Long regarded as the keepers of the flame for New Orleans’ traditional music, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band has been on something of a creative roll lately. Under the leadership of bassist and tuba player Ben Jaffe, the group has not exactly modernized its sound – plenty of the music we heard at the Ford Theater on Saturday sounds like it originated eighty or a hundred years ago. But they’re also not afraid to place themselves in a more modern context. They made a record and toured with the Del McCoury Band a few years ago, pairing string band with brass band with a surprisingly natural-sounding result. It’s not unheard of to see them on rock festival lineups these days, nor to have the likes of Arcade Fire or My Morning Jacket trot them out for a collaboration. Two recent visits to LA had them backing the dancers of the Trey McIntyre Project in a stunningly effective pairing, evoking both the horror of Hurricane Katrina and the spirit that enabled its victims to move forward. While the tradition they uphold may be old, the music itself remains a living organism that will always have relevance, at least as long as dancing remains fun.
To that end, it was no shock when the group announced the appearance of “a very special guest, you all know him and love him…” Who could come up with so much a guess in the pregnant pause that followed? Really, it could have been anybody.
It turned out to be guitarist Robby Krieger from the Doors, who added his distinctive, steely leads over not one but two versions of “St. James Infirmary Blues”, a slow one and a fast one. This was followed by a rendition of “People Are Strange,” utilizing the full brass band. It was a moment that came out of nowhere, but somehow worked. Maybe the Doors were listening to old jazz records when they wrote that song – the chords and counterpoints are classic New Orleans, played on electric instruments. Or maybe not, and it’s just a mash-up that happened to sound cool. But it did sound cool. For about 12 minutes, they broke the spell of being at an old-school jazz show and cast a slightly different one.
Good as those moments were, they may not have been the most rocking parts of the set. For “Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing,” they had an all-low end lineup worthy of Spinal Tap’s “Big Bottom” – two tubas, trombone, and a left-handed piano part. “Rattlin’ Bones” turned into a hair-raiser worthy of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins. And following Krieger’s guest spot, they proceeded to bring out octogenarian former members Charlie Gabriel and Frank Demond for what turned out to be the most get-up-and-move part of the night, probably some of their oldest repertoire.
The only danger with the kind of joy that moments like these produce is that they may be followed by pangs of disappointment that you are not actually in New Orleans, and can’t walk out of that show and get a catfish sandwich at whatever place is on the corner. Because you will walk out of that show wanting to eat catfish. I know I did.
Openers Dustbowl Revival are the kind of deliberately old-timey band made up of young people that tends to get the wary eye from me. Why would you want to revive the Dustbowl? That shit was terrible. People suffered horribly. Surely there’s some other iconic thing from the past you could put in your band name? But even cynical old me has to admit there is some musical talent at play here, with some immediately familiar-sounding tunes, and if some of the songs sound like outtakes from Country Bear Jamboree, well, I liked Country Bear Jamboree enough to listen to outtakes. The group’s mix of string and brass band sounds was directly inspired by Pres Hall’s UCLA show with the Del McCoury Band, according to bandleader Zach Lupetin, and the Ford Theater crowd responded powerfully to numerous breakdowns that called for clapping along. Also in their favor, no overalls or chewing of hay were observed. Maybe someday, there will be an animatronic bear act dedicated to them – dare to dream, kids.