Jazzfest Turns 40 with Gospel Greats

By Andy_Argyrakis
Posted: Tue, 05/05/2009 - 17:35

album promo image for Jazzfest Turns 40 with Gospel Greats
Photo: Mavis Staples shows her gospel groove at the New Orleans' Jazzfest. Photos by: Andy Aryrakis
By Andy Argyrakis, senior music editor, GospelMusicChannel.com
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is one of the country's most treasured musical institutions, and in recent years, a beacon of hope for a city nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. It was in this very forum that Bruce Springsteen gave a post-flood performance, Fats Domino was celebrated as a Katrina survivor, and music lovers from all across the globe embraced the Crescent City's diverse culture.
Now a few years removed from the impressive rebuilding efforts, the massive event found its audience swelling at the seams, not only rejoicing in a triumphant recovery, but in the event's 40th anniversary. The bill of superstars certainly reflected the milestone, with everyone from Dave Matthews Band to James Taylor to Bon Jovi and Joe Cocker stepping up to the plate. But in addition to the impressive gathering of mainstream superstars spanning all genres, gospel music was amply represented in one of its most well rounded rosters to date.
Mavis' Civil Rights Memories
At 69-years-old, Mavis Staples was one of the weekend's most treasured attractions, packing out a sweaty tent to maximum capacity and recalling the days of old school revivals. As one of gospel and R&B's most familiar voices of all time (known also for her unceasing civil rights activism) the former Staple Singers co-front woman turned solo star brought a divine presence to the party.
"We've come to bring you some joy, some happiness, inspiration and some positive vibrations," she boldly proclaimed, as attendees' fanned themselves in the sweltering heat and a particularly praise-filled concertgoer slapped a tambourine. "We wanna leave you with enough to last you for maybe six months!" Staples wasn't exaggerating as she cruised through her latest disc Live: Hope At the Hideout (Anti-), which is specifically meant to encourage the downtrodden, especially during these trying economic times.
She stirred up the baptism pool with "Wade In the Water," incited a rousing sing-a-long of surrender in "The Weight" and even earned wide-eyed applause from local legend Allen Toussaint (the famed jazz man who's worked with everyone from Elvis Costello to Patti LaBelle). The singer also recalled a steamy Sunday in the '60s when the Staple Singers were on tour and invited to be guests at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s church where the group was requested to sing his favorite song "Why Am I Treated So Bad," reprised here in all its bluesy glory.
Yet Staples' presentation of purpose hit an all time high with the immortal "I'll Take You There," which dates back to her formative Stax Records days and has since become a cultural centerpiece covered by Destiny's Child, BeBe & CeCe Winans, Mike Farris and even Sammy Hagar. However, in this environment, it was a soulful window to heaven sure to stir everyone from the already saved to the most skeptical soul searcher.
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Irma Thomas empowers and inspires her audience; Etta James... 'At Last'
Gospel Glimpses from Irma and Etta
"Soul Queen of New Orleans" Irma Thomas is no stranger to the church, and though she's amassed the most fame in blues circles, her 2006 disc After the Rain (Rounder) was replete with vertical reflections to inspire listeners rebuilding their post-natural disaster lives. The 68-year-old offered ample affirmations for Gulf Coast's courage and suggested the survivors' strength could be used as a point of empowerment for anyone suffering a spiritual of physical crisis of any proportions.
Though she may have made the most headlines for spatting with Beyonce over singing her calling card "At Last" at President Obama's inauguration, Etta James was back to her touring cycle unfazed by the press frenzy. At 71, she wasn't as physically spy as when her gospel roots were first planted, but when it came to that singing style or anything in the R&B or jazz scenes, the seated superstar could run circles around those half her age.
Folk hero Pete Seeger gets Ecclesiastical with "Turn, Turn, Turn!"
Seeger's Inspiring Sing-A-Long
The ultimate old-timer award went to Pete Seeger, the feisty 89-year-old folk hero who often steeped his socially conscious songwriting in spiritual metaphors, whether as a founding member of The Almanac Singers and The Weavers or in even more applauded solo contexts. His historic lineage was appreciated by everyone from Woody Guthrie to Bob Dylan and the aforementioned Springsteen, who released an entire tribute album to the enduring all-star after Katrina.
One of Seeger's most inspiring sing-a-longs during his set was "Turn, Turn, Turn!," which may have been made most famous by The Byrds, but was actually this tunesmith's original penned in 1959. Plucked straight out of Ecclesiastes 3:1, lines like "to every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven/A time to be born, and a time to die" were the perfect soundtrack for New Orleans' re-emergence and aptly capped off this famed festival's 40th year.
About the Writer
Andy Argyrakis is a Chicago-based entertainment writer/photographer who appears in the Chicago Tribune, Illinois Entertainer, Daily Journal, Concert Livewire, Hear/Say Magazine and Image Chicago (to name few). His record label writing credits include Warner Brothers, Atlantic, Curb, EMI and Universal, with additional photo credits for Fuse TV, Live Nation, Nikon, Pollstar, Celebrity Access, Paste Magazine, MTV.com and Vibe.com. He's also the author/narrator of "Access Matthews" (an audio CD tracing the career of Dave Matthews Band) and spends considerable time on tour, including outings with Arlo Guthrie, The Guess Who, Madina Lake (on Linkin Park's Projekt Revolution) and Gospel Music Channel's very own "Gospel Dream" (where he served as season one judge).

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