New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, 10 p.m., Saturday, May 3:
We're in The Howling Wolf one of New Orleans' many music venues awaiting a contest between East Coast and West Coast groove-based jazz musicians. DJ Logic is on the turntables spinning "Gentleman" from Red Hot + Riot, the tribute album to late Afropop legend Fela Kuti. The crowd is growing thick but hanging loose enough to boogie.
People lean over the tiny wooden balcony above the dance floor, their cocktails dangling like a string of Christmas lights. Sweat drips from every inch of the place, as two enormous fans try in vain to cool the swampy air. The redolence of marijuana is pungent enough to give a secondhand smoker the munchies.
After the official Jazz Fest gigs during the day at nearby fairgrounds, French Quarter night clubs like The Howling Wolf fill with jam bandsÑ-a genre of music which, ideally, indicates that both the crowd and music are grassroots and counter-cultural. Jam bands span from rock to blues to groove jazz and, in some cases, hip-hop acts like Jurassic 5 and Blackalicious both of which drew heavy attendance at The Howling Wolf.
The difference between the jam scene and its indie counterpart is that the jam band scene is less insular. Overall, the vibe is more dance-oriented and sociable. Of course, this is because more than a few fans are surfing tsunamis of booze, extasy, LSD, mushrooms, nitrous (hippy crack) and the most capitalistic of them all cocaine. That would explain how they make it through four to five steamy days and nights of the Jazz Fest without needing more than say, four to five hours of sleep.
"It is a great place to indulge your self in any way," says San Diego groove organist Robert Walter, who performed several sold-out shows during this, his fifth year at the festival. "The food is amazing, the bars are open 24 hours a day, you can gamble, etcetera."
The East/West competition recalls a similar Grant Green/ Charles Mingus/Headhunter vibeÑthe subtle difference being in style. The obvious difference: when the West Coast takes the stage, people get freaky. This went double for San Diego trumpeter Carlos Washington, who, when not playing, was dancing and twirling his towel like a helicopter.
The pure love these musicians exhibited is something almost entirely bereft from the entertainment world today. It's not uncommon for jam bands to have an open-stage policy. For instance, Lenny Kravitz played back-up guitar for San Diego groove saxophonist Karl Denson, and a profusion of bassists ciphered through GovÕt Mule's set. Robert Walter was welcomed to the stage during the East Coast's set to finger his renowned groove.
"During the Jazz Fest there are so many great musicians in town and everybody sits in with each other and exchanges ideas," the organist says. "New Orleans is, of course, the birthplace of jazz it really makes me feel like part of the tradition."
Most people prefer not to be on the road during their birthdays or wedding anniversaries, both dates of which fall during the Jazz Fest for Walter. "It has become my way of celebrating," he says.
The Howling Wolf is one of the hottest venues in the Crescent City this year, both metaphorically and literally. The shows here are among the only ones to profit in the late-night game. The rest either break even or can't pay the bands they've booked.
Overall, it was a slow year for the festival. Last year, there were about a million attendees. According to Associated Press, numbers dropped this year to 450,000 the worst economic downturn in the lifetime of anyone at The Howling Wolf. Yet musicians like Walter don't seem to mind.
ÒIt was actually sort of refreshing for those of us who have seen the thing grow into ridiculous proportions in the last couple of years,Ó he says. ÒIt was easier to get into shows and lines were not as long as usual.Ó
It could be more complex than that, though. To paraphrase Ignatius J. Reilly, the gargantuan antihero of the famous New Orleans novel, A Confederacy of Dunces, itÕs Fortuna's meddling of the great wheel. We're still on her down swing, so much so that one couldn't help but notice the vacant vibe of audiences whose attention was as tepid (or zonked) as its attendance. However, if you were on stage, or paying close attention to those who were, you'd never guess it.
If Kurt Vonnegut is right, and music is 'proof of the existence of God,' the Lord bellowed salvation from every stage we visited. Even this year's poster, a James Michalopoulos painting of gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, was a subtle clue to a divine presence.
The question remains: who felt it?