The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival (Jazz Fest 2008) opened on Friday April 25 to a packed park, and the sight of the crowds staking out spots on the racetrack infield signaled that the heart and soul of New Orleans was back. That is not to forget that much of the city infrastructure is still in shambles, but the spirit of New Orleans does not and will not give up in the continuing aftermath of hurricane Katrina. Like their protecting presence in so much of southern life, women dominated the main Acura Stage, and the opening acts featured New Orleans’ sweetheart Susan Cowsill, honkey tonk queen Kim Carson, and the incomparable and indefinable Theresa Andersson.
The women graciously supported each other on a song or two and the crowd loved it. You did not read about this in the mainstream reportage or the local Louisiana press, since Friday’s headliners Sheryl Crow, Allison Krauss and Robert Plant dominated reviews and headlines from USA Today to the Advocate. The truth be told, the crowd loved the local talent as well, and responded with enough hoots, whistles and applause to be heard all the way to Lafayette, Lake Charles, and beyond. The place was packed, but actual attendance figures have not been released yet for this, the third fest since Katrina made her mark on New Orleans.
Susan Cowsill opened the Acura stage on Friday. For readers too young to remember, pop icon Cowsill was the “baby” sister of the late 60’s pop group, The Cowsills, a real life model for television’s The Partridge Family. Cowsill is now a fifteen-year resident and multiple music awards winner in the Crescent City, and either consistently wins or is nominated in the Best female Vocalist and Roots Rock Categories. If anyone has ever doubted that her homage to the city that America forgot in the aftermath of Katrina, “Crescent City Snow,” is the best Katrina song ever written, ask the crowds that are riveted with every performance. Review after review mentions the intense audience response and connection to the song. Even the mainstream has picked up on this phenomenon and the Associated Press dubbed Crescent City Snow the “anthem” of Katrina in its opening feature on Jazz Fest 2008.
John Swenson has been writing about pop music since 1967. Swenson wrote for Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock World, and OffBeat Magazine, and was a syndicated music columnist at United Press International and Reuters. Cowsill was on Swenson’s must-see list for Day One of Jazz Fest.
Here is a video of Cowsill’s cover of the great Lucinda Williams’ “Drunken Angel,” performed at French Quarter Fest. Video, unfortunately, was not permitted at Jazz Fest. I guess what happens at Jazz Fest stays at Jazz Fest.
Swenson also picked “underrated local country/rockabilly singer and roadhouse queen Kim Carson, [and] the eclectic and imaginative Theresa Andersson Group” to head his personal Fest plan.
Cowsill joined Carson for harmony vocals on the song, “Wondering,” and the result had audience members whispering that the two women sounded “like angels.” It was the first time Carson and Cowsill had performed together.
Jazz Fest organizer Quint Davis personally picked local vocalist and fiddle player Theresa Andersson to precede Krauss and Plant. Davis was quoted as saying there was “nobody else” he wanted for the slot but local girl Andersson with her self-described “psychedelic, healing and easy listening” music. Susan Cowsill also joined Andersson for harmony vocals. The poignancy of the three hometown women joining each other on stage was not lost to locals. All suffered tremendous personal and financial losses to hurricane Katrina, but returned to live and love in the city that loves them back.
There is no doubt that the local talent is terrific and under-appreciated by the national media. This includes dozens and dozens of acts and musicians like Paul Sanchez, Sonia Tetlow, Tab Benoit, and the incomparable John Bouette. This writer thought she was the only press who had a couple of gripes with fest organizers, but it turns out other working stiffs were denied the prime real estate of photo pits and VIP tenting which went to what organizers termed “bigger media.” Perhaps that is why local talent is under-recognized, but that is a topic for another column. A couple of writers and photogs got together and compared notes. We all thought that perhaps Jazz Fest is getting a little too big for its britches when it comes to managing media. National and International Press got the VIP treatment and reviewed the national acts. The rest of us got some free tickets and hassles from security. But, we got the job done.
OffBeat music critic, Alex Rawls, notes that something else is happening at Jazz Fest—something that impacts audience members as well. Rawls wrote, “The audience was backed up at least five yards - now approximately 10 yards from the stage - so that those wealthy enough to make the $450+ price tag had room to wander up and loiter comfortably during the show while fans were pressed against the railing. The area runs the width of the stage, so it's not just a pocket at stage center. It's a strip of prime real estate that has been turned over to the rich.”
But, let’s go back to Cowsill and Andersson, throw in the “lost soul queen” of the sixties, Betty Harris, and see what can happen when music has her way and money takes a back seat.
For those lucky enough to be there, magic happened in Algiers that Friday night and you could imagine the music muse spreading her sheltering wings over a funky little bar on the levee, a joint called the Old Point. This was an instance in which the soul of music and art was revealed in a way that the poets write about. This was no manipulative themed tour like those supported and honed by massive music machines which feature phony southern-themed tent-revivals that are nothing more than circus side-shows designed to eclipse the real heart and soul of music making. So many musicians have abandoned Louisiana and New Orleans, but still try to make a buck or two off of the suffering. A couple of survivors gathered in Algiers and took music back for the Mississippi delta in a huge way.
Local promoter, producer and well-respected musician Marc Stone bet the farm by scheduling a show on the opening night of Jazz Fest. Well, it probably wasn’t that dicey, since he chose the incomparable Betty Harris to work her magic at the Old Point. We reviewed Betty once before at the same venue and once again she did not disappoint. Betty Harris is a master of the soul performance, and once again had the Old Point jumpin'. There is, quite simply, no one like her, and to see her live is to have a Betty Harris experience. See our previous review here. It still holds up. Go buy her CD, “Intuition.”
Something happened during Harris’ performance which revealed the grace and elegance of a soul queen who knows exactly who she is and is big enough to take a pause in her own superbly crafted show to give what amounted to a tribute to a younger female artist she spotted in the packed crowd. It was the first of several “wow” moments that night, and this writer will never forget it. As fate, the luck of the draw, or music angels would have it, Seattle based, award winning music photographer, Jef Jaisun, was also in the house. Jaisun covers music because he loves it. He is not in it for the money (there is none). His photos eloquently capture the texture of the moments they depict.