On a rainy Thursday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, Buffy Sainte-Marie and Spider Stacy brought a punk spirit while The Suffers had to wait.
The consensus seems to be that Elvis Costello killed Thursday at Jazz Fest. I’ll gently suggest instead that he wounded. Costello’s too smart and squirrelly to flat miss, but his instincts can lead him down some very specific paths.
The setlist was pretty much loaded with fastballs and fan favorites, only occasionally visiting the 21st century for much of his set on the Gentilly Stage. “Beyond Belief” and “Clubland” were nice additions, and you knew something was up when Costello opened—not closed—with “(What’s So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding,” followed rapidly by “Watching the Detectives.” Still, that stretch didn’t feel as celebratory as you might expect. The gray hangover skies from the earlier rain might have been part of it, but the decision to base much of the sound on his own electric guitar paid meagre dividends. That seemed to make him want to vamp at times, but those moments didn’t go anywhere or build anything. In other situations, the sounds he got on his guitar let him down. During the closing “Pump it Up,” the rest of the band carried the song’s insistent bounce as his guitar seemed awash in distortion, so much so that it was a presence without punch.
Those issues didn’t sink the set or those passages by any means, but they did take the edge off. He played with The Imposters—the original Attractions with Davey Faragher on bass instead of Bruce Thomas—and that four-piece lineup hamstrung “Every Day I Write the Book.” They were too punchy for its light pop and too rock to pick up its R&B edge.
Costello wore a purple Kangol hat backwards with a Toussaint memorial button on its front. He gestured to it with his guitar's headstock at times, but that lineup didn’t bode well for any tribute to Toussaint because it would really have to stretch to play anything from The River in Reverse, the album the two released in 2006. Costello performed “Ascension Day” from it by himself on his acoustic guitar after remembering Toussaint’s gentle way of letting players know how he felt about a part they’d performed in the studio. “He would never tell you what to play,” Costello remembered. “He’d say Wellll, what do you think of that?”
The set caught fire when Costello brought out New Orleans resident Bob Andrews, formerly of British pub rock band Brinkley Schwartz, who was in the wings.
“Bob! Bob—you know this one. Get Bob on organ.”
As Andrews came out, Costello remembered how on tour he had his dressing room as far as possible from Toussaint’s so he wouldn’t feel the insecurity that comes with having someone with his talent looking over your shoulder while you’re working something out. Costello routinely tried to come up with versions of more songs that Toussaint had written to include in the show, and he remembered playing one as Toussaint walked into his room and simply said Wellllll.
“He was surprised that I knew it,” Costello said. By that point, Andrews was in place and they played Ernie K-Doe’s “I Cried My Last Tear,” a musically succinct, on point moment that was exactly what many people likely thought they were going to get coming to the show. Costello performed a public service to New Orleans and the world when he helped open Toussaint up to revisiting his substantial catalogue, and Thursday seemed like a great opportunity to further those efforts—for him if not with him.
Afterwards, Costello called out the horn section that toured with Costello and Toussaint, as well as guitarist Anthony Brown to finally get to songs from The River in Reverse, and the demands of the songs snapped Costello into tighter focus that made the moment the powerful tribute everyone expected.
The gregarious mood Costello showed onstage seemed to continue into the night. He stopped in a Chickie Wah Wah after his set to play a little piano, then played the Midnight Preserves show at Preservation Hall with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. His set on the Gentilly Stage was a little shaggy, but by the end of the night it was clear that that he feels sufficiently at home in New Orleans to take a few chances.
Elsewhere at Jazz Fest
- Lateness continued to be an issue as sound problems delayed The Suffers’ set by 20 minutes. What’s happening out there?
- Their lateness was Buffy Sainte-Marie’s gain. I and many others drifted from Congo Square to the Fais Do-Do stage to see the folk legend who made it very clear that folk is everyone else’s name for what she does, not hers. At 74, she delivered the most punk show of Jazz Fest 2016 so far—hard with two electric guitars, bass and drums, and confrontational. She performed true protest music designed to sonically as well as lyrically confront power, either by challenging it or suggesting another way of life that doesn’t buy in to its values. She surprised absolutely no one when she dedicated a song to Bernie Sanders—“Though Hillary Clinton’s getting the message,” Sainte-Marie added. She was wordy and didactic and charming and personal, the latter qualities making the other two provocative and purposeful. It helped that, as one friend noted, a high bleat that she could sing at times made her voice reminiscent of John Lydon’s during the early days of Public Image.
It’s hard to imagine that I’d want to hear the songs from that set at home, but while I was at the show, it was riveting to hear someone who shared almost no values with the music business as it is now and likely as it ever was.
- I reviewed the Lost Bayou Ramblers’ set with Rickie Lee Jones and Spider Stacy for Nola.com:
After a few songs including "Valse du Balfa," also known as"The Bathtub" in the movie Beasts of the Southern Wild, they brought out Spider Stacy for 20 or so minutes of Pogues songs. Stacy provided a proper punk attitude, and sounded vaguely antagonistic, even when he was pleased by the clearing weather. He said, "Look--proper human sunshine" like he was ready for a fight.