Yesterday I went to JazzFest, New Orleans’ premier music event. The two weekend event attracts musicians from all over the world, and this year the music community went all out to help New Orleans. Headline acts include Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Urban and others too numerous to mention.
My older daughter is a big Dave Matthews fan and had planned to go with her friends to get a good spot near the stage. My other two kids wanted to go too, and so we all schlepped over to the Fairgrounds as the skies above us grew dark grey, filled with the menace of rain. As we walked the length of the park the strong wind was spraying dust everywhere, occassionally snapping some of the large poles that fest-goers bring to mark their place in the colorful throng of people.
The kids quickly dispersed to hang with their friends and I joined my friends Lisa and Charlie near the front of the main stage. They had befriended a Chicago fireman named Mike who comes to the fest every year and gets the same spot. Mike loves New Orleans as much as I do, and he came this year with a special momentum, eager to help the city rebuild. Getting to know Mike, albeit not well enough, was worth 10 times the price of admission. These are kinship rites that I live for, meeting new people who all hear a silent whistle that calls them to a certain spot on the earth where they open up and share themselves. In the case of the drunk college kids to our right ‘sharing themselves’ would mean urinating on the tarp, which they felt justified in doing because it would take too long to get to the bathroom (note to the rookies: concert beer is a high-maintenance beverage). Oh, well, what can you do? You can’t pick your ‘new friends’ and that’s okay. We all have to learn to get along and enjoy life.
Oh, and I should mention that there was music too.
The Subdudes played in the early afternoon. Tommy Malone’s funk guitar and John Magnie’s soul-wrenching keyboards brought the crowd up to a fever pitch. If you haven’t heard the Subdudes then you are missing something really important. You can sample (and buy) their stuff at the iTunes Music Store. I recommend ‘Social Aid and Pleasure Club’ along with ‘Papa Dukie and the Mud People’ and…well, just buy the whole damn album, which is called –appropriately enough– Behind The Levee.
After the Subdudes played the skies started to clear and the air became still. The crowd grew quiet and restless as the roadies started setting up for Dave Matthews. Eventually some chanting began but before it could really develop into an organized cadence Dave Matthews strolled out like he was showing up for a regular old band rehearsal. He smiled at the audience with a wink, then picked up his guitar and started to play. Dave Matthews is zero-hype and all music. His audience rapport was outstanding, not just because the people there were Matthews zealots. Dave Matthews is a humble guy and he cares about things that matter. I liked his music before yesterday, but resisted becoming a full-fledged fan because I felt like there is too much hype about Dave Matthews. Now, I ‘get it.’ The guy is cool.
Matthews made one little speech, if you can call it that, where he talked about his impressions of New Orleans. He said he’d been to the Ninth Ward and was filled with despair at seeing the devastation. "It’s just as bad today as it was in August, except the water is gone," he observed. "And let’s not wait for the government to fix things because we all know how that goes. If we want to fix this thing then we are going to have to do it ourselves." Of course, it’s easy for some out-of-towner to say "let’s fix it" as he heads out of town to his next gig. But, Dave Matthews isn’t some guy cruising through and sputtering platitudes. The Dave Matthews Band raised and donated $1.5 million dollars for a challenge grant to help build the Musicians’ Village (the Village is a Habitat for Humanity project conceived of by Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr. to build 300 homes in the Ninth Ward).
I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t emphasize this little factoid: Dave Matthews is a freakin’ awesome musician. Total control of his instrument; total commitment to the sound and the flow of mood, and complete rapport with his band. One song started with a little guitar riff that kept repeating in a halting beat that was as disturbing as it was alluring. I kept trying to figure out what was so strange about it, then I realized it wasn’t in either 4/4 or 3/4 time (99.5% of all rock/pop music is in one of those two time signatures). No, it was in 9/4 time. Only really serious musicians write songs in 9/4 time (for what it’s worth, the song ‘Money’ by Pink Floyd is in 7/4 time). Matthews is a serious musician.
He strummed his guitar like a hammer, his face twisting with each phrase that he sang, notably using a raised eyebrow as a turn signal before he looked to the left or right. At a short break, while his roadie brought him an electric guitar, he informed the audience that a special guest would come join the band onstage. Then a short fellow with a black knit cap emerged. With no fanfare –other than the audience going absolutely crazy– U2’s guitarist, The Edge, joined Matthews in a riveting version of Smooth Rider. People were singing and swaying and hugging. Almost everything was right in the small community of concert attendees. However, the Security Team was busy with the front left section of the audience: a young kid was hoisted up by his friend and passed around like a taco (he was captured and hauled away) and a woman got up on her boyfriend’s shoulders and took off her shirt (she was ushered out too). Dave was seemingly oblivious to all of this rigamarole as he had little time to look up while he worked his guitar and his facial turn-signals. But when the song ended he reverently thanked the audience, and as he looked down where the now-fully clothed woman was being led to stage right he said in a soft pleading voice: "Awww, don’t take the pretty naked lady away." Then he played a very apropos cover tune: Buffalo Springfield’s ‘For What it’s Worth.’
As he reached the end of his performance the crowd was drained of energy. The Security Team became more relaxed, openly smiling and laughing occassionally. We all knew it was a great concert and that it was going to end on a high note. So when a guy with a pony tail got up on a chair and held up his large colorful tropical parrot the steely-eyed guards just shrugged their shoulders and laughed. How the guy managed to get the bird into the festival is a mystery, just one of many that abound in this strange post-Katrina world that is New Orleans.
So here’s to all the people who came to our city to help out and enjoy the fun, and here’s to the people that live here all year round even when it’s not fun. Here’s to Dave, and Mike, and Wanda and Patty and Charlie & Lisa, and to the guy in the photo up at the top of this post, and to the Subdudes for sure, and even to the kid that pissed on the tarp. He came to New Orleans to help out too. And we’ll welcome anyone who comes to our city with that spirit.