French Quarter Fest day 2 began with the welcome cry of Mr. Okra driving by, “I’ve got fresh plums. I’ve got fresh oranges.” My mother recently told me that her first words were not mama or dada, but “swimp boy.” Growing up with wagon vendors outside her window, everyday she heard the guy roll by yelling, “Shrimp boy” like an ice cream truck’s bells announcing goodies coming your way. Mr. Okra drives a truck donated by locals after Katrina but his call-outs are part of the soul of New Orleans. We bought 7 over-ripe bananas and 4 plums for $2 and headed out.
First stop – DancingMan504 giving a second line dancing lesson at the French Market. After nearly 2 decades surrounded by the too-cool-to-dance folks of L.A., I was shocked to find that, not only was there a crowd waiting for his arrival, but they all but leapt onto the dance floor with no prodding – this despite the 86 degree heat and relentless noontime sun. As I watch the rising popularity of DancingMan504 (Daryl Young), I’m impressed with the many ways he keeps the second line tradition alive, not just here, but throughout the U.S. and in Europe. Everyone had a ridiculously fun time and the lesson ended with an energetic dance to Daryl’s “anthem,” Soul Rebels’ 504.
Seems I’ve walked by the post-Katrina restaurant, Royal House, a thousand times and never noticed, but the French Quarter Fest is as much about food as music and, just as with the music, there’s room for old favorites and trying new things. After sampling the BBQ Shrimp and Roasted Garlic Bread Pudding ($6 Fest price), we were hooked enough to come back throughout the day for Crawfish Cakes with Crawfish Creme Sauce and Shrimp YaYa Pasta ($7 combo plate). We also tried and liked the Cochon de Lait Po Boy ($7, a sub stuffed with pulled pork and cole slaw) from Love at First Bite, another restaurant I’ve never ventured into. And the sunny day was perfect for a sno-ball from Plum Street Snoballs.
Wandering toward the larger stages on the riverfront, we passed a band of teenagers playing under the shelter where passengers wait for the Steamboat Natchez Riverboat. I assumed the kids were local and was happy to see so many young people carrying the jazz tradition forward, embracing it as their own. It filled me with optimism to find they were actually from Phoenix Country Day School in Arizona. The beat goes on…
At the Abita Beer Stage, the Irene Sage Band was playing. A bluesy band fronted by the throaty-voiced Sage, they kept me swaying and singing along. There are some songs I feel should never be covered and almost anything sung by the inimitable Stevie Nicks certainly falls into this group so when I heard the first beats of Gold Dust Woman, I was thrilled to hear an old favorite and braced to hate the cover version. Instead, I was treated to a soulful and genuine rendition, true to the original but made new through the deep and dulcet voice of Irene Sage. Her band rocked so I’m sorry to report that I heard none of their names.
Next up was Coco Robicheaux and the Swamp Monsters. Sage joined his bawdy back-up singers playfully called the “Burning Bushes.” Coco, a 2009 inductee to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, has played every French Quarter Fest since 1995. You may recognize his distinctive face and raspy voice from HBO’s Treme.
French Quarter Fest is also about meeting people and we were lucky enough to be sitting near restauranteur/children’s book author, Cornell Landry, between book signings of local favorites Goodnight NOLA, One Dat, Two Dat, Are You a Who Dat? and Happy Jazz Fest. Turns out his restaurant, the Kingfish Grille specializing in sandwiches, gets rave reviews.
As we visited, Tommy Malone and the Mystik Drone kept the party going. Best known for his years with the subdudes, a band born out of a one night gig at Tipitina’s in 1987, Malone was great, though I’ll admit to taking a bit of a food and bathroom break during the set.
Though I enjoy hearing bands that are new to me, I was excited for Threadhead Records performer, Shamarr Allen, to take the stage with his Underdawgs. With a track record that includes playing for President Obama, Shamarr has been steadily rising with anthem-like hip hop tunes such as BP critique, Sorry Ain’t Enough No More (free download) and Saints ode, Bring ‘Em to the Dome (on iTunes), both with Dee-1. But Allen is at his best when he’s on his horn.
Picking up a trumpet at age 7, by 13, Shamaar was playing with the Pittsburg University Orchestra and attending the Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp. At 16, he played Carnegie Hall with the Mahogany Brass Band. Like so many here, he continues to give back to the community teaching music clinics to local youth and supporting Silence is Violence. A former member of Hot 8 and Rebirth Brass bands among others, he uses everything he’s learned along the way to create a gumbo (overused term here, but the right one for describing things that remain individually tasty even as they blend with other tastes) of hip-hop, jazz, reggae, rock and Latin rhythms in a pot of funk.
His band includes guitarist Matthew Clark, bass player William Terry, Jason Butler on keys, drummer Nick Soulnick and Congo drummer Herbert Stevens. Allen invited some people to join him onstage but I was unable to hear names, though John Michael Bradford of Young Fellaz Brass Band was among them.
I love Mardi Gras Indians and would have loved to see Big Chief Bo Dollis, but we headed to the slightly smaller Harrah’s Stage with it’s gorgeous Mississippi River backdrop to see Threadhead Records artist Glen David Andrews with Amanda Shaw, the first inductees to the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame as “Future Hall of Famers.”
Cousin to Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, Glen David is the younger brother of Derrick Tabb, the snare drummer for Rebirth Brass Band and founder of The Roots of Music, my favorite youth band and one of my favorite non-profits. Glen David played drums until 12 before finding his true voice on trombone and learning all he could from his many talented relatives and neighbors. He’s appeared on HBO’s Treme as well as in both of Spike Lee’s documentaries on Katrina, When the Levees Broke and If God is Willing and Da Creek Don’t Rise (all of which I highly recommend). He dedicates his free time to Trumpets NOT Guns, a non-profit designed to get new and used instruments into the hands of at-risk youths.
Amanda Shaw, on the other hand, started training classical violin at 4 and dove into Cajun music at 8 while also becoming the youngest soloist in the Baton Rouge Symphony. Touring followed, bringing her across the nation and the globe. As a teen, she was selected to play Hannah Montana but decided instead to sign an independent label record deal. She also opted out of finishing high school at Mount Carmel Academy, instead getting a G.E.D. and releasing Pretty Runs Out which Billboard Magazine listed it as a “Best Bets of 2008.”
The musically aggressive Treme native, Glen David Andrews and fiddling Covington cutie, Amanda Shaw, are an unlikely match but a match clearly made in heaven. I’d seen Andrews and Shaw before separately and can report that watching them play together is like watching a stallion and a hummingbird – odd, fascinating and beautiful. While Amanda never stands still for even a second (photos at night with no flash – tough), Glen David plants himself and throws the music at you. He did, however, take flight when he allowed himself to be passed above the crowd, Superman-like.
To call the show thrilling would be to diminish how many times it was ratcheted up another notch. Many guests joined the stage and though, as usual, I had trouble catching names, 15 year old Holland born Jérôme Cardynaals sat in on drums. With New Orleans musicians for parents, he was raised with this music in him and has played with many of NOLA’s finest. Franklin Davis IV also joined the band’s vocals.
But in case that wasn’t enough, 2 Mardi Gras Indians joined the stage’s energy wearing pretty plumed suits and dancing along to jazz, Zydeco, even a cover of the Clash’s Should I Stay or Should I Go? Even life conspired to make the show a fireworks display of feathers, fiddles and fierceness as the Natchez Riverboat rode downstream behind the stage.
The band includes Revert Andrews on trombone, Kyle Roussel on keyboards, Julius McKee on Sousaphone, Eric Gordon Jr. on trumpet, saxophonist Calvin Johnson and Jermal Watson on drums and I highly recommend you do what you can to see them live.