Sunday 19 October 2014. New Orleans Louisiana.
Today was the third and final day of the Crescent City Blues & BBQ festival at Lafayette Square. It was also the last day of my fifth and final music festival. Tomorrow I head back to Australia after almost forty days in the USA pursuing live music, music heritage and culture.
During the now familiar walk to Lafayette Square, I noticed it was a good deal cooler than the past few days here. I caught the last song of the first act of the day – the impressive young man Luke Winslow-King – and got up front for the performance that followed – Brother Tyrone and the Mind Benders. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina had flooded most of the city, Brother Tyrone walked out of his apartment in the Lafitte housing project in New Orleans into chest high water. Holding a small child over his head, he and his family made their way to the New Orleans Convention Centre, where, after two days, they were able to reach Baton Rouge in the back of a stolen pickup truck. In 2008, as the city slowly returned, Brother Tyrone made the decision to start work on Mindbender, his first new recording in almost eight years.
The release of Mindbender had the effect of lifting his profile and his deep rhythm ‘n’ blues spread beyond New Orleans. After accepting an offer to appear in Europe, Tyrone recorded a special collection of blues and soul for limited release at these concerts. Subsequent demand for the CD, Cue Stick Soul, has been great, leading to a full worldwide release in 2012. It was an enjoyable show, with a good dose of gospel-infused funk (one of the lead singers was a Reverend who had just finished his church service). His newest release features a number of very nice songs he performed today, such as “I Never Found A Girl”, “If You Ain’t Cheating” and “When It’s Gone, It’s Gone”.
There must be a New Orleans Saints NFL game on today, there are signs of the local football team everywhere – shirts, caps and assorted decorations, even some of the performers are decked out in team gear, such as Mia Borders who mentions the Saints to the crowd as she begins her set. Her style is what I would call sassy funk and r’n’b, but with a nod back to classic soul tunes such as Stax studio’s “What A Man” and Bill Withers’ “Use Me” (she covered both songs today, the latter song being Mia’s second favourite of all time – I never found 0ut what was number one). She hails from New Orleans and has a new album called Quarter-Life Crisis and today she sounded pretty good indeed – “Mama Told Me” and “Shooter” were a couple of numbers that stood out for me.
It was at this time, I recalled there was an Oral History Stage at the festival that I had not actually seen and that Tennessean Valerie June was being interviewed at this very time. I found its location after a while, a small theatre under a Hall over the road on St Charles Avenue. Valerie June was speaking about her falling in love with the Piedmont guitar picking style and the work of the Carter family, particularly the great Maybelle Carter. (This was a nice link back to my time two weeks ago on The Crooked Mile Road and visit to the Carter Family Fold just out of Bristol Virginia). I must find out more on this Piedmont style, as it has cropped up many times.
June refers to her music as organic moonshine roots music – she played a couple of songs off her recent, highly regarded album Pushing Against A Stone. I love that album and have enjoyed her performances at Byron Bay’s Bluesfest and at the Americana Awards show in Nashville this year. One very interesting topic covered in the discussion was her collaborations with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, and others, under the banner of The Wanderers.
It was time to go back to the Square for a late lunch and I tried one of Woody’s fish tacos, which was surprisingly bland.
Valerie June was just starting her set with R. L. Burnside’s “Rollin’ and Tumblin'”, “Tennessee Time” and “Somebody To Love”. Just her vocals and her rustic guitar style was a sparse and delightful contrast to many of the power outfits that tend to dominate a festival such as this. I was enjoying the still and the calm of it all.
Back to the Oral History Stage where Bobby Rush was to be interviewed. Attending this session turned out to be an inspired choice, and a beautiful way to finish this festival and my whole trip.
First some facts about this man Bobby Rush.
– born in rural Louisiana and has spent most of his life in Chicag0
– now living in Jackson Mississippi due to it being central to the South where most of his work continues to
– first recorded in 1951 and has released “337 records”
– at Chess Records in Chicago when Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and Etta James moved to the label
– in the early days, he and the band were required to perform behind a curtain, due to the audience being white
– Sammy Davis Jr once was in his band
– he is most proud of the fact that his career has been largely self-managed and self-contained, in contrast to many of his colleagues who were penniless by career or life end.
I found the session immensely engaging. At the end, Rush seemed in no hurry to leave, happy to chat, sign autographs. A very small group of us stayed on and we talked for a while. Photos were taken, he gave me his signed business card and a hug when I mentioned my Australian origins. It was a remarkable thing to get this close to such a warm person and renowned performer.
Time to eat – this choice was better than the last – a cochon de lail Po’ Boy….pork and dripping ‘slaw.
And now back to Mr Bobby Rush to close off the festival. His regular stage feature of dancing girls with…er…shall we say, lots of curves was evident. He was looking amazing for man about to turn 81. I truly did not appreciate before this evening that he is such a comedian. He is genuinely funny, can get away with some ribald humour even today – the band members don’t seem to have tired of his jokes and routine either, clearly enjoying being on stage with the man. Another feature brought to my attention is the power and dexterity of his harmonica playing.
Some of the songs on show were “Lovin’ A Big Fat Woman”, “Hen Pecked”, a brilliant “Crazy About You” and “Ever Been Mistreated”, working the crowd with consummate skill throughout the set. A fiery version of “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “She’s Nineteen Years Old” and “Night Fishing”. For the finale he responded to a request and did an extended “Sue”.
The MC had to come on stage and close the session, otherwise the man I expect would still be going.
So that was the close of the 2014 Crescent City Blues & BBQ festival, which has a lot going for it – a good mix of New Orleans talent and blues players of all types from other parts of the country. A great setting in a central location, close to the CBD where many hotels are located, near the French Quarter and the Mississippi River. The end-to-end stage format is a good one too, with music on the whole time. If you have a chair, just keep turning it around every hour or so and you won’t miss a thing. The food was great, drinks prices reasonable and the stalls are worthwhile, AND it’s free, thanks to the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. It’s a winner.
So time to return to my hotel and begin the process of packing and getting ready to return to Melbourne, Australia.
My five-week musical journey commenced in Nashville on 15 September when I watched Left Over Salmon at the Ryman Auditorium put on a terrific night with musical guests. It seems like a hell of a long time ago. Now Bobby Rush has become the other bookend, a worthy and wonderful way to complete my time in the USA this time around.
In between these bookends, I’ve been to five music festivals (about sixteen days worth), six States and followed the Blue Ridge Mountain Heritage Music trail. Just off the top of my head, I’ve met (albeit briefly) Jerry Douglas, Cruz Contreras from The Black Lillies, Darrell Scott, Luke Winslow-King, bluegrass performers Becky Buller and IBMA award winner Louisa Branscomb, Lucinda Williams, John Prine, Darden Smith, Bobby Rush and a heap of worthy Australian performers plying their wares in America.
I’m done. Time to go home.