Guitar Stars Shine in the Crescent City

May 11, 2006

Sonny LandrethTab BenoitIan NevilleSublime Lens’ Benny DominackIt was ambitious to even attempt the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival this year, and to turn out one of the best and most successful ever was a miracle. With the region’s musicians scattered across the country, the city’s infrastructure still shaky, and the fair grounds in tatters, the prospect of putting on anything that resembled the granddaddy of all American music festivals looked bleak just a few months before it’s traditional start date on the last weekend of April. Somehow, through the generosity of musical icons, corporate sponsors, devoted legions of music heads, and, possibly, the grace of the same supernatural force that unleashed the country’s most destructive natural disaster on one of its most beloved cities, Jazz Fest 2006 not only manifested—it thrived. Ticket sales were as strong, or possibly stronger, than ever. And the talent, from the biggest names to the lesser known acts, delivered some of the most passionate performances in the festival’s 37-year history. Considering the city’s still-critical condition, Jazz Fest 2006 felt like a significant step towards recovery.

New Orleans is traditionally a keyboard and horn town. There are no guitar stars to match the notoriety of Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Dr. John, or Branford Marsalis. There are, however, a few guitar greats who have sprung from the Crescent City and its surrounding region’s fertile soil, such as funk pioneer Leo Nocentelli from the Meters, slide virtuoso Sonny Landreth, and Cajun blues master Tab Benoit. All were on hand at Jazz Fest 2006, as were a slew of other worthy roots guitar stylists, a few promising young lions, and imported superstars such as The Edge, Dave Matthews, and Warren Haynes.

There are really two festivals going on simultaneously during Jazz Fest in New Orleans—the official fair grounds events held during the daytime on subsequent weekends, and events held at every other time of day and night all around the city at clubs, theatres, record stores, and so forth. Superfly Presents During Jazz Fest celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. The production company practically put on its own Jazz Fest, doing everything from assembling bands and placing them in unique settings—such as the Garage a Trios/ Medeski, Martin & Wood hybrid “Garage a Medeski”—to packing thousands of people into the Contemporary Arts Center for a weekend that included Gov’t Mule, Galactic, Robert Randolph & the Family Band, and the Meters. There are a host of other promoters doing shows, as well, so it’s impossible to see it all. The following list of noteworthy guitar-oriented performances witnessed by GP is published with the understanding that there were certainly a million other wonderful musical moments. That’s the beauty of an event with as much live music as what happens in New Orleans for ten days each spring, all of which is what “Jazz Fest” has really come to be about.


Slide Slinger

Sonny Landreth is the Louisiana version of Jeff Beck. The Lafayette native’s Jazz Fest performance was a tour de force of impossible technique, impeccable phrasing, fabulous tone, and natural southern soul. Landreth is a bona fide slide virtuoso with a singular style. He wears a glass slide on his pinky, and he supports it with his third finger while using his first two fingers to play double-stops and single notes. This split-finger approach often makes it look like he’s flashing Spock’s Vulcan sign while working the fretboard, and it leads to a unique chord-melody construction. Landreth’s trademark trick is to lay the slide at a happening harmonic location—such as the 12th or 7th fret—and play a blend of standard slide and slide harmonics, while fretting notes behind the slide with his first and second fingers. His ability to find melodies in harmonics and overtones is uncanny. It’s like he’s playing in the upper layers of the musical stratosphere with his slide while simultaneously playing in more familiar realms with his first two fingers. Landreth wears a yellow thumbpick on his right hand, and he uses all his fingers to roll, flick, slap, and pluck the strings of his vintage Stratocaster. He played through a Dumble Overdrive Special. What an amazing combination of balls and finesse! Tonally, it’s the best performance I’ve heard east of Eric Johnson, and the awesome main Acura Stage sound system delivered every nuance of Landreth’s spectacular show—details that sometimes get lost when you see him perform at clubs. Landreth played with zydeco king Clifton Chenier for years, so he’s very adept at handing intricate technique while maintaining a driving pulse. It’s easy to get caught up in the rhythmic current and miss many of the harmonic and melodic miracles Landreth conjures up measure by measure—all the more reason to come back and see him again.


Still Strutin’

The Meters are the quintessential New Orleans funk band, and they put on arguably the best show of the entire festival when they played the closing set on the first Sunday. The original lineup of guitarist Leo Nocentelli, bassist George Porter Jr., drummer Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, and keyboardist Art Neville actually reunited for the first time in years at Jazz Fest 2005. That was great, but they’ve toured a bit since then, and this show was tighter, more focused, and more fun. Nocentelli is one of the best rhythm players of all time, and he is known for precise execution of syncopated funk figures, such as his signature “Cissy Strut” licks. At Jazz Fest, he showed he’s still the man when it comes cutting into such lines with a combination of finesse and attitude. “Just Kissed My Baby” was the best example. Nocentelli dug a deep pocket, and he repeated the difficult lick perfectly throughout the tune with a nasty funkiness that is his trademark. One might assume he employs a lot of palm muting to control the string ring of his intricate groovy parts, but he actually extends his whole right arm across the strings. Nocentelli executes his funk with a tightly controlled picking motion, combined with considerable left-hand muting. During the Meters’ late ’60s and early ’70s heyday, Nocentelli played a rhythm-lead hybrid style, which is best displayed on the “Look-Ka Py Py” recording. He took to playing more lead guitar onstage gradually over time, and, these days, he takes extended solos in most tunes, as the band jams way beyond the concise arrangements of the original recordings. Nocentelli’s fantastic sense of economy and taste has given way to some straight-up wankiness in recent years. When he really gets blowing, he’s liable to lay full-on shred licks—mostly minor pentatonic stuff with a biting distortion tone—in the middle of an otherwise groovy jam. This occurred considerably less at this year’s Fest. For the most party, Nocentelli’s solos were more in tune with the band, which was much more in tune altogether than any of the four shows I saw them play last year.


Dave Matthews with The Edge

The biggest guitar star at Jazz Fest made his biggest impact before the event even started. U2’s The Edge is an adopted hero in New Orleans because of his charity efforts since the big storm. He sat in with the Dave Matthews Band wearing the same Music Rising shirt and playing the same special edition Musicares Gibson Les Paul that he played at the Grammy’s. Edge’s Music Rising program has been working in conjunction with the Grammy’s Musicares program to provide Gulf Coast musicians with new instruments. For “Smooth Rider,” Matthews ditched his acoustic and donned a Danelectro, while Edge’s playing was uncharacteristically funky and roots-based. He even played a traditional-style blues solo. More on Edge’s charity at


Super Fly Guitar Shows

The Superfly Presents shows at the Contemporary Arts center on the second weekend featured a superb mix of local and imported guitar players. Gov’t Mule and Galactic played Friday night, and the Meters and Robert Randolph & the Family band played Saturday night. Galactic’s Jeff Raines displayed a gift for playing booty shakin’ grooves that belied his stoic stage demeanor. He called on Delta blues inspirations when it was his turn to burn, but he was otherwise happy to lay back and let the focus fall elsewhere. John Mayer made a surprise appearance playing, but not singing, Jimi Hendrix’s “Little Miss Lover” and the Meters’ “Groovy Lady.” Mayer stepped into the spotlight, played admirably, and stepped offstage without a lot of hoopla. Warren Haynes brought the house down when he sat in on an aptly chosen cover of Led Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks.” The sweat-soaked Haynes then proceeded to rip through two full Mule sets, which included a gritty version of Bob Seger’s “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” and a spot-on reading of another Zeppelin chestnut, “Living Loving Maid.” It was interesting to keep an eye on Haynes’ right hand, which constantly adjusted the volume and tone knobs on his Gibson Les Paul as his left hand moved up and down the fretboard. Brian Stoltz (Funky Meters, Dr. John, Neville Brothers) brought some syncopated bayou funk rhythms and Hendrix-inspired lead work to his cameo on “32-20 Blues.” The following night, Robert Randolph abandoned his pedal-steel in favor of a sparkling red Fender Telecaster for a few tunes. His strumming technique is obviously influenced by his pedal-steel experience. He kept the thumbpick on, and mainly used that along with his first finger to pluck and strum the strings. He played lots of call-and-response lines and harmony runs with his Family Band—which included a rhythm guitar player for this date of mostly instrumental material. The Meters got off to a ragged start before finding their form during “Fire on the Bayou,” and hitting on all cylinders from that point forward.


Bayou Blues


Tab Benoit embodies swamp blues. There’s tons of it at Jazz Fest, but when you see and hear Benoit deliver a bayou tune such as, “Jambalaya,” it’s just too legitimate to deny. Benoit displayed impressive in-the-box chops with a stinging Albert Collins influence, but Benoit’s business isn’t about overt technical wizardry. He delivers straight-ahead, uncut blues with passion and flare. The tone from his vintage Fender Telecaster Thinline sizzled with just the right amount of gain—never squeaky clean, and never so heavily overdriven as to overshadow his percussive sense of rhythm. Benoit has a washboard player’s right hand, and he used it to great effect over the churning Cajun rhythms of his band. When you truly love where you come from and what you do—it shines through, and it’s hard to imagine anyone having more zest for the Fest than Benoit.

Songs and Strings

It was appropriate that the first song I heard at Jazz Fest was “Louisiana Rain,” delivered with added Katrina lyrics and boatloads of soul by Anders Osborne. He has a very Van Morrison-like voice with a distinctly R&B tinge to his blues. Osborne is primarily known as a singer/songwriter, but he’s a wonderful guitar player, as well. Osborne is equally at home on electric, acoustic, or resonator guitar, but, for this show, he stuck to playing Fender Stratocasters through Fender amps. In the past, I’ve seen him use piece of a wine bottle for a slide, but, in this case, he wore a brass one. He often employed a capo at the 4th or 5th fret, which allowed him to create bright, ringing open chords, and droning strings as he played loads of hammer-on licks. He used the volume knob in conjunction with the slide to create bow-like swells. Osborne pulled out all the stops during extensive jams with his phenomenal band, which consisted of John Gros (Papa Grows Funk) on keyboards, Eric Bolivar on drums, Tim Green on saxophone, and the Kirk Joseph (Dirty Dozen Brass Band) on tuba. The group was especially hot on a jam that sounded like a New Orleans version of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun.” “Stoned, Drunk, & Naked” was absolutely steamin’. Osborne’s late night Saturday set at the tiny D.B.A. was even hotter. Even the walls were sweating!


Wolfman Hands

Walter “Wolfman” Washington’s guitar playing on the Congo stage was a textbook study in left-hand positioning. Washington made a one-chord funk groove pop by wrapping his thumb around the neck in a tight grip while pumping his fretting fingers up and down on the fretboard. He got the most impact out of each chord hit, and then quickly released his grip for a muted effect. Imagine Morse code delivered with varying dynamics on a guitar with a percussion player’s pulse. For jazzier stuff, Washington employed a traditional grip with his thumb way down behind the neck, allowing his long fingers to form a strong barre, as well as to cleanly reach notes several frets above.


New Old School Nevilles

Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk is all about the earthy grooves of classic NOLA funk bands such as the Meters and the Neville brothers. Bandleader and keyboard player Ivan Neville is the son of Aaron Neville, while guitar player Ian Neville is the son of Art Neville, who founded both the Meters and the Neville Brothers. Ian is young, but he’s developing quickly by participating in all Neville projects. His minimalist funk style is very closely based on that of original Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli. Neville showed he understands that respecting the groove, and knowing how the syncopated rhythms of each instrument interlock, is the most important thing a funk player can do. Ian held his rhythm steady between the band’s dual 5-string bassists. Neville stepped up and executed a fluid blues-rock solo on “Living in a World Gone Mad.” Tony Hall, Dumpstaphunk’s bass player, is on the first-call list for Trey Anastasio and Dave Matthews when they do solo projects. Hall’s no-holds-barred 5-string bass style also influenced his aggressive guitar playing, which contrasts Neville’s easy-going approach. A highlight was Hall string bends on a funkified cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son.”


Next Big Thing

Eric Lindell was unquestionably one of the hottest things at this year’s Jazz Fest. The tattooed blue-eyed soul singer and guitar player recently signed a deal with Alligator Records, and he and his impressive band are riding high on the energy of his first Alligator release, Change in the Weather. Lindell has a natural cry in his voice, and a Steve Cropper-like guitar style. He only occasionally cut loose at Jazz Fest, coaxing a super slinky tone from his Stratocaster. He admitted to GP that he “hates playing lead,” and he left the heavy lifting in the capable hands of Chris Mulé, who is a consummate roots guitar player. Armed with a Telecaster, Mulé’s fluid fretting technique revealed classic blues and rock origins with a taste of country twang. He shined brightest when playing slide—often adding a bit of compression or gain to his tone that lifted Lindell’s laid back tunes to a new levels of excitement. Together, Lindell and Mulé form a formidable one-two guitar and vocal attack that is bound to win over roots music fans for years to come.


Smokin’ Jam Band

San Francisco’s Boom Boom Presents put together Dragon Smoke, a NOLA dream team whose core lineup consisted of Eric Lindell, Ivan Neville, and Galactic’s Stanton Moore and Robert Mercurio. The Tuesday night jam took place at the Blue Nile on Frenchmen Street, and it seemed like everyone who stayed in town between the weekends was on hand. Lindell’s undeniably awesome voice and stage presence served him well, and he raised the intensity level of his guitar game considerably. His clever, yet conservative phrasing evoked Jimmie Vaughan, and, when pushed, he channeled a bit of that other Vaughan without leaning so far towards Texas as to be outside the boundaries of his trademark New Orleans and Memphis style R&B. He left the fancy stuff to guests Will Bernard (Motherbug, T.J. Kirk) and Soulive’s Eric Krasno, who both are cool soul jazz cats.


Sublime Underground Find

Sublime Lens is a jazzy NOLA jam band with an interesting guitar player named Benny Dominack. Lens played an impressive set that featured guest saxophone star Karl Denson Wednesday night at the Shiloh—a converted house that lies just down the street from Tipitina’s. Dominack is Chris Mulé’s cousin, but their guitar styles are not related. Dominack’s approach is jazz based—Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell came to mind—but his guitar sound is youthful, street wise, and almost punk. He’s also adept at grooving in odd times, although he works melodies and motifs in with the rhythm section naturally enough to make the average ear comfortable with the syncopation. Heads were bopping all night.

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