Amazing grace

By JON GARELICK  |  May 4, 2010
DISCOVERY Robert Gibson will tell you — it ain’t easy playing one-string guitar.
This Jazz Fest’s announced theme was the centenary of New Orleanian Louis Prima. (His former partner, and wife, Keely Smith, sang in a bell-clear soprano with a big band in the WWOZ Jazz Tent.) But the overriding theme all over town was the Saints. The former chumps turned Super Bowl champs were lauded in multiple “Who Dat?” chants, from brass bands and Mardi Gras Indians to rapper K. Gates opening up for Drake on the Congo Square Stage with his tribute “Black and Gold” before bringing a handful of Saints players up to join him. The top story in the Times-Picayune Thursday through Saturday was the NFL draft. (It’s April, for cripes’ sake!) And a small sign in the front of our shuttle bus to the Fair Grounds on Saturday bore a legend that name-checked another fight song: “ ‘Big Thang’ — Get Crunk on the Colts — Bush 25.” Meanwhile, Eddie, the leader of second-line dances through the trad Economy Hall Tent, topped his umbrella this year with an ersatz Super Bowl trophy.

And how was the music? Well, it’s never just music in NOLA. Part of the thrill of Jazz Fest — as in much of the city — is the incongruous juxtaposition of content and context. Among the fest’s 12 stages, Dr. John followed up his funk anthem “Right Place, Wrong Time” with Johnny Mercer & Harold Arlen’s “Accentuate the Positive.” And the Free Agents Brass Band dedicated “one for the Lord . . . and for the Saints” as a prop plane flew overhead with the trailing signage “Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club.” You could catch Dominican superstar Juan Luis Guerra on the Congo Square Stage while the Levon Helm Band belted out old Band hits on the big Acura Stage. On the way back to the hotel, my wife and I caught some of the Young Fellaz Brass Band outside the Foot Locker at the corner of Bourbon and Canal — they were mashing up “Tom’s Diner” and the theme from I Dream of Jeannie while frat boys in flip-flops and button-down shirts over Bermudas did a bump-and-grind in the traffic.

Some acts were just plain sublime. In the Gospel Tent, the Blind Boys of Alabama cranked out a set almost identical to what I heard them do last year at Tipitina’s, but I was glad to hear it again: Norman Greenbaum’s perennial “Spirit in the Sky,” “Down in the Hole” (their Tom Waits theme from The Wire), “Amazing Grace” arranged to the organ-and-blues-rock-guitar melody of “House of the Rising Sun,” and a “What I Say” call-and-response rave-up that sent the tent into pandemonium when singer Jimmy Carter — wailing in his indomitable tenor — was led into the crowd.

This year’s discovery was Robert “1-String” Gibson, a busker-turned-Blues-Tent attraction who frailed on that one string (I don’t think the guitar was a Gibson) in what sounded like a church-trained voice, clear and focused, alternating rhythm riffs and blues lines, sometimes suggesting the intervals and phrasing of an African kora by way of the diddley bow. His subject matter tended to be busker-level street: “It’s hot, it’s hot, it’s hot out here/I need a dressing room with air conditioning.” A song about two couples from Houston who approached him on Bourbon Street one day was called “Two Couples from Houston,” and it repeated the title line over and over. He sang his own “We Gonna Make It” a cappella, with unfailing intensity. And he sang his signature song: “Somebody said, ‘Put that guitar down/Get a job.’ It ain’t easy playin’ one-string guitar.”

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