Bethlehem, Pa.— It poured on us during Galactic’s set but I actually enjoyed it. The day before I had made a pilgrimage back to the site of the 1969 Woodstock Festival researching my upcoming book and remembering the rain so it was a bit of deja-vu that I sat getting totally drenched at the opening night of MusikFest. Of course, instead of being 18 at Woodstock, I was 67 at Musikfest. And I wasn’t tripping. Still, it proved to be an endurance test, especially when it rained even heavier a second time. But what’s Musikfest without rain?
The event kicking off this year’s Musikfest was Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threauxdown Tour and it was a thriller. Starting with The New Breed Brass Band whose short set was a New Orleans primer of pumpin’ joyousness, continuing with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band who every American should be required to witness, on into Galactic whose cover of Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” added spice and soul, and finishing up with The Man himself, Trombone Shorty, who leads what many feel is the best damn working band in the land, Orleans Avenue, a hard-rocking — and I mean HARD — septet.
Galactic brought out Walter “Wolfman” Washington for some added action and the aging bluesman didn’t disappoint. Trombone Shorty upped the ante, though, by surprising the adoring crowd with none other than some real Louisiana royalty from the First Family of New Orleans Funk, Mr. Cyril Neville, 69, the youngest of The Neville Brothers. He’s been an entertainer for over a half-century, a singer/songwriter/percussionist whose dramatic on-stage flair brings excitement whenever he struts his considerable stuff. And to not know he was part of the proceedings, and to have him introduced, was an orgasm-inducing moment.
Man, he looked cool.
Clad in a tie-dye blazer, acid wash jeans and a white hat, his lanky frame accentuated by various beads and baubles, he fronted the band for but two songs, both from The Meters, the outrageously great funk band he commandeered from ‘70 to ‘77 before joining The Neville Brothers and going on to even greater heights. (He also spearheaded Royal Southern Brotherhood for five albums and tours starting in 2011). “No More Okey Doke” and “Fire On The Bayou” had us spellbound.
Now comes his Endangered Species: The Essential Recordings (World Order Entertainment/Louisiana Red Hot Records), a single disc of highlights culled from his five solo albums spanning ‘94 to ‘04…and it’s a revelation. Damn! Where was I? How could I have missed all this New Orleans action? Funk-filled with forays into hip-hop, rock ’n’ roll and jazz, his Crescent City roots are righteously manifested in “More Professor Longhair” where he pays tribute to the late piano legend with the help of the Uptown All-Stars. He stays within the tradition for the scream-it’s-so-good “Running With The Second Line” featuring rapper Damien Neville and “Second Line Soca.” Then there’s the booty-call of “Funkaliscious,” a dripping wet 5:45 rebel yell that will make your body move in places you didn’t think possible. “New Orleans Cooking” even features the late Gulf Coast saint Allen Toussaint. Considering that everybody in the world—including Bono, Taj Mahal, the Police and Dr. John — have lined up to play music with Cyril Neville, to see and hear him now is a total mitzvah (as my Yiddish grandmother would say) meaning a praiseworthy good deed.
Trombone Shorty — real name: Troy Andrews — is so cool for surprising us with Cyril Neville, who was not listed in any of the ads for the show. To see this band do “Buckjump” and “Craziest Things” is to witness a liver-shaking, kidney-quivering piece of metal funk fit for the ages. As a front man, he swings his huge ‘bone back and forth in exquisite time to the beat, puts it to his lips and pours forth his soul like Jimi used to do on guitar. It’s all rather mesmerizing, and combined with the special brand of light show that they lug around the world that will blind you into submission, it’s the kind of presentation that folks who love to be pummeled into submission just gotta, gotta see. To that end, it’s on my bucket list to personally escort certain close friends one day to see this cat in action because I know they will be blown away. Hey, all I’ve ever done in my life is to listen to music and tell people about it. I’ve put two kids through college that way. And I’m still doing it. And I’m here to say that this band is THE band to see. Period.
The only thing missing from their set is what I used to love the most about them. And I totally understand that Shorty’s a Rock Star now, and with that comes a certain responsibility to appease the masses, but I do so miss when he first started, he would combine his funk with his Louis Armstrong chops. Shorty’s a musicologist, well-versed in the history of New Orleans culture. He’s a reader. He’s a seeker. He used to bring out his trumpet and blow “When The Saints Go Marching In” just like Pops. I’ve been at his shows where he’d start a second line that snaked throughout the audience. You’d think you were at Mardi Gras. No more. Now, though, they do “Give It Away” better than the Red Hot Chili Peppers who wrote it…but I do miss the jazz. Plus, they got a crazy white guy in the band who raps and break-dances and brings down the house every time.
When he does Allen Toussaint’s “On The Way Down” and “Here Comes The Girls,” he burns with an unmatched intensity. He can solo forever and one has to wonder how the hell he can spin out those notes one atop the other for so long seemingly without breathing. It’s a method called circular breathing wherein the soloist breathes in through the nose while pushing air out through the mouth from air stored in the cheeks. Nigerian saxophonist Femi Kuti holds the world record for doing it for 51 minutes and 38 seconds. When Shorty did it for about 10 minutes, the place went wild.
Kudos to Kassie Hilgert and the ArtsQuest staff for pulling off one of the more satisfying MusikFests in recent memory despite torrential rain all damn week and horrible heat. She deserves a medal of honor.