Playing it fast and loose at the 54th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival
It was a beautiful sunny morning at the 54th Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. Held September 16-18 at the Monterey Fairgrounds, the festival boasted a wide array of musical acts on eight stages, making the choice of where to sit (and which artists to see), the most difficult task of the day. Settling in at the Garden Stage, the crowd filled in around me. With two hours to go before the first band, smiles were shared, seats were saved, and the first drinks were purchased.
The courtyard where the food booths were located was a highlight—not only for the amazing vegan Jamaican reggae wraps, macaroni and cheese with collard greens (I’m a vegetarian), and delicious tamales, but also for the Oakland street performers and art collective, the John Brothers Piano Company. The duo performed sets on an upright piano and clarinet throughout the event, perhaps putting in more stage time than anyone else playing the festival. Imagine the soundtrack to a black and white film as the villain ties the heroine to the railroad tracks—add in heroic vaudeville antics, and you get the perfect mix of music and showmanship.
Momentarily satiated by the food court, I returned to the Garden Stage seating area which was packed with jazz enthusiasts. Mitch Woods and the Rocket 88s brought the crowd to life. Woods is one of those showman whose old school attitude defines his band—which is not to say his band mates don’t have character—they jumped, they jived they did everything short of a stage-dive. Woods and crew blasted their way through a series of sounds (Kansas City, Texas, Chicago) incorporating blues, soul, and the kitchen sink, into what Woods calls, “rock-a-boogie.”
Then it was off to the Jimmy Lyons Arena to catch a few songs by Huey Lewis and the News. After experiencing the intimacy of the Garden Stage, though, it was difficult to appreciate the grand-scale nature of the Lewis show. It didn’t help that the straw used to keep the dust down on the dirt floor made it difficult to breathe. After three songs it was back to the Garden Stage for the Soul Rebels Brass Band from New Orleans and some much-needed Oxygen.
Although the crowd got thick in the afternoon, spirits were raised as the brassy sound of the Soul Rebels blended New Orleans funk with a hip-hop vibe that sampled Michael Jackson hits and Sly and the Family Stone tunes. Special guest, jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins, helped fuse the funk to the traditional sounds of the French Quarter. The group certainly deserves an A for effort when it comes to carrying the lineage of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to a new generation.
By the time Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville of the Neville Brothers) and Dumpstaphunk hit the stage, the packed Garden Stage audience was getting testy—perhaps it was too much time in the sun and libations, but more likely, it was that people who had staked out their space two hours early, had their seats swooped by late arrivals.
Luckily, the band was able to drown out the cantankerous arguing that broke out in the first few rows. The latest chapter in a long history of New Orleans music that includes the ground-breaking Meters, the band boasts Ian Neville on guitar, the double bass threat of Tony Hall (Trey Anastasio) and Nick Daniels (veteran New Orleans player), Raymond Weber (Trey) on drums, and Ivan Neville on keys and mic.
When the crowds became too much, I bid adieu to one of the best music festivals the area has to offer. While I didn’t catch Sonny Rollins or Clint Eastwood’s talk on jazz in film, the overall experience was unforgettable¬—a dynamic selection of music and food that anyone (except maybe the agoraphobic) would enjoy. Photo: Jessica Perry