NEW ORLEANS – A warm, sunny, breezy spring day in south Louisiana always is like a summer day at the beach. Friday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the world’s greatest beach music band, the Beach Boys, performed the perfect soundtrack for such a day.
With the Beach Boys, the festival snagged an especially compelling headlining act for opening day of the event’s first of two weekends at the Fair Grounds Race Course.
Original Beach Boys Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine, plus early ’60s member David Marks and, a member of the band since 1965, Bruce Johnston, played the festival’s Acura Stage. It was just the third stop on their 50th anniversary tour of the U.S., Europe and Japan.
The Beach Boys performed 28 songs, many of them about girls, cars, surfing, high school and young love. They and a large group of backup musicians and singers nailed the intricate instrumental parts and arrangements that distinguish the musically ambitious group from its ’60s peers. And the group’s lush vocal harmonies, so essential to the band’s sound, were celestial.
Love, as he has for so many years, slipped comfortably into his role as primary front man, taking the lead for the opening number ,“Do It Again,” and rocking car songs “409,” “I Get Around” and show-closer “Fun Fun Fun.”
Wilson, by contrast, sat stoically at a white baby grand piano on the extreme end of the stage. It was as if he were just a band member who’d rather not be seen.
Nonetheless, the singer, songwriter and producer of so much of the Beach Boys’ golden discography, gave the show some of its most beautiful moments. He even sang lead for “Sloop John B” and “God Only Knows,” both from the band’s 1966 masterpiece album, “Pet Sounds.”
Wilson also expressed his life-long love of music in a newly recorded Beach Boys song, “That’s Why God Made the Radio.” The song could be some lost and found gem from the band’s mid-’60s creative glory days. And, all in all, the band knocked out one song after another, sometimes in medley format, during a show that really was fun, fun, fun.
During Friday’s first set at the Blues Tent, Henry Gray, Baton Rouge’s 87-year-old singer and piano player, looked dapper in his gray suit, blond bowler hat and keyboard-striped tie.
Gray and his band, the Cats, injected a lot of rock ’n’ roll in their blues, including a farewell number during which the amiable Gray waved and sang, “Bye-bye, bye-bye, baby, bye-bye,” from his piano bench.
The festival’s Jazz and Heritage Stage is home for brass bands and fantastically costumed Mardi Gras Indian tribes. The Young Pinstripe Brass Band, formed in 2009, represented New Orleans’ funky brass band tradition at the stage with an early afternoon show.
The Pinstripers brought the music of New Orleans full circle by funking up “It’s All Over Now,” a song that was a hit for a band of British rock ’n’ rollers who emulated New Orleans and American rhythm-and-blues, the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and the lads, by the way, got “It’s All Over Now” from American rhythm-and-blues group the Womacks.
A nearly full day of music from New Orleans was heard from the Acura Stage, the only exception being the Beach Boys. The New Orleans Suspects, a band born of a late-night jam session, showed their deep local influences, especially from Dr. John.
Following the Suspects on Acura Stage, aging but still kicking locals who released national hits in the 1950s and ’60s performed for a show dubbed the New Orleans Classic Revue.
Backed by the eight-piece Blue Eyed Soul, a band that knows the repertoire up and down, the crown-wearing Al “Carnival” Johnson sang his Mardi Gras perennial, “Carnival Time.” Robert Parker performed his mid-’60s favorites “Barefootin’ ” and “Where the Action Is.”
Sitting at a Steinway grand piano and looking frail, the 72-year-old Frankie Ford nonetheless sang several songs, including, of course, the 1959 hit, “Sea Cruise.” Parker, the singer and saxophonist who immediately preceded Ford in the revue, was one of the session musicians who recorded the music for “Sea Cruise.”
Parker and Johnson returned to the Acura Stage to join Ford in a parting rendition of their late peer Jessie Hill’s “Ooh Poo Pah Doo,” a Carnival season hit in 1960 that became a local standard.
Everyone knows that music runs in New Orleans families so, just minutes later, Hill’s singing, trumpet-playing grandson, James Andrews, performed a super-energized rendition of “Ooh Poo Pah Doo” at the Blues Tent.
The Jazz Fest continues Saturday and Sunday with Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, Feist and many more.
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