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Rock & Roll Rewind: Jazz Fest 2023

The stage and crowd at Jazz Fest in New Orleans is pictured.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

c d kaplan is a lifelong rock & roller. He’s got stories. Lots of ‘em. Here’s another.

Among the many theories I’ve postulated in 34 years attending New Orleans JazzFest is: If the first act of the day resonates, it’s going to be a good day at Fest.

(Yes, there are some days that don’t fire for whatever reason, even with 50 or so choices of music on a dozen stages.)

So I inquire. What were you doing at 11:30 am last Friday morning?

I was at the big stage, sipping on a frozen latte, listening to a group I’d never heard before called the Seratones.

They more than resonated.

The rock & soul group from Shreveport proved worthy of their burgeoning reputation, having been named of one of Paste Magazines top new bands a couple of years back.

Lead singer AJ Haynes, set the tone for the day (and the weekend) when she belted out “Good Day.”

Other early arrivers and I were smiling.

So it went.

One of my favorite aspects of JazzFest is the opportunity to hear contemporary African groups I wouldn’t otherwise.

This year it was Bassekou and N’Goni Ba. They’re from Mali. They play electrified acoustic string instruments, the names of which I haven’t a clue. Drums of course. Their lyrics were in a language I can’t identify.

Like most of these groups, the music was rhythmic, hypnotic, melodic.

We danced beneath the azure sky.

On to hear Las Cafeteras, a Chicano band from LA, whom I discovered at Fest last year, and were just a day before replacement this year for a group that couldn’t appear.

They continue to mesmerize.

It’s Mexican folk mixed with rock & roll with some doo wop-ish harmonies, and a tune or two that has all that propelled by a reggae rhythm. Leader Daniel French is charismatic, singers Denise Carlos and Leah Gallegos move the soul.

We danced.

My fave of the day was Allison Russell on the Fais Do Do Stage. I know her music from her days with hubby in Birds of Chicago. They played Clifton Center about a decade ago. So taken was I, two albums were purchased. One, self titled, is in regular rotation on my box.

She now tours with an all female band. Her voice and messages are sublime. She brought husband AJ Nero out for a duet.

Day Two began with a Crawfish Strudel and a big helping of NO locals Johnny Sketch & the Dirty Notes on the Gentilly Stage.

Mr. Sketch, or whatever his real name is, trained classically. He brought out an electric cello during one jam. Sweet. Different. On another tune, the chorus was to the strains of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathrustra.”

I turned to a pal and opined, “Only in New Orleans.”

Sunday began with Niger’s Mdou Moctar. He’s from the nomadic Tuareg people of Saharan Africa. I’ve heard him before, and he was one of the acts I was most looking forward to seeing.

He did not disappoint.

His sound is part snake charmer, part Hendrix. Hypnotic. Electric. He tried to set the day on fire. He came close.

On to a six string antidote at the relatively bucolic Lagniappe Stage in the Paddock Area of the Fairgrounds Race Track where the Fest resides. There are chairs. People sit and listen.

This time to the New Orleans Guitar Masters, a put together trio who play the Fest yearly. John Rankin. Jimmy Robinson. Cranston Clements. Old timers, who know all sorts of music. They teach around town. Gig solo here and there. Always masterful.

Their second to last tune was the Meters “Cissy Strut.” They finished with a stunning version of the Dave Brubeck Quartet classic, “Blue Rondo a la Turk.”

Sidney Bechet was to New Orleans clarinet and soprano saxophone as Louis Armstrong was to the Crescent City trumpet. There was a tribute to him at Economy Hall Tent, which features traditional New Orleans jazz. (Which many refer to as Dixieland.)

Dr. Michael White, Aurora Nealand and Donald Harrison, along with Detroit Brooks on banjo, led the top flight group.

The set was both educational about Bechet and his importance and sublime to listen to.

My weekend ended with a searing set by Tedeschi Trucks Band, which I consider the best band extant. “Midnight in Harlem”: so so soothing. Their take on Dr. John’s “Walking on Gilded Splinters” was righteous. And featured some unique interplay of the two drummers I can’t begin to explain. But it sure amped up the tune.

They are my favorite group.

They were on.

It was a perfect end to my 34th JazzFest experience.

Observer of the Passing Scene: Pop Culture and Sports. Writer. Film Critic. Curmudgeon. Rock & Roll and Louisville Cardinal fan.

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