Last Night: The New Orleans All-Star Jam-Balaya at the Fillmore Auditorium
The New Orleans All-Star Jam-Balaya
It was clear that the New Orleans All-Star Jam-Balaya, a fundraiser co-sponsored by the Friends of New Orleans featuring some of the biggest and best names in Louisiana music, differed from the typical live-performance event in Denver even before attendees entered the building. The entranceway to the Fillmore was surrounded by oversized chain-link "privacy" fence, presumably to prevent any commuters heading down Colfax from seeing delegates, political heavyweights and others associated with the Democratic National Convention slated to start the next day receive the most thorough wanding I've experienced in all my years of concert-going. When the polite but firm security officer at the front of my particular line asked my wife to spread her legs and then slowly, methodically ran a long, black electro-rod in an inverse "V" shape from ankle to crotch to ankle, I didn't know whether to be offended or aroused.
I entered the auditorium several minutes before 8 p.m., the scheduled start time of the event, to find the music already pumping: Saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr. led a rollicking ensemble co-starring Walter "Wolfman" Washington, one of the most fluid, underrated blues guitarists presently drawing breath, through several jazz-funk workouts plus a spirited rendition of "Hey Pocky Way" by the Meters, a classic Crescent City combo whose members were all on hand. The musicians stood in front of a giant video screen, but instead of screening closeups of them at work, as would happen later in the evening, technicians projected a series of sponsor logos (Lockheed Martin, the American Chemistry Council, et. al.) that contrasted incongruously with the sonic joy flowing from the stage.
Not that most of the attendees noticed. The crowd was sparse at that hour -- well under 500 in a venue that can hold close to 4,000 -- and its constituents were much more interested in bellying up to assorted bars or loading their plates at dozens of tables laden with an unbelievable array of cajun and bayou specialties assembled under the auspices of the National Restaurant Association. I didn't know there'd be food, so I ate earlier in the evening -- and then, upon seeing the spread, I wisely ate again after securing seats on a raised platform to the right of the stage. My neighbors there were mainly Louisianans ready to kick off convention week down-home style. A lot of the men looked astonishingly like Charles Durning in O Brother, Where Art Thou? -- overstuffed, flushed, canny, prosperous -- while a high percentage of the women resembled Tammy Faye Bakker with better makeup skills.
After Harrison and company wrapped, videos about New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina began rolling. They called to mind sequences from Spike Lee's masterful documentary When the Levees Broke, except that most of the gallant people in the spotlight just happened to work for Shell Oil (another sponsor) or members of unions that historically support Democratic causes. Still, they focused the growing crowd on the ostensible reason for the gathering while stagehands set up for the next act: an extended preview of Brother Ray, a musical version of the Ray Charles story that's slated to reach Broadway in the spring of 2009. The result was the only miscalculation of the evening. Brandon Victor Dixon, the Tony Award winner (for The Color Purple) who portrayed Charles, approximated the Genius of Soul's voice with impressive accuracy, and the supporting cast, portraying his mother and assorted Raelettes, sounded fine, too. But Dixon's acting in transitional sequences felt stilted and mannered. Of course, it was understandable that his performance lacked nuance, since he was trying to make himself heard over hundreds of people more interested in hobnobbing and gladhanding than in appreciating his dramaturgical abilities. Yet the momentum of the evening took a considerable hit anyhow.
Fortunately, there was a cure for this malady: the Wild Tchoupitoulas Mardia Gras Indians, who wore wonderfully garish costumes festooned with feathered finery as they promenaded through the Fillmore accompanied by members of the Soul Rebels, a traditional brass band populated by young, vibrant instrumentalists. Their circuitous route forced the lobbying and back-slapping to come to a halt, at least temporarily: Hard to focus on political favors when a guy who looks like a giant turkey on an acid trip is wiggling and shuddering a few feet away.
Even so, politics would return, with the Soul Rebels giving way to assorted addresses. Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu and his sister, Mary Landrieu, introduced recipients of "heroes of the storm" awards, some of whom were famous, such as Democratic strategist Donna Brazile, and some were less so, like representatives of the organization Women of the Storm. The latter tossed small footballs from the stage noting that "1 Football Field of Land Washes Away Every 50 Minutes" in the Louisiana coastland -- and surprisingly, their action didn't compound the disaster by causing any delegates to trip over the faux-Nerf items on the floor and break a hip.
Moments later, the award winners left the stage in favor of the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, an amalgamation of scorching players fronted by guitarist Tab Benoit and featuring bassist George Porter Jr. and percussionist/vocalist Cyril Neville, both of the Meters, as well as harmonica player/accordionist Johnny Sansone and New Orleans refugee turned Colorado resident Henry Butler on keyboards. Locals who take Butler for granted because he plays at modest-sized nightspots such as Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret would have had their perspectives readjusted on this night, as the other musicians regularly deferred to his pianistic and vocal abilities. His version of Professor Longhair's venerable "Go to the Mardi Gras" smoked even though it had already been played twice earlier (by Harrison's group and the Soul Rebels), and he subsequently turned Billy Preston's "Will It Go Round in Circles" into a dance party that even the stodgiest politicos in the room couldn't resist. Suddenly, Butler was the most powerful man in the room -- the only man capable of making guys in $2,000 suits embarrass themselves in public. Most enthusiastic was Mitch Landrieu, who went into so elaborate a dance with one woman that the area around them cleared as in a scene from Saturday Night Fever. If this politics thing doesn't work out, he can also sign up for Dancing With the Stars.
After that came a parade of cameos, with the All-Stars providing inspired backing. Irma Thomas and Marcia Ball both were entertaining, but they couldn't compete with blues belter Marva Wright. Listening to her deliver Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come" was like perching on the rim of an erupting volcano and somehow living to tell the tale. Equally impressive: As the musicians, Benoit made an impassioned plea for those present to help rebuild New Orleans and the Louisiana coastline or risk losing a part of America that's as vital culturally as it is economically. The organizers probably feared a Kanye West moment, but Benoit was measured, smart and right on the money.
A long pause followed, during which many in the audience -- which had grown to near-capacity -- split, either because they had important duties the next day or, more likely, they thought a change in location would enhance their carousing. Finally, the classic comedy team of actor/Simpsons voice maestro Harry Shearer and super-nasal lefty James Carville trotted out to introduce Randy Newman, accompanied by trumpeter Terence Blanchard. They only played two songs -- a bummer under the circumstances. However, one of them was Newman's "Louisiana 1927," a story of a tragic flood originally recorded for his '70s-vintage Good Ol' Boys album, and it was the night's emotional highlight -- a composition that seemed all-too prescient in light of the bungling of Katrina rescue efforts and the laggard restoration efforts during the past few years.
A reunion of the original Meters could have taken place after that. For whatever reason, though, Neville didn't join his comrades, drummer Zigaboo Modeliste, guitar master Leo Nocentelli and bassist Porter for the concert's climax. Instead, Allen Toussaint, a key player in the Meters story, and the de facto godfather of modern New Orleans music, took the piano as Washington returned to the stage along with keyboardist Kyle Hollingsworth of the String Cheese Incident. This outfit kicked off with the sort of power funk that Porter is currently making with his latest trio, Porter Batiste Stoltz, before moving into Toussaint's terrific "Yes We Can Can."
By this point -- well past midnight, and deep into hour five of the festivities -- only a few hundred people remained at the Fillmore. But all of the artists realized what a remarkable moment this was. Harry Shearer danced to my right, like The Simpsons' Mr. Burns suddenly seized by a case of St. Vitus' Dance, while Marcia Ball leaned over my shoulder to take a photo -- and then scurried onto the stage to sing along. Guess she thought it would be a little out of place to snap the shot in between vocals.
Calling this get-together a once-in-a-lifetime event isn't quite accurate, since the Friends of New Orleans are bringing the entire production to Minneapolis-St. Paul for the Republican National Convention on September 1. But it's exceedingly unlikely that so much New Orleans talent will gather here again. Witnessing it more than made up for having to rub shoulders with all those damned politicians. -- Michael Roberts