These roughly annual New Orleans nights at the Bowl are becoming one of my favorite LA traditions, an opportunity to see an Angeleno crowd get off its collective behind and wave some handkerchiefs in the air. Classic Louisiana music typically favors infectious, syncopated beats underneath a simple, indelible melody, and these bills can be counted on for displays of ridiculous drumming skills along with spontaneous outbreaks of dancing.
If this tradition is to live on, it will have to find a way to do it without the regular presence of the Neville Bros., who are in the midst of their farewell tour. After their stirring performance at the Bowl, it feels like a calamitous loss. At 74, Art Neville is still a masterful, economical organ player, and an effortlessly expressive singer, while brother Aaron’s vocals have lost none of their technical mastery or emotional weight. Sax player Charles and percussionist/ vocalist Cyril remain at the top of their games. As a collective, they represent a depth of knowledge and experience in Southern music that’s just about unequaled on the stage today.
For seventy minutes, the band’s set felt less like a festival-ready celebration of their greatest hits, and more like the kind of thing they would play for a crowd of locals, heavy on Professor Longhair covers and Wild Tchopitoulas-era material, passing the spotlight from brother to brother as the night progressed. The only tracks I can remember being repeated from their last Bowl appearance were two of the most welcome, the Meters’ “Hey Pocky A’way” and “Fiyo On The Bayou”.
The night opened with a half-hour of accordion-powered zydeco from Roddie Romero and the Hub City All Stars, the kind of show familiar to anyone who’s attended a Long Beach Cajun Fest. They’re good at what they do, true to the sound of the roadhouse, and insured that some of those moments of spontaneous dancing came early in the program.
After this, the Bowl’s rotating stage whirled around to reveal a fully-plugged-in rock band, who sent forth a blistering wall of heavy guitar, bass and drums to a crowd that looked rather taken aback. This was our introduction to Trombone Shorty, a young New Orleans resident who has added massive power to the brass-band aesthetic. Shorty’s band Orleans Ave. takes the metal power trio and augments it with low-end horns (tenor sax, baritone sax and the bone), giving it an attack that lands firmly in the center of the chest.
During their instrumental forays, they suggested a more bottom-heavy version of Billy Cobham’s Spectrum. But Shorty’s also an inspired, soulful vocalist capable of some Stevie Wonder-style lyricism and flow. And while it was the most distinctly modern sounding (aka: loud) of the bands featured, they showed a firm grip on their city’s deepest roots in a played-straight but hell raising cover of Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman.” It’s easy to see why this band has become a hit on the hippie festival circuit; with a diverse repertoire, solid tunes, a singer that can really sing and guys that can really play, they’re very easy to like.
I usually get annoyed when horn players try to impress a crowd by holding a single note for an unbelievably long time. The world record for this skill is held by Kenny G, you know, blow me. And yet so many of them do it, even great ones like Maceo Parker, that I just try to accept it’s probably going to happen whenever I see a good horn player, that the audience will riot if they don’t hold one note for a long time. Shorty pulled off this trick in a considerably cooler way than I’ve ever seen it done. As the band built up steam on a Zeppelin-flavored riff, he sent out a staccato trumpet attack that became gradually more and more insistent and higher-pitched, like a kettle boiling over, until the solo finally climaxed and the kettle leapt right off the stove. Technically impressive circular breathing, yes, but also a moment that worked musically; if you’re going to resort to tricks, that’s a pretty neat trick to pull off.