Saturday, May 3, 2008

Very superstitious

If this superstition doesn't exist it ought to: When you're a big music star playing a giant open-air venue like the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, don't turn over the mic to let your daughter sing. Also, avoid long drum solos. And if you're somehow not with it enough to avoid Pitfalls A and B, at least have the sense not to make both mistakes consecutively. Very bad luck.

That's what Stevie Wonder did yesterday during a disappointing set at a rainy JazzFest, with the effect that by the time he got to one of his big 1970s hits, "Superstition," most of the energy had leaked out of the show. To only slightly rewrite that lyric: If you don't believe in things that you ought to understand, you suffer.

Midway through Wonder's set one guy standing next to us decided he'd had enough. "This is putting me to sleep," he said. "I've gotta go find something else," and he took off in search of another stage.

It was too bad, too, because the concert started off promisingly enough, I thought. Wonder began by introducing his beautiful daughter Aisha Morris, who is one of three backup singers with his band (she was the baby splashing in the bath in the 1976 hit "Isn't She Lovely"), and made a short, not overly ingratiating speech about the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the recent loss of his mother and the state of the world. He then launched into a very good rendition of "Love's In Need of Love Today," followed I think by "Higher Ground," and everything seemed cool. The band sounded great, the sound mix was good, Stevie's singing was strong and true and there were none of the long, wiggly-voiced departures that he can fall victim to.

Somewhere along the way, though, he went off course. It might have been the way overlong, tedious version of the hit "Ribbon in the Sky," with lame requests for audience participation complete with separate sing-along parts for men and women. Ugh. He wiggle-voiced around that tune for about 20 minutes, and then let Aisha sing a song by herself -- double-ugh -- and then launched into another long song I didn't know that featured a five- or six-minute drum solo. Ugh, ugh, ugh.

I was a big Stevie fan as a kid and I'm still a big appreciator -- I own and still listen to four of his classic 1970s albums -- but I had trouble hanging in there. He kept saying, "Are you ready to go home," an invitation for the crowd to shout "no" and for him to keep playing, but I kept saying, "yeah, sure."

Michelle, characteristically, got even more directly to the point. "He better play some fucking hits or I'm outie," she said.

We were standing pretty far back in the huge crowd, in what must have been the unofficial "smoking" section; all around us the pungent smell of reefer was in the air. A 40s-ish guy behind us took a deep breath: "I'm getting fucked up just standing here and I'm not even smoking."

The weed, the rain and the waning music made for a strange Woodstocky scene back in our section: a bunch of little girls, maybe 9 to 12 years old, took turns running, sliding and falling down in the mud; a trio of stoned, skanky, college-age chicks, one with a giant gut exposed by her bikini, danced in the mud too, but somehow managed not to fall down. One by one, small groups of rain-soaked beer drinkers packed up their tarps and coolers and flagpoles (to help friends find them) and trudged off to competing venues before Stevie finished.

As the rain came in intermittent sheets, the music improved. He did play a medley of hits and the crowd got back into it, although I thought it was a little sad that the biggest response was for "Signed, Sealed, Delivered I'm Yours," recorded in 1970 just barely when he had stopped being "Little Stevie Wonder" and before the big artistic breakthrough of the "Talking Book," "Innervisions" and "Fulfilligness' First Finale" albums.

After my favorite performance of the set, "Boogie on Reggae Woman," Wonder brought up New Orleans legend and JazzFest regular Irma Thomas to perform with him. That should have been a high point but it fell short too. Irma wasn't in very good voice, and Stevie had to keep prompting her with the lyrics to his songs, including some big hits. She might have been the only person in the audience who didn't know the words.

Elsewise, though, it was a nice JazzFest day, despite the rain. The food is always delicious -- crawfish Monica, yum; trout Baquet, excellent -- and we ran into our friend and M&M regular, Sandy (yet another of the old Driftwood college paper crowd, pictured with Michelle and Freda at the top of this post). He had allowed us to park at his house, just blocks from the festival grounds, sat with us during a good Richard Thompson set, and invited us over to his place for a dinner of homemade gumbo, which I think we surprised him by accepting. Tasty.

A couple final thoughts on JazzFest: They've jacked the prices so high -- $50 per ticket -- that it's no longer the great bargain or all-inclusive party that it used to be. More like an upscale party for yuppies like us. And compared with the 2006 JazzFest that we attended, the first one after Katrina, the place didn't have the same inspiring mix of resolve and hometown spirit. Everyone seems tired of recovering from the storm.

Prices, weather and disappointments notwithstanding, Michelle and I plan on going back tomorrow to catch a tribute to Mahalia Jackson in the Gospel Tent, the Raconteurs at Gentilly Stage, a few minutes of Rebirth Brass Band at Congo Square and Preservation Hall Jazz Band at Economy Hall Tent, and the Neville Brothers, to close out the festival, at the Acura Stage.

With a nod to LaurieSue, who mocked M&M's easy grading scale and then promptly declared four "nurse caps" for a new kung-fu movie: Stevie Wonder's set, 2 gliomas; Friday JazzFest overall, 3 gliomas.


freda said...

I have to agree with your comment on the version of Ribbon in the Sky. He really pounded it in to the ground and stomped on it, what a shame. It seemed like perhaps he had not prepared enough material and was trying to fill in time. He did perform enough of my favourites for me to forgive him however. I agree with your comment on the daughter too, I didn't go to hear her, I went to hear him.

freda said...

ps, love that photo of Michelle

Andrea said...

Thanks for blogging on Jazz Fest! ...The 2006 was so inspirational, wasn't it? Even that one was expensive, though. My friend and I were so hot and thirsty during the show, but determined not to pay for water, so we snagged an unfinished water bottle off the ground and poured the water into our mouths. Thinking back on it, that was way gross. Not as gross as eating at Waffle House though. ;) Oh yeah...I said it.

Mark said...

I don't know, Andrea, that was my first time at Waffle House and I thought it was a pretty good pecan waffle. Then again judging by my gut just about anything passing for food must be ok by me.

JazzFest is always fun, even if you bring your own water. And you're right, that 2006 edition was especially good.

Thanks for checking in on us.

kateco said...

1) 50 dollar jazz fest has me way sad -- but what i heard -- via cell-tastic friends -- still made me jones.

2)sandy is ageless.

3)"If you don't believe in things that you ought to understand, you suffer." is my new mantra.

4) Driving back from the air show today -- already half-way out of California -- Val and I thought that if we made a u-turn and really put our minds to it, we could beat you to the Keys. We would be there waiting for you -- we'd say, "hey babies, have you some conch!" I guess we developed a road trip jones too.

Anyway -- happy fest! Drive on!

Mark said...

Man, I love the idea of you guys meeting us down there. Nothing like a road trip, and that's some pretty country you'd be passing through.

We can all go marlin fishing in the keys; I met a guy last night who gave me the best spot.

kateco said...


LaSue said...

Sorry it has taken me so long to respond, been having trouble accessing your sight through Yahoo, don't know why. As for the gliomas I think 3 is still too high with a bad Stevie Wonder set (and I can just imagine the pain) the rain and a $50.00 ticket. Yikes...give me the days of WNNR field passes and Omar the Pie Man any day. What the heck are those fancy food stalls anyway. A beat up van or igloo ice chest was all that we needed to know a vendor was the real deal. As to the new yuppie Jazz Fest I give it two nursing caps without even being there. Mark you need to develop that critical edge

kateco said...

laurie -- oooooo omar, now you gave me the sweet potato pie blues all day.