2, 4, 6, 8, Tell Us Everything You Ate!

May 21, 2008

Well, not everything, O Best Beloveds; truth be told, I lost track really early on. The following won’t do the trip justice, but it is selected highlights of the important questions, namely, who did you see and what did you eat? Mostly the former, as it happens.

No particular order:

1) Allison Kraus and Robert Plant at Jazz Fest. What a ridiculous pairing, a country singer and a golden rock god, and yet it works sublimely. Most of their set was off their T Bone Burnett produced album (and how smug is he feeling for coming up with this audacious concept?), acoustic bluegrass ditties of great beauty, their voices blending together in original harmonies. And that would have been enough–indeed, at one point, it was, it wasn’t that we weren’t thoroughly enjoying it, but the practical matter of Fest was presenting itself, to wit, no matter what terrific thing is going on, there is at least another half dozen other fab things going on at the same time, and one just wants to sample it all, buffet style. So we were getting ready to move on when they launched into a completely straight-faced slow acoustic version of Zeppelin’s “Black Dog,” one of the great hard rock anthems, and it was so wrong and hilarious and also perfect. So we stayed, and the set got even better. And then they did “The Battle of Evermore,” that overblown, pretentious, guilty pleasure duet from Led Zeppelin Four, with Allison doing the Sandy Denny part, and somehow, all that Tolkein-inspired imagery not only didn’t sound trite, it actually took on an additional level of meaning, as dark forces threatened something glorious, and Plant sang “Bring it back, bring it back, bring it back.” To his credit, he didn’t footnote that line, since the crowd, sitting in the middle of gradually reviving New Orleans, hardly needed it. (Also, how sad is it that I know a shamefully small amount of philosophy and theology, given what I’m doing, and yet I still know all the lyrics to “The Battle of Evermore”?) Then they finished with “When the Levee Breaks,” and of course, that’s a song that has acquired a whole new totem for this city. We were buzzing so hard after this set it was difficult to hear any other music.

2) The Carolina Chocolate Drops at Jazz Fest. Three young, really good looking, and really really really talented African-American musicians, who are reclaiming and reviving the traditions of banjo, bluegrass and old timey music for their culture. (There is a very old African American banjo tradition, but it’s been largely forgotten.) A splendid example of band chemistry. Switching instruments, they played, variously, banjo, fiddle, water jug, jew’s harp and even kazoo, and each one was superb at whatever they picked up. It was so interesting to see the blues tent loudly thrill to what was nothing more than traditional old-timey music, albeit played superbly and with great enthusiasm and verve. But then the woman in the trio accompanied one original song with a wild kazoo solo that just got more and more heated, more and more over the top–and the crowd went nuts, standing up, screaming, nearly drowning her out. It was hilarious, rock star moment. It was also justly earned. At the end, the gleaming-eyed musicians took photos of the freaking out crowd, so delighted were they with their reception. Seek them out, for sure, because they are wonderful.

3) Terence Blanchard and the New Orleans Orchestra at Jazz Fest. Titled “A Tale of God’s Will; A Requiem for Katrina,” this modern jazz piece expands on Blanchard’s soundtrack for Spike Lee’s devastating “When the Levee Breaks.” I don’t really like modern jazz–there, I said it–and I stopped in the jazz tent intending to just hear a few minutes (buffet, remember), but I couldn’t leave. I can’t do justice to this piece, all the more soaring and punching as it was accompanied by a full out local orchestra, but it’s a lush evocative moody composition that veers through aural tragedy. During one movement, an elegy for the dead, I cried.

4) Susan Cowsill at Carrollton Station. Singer-songwriter Susan and her band do a once a month series called “Covered in Vinyl,” wherein they perform an entire classic album, such as “Rumors” or even “Are you Experienced?” Last year, they did the Mamas and the Papas “If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears,” complete with faithful recreations of those lovely harmonies. It was a total highlight last year, so whatever she did this year, we were there. And this year? Why, “Born to Run”! Nine people crowded on the tiny Carrollton Station, the C Street Band, as it were, ragged but so right. Susan expressed concern that she might not be able to remember all the many lyrics and might need some help. “We’re here for you, babe,” said a man to my left, and boy, were we ever. From the very first note, the entire, and I do mean entire, crowd sang, and loudly, along to each and every word, except for “Meeting Across the River,” or as I called it, “that one song no one really knows.” Guitarist Paul Sanchez had a big goofy gleeful surprised grin on his face as time and time again the crowd delivered yet another complicated verse. Prepping for the climax, “Jungleland,” Susan whimpered helplessly, “There are so many, many words.” Paul: “Yes. This album is 39 minutes long and Jungleland is nine and a half of them.” But she wasn’t failed by the crowd even then. And when she messed up the ending, well, she just did it again to prove she could do it right. Did I mention it was fantastic? And utter, utter joy? Diana summed it up: “It’s like the Hollywood Bowl Singalong Sound of Music, except you’ve been transported to the top of the Alps with 100 of your closest friends.” It was that much fun. Can’t wait until next year.

5) The Musical Life of Steve Wynn in Richmond. So Steve and Linda got married–!!!!!!!!!!!!!–and the night before, they assembled many musician friends and played in all sorts of combinations of Steve’s bands over the years–his latest the Miracle Three, Gutterball, Danny and Dusty, the Dream Syndicate (with special guest guitarists Peter Buck and Vicki Peterson) and more I’ve forgotten, played with inspiration and delight, all the better because it was done in a room full of people gathered to celebrate a joyous occasion. Yay. Just, yay. That’s all. YAY.

6) Cafe de Foie Gras at Commander’s Palace. Surely the most inspired and frivolous appetizer there could be, meant as a gourmet homage to the venerable Cafe du Monde’s famous combination. Check this out; bourbon braised fig and foie gras beignets, warm and sturdy, topped with cracked vanilla beans and a large slab of light-as-air foie gras, with a foie gras cafe au lait (the foie gras gave the liquid the richness and slight taste of hot chocolate) with chicory coffee foam, in a sweet little fluted glass. The pairing of the two components worked on every level. An absolutely outstanding dish and one you should hope is always on the menu at Commander’s because seriously, you have to try this. It was pretty much the last thing we ate in New Orleans, and it’s nearly wiped out the memory of anything else we ate there.

7) The Special Amuse at Cafe Adelaide. There’s a new chef in town–or at Adelaide, as it were–and he greeted us with a bang, a starter of true fabulousness. Flash fried pork belly, bruleed–fork tender–with orange mustard pan perdu–that’s a twist on the Creole version of French toast–topped with truffled pork rillette, and crackins–which added a level of richness even beyond the pork belly–and pickled Vidella onions with a rhubarb and Louisiana strawberry jam–and there’s the sweetness contrast to the savory. So each of us would try part of this dish–the pork belly, say–and exclaim over how good it was. And then we would try another part–like the rillette with the pan perdu–and that part would be even better. And then we would start over, and we just couldn’t decide. I bet having another five or six servings of this would have helped. Anyway, welcome, Chef Chris! Looking forward to experiencing more of you!

8) The cheeseburger po boy at Mandina’s. Lest you think it’s all foie gras and truffles–or pork, for that matter. Michele got this at Mandina’s last year, and that made Chuck and Wes try it during a trip in July, and I saw a photo of it on Chuck’s Gumbopages, and wanted it ever since. It did not fail. The burger is made to fit the po boy bread, so its rectangular, rather than round, and I had it medium rare, so it was pink and juicy. Also, huge. Sometimes, it’s the simple things. Speaking of…

9) Jill’s fish at Jill and Charles’. Charles went out and caught redfish for us that day, and Jill pan fried it with a garlic, caper and olive oil sauce. Fresh, simple and always just right. There isn’t a better entree in New Orleans.

10) The Midnight Disturbers at Jazz Fest. An all star brass band, who were smoking hot. But that’s not why this was so good. It was so good because we danced with our friends in the pouring rain, in a foot of water, because we were at Jazz Fest and we were with our friends and the band wasn’t going to stop and all was right with the world, even when said world is soggy. The loveliest moment of a lovely, lovely trip.

There was lots more,