To kick off my own Fest 2018, first Saturday we were treated to an old-school KDTU groove-train at the House of Blues in the French Quarter. Old pal Robert Walter’s 20th Congress opened with an updated sound, but Denson and company delivered a classic blend of the sexy, smooth funk of yesteryear, with a dash of the dueling guitar attack of contemporary KDTU, thanks to DJ Williams and Seth Freeman.
I stumbled into Maison early on a Wednesday and caught NorCal upstarts El Metate, whose bluesy, boozy rock n’ rare groove turned quite a few heads. On second Sunday, uptown at the Maple Leaf, Pretty Knights, a cadre of immersive NOLA warriors (plus The Disco Biscuits bassist Marc Brownstein) set the famed stage ablaze with a simmering hot take on greasy jamtronica. Similarly, SOUL Brass Band, led by the ubiquitous Derrick “Smoker” Freeman, offered their updated spin on a tradition upstairs at the Nile on the final Monday.
This being my sweet sixteenth year blessed to get down to the Jazz Fest, I’ve learned to settle into my own groove, and chase the musicians that I hold dearest. I target a select group of Fest veterans, with a few young bucks mixed in for good measure, and then follow them (around the clock) throughout NOLA, to the best of my stamina and abilities. More often than not, the interests will cross-pollinate, and several of my favorites will inevitably play shows with one another. The usual suspects for this writer remain Adam Deitch, John Medeski, Karl Denson; chances are if those cats are on the gig, yours truly will be in the building. But on the heels of what went down second Saturday at the Music Box Village, it’s high time to add another heavyweight champion to my proverbial Mt. Rushmore of Jazz Fest, and his name is Weedie Braimah.
A huge thank you to Fiyawerx Productions, Backbeat Foundation, JuJu Fest, the Blue Nile, Live For Live Music, Boom Boom Room Presents, the Maple Leaf Bar, and, most of all, the city of New Orleans and the incredible artists and fans that make Jazz Fest the best event on the calendar. Please enjoy this look back at the finest musical art this writer took in during 2018’s NOLA Jazz Fest After Dark. It is an honor and a privilege to again tell this story, assisted by phenomenal videos courtesy of Funk It. Le bon temps rouler!
Weedie Braimah and the Essence of Time – Saturday, 5/6/2018 – Music Box Village
Both onstage and off, master djembefola Weedie Braimah is nothing short of a force of nature. Having witnessed his collaborations with iconic Jazz Fest staples like Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, The Nth Power, or avant-garde types such as Jonathan Scales Fourchestra and Afro-jazz conjurer Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah, people knew that Weedie’s early-evening show at the extraordinarily unique Music Box Village would be special. But not even the superhuman buzz that permeated town (on the heels of Mike Dillon’s Punk Rock Consortium show in that same venue one week earlier) could prepare us for the majesty that Weedie Braimah and the Essence of Time unveiled in a nearly two-hour story in song. This show was an instant classic, transcending Jazz Fest to immediately land on the short list of most powerful musical experiences this writer has ever been privileged to enjoy.
Braimah—a New Orleans resident who grew up in East St. Louis, Missouri, and spent his formative years in Ghana—congregated a cross-cultural, intercontinental, multi-generational collective of virtuosos to deliver a thrilling narrative of the African diaspora, communicated through spiritual music. The audience was transfixed from beginning to end, scattered about the interactive venue, amid the instruments, players, and art installations. We were very much a part of the proceedings, living within the music itself. Joining the percussionist/purveyor-of-light in this most ambitious mission were his JuJu Fest bredren Luke Quaranta (Toubab Krewe, Megawatt), Raja Kassis (Antibalas, Megawatt) and Sam Dickey (Benyoro), along with Ghost Note and a host of other musicians from the globe over.
Of local note, Weedie called on the legendary Bill Summers of Herbie’s Headhunters and NOLA’s own Los Hombres Calientes, for his inimitable styles on Bata. For many years, Braimah has teamed with Amadou Kouyate around the world, and he would join Braimah’s decorated-yet-humble assembly for this journey, as well as serve as narrator. The massive group adorned themselves in appropriately luminous tones and coalesced as one living, breathing, invigorating ensemble.
[Video: Funk It]
As Weedie later explained to me, the idea behind this performance was to do three things- educate, entertain, and spiritually move the crowd. This righteous conglomerate was about more than just playing folk music, which they certainly did with appropriate reverence and homage. Braimah and his cohorts told the heartbreaking story of his people, a tale that included gospel, jazz, blues, funk, Afro-Cuban, and so much more. The meditative tones of what sounded like a hundred drums ushered in the saga with historical and traditional context.
When the group traversed through the wind of the slave trade, tears began to flow amidst the engrossed. Soon the group arrived at a Latin section, and people couldn’t contain themselves, they were contagiously called to dance wildly. By the time the entirety of Ghost Note (Robert “Sput” Searight, Nate Werth, MonoNeon, Jonathan Mones, Peter Knudsen) joined the swollen collective for a furious rollercoaster through tribal-fusion funk, a palpable energy had completely overtaken the village and every beating heart within the Music Box was levitating.
The Essence of Time told a riveting story through the universal language, a mystical ride through the African diaspora, by way of what Braimah himself terms “Afro-African Music.” The performance was much more than a recital or a collection of songs; it was a spiritual awakening, an emotional journey through history, space, and time. Thunderous, triumphant rhythms pulsated with wisdom and perspective. The paean of gut-wrenching truth and penetrating potency was received through an open door into the hearts and minds of those fortunate enough to step into the otherworldly confines of the Music Box Village. For most of this blessed audience, it was the definitive performance of Jazz Fest 2018, as people came away from Weedie Braimah and the Essence of Time visibly shaken and positively stirred.
Weedie Braimah and the Essence of Time Performers:
Weedie Braimah – Djembe, Congas
Adama Bilorou Dembele – Balafon, Djembe
Amadou Kouyate – Kora, Djembe, Narrator
Luke Quaranta – Dunun, Kenkeni, Bell
Munir Zakee – Sangban, Kryn, Bell
Themba Mkhatshwa – Sangban, Kenkeni
Raja Kassis – Acoustic Guitar
Sam Dickey – Djelingoni, Guitar
Jawara Simon – Djembe
Simba Marvin – Djembe
Bill Summers – Bata Drums
Kito Johnson- Bata Drums
Robert ‘Sput’ Searight – Recycled materials Drum Set
Mono Neon – Bass
Nate Werth – Percussion House
Peter Knudsen- Guitar
Jonathan Mones- Saxophone
[Video: Funk It]
NeonMedeski – Monday, 4/30 (late night) – One Eyed Jacks
Monday night, Boom Boom Room Presents brought together a phenomenal slate at One Eyed Jack’s on Toulouse. After two appetizers, including the popular annual Frequinox show, the main event was a late engagement with NeonMedeski. For the second consecutive year, a fearless team of improvisers and mavericks, captained by the shamanic keyboard maven John Medeski and the enigmatic bassist MonoNeon, descended on NOLA and unleashed a sizzling session that straddled hip-hop and psychedelic jazz with aplomb.
The cadre of creatives included Daru Jones, whose Detroit-Deli drum steez is integral to the DNA of this particular venture, and Jones’ energy with Mono-Neon was palpable. Same can be said for the swashbuckling boogaloo and cosmic Crayola box that swirls from keyboardist/Jazz Fest savant Robert Walter, who revels in his role adjacent to the living legend, John Medeski. Few players on the scene embody a pure Jazz-Fest ethos more than Walter, and his contributions on this particular gig were substantial.
The chameleon-like Skerik reached into Hard Bop’s closet to serenade us romantically in red, though every once in a while, he reared back for some patented skronk when the situation begged for it. A wildcard was guitarist Marcus Machado, a close collaborator of Jones—unfamiliar to some in the audience, but rest assured, this dude has been turning heads for years. As the night wore on, Machado’s luscious, understated comp licks were sung through a lusty Fender tone, one that can only be described as “buttah”. Jason “DJ Logic” Kibler offered abstract textures and turntable action when the canvas opened up just enough for him to get in there.
Jermaine Holmes and Redd Middleton, who grew up singing together in North Jersey churches and are both of D’Angelo and The Vanguard, took turns fronting the band for a couple of Soulquarian-flavored jams. Holmes invoked a celestial take on Sam Cooke’s “A Change Gonna Come,” Middleton riffed on “We Can Get Down”, and both vocalists added just the right flavor to the unit. Same for a horn player or three, as Maurice “Mo Betta” Brown and any number of others would float on and off the stage over the course of this manic Monday.
The assembled collective delivered two hours and forty minutes uninterrupted, slabs on slabs of psychedelic sexy, entirely improvised and unleashed in the moment. This was Be Here Now transmitted through Jones and MonoNeon’s J Dilla-fied filter, focused on creating a vibe, coloring near-but-still-outside the lines, taking chances predicated on moxie, not ego. There’s a difference, and that’s precisely what separates super jams that look good on paper, and nights like these, which just ooze a torrid mysticism.
[Video: Funk It]
Worship My Organ XXX – Friday, 5/4 (late night) – Maison
Originally the brainchild of organ maestros Robert Walter and Marco Benevento many Jazz Fest moons ago, for the second weekend, this year John Medeski returned to Boom Boom Room Presents’ popular franchise gig, Worship My Organ XXX. The Worship concept is simple yet abstract, as the band eschews the usual mainstays in bass and guitar, instead employing luxuriant layers of organs and keyboards atop Adam Deitch’s decidedly hip-hop, groove-laden drums. Pile on the spastic, psychotic sax that only comes from Skerik and introduce the choice cuts and turntable colors from DJ Logic, and the all the elements are present for a sordidly tantric odyssey. As Walter explained to me, the concept with Worship is to consciously avoid both playing a song and soloing atop the band. Each player listens carefully, and minimalism owns the night. It’s a blueprint for selfless, fearless improvisational dialogue.
With these six demonic hands and three devilish brains leading the lysergic pilgrimage on a dozen keyboards, the potential for anchorless free jazz was tempered by the hard-line and relentless pocket of Deitch’s unwavering pulsations. Adam steadily added new percussion flavors, experimenting with boom-bap, and forcing heads to bob like emergency breaks. Benevento tried his hands on the drum hit before Sir Joe Russo, in town with his Duo foil for two massive Joe Russo’s Almost Dead shows at Mardi Gras World, relieved Deitch for a spell, just as Skerik completed casting another.
Medeski, Benevento, and Walter did their best to throw away anything resembling traditional chord changes and instead built cacophonous pantheons of sound, coming to life at the end of long and winding avenues, sourced from riffs and vamps that seemed to almost psychotically catch a fire. Each of the three extraordinary organists was given ample real estate to show their wares, yet none of them claimed the spotlight—content with the role of a sideman. There loomed an unspoken need for low-end theory, but among the trifecta, it remained unsaid, and the pact unbroken, somebody always remembered to get low.
There was no bandleader, but Skerik periodically rose from his cauldron sixty feet deep, to deliver the finest in depraved dementia like only he can. Some other players came and went, but the named co-defendents stayed the course, braving the nightmarish bends to arrive at Shangri-La. Every year, Worship My Organ begins their promenade closely connected to time-honored jazz traditions, and then unspools metastasis into an unholy orgy; in adding Medeski, the collective revealed a distilled recipe for haunting the chapel.
[Video: Funk It]
Megawatt: Afro-Dub Soundclash – Saturday, 4/29 – Blue Nile
Returning for their second year, Megawatt: Afro-Dub Soundclash performed as part of the amazing JuJu Fest programming, and this time the show was included as part of Backbeat Foundation’s diverse Jazz Fest After Dark menu offered at the Blue Nile. Eclipsing last year’s debut, Megawatt delivered an enthralling two-hour tour of reggae and African dub in a variety of forms, mixing in Afrobeat rhythms amid the island vibrations for a unique elixir.
Don’t get it twisted, this is a band, not a superjam, though the contributors read like a veritable murderers row. With Antibalas’ touring axeman Raja Kassis acting as musical director, this selfless assembly of players weaved in and out of Kingston and Lagos, delving deep into roots, dancehall, and lover’s rock before arriving at a few lengthy Tony Allen jams. The team then deftly navigated their way back from the motherland for a strong finish that said nuh romp wid mi.
Fronted by the captivating Sierra Leone-born, Brooklyn-bred vocalist Bajah (of the Dry Eye Crew), the group consisted of heavy hitters like Adam Deitch, Borahm Lee, Josh Werner, Weedie Braimah, Luke Quaranta, Khris Royal, and Maurice Brown. Opening with “Kaballah Rock,” it was clear, early and often, that this was a mission, not a small-time thing; Megawatt meant serious bidness. Buju Banton’s cathartic “Not An Easy Road” was a personal fave, and the bloodfire troupe forwarded tomb-rattling dub anthems from Sly & Robbie, Aswad, and more.
Saxophonist Khris Royal particularly shined in Megawatt, he stepped up and showed out, his skills within the live reggae jams a product of his tenure with Rebelution and his ever-colorful sound palette. The percussion prowess from Quaranta and Braimah slipped neatly between the riddim brothers, Werner (bass) and Deitch (drums), making for authentic irie dynamics. Keyboardist Lee also seemed to elevate his game with a rudebwoy swagger, as he too is quite comfortable in the yardie idiom. Closer “Champion” (Buju Banton) had the entire dancehall hollering for more fiya, to some of us, his message transformed to more life, more strength. Megawatt’s music embodies that ethos, so let’s hope this krewe is here to stay!
[Video: Funk It]
Maple Leaf All-Stars – Sunday, 4/30 – Maple Leaf Bar
Sunday night, we left J.E.D.I. a little early to head uptown to Oak Street and make sure we caught a good chunk of a superjam that was billed as Maple Leaf All-Stars. The band consisted of a handful of New Orleans finest and funkiest players, including Ivan and Ian Neville, Tony Hall, Raymond Weber, and Derwin “Big D” Perkins. The alchemy between these musicians is something to behold, especially considering they’ve played the NOLA songbook with each other for decades, and their names and voices are etched in the history books and the hearts of so many Jazz Festers.
The Leaf is a special, historic room, often oversold and with poor sightlines, yet still the perfect place to rage a funky show in New Orleans. Every year when I make a pilgrimage to Fest, it’s important—really essential—to plug into the NOLA culture, feel the musical heartbeat of those who call the Crescent City home. We can see our favorite national and regional artists the rest of the year, but we are only in NOLA for two-ish weeks annually, and I think it’s imperative to honor and celebrate how we got here. This evening was most certainly one of those occasions, made all the more poignant with Charles Neville’s death a few days before Jazz Fest 2018.
Charles’ brother, the Uptown Ruler himself, Cyril Neville, showed up to run these familiar streets and front this all-star band for a few classics, including “Gossip”, “Okey Doke”, and, of course, “Cabbage Alley”. Towards the end, things got very Neville up in there as Mean Willie Green took over the drums for “Junk Man”, and Cyril unleashed roaring energy on the mic. There’s nothin’ like hearing the muscle-car mojo of Ivan Neville belting out “Welcome to New Orleans” while his screamin’ B3 rolls out the purple, green, and gold carpet. Tony Hall took the lead on a few jams as well, and his bass playing was the glue between Ivan, Ray, and Ian—the OG Dumpstaphunk squad. Yet it was the gospelized chops and spiritualized essence that flows through guitarist Derwin “Big D Perkins”—he of the chicken-scratch funk and greasy-fried melodies—that really filled us up.
[Video: Miles Pastuhov]
The Nth Power – Sunday, 4/30 & Monday, 5/7 – Maple Leaf Bar & Blue Nile
A large group of bands descends on Jazz Fest every year and spread themselves far and wide around the city, but no band really takes NOLA Jazz Fest by storm annually quite like The Nth Power. Born of a late-night gig during Jazz Fest at the Maple Leaf some half-decade ago, the band has continually returned to Jazz Fest in a variety of incarnations to bless the people with their special gospel.
Over the past year, the band has been touring as a trio, with the core members Nikki Glaspie (drums/vocals), Nicholas Cassarino (guitar/vocals), and Nate Edgar (bass) taking on a harder-edged sound and a tangibly more aggressive approach in the live element. The new material reflects this evolution, but given that it was Jazz Fest, inevitably their musical family would join them onstage at a variety of gigs over the duration of the festivities. This year saw Nth return to Tipitina’s Instruments A Comin’ and also their proper Jazz Fest Fairgrounds debut. As is their custom, The Nth Power delivered a third-annual tribute show at One Eyed Jack’s, though this year, it was the death of close friend and longtime collaborator with whom Nate and Nikki had recently reconnected that (appropriately) inspired “Nth Utero” to pay homage to Nirvana.
However, it would be the next night, super late uptown on Oak Street, that this writer got his first dose of Nth magic this year. The trio welcomed the likes of Rob Marscher (keys), Tony Hall (vocals), and even the Berkelee guitar wizard himself, Jeffrey Lockhart, to join them onstage at the Maple Leaf. Lock is a teacher and beloved figure in the lives of many who make musical waves in the Crescent City, and this was finally Jeffrey’s Jazz Fest debut in 2018, At both OEJ and the Maple Leaf, Lockhart joined The Nth Power to add his brilliant and unique axe attack to their always ethereal equation.
At the Leaf (and again, the final Monday at their customary Blue Nile gig), The Nth Power summoned the intestinal fortitude to unveil thrilling medleys from their previous tributes to Earth, Wind & Fire and Bob Marley. Their whirlwind take on “Shining Star” is worth the airfare to and from New Orleans alone, but coupled with the enchanting Nesta classic “Rebel Music (3 O’Clock Roadblock)”, and you can begin to taste the sauce.
Glaspie and Cassarino often receive much of the adulation thrown towards The Nth Power, but bassist Nate Edgar is likely the only cat in town that will quote Freddie Hubbard’s “Red Clay” and chase it with a Bad Brains riff in the same musical thought. Despite their ever-evolving lineups, one fact that never changes is that The Nth Power loves you, and always has. Their truth and our treasure is forever found within the band’s spellbinding original music, brazenly pouring their hearts out, from the first verse, all the way up until it’s time to get on that plane and go home.
[Video: Miles Pastuhov]
FIYA POWA – Thursday, 5/3 (late night) – Maison
Fiyawerx Productions can be counted on each and every Jazz Fest to provide a tasty selection of NOLA-centric nights out on the town, and 2018 would be no different. Their signature greasy funk formula was on display three times over the second week of Fest. Second Thursday is the annual FIYA POWA threaux-down, and once again the party was going down at Maison on Frenchman Street.
The bedrock for this annual Jazz Fest supergroup band came together behind two generations of local icons—bassist George Porter Jr., keyboardist Ivan Neville, and Galactic drummer Stanton Moore. The blueprint is a simple one: grab some of the baddest NOLA cats in the business and some superstars from around the country, and run through a songbook that just about everybody knows inside out. Sometimes at festivals, this sort of gig can be a recipe for the underwhelming, if everybody onstage hasn’t bought in. Yet on this particular night, just as second weekend was getting underway, there was no denying that this was pure, unadulterated firepower personified.
Ivan’s Dumspta-brotha Tony Hall strapped on a guitar, and Roosevelt “The Doctor” Collier sat down with his roarin’ pedal steel. Horns were accounted for with authority, Karl Denson’s tenor and alto sax leading the charge, as well as Big Sam Williams on trombone and Maurice “Mo Betta” Brown on trumpet. A new face on this scene, BK Jackson (Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave) stepped up for some tenor action.Rising star Andrew Block sat in on guitar for “Them Changes”, as did Break Science’s Borahm Lee for The Meters’ “Funky Miracle.”
The setlist was fairly standard, but the performance was anything but. A sold-out house enjoyed a tremendous tour through the history of funk and some of NOLA’s time honored traditions. The krewe wandered into more beloved classics, namely some Bill Withers, Sly Stone, and even a dash of proper rock ‘n’ roll in Neil Young’s “Down By the River”.
[Video: Funk It]
Adam Deitch Quartet – Tuesday, 5/2 – Blue Nile
My first proper Lettuce family affair was the annual Adam Deitch Quartet hit on Tuesday night at the Blue Nile as part of Backbeat Foundation’s Jazz Fest programming. The venerable drummer wunderkind brings the Shady Horns (Zoidis and Bloom) to his jazz project known as AD4, rounded out by the Bay Area’s B3 bully Wil Blades.
The third consecutive Jazz Fest engagement for AD4 was an astonishing ride to the far side, yet what we have come to expect from Adam if he’s going to put his name on the marquee. Over the course of one hundred minutes, Deitch and his trusty cohorts unveiled a series of mouth-watering originals, including “Egyptian Secrets”, the psychedelic hip-hop masterpiece and title track to this project’s forthcoming debut album. As the band worked their way through this hypnotic composition, one could only begin to dream of a Pete Rock or DJ Premier mining this gold for luscious samples.
Ashlin Parker joined Bloom for dueling trumpets for a “Rocky Mountain Boogaloo”, and later Eric Krasno appeared for a swaggy run through Michael Jackson’s buoyant “The Way You Make Me Feel”. An extra nod is due to Hammond hero Wil Blades, whose feet were driving the lane with sturdy basslines while both hands were liberating the masses with warm, opiate organs from beginning to end.
[Video: Funk It]
Big Lil Baby Jesus Peasant Party – Wednesday, 5/2 (late night) – Howlin’ Wolf
Another phenomenal side project for the Lettuce krewe is bassist Jesus Coomes’ annual Big Lil Baby Jesus Peasant Party, an event that took this writer’s honors for finest late-night excursion in 2017. This year, the festivities were moved to the Howlin’ Wolf, which had both positive and negative consequences. The Peasant Party was the final installment to the annual Megalomaniacs Ball, traditionally held at the Wolf on the Wednesday of the daze between.
The band’s lineup once again consisted of the de facto bandleader Jesus on bass, his older brother Tycoon on drums; Ryan Zoidis on sax and synths; Khris Royal on keys, sax, synths, bass guitar; and Borahm Lee on keys and synths. The band of brothers and badasses was blessed with contributions from Adam Deitch, longtime ally and Berkelee-bruiser Aaron Bellamy, and upcoming NOLA drummer AJ Hall.
Unfortunately, the Howlin’ Wolf wasn’t the ideal room for the vibe that this sort of improvised session requires; it was too big and hollow, and the situation suffered for it. Luckily, the music did not suffer even a little bit, and the highest highs of 2018’s Peasant Party were as good, if not better, than the mystical Maple Leaf show last year.
For the last forty-five minutes, the band and its small but engrossed audience turned the proverbial corner to take another mind-bending expedition into the annals of J Dilla, Flying Lotus, golden-era hip-hop, progressive psychedelia, and beyond. Tycoon delivered a choice assortment of classic breaks and wonky, filtered beats underneath baby bro’s adventurous boom-bap basslines, while Zoid and Khris Royal traded soaring leads and luminescent licks all night. Borahm Lee was the glue that held it all together, as he and Royal offered layers on layers on layers of sound design from a variety of keyboards, organs, and synths.
[Video: Funk It]
Lettuce’s Rage!Fest – Thursday, 5/4 – Joy Theater
For many moons, Lettuce booked two or three shows during Jazz Fest, offering a variety of options to see the band in different rooms around the city. For the last couple of years, the band has performed one flagship gig in NOLA during Fest—an annual, traditional two-set “Evening with Lettuce” christened Rage!Fest, and held on Thursday of second weekend at the glorious Joy Theater.
Eschewing an opening act and opting for the all-vinyl stylings of DJ Soul Sister to warm up the crowd, Lettuce confidently asked for the spotlight to be turned squarely on them for three full hours. Demanding their audience’s undivided attention, Lettuce returned the serve with vociferous force, captaining another fantastic voyage to the netherworlds of psychedelic hip hop funk.
[Video: Funk It]
The first frame began with a furious “Blast Off”. A 17-minute catharsis through “Purple Cabbage” was the set’s centerpiece, beginning in its “Yancey” roots and spiraling exponentially into sacred geometry in sound. Towards the end of the first set, the K9 Brass Band, made up of youngsters from NOLA’s Booker T. Washington High School, lined up at the front of the stage. Trumpet player Eric Benny Bloom acted as onstage conductor, and the band dropped into their unreleased, future-bass banger “Trap”, as Deitch’s organic 808’s and Jesus’ titanic bass bombs made di youth dem secure. The Shady Horns then steered the K9 Brass Band into Cardi B’s mega-hit “Bodak Yellow”, and the entire Joy Theater proceeded to lose their shit. Somehow, from within this bedlam, Lettuce plus the K9 found their way back to “Trap” and finished the free-wheeling first set to a deafening ovation.
Voltron was in the “4th Dimension” to set off the second set, and the band dropped this hip-hop heater hot off the press. The family welcomed Jesus Coomes’ brother Tycoon on a variety of percussion throughout the gig; Tyler Coomes has a certain connection with his brother and drummer Deitch that allows him to jump into the fray with (relative) ease. Same can be said for founding member and brother-in-Lett Eric Krasno. The six-string superstar stood side-stage, admiring his once and former squadron’s muscular frame during “The Force” (which teased the brand-new “Zoid Void”) before grabbing his trusty Gibson SG and stepping into the classic dual-guitar dance of “Last Suppit.” It was glorious to see Kraz and Shmeeans onstage together, wheeling and dealing once again. The boys rolled up a “Kron Dutch” for Kraz to get nice and irie, and it sounded like “Gang Ten” hadn’t missed a beat. RAGE!Fest mission accomplished.
[Video: Funk It]
Break Science Live Band – Saturday, 5/5 (late night) – One Eyed Jacks
Taking the stage after a juicy Sonic Bloom hit featuring Eric Krasno, Wil Blades, Alvin Ford Jr., Chris Bullock and more, Break Science Live Band returned to Jazz Fest After Dark in 2018, playing to a packed One Eyed Jack’s late night on second Saturday. Deitch and Borahm Lee once again enlisted a large chunk of Lettuce-funk for their live band incarnation.
Jesus, Zoidis and Shmeeans were happy to oblige their boys with an explosive get-down to put an exclamation point on a gratifying couple of weeks in the Big Easy. Break Science placed a blazer beam on material from their most recent LP, Grid of Souls, and many of these songs took on a new elevation when performed by the live band, especially in the dead of the night- on second weekend of Jazz Fest- with a squad firin’ on all cylinders. The boys were sure to dust of a classic BrkSci banger or two, for the heads who’ve been holding them down from jumpstreet.
People were wildin’ out in the club, as the boys blended Break Science’s grown ‘n’ sexy electronic flavors with the vibe and alchemy that comes from Jesus, Shmeeans, and the Shady Horns. This made for a unprecedented dance party that was brimming with energy and block-rockin’ beats. Borahm in particular took to the skies throughout the thunderous concert, ripping up the Rhodes and a wall of synths, while maintaining the programmed parts that define their sound.
Meanwhile, the Lett krewe got crunkadelic everywhere around Lee. Highlights included “Reno”, “Android Love”, and a blast from the Break Science past, busting out their long-shelved rework of YES’s ‘80s hit “Owner of a Lonely Heart”. This was the third consecutive Break Science Live Band hoedown in NOLA during Jazz Fest, and I suspect many heads would agree, this was the project’s finest and most focused hour.
[Video: Funk It]
Herbie Hancock Tribute – Sunday, 5/7 – Maison
On the final night of Jazz Fest, Live For Live Music threw two phenomenal shows. The late-night “Purple Party” tribute to the dearly departed Prince sold out and stole the headlines, and rightfully so. It was a massive throwdown of mammoth proportions that toasted the revered icon into the heavens with the ultimate respect and admiration. Yet earlier in the evening, a mercilessly funky affair took place in the very same room, paying homage to a living legend who still walks and grooves among us: the decorated luminary Herbie Hancock.
Joey Porter, keyboardist of The Motet, brought together bandmate and bass maestro Garrett Sayers, as well as Ryan Zoidis, Robert “Sput” Searight, and Nate Werth, and the assembled players took on a lion’s share of beloved jams from Herbie’s funk era. Having already wound this up once before (sans Zoidis) at Brooklyn Comes Alive, the band was already quite familiar with one another, and this quintessential material is forever burned into the recesses of their collective minds.
Peter Knudsen (of Ghost Note, and The Positive Agenda) slid through with some subtle, choice contributions, and the guitarist was seemingly in all the right places all week long. As for the show itself, the results were staggering, if predictable, with terrifically groovy and well-greased runs through Headhunter workouts like “Chameleon”, “Actual Proof”, “Watermelon Man”. They closed it out with the rumbling funk earthquake “Hang Up Your Hang Ups”, and we spilled into the street and down to d.b.a. to take in some Frequinox.
J.E.D.I. – Sunday, 4/30 – Maison
For J.E.D.I. (Jazz Electronic Dance Improvisation), Brazilian Girls drummer and David Byrne collaborator Aaron Johnston enlisted the likes of the Shady Horns’ Ryan Zoidis and Eric Benny Bloom, Break Science’s Borahm Lee, The Disco Biscuits’ bassist Marc Brownstein, and more to present an extremely vibey, very danceable, and downright delicious one-hundred minutes of sizzling improvised dance jams. The Nth Power’s Nate Edgar, who was in this project in its infancy, sat in late in the show, among other members of Byrne’s touring band. A deft departure from the superjam norm, as high art improvisation and world music stylings took flight on Frenchman.
[Video: Steve d]
New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars – Saturday, 5/5 – Vaughn’s
The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars are another local music and culture institution that tears it down each and every year, and there’s nothing more authentically NOLA than a proper get-down at Vaughn’s in the Bywater. On this particular evening The Yiddish folk/Nawlinz’ funk troubadours were led by guitarist Jonathan Freilich, accordian Glen Hartman, and Galactic’s sax madman Ben Ellman. NOKAS broke in a new drummer Brendan Bull, who was stepping into some rather large shoes; both Stanton Moore and Mean Willie Green have held down the drum seat over the past quarter century. Local hero Dan Ostreicher (Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave.) was blazing hot on the baritone sax. The two-plus hour rager in the Treme was proof in the pudding; this Crescent City mishpucha is showing nary a sign of slowing down, as new troops are always at the ready to carry on the funky Klezmer traditions.
Papa Grows Funk – Monday, 5/7 – Tipitina’s Uptown
The cagey veterans, led by NOLA funk icons John “Papa” Gros and June Yamagishi, returned for a reunion of their storied post-Fest Monday night affair, held this year at Tips instead of its former home the Maple Leaf. Papa Grows Funk was rounded out by Jason Mingledorff, Marc Pero, and Jeffery “Jellybean” Alexander on the drum seat. A thoroughly Big Easy way to close out Jazz Fest 2018, with this greasy, loving look in the rear view mirror. The band recalled their fiery form of yesteryear, calling up “Do U Want It?” as an opener, scorching through a set that had Tips packed with primarily locals howling every word back at the boys. “Junker Man” really tore the house down proper.
[Video: Mic Clark]
FestMob – Tuesday, 5/1 – Blue Nile
After Adam Deitch Quartet, we ventured upstairs for the time-honored Crescent City brotherhood FestMob, fronted by the short-in-stature but huge-in-personality Steven Bernstein of SexMob fame. Bernstein’s wailing trumpet and feel-good vibes led a contingent of Kirk Joseph (sousaphone), Jonathan Freilich (guitar), Will Bernard (guitar), and Mike Dillon on drums. Bernstein composed a song on the spot, and Benny Bloom, fresh from the AD4 hit downstairs, hopped on along with two other (mystery?) saxophonists, and the boys second-lined their way off the stage and onto the Blue Nile Balcony in true Crescent City style.
Maurice “Mobetta” Brown & Soul’d U Out featuring Talib Kweli & DJ Scratch – Saturday, 5/5 – Three Keys at Ace Hotel
Maurice “Mobetta” Brown & Soul’d U Out brought a taste of classic hip-hop and upscale soul to the Ace Hotel with a slammin’ set featuring rap royalty Talib Kweli and DJ Scratch. Mo Betta was musical director and soared on the trumpet, while spitting verses amid Khris Royal and Irvin Pierce (saxophones), Shea Pierre (keyboard), Marcus Machado (guitar), Max Moran (bass), and Thomas Glass (drums). Kweli even had a few choice words for his longtime friend Kanye West before launching into a blistering rendition of Yeezy’s Talib anthem “Get By”. Marcus King Band keyboardist DeShawn D’Vibes Alexander slipped onstage for a choice sit-in as well.
John Medeski’s Mad Skillet – Wednesday, 5/2 (late night) – Maison
Born of a late-night Jazz Fest rager in 2015, John Medeski reconvenes his vehicle Mad Skillet annually in New Orleans, and each year they benefit by more and more groove workouts. In 2017, the keyboard scientist took Mad Skillet overseas, touring in Europe to audiences totally slack-jawed by their inventive playing. With the help of NOLA’s greasiest trigger-man, Terence Higgins, on drums, sousaphone svengali Kirk Joseph pumping out Crescent City low-end theory, and axe-man Will Bernard keeping things spicy on hollow-body guitar, this was a recipe for rumblin’ deep into the French Quarter night. The band performed a healthy mix of bluesy jazz, occasional Medeski, Martin & Wood tunes, covers with both rock and funk sensibilities, all drizzled over Higgins’ shimmying NOLA shuffle.
Special thanks to Randy Bayers and Funk It Blog for the abundance of amazing video footage!
Words: B. Getz