I am spoiled. Within an hour of landing at the New Orleans airport, I've been whisked straight to the Uptown home of Terence Blanchard, a family friend, and plunged into Jazzfest culture. Gathered around the parlor piano are Terence and Dee Dee Bridgewater, who belts out room-filling renditions of "Caravan" and "All Blues" without a microphone in sight: sublime music as it was meant to be heard, from God's lips to my ears.
Speaking if which, there is no question that the finest music at Jazzfest can be found at the Gospel Tent, where the Holy Spirit separates the men from the boys. To a kid weaned on Leon Russell, Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen, Eric Clapton's first solo album, and the '68-to-'73 Rolling Stones, this has become the music that hits home. I may have learned the profane before the sacred, but it's never too late to be Saved. World class Gospel acts Boute Family and Craig Adams & Higher Dimensions of Praise did the service.
The spiritual connection between roots and rock was beautifully illustrated by a few "only at Jazzfest Moments" like these: Los Lobos mashed "Papa Was A Rolling Stone" and "Dear Mr. Fantasy" before launching into a Latino rock set beyond compare. Terence Blanchard brought his college age son on to make his debut as a singer -- with an original song, no less. An energized Fleetwood Mac tore through the hits and some rarities, including a set from misunderstood double LP Tusk, a lost Buckingham/Nicks nugget that recently surfaced on YouTube, and Lindsay's raw solo ransacking of "Big Love." Stevie reached for a few notes and quipped, " I need coffee to get through this. If I suck, Lindsay will finish it."
She did not suck, not by a Louisiana cotton-pickin' mile.
Black Keys rattled through a growing familiar repertoire, launching their tight set with "Howlin' For You." Hall & Oates slow-jammed through their classic catalog, turning tunes like "Rich Girl" and "I Can't Go For That" inside out for variety but never losing touch with those indelible melodies. NOLA Alternative band Mutemath was available for a bangin set and conversation on the Music Heritage Stage, where Taj Mahal and Robert Parker also held court.
But the Heritage part of the festival is where the treasure lies, especially for a spoiled New Yorker who can get the big names at home. Taj Mahal deserved the larger platform of the outdoor Gentilly Stage, given the size crowd he drew. You can't say that he didn't deliver the goods, with eight tubas in tow. (I'll save you the trouble of re-reading that sentence: Eight tubas in tow.) But within the blues, jazz and gospel tents the original inspiration for much of the pop and rock at hand was on display. Ellis Marsalis and Pete Fountain stand as brand names for the real goods. As with Jazzfest's famed food stalls, browsing and sampling gives you an idea of what to come back to for a full helping.
Keeping up with the afterparties and all-night jams on Frenchman street is another wild sport where timing is everything. The cab driver who brought me to The Maple Leaf has just dropped a passenger coming from another club where John Oates jumped on stage and chimed in.
The Dirty Dozen Brass band are now deep into an open-ended jam that has everyone vibrating in a harmonious groove. From the bartender to the revelers squashed up against the stage, every body is in syncopated motion. The choreographed moves of old Mickey Mouse cartoons come to mind — and that's not a putdown, that's my amazement at how transformative an experience this music can be in its natural setting. Like the ribs at The Joint in Bywater, the carousel bar at the Hotel Monteleone, the Pimms Cup at The Columns... you can only get it here.
And get it while it lasts. Since my last visit, Frankie & Johnny's and The Radiators are no more; Treme and the 9th Ward are on the rise, and the evolution of this town on its only stable bedrock of tradition is the one sure bet in The Big Easy.
Paul Cavalconte, between sets at the Maple Leaf bar, as The Dirty Dozen Brass Band sets up for the Sunday Night set that caps JazzFest 2013.