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New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival: Mavis Staples, Etta James, Joe Cocker and more

April 27, 2009 |  1:24 pm

Mavis The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is first and foremost a showcase for Louisiana acts. Where else are you going to hear jazz singer Germaine Bazzle, Louisiana’s equivalent of Betty Carter, or swamp-pop songwriter David Egan, the state’s equivalent of John Hiatt, playing with all-star bands and before knowing crowds, as they did this weekend?

Nonetheless, the festival does offer plenty of out-of-state acts as well -- to pump up ticket sales and provide interesting connections to Louisiana’s traditions. Mavis Staples, for example, grew up in Mississippi and has spent most of her life in Chicago, but like most female gospel singers she was greatly shaped by the example of Mahalia Jackson, a New Orleans native. Staples joined Irma Thomas and Pamela Landrum in a terrific tribute to Jackson at the festival Friday. On Sunday, Staples returned to the Gospel Tent and displayed the fruits of Jackson’s influence in the day's best performance.

The wear of her 69 years is visible in Staples’ face but not in her high-wattage smile or her raspy, hurricane-force mezzo. She offered a liberal interpretation of what passes for a gospel number by starting her set with Stephen Stills’ “For What It’s Worth." She gave his memorable lines, “There’s something happening here; what it is ain’t exactly clear," an evangelical zing, as if quoting from biblical prophecies about times of crisis such as ours.

Short even in heels and dressed in a tent-like top with red, peach and white stripes, Staples recalled an earlier time. When she was traveling with her family group, the Staple Singers, in the early ‘60s, she told the audience, they attended a church in Montgomery, Ala. Afterward, Mavis’ father, Roebuck “Pops” Staples, called his children together and told them, “I really like this man’s message. If he can preach it, we can sing it.” The preacher was the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the group started writing and recorded civil rights anthems such as “Freedom Highway” and “Why Am I Treated So Bad."

Mavis eased out of her story and into the latter number, which she claimed was King’s favorite. She delivered it not in the much-embellished style of urban gospel but in the edgy minimalism of rural gospel, matching the shivering country-blues guitar with her own knotty variations on the title question. The set was filled with songs that could be heard as political anthems or worship hymns or catchy pop-soul: “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize," “Wade in the Water," “Respect Yourself," even the Band’s “The Weight.” Because she has such a masterful command of all three genres, Staples was able to exploit that ambiguity and smudge those musical boundaries.

Pops died in 2000, and Mavis has replaced his conversational vocals with those of singer Donny Gerrard and her father’s barbed-wire guitar figures with those of Rick Holmstrom, L.A.’s blues-rock veteran. Holmstrom’s trio gave Mavis Staples (and her sister Yvonne, still singing harmony) a muscular tension, not unlike Mavis’ collaborations with the Band and Marty Stuart.

Etta James pulled off a similar age-defying act later in the day. Though she had to be helped on and off the stage, James too has held on to her powerhouse voice and feisty attitude. Before one number, she shouted out, “Beyoncé!” It was both an acknowledgment that the contemporary star had given new life to James’ signature song, “At Last,” in the movie “Cadillac Records,” and a snort at the notion that the youngster could match her.

Sitting like a queen in her padded swivel chair, dressed in a black suit and gold lamé blouse, James started the story of unexpected new love at a simmer and only gradually brought it to a boil, moving from murmured skepticism and hopes before surrendering to romance in a full-blown climax. When it was over, she leaned back into her chair and muttered, “That’s my song.”

On Friday, Joe Cocker avoided the temptations of oldies nostalgia to deliver a surprisingly strong set of horn- and gospel-singer-backed British R&B. On Sunday, Earth, Wind & Fire, missing the essential ingredient of Maurice White, also avoided nostalgia but traded it in for the dubious choice of loose jamming. On Saturday, Wilco delivered a surprisingly relaxed, witty show.

Sounding a lot like Wilco on Sunday was the Mexican rock band Kinky. Like the better known Americans, Kinky has written well-crafted songs full of hooks and unflagging momentum that they dressed up in art-rock tricks for the stage. Their bilingual song “Cornman,” for example, never grew predictable, because every few bars, new colors were added to the mix. The percussionist might move from congas to snare; the keyboardist from synth to accordion; the guitarist from clipped strum to dreamy sustain.

It didn’t hurt that the band was fronted by Gilberto Cerezo, who resembles a younger version of Gael García Bernal. Shimmying around the stage with his flirtatious grin and joyful tenor, he radiated charisma like a born rock star.

-- Geoffrey Himes

Photo of Mavis Staples by Rick Diamond / Getty Images