Told myself I wasn’t going to battle the crowds to see Springsteen close out the first weekend. No disrespect to Springsteen, but I usually hover around the smaller stages at the fest, hoping to see music in a more intimate setting. But it happened by degrees. First, my son lured us closer to the Acura stage with lurid talk of strawberry shortcake from the vendors nearby. Then, following that shameful little spectacle, we noticed that Al Green wasn’t on the Congo Square stage for another forty minutes.
“Let’s check Springsteen out for half an hour, and then catch Al Green.”
So we waded into the sea and found ourselves somewhere in the great, white mass of Bruce fans, feeling as if Al Green was receding in possibility with every step. Wondering where we might stand without offending anyone behind us, we were suddenly clasped on the back. I turned, expecting to be challenged by a couple trespassed-upon mouth-breathers from, say, East Rahway, New Jersey. Instead, one of main guys in our security crew, Perry Blackmon, was beaming at me. Behind him, lounging in a lawn chair, was Clark Peters, known to many as Big Chief Albert Lambreaux in Treme, or to Wire fans, as Lester Freamon.
They looked like raisinets floating in a big bowl of milk. Only two black guys in my field of vision. I cracked up at the sight.
“Look at you two. Waitin’ on Bruce Springsteen!”
Perry rolled his eyes, nodding at Clark, as if to shift blame. Clark quickly reminded me he is from New Joisey, and hearing his sonorous stage voice lapse into that idiom for a moment, I believed him. So there they were with us as Springsteen and the E Streeters came out and held church. Which is to say, the two-and-a-quarter hour set was very much a requiem for Clarence Clemons, whose absence was acknowledged by Springsteen in ways that were both elegant and genuine.
A religious framework permeated the entire set, with songs from the Rising album and the new CD speaking as loudly to post-Katrina New Orleans as to post-911 New York. Wrecking Ball. We Take Care of Our Own. And of course, My City’s In Ruins. Rise up, indeed. Not surprisingly, Springsteen reprised the remarkable reworking of “How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times?” that he played at jazzfest six years ago, with his Seeger Sessions band. Those lyrics, aimed squarely at the Bush Administration response to the flood, are as savage a political commentary as a popular performer can undertake without crossing into the didactic. Hearing it six years later, in a New Orleans now partially restored, still resonated deeply.
When I turned around, a little overwrought, Clark and Perry were packing up their chairs and gear.
“Al Green’s going on right now.”
And so he was. I turned to my son, who was caught up in the moment: “You can’t walk away from this,” he shrugged. “Once you’re in it…”
So we passed on the Reverend and stayed put. And I even tried to give Clark some shit.
“A Jersey boy like you walking out on the Boss in mid-set. F’shame.”
And then, to Perry: “Dude, can’t we all just get along?”
Clark replied, by way of explanation: “Al. Green.”
The fest is two weekends of hard, hard choices. Later, I heard Al Green’s set was great. Then again, Springsteen brought on Dr. John for a rendition of “Something You Got” with the E Streeters. Hijinx ensued as Springsteen’s troupe labored to keep the tempo in that slow, second-line pocket where New Orleans music lives; Springsteen confessed as much to the crowd afterward.
He closed with Tenth Avenue Freeze Out, grabbing a “N.O. Loves Clarence” sign from the crowd and holding it as he got to the lyric that everyone knew was coming: “Now this is the important part,” he shouted. One last hymn at the end of mass.
“Well the change was made uptown and the Big Man joined the band.”
The crowd roared. And my son and I felt vindicated for our choice. But walking out of the infield, there was one of those particularly American moments when the heavily black crowd from the Congo Square stage flowed into the white throng from the Springsteen show. I looked around for Clark and Perry, hoping they would tell me that Al Green had brought it, and maybe talk some shit back at me for sticking with Springsteen, but I couldn’t find them.
* * *
Speaking of church, my son and I ventured down to Vaughn’s to see Kermit Ruffins’ regular gig on the Thursday before the fest officially opened. Packed doesn’t begin to describe what Vaughn’s has become on Thursday nights and we who have labored on Treme must accept partial blame. It isn’t as if Kermit Ruffins was some undiscovered treasure in New Orleans; he’d firmly established himself as one of the city’s premiere entertainers and musicians long before we began to broadcast on HBO. But yeah, we’ve made it worse for the locals.
Before Treme, folks down here had accepted that the Thursday show at Vaughn’s was becoming something of a tourist-laden moment, but hey, there was still that Seventh Ward gig on Tuesday nights — and no, I will not name it here, forgive me — to make up for it. You could still roll up in mid-set, snag a set-up at the bar and not be charged a cover. But the last time I drove up to the Seventh Ward on a Tuesday, there was a five-dollar charge at the door and that place, too, was packed. A local, figuring out my connection to Treme, sidled up and said it was our fault, that she never expected to pay a cover to walk down the street from her house and hear Kermit. I had to concede her point. On the other hand, for Kermit Ruffins, this is a good problem and one that he deserves, regardless. She conceded that much right back.
At Vaughn’s on Thursday, I told Kermit that he needed to start a new gig, maybe Wednesday nights, somewhere deep in New Orleans East, somewhere that the cab drivers warn people from, somewhere that only the locals know about. But admittedly, even if it’s at the edge of a malarial swamp, it’ll be packed to the rafters inside of two years. To those who haven’t yet had the pleasure, the music is a delight. But the real charm is Kermit himself, who maintains a playful, mugging stage presence that includes consistent references to both the magical power of weed and the ongoing party that is New Orleans. Yet at key moments, with nary a wink, Ruffins will quick-pivot into a real moment of sensate and serious cultural affirmation. I love it most when Kermit lets the party mask of D.J.-Smoke-A-Lot fall and, bang, you see the earnest trumpet player and jazz lover who has taken care to absorb damn near everything that came before.
Last Thursday, Ruffins spent the last three minutes before his second set holding up a video ibook, displaying black-and-white footage of Sarah Vaughn as she delivered a ballad in the way that makes her immortal. He held the screen aloft, saying nothing, quietly nodding to the waiting crowd as Sarah sang to them. I think I loved that moment most of all.
* * *
My only responsibility at the fest was to appear at a panel on the Mardi Gras Indians and their representation in the media. I did so and immediately pleaded ignorance to a great wide swath of Mardi Gras Indian culture and history, confessing that Treme has put the details of our depiction in the hands of many chiefs, flag boys and spy boys — both uptown and downtown — upon whom we rely to convey those scenes in ways that respect the century-old traditions of the black Indian gangs.
I admitted that three years into writing the television drama, I am still unsure exactly what “Tu Eh Pocky Way” means.
“I’ve heard about four different stories,” I confessed. And in truth, Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr., our lead consultant as the show was getting under way, told me on many occasions that he couldn’t reveal what things actually meant. Not without both of us getting a hatchet in the back of our heads. He smiled when he said that, but still.
Anyway, no sooner had I cited my ignorance than a ranging argument broke out between others on the panel and various Mardi Gras Indians in the audience about what the phrase actually does and does not mean. It was immensely enjoyable from that point forward, very much in the true spirit of New Orleans.
* * *
Somewhere in the middle of her jazzfest set, I fell in love with Meschiya Lake. That is all.
Except to say that she and the Little Big Horns closed with “I Believe In Music” by Mac Davis. And they made it work.
If it makes me sound less the degenerate, I’ll note that last jazzfest I fell in love with Rosie Ledet. And this coming weekend, I plan to fall in love with Bonnie Raitt for the fourth or fifth time. I am permanently in love with Ronnie Spector. And Mary Wells. And Emmy Lou Harris. And Chrissy Hynde. And Joan Jett, fellow Marylander and Oriole fan, when she belts out “Roadrunner” or “Bad Reputation.”
A musical context takes some of the stink off the inescapable male condition, or so one likes to pretend.