Mountainside Mardi Gras in Denver, Colorado
Red Rocks Amphitheater
August 8, 2009
A good-sized chunk of the New Orleans music scene landed at Red Rocks Saturday for an 11-hour funk and Dixieland marathon. Eight different bands and dozens of musicians left their sea level, horizontal environment to play a mile high in the vertically oriented, rock-rimmed amphitheater just west of Denver. Billed as the "First Annual Mountainside Mardi Gras," the festival brought together some of NOLA's big names, some up-and-comers and several in between. But they all came to play.
First the bad news: the audience turn-out was sparse. When the first band came on about 1 P.M., about 100 people were present. That's not much of a dent in a 9000-person venue. I've been to Red Rocks numerous times when nothing was going on with more people present. Fortunately, the crowd filtered in over the next couple hours but never seemed to get much beyond a thousand people. It's hard to know the economics of the show, but the size of the audience would not seem to bode well for a "Second Annual Mountainside Mardi Gras." Nevertheless, a woman who worked for the promoters confided that she hadn't ruled out a show for next year since, as she put it, the musicians really enjoyed performing here rather than living the life of a road warrior. Here, at least, they were able to all hang out together for awhile. Speaking of the musicians, not one appeared fazed or disappointed by the attendance. On the contrary, everyone played like the house was packed. The play by play:
Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes
Johnny Sketch plays guitar and sings and is backed by two saxophones, a trumpet, bass and drums. These guys had a funky sound tinged with more rock than many of the other acts Saturday. Sketch gazed beyond the crowd to the red rocks looming over the amphitheater and commented that there were "six minds being blown" right then. Wait, there were more people at the show than that. Oh, he was talking about his band. OK. Sketch played the most unusual instrument of the day: an electric cello. In a funk band?? The first time he broke it out, the drummer was working on a jungle rhythm, making for a crazy sonic contrast. The next time he put bow to strings, he evoked a Bach fugue. Again, in a funk band? O.K.why not?
Big Sam's Funky Nation
Big Sam Williams is big. Perhaps that should be obvious, but after hearing a cello in a funk band, you can't take anything for granted. Sam plays trombone Fred Wesley style, wielding it like a weapon, which it just might be. He was joined by a trumpet, keys, guitar, bass and drums. Big Sam likes audience interaction with plenty of call and response. For a bit it was like being in a sweaty roadhouse at 2 A.M. with a pulsating crowd shouting on cue. But actually, it was a beautiful, low 80s, sunny day in the Rockies. Another contrast. Sam previously played with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and indeed he brings their brassy sound to his own band but adds an A.C. undercurrent (i.e. electric bass and Hammond B-3) for a punchier sound. Since it's his band, the horn section (Sam and his trumpet player) are right up front; loud and proud. Sam's other distinguishing feature is his dancing. Although the midday sun was beating directly down on him and he was wearing all black, he demonstrated his second line dance moves whenever he wasn't playing.
Papa Grows Funk
PGF's website announces that the band is "Rebuilding New Orleans One Groove at a Time." These guys laid down more than one groove Saturday. It was one groove at a time, but it was one after another. PGF is led by "Papa" John Gros on organ and vocals. He demonstrated his NOLA team spirit by wearing an Archie Manning football jerseyall blackin the sun. But it was a dry heat... Along with bass and drums, the band included a tenor sax and overall had the jazziest sound of the afternoon to that point. Gros himself looks a bit like jazz organist Joey DeFrancesco in both girth and facial features, though these days DeFrancesco might have a few pounds on him. Despite the jazz influence, the funk was undeniable. For instance, the band played "We Like it Stanky." Whenever the word "stanky" comes up, you know you're at least hip deep in the funk.
New Era Brass Band
This outfit didn't make it to the stage. They did, however, get to play four or five different times. Their role was to march into the audience during set changes on the main stage. They played the more traditional jazz NOLA became known for years ago: Louie Armstrong era, Dixieland era. Their first song was "When the Saints Go Marching In," but they weren't talking football. The band has a trumpet, two trombones, a sousaphone, a bass drum and a snare. With nothing to plug in, it's easy for them to take the act on the road, as they demonstrated by marching around the amphitheater's bleachers while followed by bead throwers, dancers and general revelers. Mardi Gras! The seats at Red Rocks rise from the stage at a steady 30 degree pitch. Toss in the mile high altitude, some warm sun and the need to fill a horn with air, and it became apparent that some of the more portly band members were challenged by the whole affair. But they swung on.
George Porter, Jr. and the Runnin' Pardners
Sightings of bassist Porter over the past couple years have always found him in the company of his power trioPorter, Batiste, Stoltz. That's a high-energy funk-rock band heavy on improvisation. Saturday, Porter was in a different context. He was joined by his PBS mate, Russell Batiste on drums, but he also had a much bigger band. John Gros, who had returned to the stage on organ, was joined by a pianist for a two keyboard band. A guitarist and a three-man horn section (trombone, trumpet, tenor sax) rounded out the band. Porter's set included a few laid-back tunes which were actually a good break from the otherwise nonstop funk. A couple songs had an R&B feellike something another NOLA musician and composer, Allan Toussaint might write. Any respite from the funk didn't last long though. A highlight of Porter's set was "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," a tune Robert Palmer recorded years before he hit it big with "Addicted to Love." "Sally" has one of those licks that's so infectious the entire amphitheater caught the bug instantly leading to widespread dancing. Another highlight of the Runnin' Pardners' set was a Porter original "I Get High" which is a PBS mainstay. It was fun to hear that one with a fully arranged horn section.
Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk
I thought we'd heard some heavy-duty funk by this time, but Dumpstaphunk was the most relentless funk machine of the day. Everything in the amphitheater except the rocks themselves was shaking by the time these guys got a song or two into their set. And the band didn't let up for an hour. Hammer down. Part of that high-energy sound is explained by the presence of two bass players (Nick Daniels and Tony Hall) who, together, can lay down some serious grooves. The band obviously carries a significant NOLA pedigree with the Neville name. Ivan, keyboards and vocals, is Aaron Neville's son and the band's guitarist, Ian Neville is Art Neville's son. The quintet is completed by Raymond Weber on drums. Like PGF's "Stanky," Dumpstaphunk touched on another stereotypical funk topic with "Can You Smell It?" After all, everybody knows that funk, done right, emits a pungent, stanky aroma.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band
After Dumpstaphunk and its dearth of horns, the Dirty Dozen brought out the brass with two trumpets and a sousaphone (the second one of the day!) as well as a couple saxophones, a guitar and some drums (and occasionally, a DJ (in the same band as a sousaphone?)). That lineup was merely temporary with players from other bands coming and going on a regular basis. Big Sam joined the band for some trombone blowing and some dancing. At one point a total of eight horn players could be discerned (not counting the sousaphone). One of the highlights of the DDBB's set was their version of Little Feat's "Spanish Moon." The definitive Little Feat version is on the Waiting For Columbus album, which featured a horn sectionbut not eight horns. The version Saturday night took an already funky tune to new heights of funk intensity. The DDBB also paid tribute to the godfather by laying down some James Brown.
Dr. John and the Lower 911
Dr. John (Mac Rebennack, Jr.) has been one of several NOLA artists that have been working to rebuild the city after Katrina and trying to raise awareness that much work remains. His latest CD, "The City That Care Forgot" is a reference to just that. Saturday night, however, he got down to the business of music. He started his set with "St. James Infirmary" with an understated funk feel. I've seen the Dr. a few times before and he's always remained seated behind one or more keyboard instruments. Saturday, he started the show seated between a grand piano and a Hammond B-3 organ. But for the second tune of the evening, he got up, walked to the side of the stage and strapped on an electric guitar for "Come On" probably better known as "Let the Good Times Roll," the song made popular by Jimi Hendrix and later Stevie Ray Vaughn. Rebbennack has been a bit rotund over the years, but Saturday night he seemed slimmed down and was moving around a little better than I've seen in the past. Some audience members debated whether he's been getting in shape or whether his slimmer physique is due to recent illness. He didn't say.
He had one of the more stripped down bands of the evening with only bass, drums and guitar backing his keyboards and vocals. He was joined later by a tenor saxophonist and eventually by the DDBB horn section. He went back in his catalog of hits for "Such a Night," "Right Place, Wrong Time" and "Walk On Gilded Splinters." Somewhat less known, but fun nonetheless was "How Come My Dog Don't Bark When You Come 'Round?" Toward the end of the set, he got back to serious NOLA with a bluesy version of "When the Saints Come Marching In."
The music was outstanding, but the anemic crowd was disappointing. A lineup like this should have drawn several times the numbers that showed up. A guess as good as any is that a lack of promotion was the main problem. It will be too bad if a miscalculation in that area means the "First Annual Mountainside Mardi Gras" turns out to be the last.