May 21, 2009

Kabbala is looking as old and unsightly as Madonna. With all due respect, Lady Di is dead. So who is one to emulate? And how is one to be charitable whilst New York is getting its lower parts licked by the Tribeca Film Festival? Stick with the tried and true?  I thought so. And so off I went, like the Jolie-Pitts would have me do, to Louisiana, for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

I figured Jazz Fest was a good way to support the local economy. And the idea of hanging out on Bourbon Street during Mardi Gras conjures up images of vomit and vermin rather than jugs and jewels. I would prefer to spend my days before Lent gorging myself at Gray’s Papaya than on a pub crawl. As the saying goes, no good deed goes unpunished, and so I found myself surrounded by beer-guzzling, middle-aged professionals, who looked more like yahoos than upper-middle class white Americans. 

Don”€™t get me wrong, everyone should be allowed to kick back; I just wonder why they can”€™t do it in espadrilles?  Flip-flops, Tevas, and Birkenstocks are hardly sexy. Guys should only be allowed to wear rubber thongs when they”€™re hitting the showers at a gym. And thongs do absolutely nothing for a woman with pudgy ankles: all they ensure is that one’s feet get dirty and that one looks common. So, unless you are a tow-headed surfer in board shorts with a tan and a six-pack, stay away from the flip-flops. They”€™re ugly.

That aside, I was amazed how pristine the city of New Orleans looked. There was hardly a hint of damage from Katrina, save a few flood lines, a FEMA trailer here and there, and a couple of turn-of-the-century shacks with gardens growing on the roof. I didn”€™t comb through the hardest hit neighborhoods, but one would never know that the city was devastated by a hurricane only four short years ago. The pace Southerners keep also surprised me: After more than half an hour, I was still waiting to get the keys to my hotel room. I wondered if I was still on New York time, or if they were all stupid. In the end, I chalked it up to the heat. There could be no other explanation for the frustrating sense that everything took twice as long as it had to”€”Is everyone in New Orleans still waterlogged?

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Despite the delays, the crowds, the mud, and the sea of objectionable footwear, my experience was worth the trip. Southern charm is no myth. My taxi driver quoted Shakespeare, and Poe, and told me he hoped I was as sweet as I was fine. I was exposed to food, music, and cultural practices that I had never come across before. 

There are so many bands one couldn”€™t possibly get to everything.  But I was determined to catch Allan Toussaint, a revered local singer-songwriter who played a great set in his cream-colored suit.  Unfortunately, he didn”€™t play my favorite of his songs, the “€˜70s hit “€œEverything I Do Gonh Be Funky.”€  I also heard some wonderful African jazz and Congo music. The dancing and costumes were so gay and vibrant, and brass bands could be heard everywhere. The Kings of Leon, a young Southern band of alternative rockers, really got the crowds rolling. These sons of a Tennessee preacher visibly impressed the oldies that could be seen biting their lower lips while dancing through clouds of funny smelling smoke. They looked ridiculous, but I can”€™t blame them; they were clearly having so much fun.

But by far the best were the old hands. Buddy Guy blew the crowd away in the blues tent at the end of the festival paying homage to his old friend Jimi Hendrix and the Band of Gypsies, among others. But it was Neil Young who stole the show. He played several encores, and even cracked a few smiles. 

Large outdoor music festivals are not for everyone. One can still get to the music at night however, visiting the Garden District and other posh New Orleans neighborhoods during the day. After midnight at the Howlin”€™ Wolf, a young and attractive Teresa Andersen impressed everyone with her magnificent fiddle playing.  Some of the lesser-known Marsalis brothers kept us up another night at a dive bar with a truly impressive jazz set.

I thought it strange that there were barely any African-Americans in the audience, but then I found them all on the fairgrounds after the rainstorm. They were in the mud at the Congo stage, dancing and singing en masse along with the band… “€œSunshine and rain, like joy and pain…”€ I”€™ve hardly ever seen that many people looking quite so happy.


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