Playing pretty at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival

Anthems and praise songs
By JON GARELICK  |  May 12, 2011

Jazz Fest in New Orleans
WORLD-FAMOUS LOVE ACTS Those with a taste for subversive R&B could choose between Big Freedia and Tom Jones (above).

An accordion blasted a few bars of a two-step and then stopped. "That's the only Cajun music you'll hear on this stage," said Colin Meloy. The Decemberists were making their New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival debut on the Fais Do-Do stage, which is typically reserved for Cajun, zydeco, and other indigenous Louisiana music. Meloy was appropriately humble afterward, and the band sounded good with their strummy folk rock and Jenny Conlee's vocal harmonies against Meloy.

But the Decemberists are common currency these days, and my wife and I had a rarer bird to catch — former '60s Vegas pop heartthrob Tom Jones. It wasn't till the '90s that someone tipped me off that the voice of "Delilah," "It's Not Unusual," "What's New Pussycat?", and the theme from Thunderball belongs to "a great R&B singer." He's been pushing the heavy stuff hard in the naughts, and at JazzFest, he fronted a grunge-drenched blues-guitar trio, singing gospel numbers like rave-ups off some lost amalgam of Junior Kimbrough, Zeppelin, and the Stooges: "You may run for a long time/Run for a long time/Run for a long time/But sooner or later I'm gonna cut you down!" The big voice boomed and tore, and the consonants cut like God's wrath.

For Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Strange Things," Jones brought on his female backing singers, organ, and piano. Then it was time for a ballad from the old days, "(It Looks like) I'll Never Fall in Love Again." Distinguished in trim gray locks and goatee, dark blazer, and jeans, Jones, now 71 years old, measured his steps with utmost concentration, eyes closed, building and building ("I gave my heart so easily"), timing his breaths perfectly, coughing off-mic and swallowing, and then belting the big belting high note. But it was inevitable that at this moment of greatest artistic focus, the crowd would respond to the man they never knew back before they were born, the '60s Vegas stud, and it was Caesars Palace all over again: the foot off the stage was pelted with panties.

Of such incongruities is JazzFest born. From stage to stage (all 11 of them across the Fair Grounds Race Course, each year during the last weekend of April and the first weekend of May), and even within each act. After all, on Bourbon Street, you can hear sublime, rollicking trad jazz at "European Jazz Pub" Fritzel's, with its portrait of Field Marshal Rommel, or wander down the street to witness "World-Famous Love Acts." At the Fair Grounds, Big Freedia, the six-foot-plus tall avatar of sissy bounce, commanded the Congo Square Stage with "her" booming baritone rap, sporting a towering pompadour that challenged Janelle Monáe's for architectural splendor. "I got that gin in my system/Somebody gonna be my victim!" he bellowed over the stuttering bounce beat. Then he offered up his one "ballad," an interpolation of Aaliya's "If Your Girl Only Knew" — in this case, if she knew that her boy is two-timing her with another boy.

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  Topics: Jazz , Music, New Orleans, The Decemberists,  More more >
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