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Who got da funk? (continued)

I knew Legend had struck a nerve when I heard his song played not only by a zydeco band but by a brass band, the Stooges. In New Orleans, the brass bands are street-bred. Their chops can handle tricky jazz arrangements and their second-line rhythms (laid down by drums and tuba) can morph into dancehall raps or straight hip-hop. The Stooges played one song dedicated to a friend, trombonist Joseph "Shotgun" Williams, of the Hot 8 Brass Band, who "was killed by the New Orleans police department" last August. Part of the refrain went: "They have the nerve/To say they protect and serve." The name of the tune was "Why’d You Have To Kill Him?"

The street has always been evident in the music of the city’s many Mardi Gras Indian tribes — gangs who draw their mythology from Indian culture but whose own roots are inner-city turf battles, these days acted out in ritualized performances in elaborate multi-color feathered and beaded suits. At their most "evolved," the Indians are full-fledged rock bands like the Wild Magnolias. But a crew called the Hard Headhunters served it up straight — chanting coded raps like "Shoo Fly" and "Shallow Water" over second-line drums and tambourines. Mardi Gras Indians work frantically to sew their own suits in time for Mardi Gras ("sewed all day and sewed all night," goes one refrain), and the Headhunters’ beadwork was both stunning and explicit. The Indians in these beaded panels are always depicted as dark red, bare-chested and in loin cloths or buckskin pants and feathers. There are sometimes images of hunting or, perhaps, Indians helping slaves escape through that "shallow water" of the swamps. But one Headhunter panel depicted an Indian burning on a funeral pyre, another an Indian spearing a hooded KKK member through the head. And in the most elaborate, a band of Indians had overrun a fort, killing all but the company commander, who was depicted in his peaked cowboy hat and blue uniform at the center of the panel, on one knee aiming a pistol from the open back of a covered wagon. The canvas of the wagon was gray, the uniform bright blue, and the immediate background of the wagon interior bright white, as if a white light were emanating from the wagon and surrounding the soldier in an aura, like an icon.

THE BEAT has evolved through the course of jazz with a kind of centrifugal force, like an expanding galaxy of stars — always growing looser, more elastic. There was plenty of the loose second-line rhythm of ancient New Orleans jazz and Dixieland in the Economy Hall tent. (Clarinettist Tim Laughlin dedicated one tune to Eddie, the long-time leader of the Economy Hall second-liners, as "the funkiest white man in the world.") But the Rob Wagner Trio in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, fronted by the young saxophonist, dipped into free jazz, grounding their rhythms in ostinato bass patterns and triple meters. And in between were the hard-bop rhythms of the Jazz Messengers Legacy Band. The most ballyhooed event at Saturday’s show was the reunion of the original Meters, predecessors of the Neville Brothers, creators of "Cissy Strut" and innumerable grooves sampled by hip-hoppers. ("They brought rock to funk, they brought funk to rock," announced Jazzfest producer Quint Davis.) Meanwhile, at the Congo stage, Meters descendants the Roots married rap to live-band rhythms and Zeppelin’s "Whole Lotta Love."

THE PONDEROSA STOMP is the brainchild of Dr. Ira Padnos, who’s identified by the Times-Picayune as an assistant professor of anesthesiology at LSU Medical Center. But, introducing acts at Mid-City Lanes on Tuesday night, youthful, with a fez crushing his curls, he could have passed for a BU grad student. The raison d’être for the Stomp is for Padnos to gather the R&B, rockabilly, and rock-and-roll heroes of his record collection for a live jukebox of half-hour performances during marathon sessions over two evenings. It’s pretty loose as to style (thus "Blood" Ulmer and, last year, the Sun Ra Arkestra), but for the most part, tight young backing bands support elder one-hit or near-hit legends like H-Bomb Ferguson ("Good Lovin’," and "Midnight Ramblin’ Tonight"; known for his "Thelonious Monk–style blues piano"), Dale Hawkins ("Suzy Q"), and Wray. Ferguson and Hawkins were more or less out of control with their singing but ingratiating in their enthusiasm and gratitude, and Ferguson, in a crushed red velvet shirt and frosted wig, was resplendent as he delivered tunes with what seemed to be (literally) toothless articulation. Stardom hasn’t been a straight road for a lot of these guys, but Padnos has given them a chance to shine once more. And for someone born in 1929, H-Bomb still knows how to rock.

Brenton Wood (born Alfred Smith in Shreveport; "The Oogum Boogum Song," "Gimme Little Sign," "Baby You Got It"), however, was in full command. Natty at 63 in a genuine zoot suit — wide trousers, long coat, broad-brimmed hat and all — he sang his light soul in front of a band who included indie-pop hero Alex Chilton on guitar with a falsetto so pure it didn’t even sound like a falsetto. It was funky, and it was a joy.

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Issue Date: May 6 - 12, 2005
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