Live Review – Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dustbowl Revival at the John Anson Ford Theater

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. 

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6 Responses to Live Review – Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dustbowl Revival at the John Anson Ford Theater

  1. Brick Wahl says:

    Nice review.

    Saw them at a jazz festival once and they sank without a trace. I suspect the novelty–weird something ancient being a novelty–works better in non-jazz surroundings. That early, early pre-Louis Armstrong stuff is pretty staid, really. You see Preservation Hall Jazz Orchestra and you’re probably seeing what a Buddy Bolden Show looked like, minus the liquor. Booze everyone up and fire up some reefers and it’d be more like New Orleans, both being readily available and widely used. My bro Jon hypothesized that the whole improvising thing came from black brass bands good and stoned and I figure why not? It certainly explains messing with the lines like that, those long blue notes, the stretching.

    I’m nuts about hot jazz, twenties style..aka Dixieland when done by white guys in boaters, classic jazz when done by black guys in suits. That segregation goes all the way back to the beginnings of the style, though. The Original Dixieland Jazz Band–who recorded the first jazz record ever–were a bunch of Italians from one ward, while all the pre-Louis bands were from another. I actually have a mess of old Dixieland records that only my brother ever hears. Our trombone playing Dad was nuts about the stuff. But I would never admit owning them to anyone in the jazz world except Scott Yanow, who is unapologetic about the whole genre. Jazzers loathe the stuff. They respect the PHJO, though, but they don’t listen to them, anymore than rock fans listen to anything pre-Elvis. Well, a very select few do, of course, but try playing it at a party. And try playing Original Dixieland Jazz Band at a party, let alone the Peservation Jazz Hall Orchestra. I will sometimes play St Louis Blues by Louis Armstrong at a party, the version off of “Meets WC Handy’. I’ll play it loud, way loud, and when Louis comes in after Barney Bigard I’ll crank up the volume to eleven and it sounds like Satchmo is in the living room blowing his ass off, dah dee dah, dah dee dah, dah de dah de dah de dah, and the drunks get excited and start stomping around the parlor, even the super smart refined ones. Jazz changed the world once. Made people crazy. After global war and revolutions and a world wide plague, a little crazy was a good thing. The bathtub gin helped, too.

    I’m waiting for someone to put together a monster trad band. Wailing stuff, hot as hell, free from too much thinking and crazy chords and post Miles sophistication. Free from art, really, just pure old fashioned jazz. Something that no way in hell you could call America’s Classical Music. I’m waiting and waiting. Maybe there are still some bands like that in New Orleans, playing for the tourists, When The Saints Go Marching In for the thousandth time. It won’t come from the kids, tho’. I hear them talking and they are soooooooo smart, so unbelievably well schooled in jazz, that playing such stuff is like a coloring book for a painter. Too easy. Too pointless. Too fun. I don’t blame them. I just wonder where you find jazz players who aren’t so schooled. Or if it’s even possible. It’s like trying to find writers to write a new Epic of Gilgamesh. You won’t. They’d subtext it to death.

    Great read, Bob.

  2. Pingback: Preservation Hall Jazz Band | Brick Wahl

  3. Brick Wahl says:

    I meant Preservation Hall Jazz Band, not orchestra. It’s that whole America’s Classical Music bit, I couldn’t help it.

  4. Cracked me up: “Why would you want to revive the Dustbowl? That shit was terrible.”

  5. Pingback: Live Review – New Order, La Roux At Greek Theater | The LA Beat

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