By: Michael Lepek
Nestled between towering buildings of New Orleans and in the shadow of historic Gallier Hall is a grassy acre of green space known as LaFayette Square. The park serves as a lunchtime spot for the bustling downtown crowd as well as a gathering place during the spring and summer. Folks come to celebrate getting over the work week hump with a cocktail and an eclectic array of New Orleans music during the weekly Wednesdays at the Square events.
During the second week in October, the space also serves as the perfect location for The Crescent City Blues and BBQ Festival, produced and presented by the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation. The open space, contrasted with the tall buildings surrounding its perimeter, provides an environment for excellent sound in the middle of this city oasis.
The stages are set up on the long ends of the rectangle shaped park which provides an opportunity for non-stop music during the festival. Once a band hits their last note on the St. Charles Street stage, the next band is ready to roll on the Camp Street stage. It's quite enjoyable to see the between-set dance of the crowd, simultaneously spinning their chairs from one stage to the next. Luckily the sets are about ninety minutes, reducing the dizzying effect for most of the crowd.
The longtime producer of the festival, Scott Aiges, explained that booking this Festival is a bit like a jigsaw puzzle -- first you have to find all the pieces and then move them around to complete the picture. Many of the festivals produced by the Jazz and Heritage Foundation are dominated by New Orleans and Southern Louisiana artists but the booking for the Crescent City Blues and BBQ relies on national and touring blues acts for about 50% of its lineup. This keeps the lineup fresh and allows for a nice rotation of New Orleans/Louisiana blues artists.
The pieces to the puzzle included the local legend, Little Freddie King who kicked off the festival with his usual style and unique flair. At 78 years old his stage theatrics have slowed a bit, but he has stayed true to his Delta blues roots and the playing style of his mentor Freddie King.
Recent New Orleans transplant, Samantha Fish, is a fast-rising star in the blues world, but the truth is she has been and a part of the scene for well over a decade. She may initially attract onlookers with her stunning looks but it's her guitar playing and her blend of different blues styles -- from Kansas City to the Mississippi Hill Country -- that transforms them into true fans.
The women of blues were well represented this year not only in number but by generation. Samantha Fish headlined Friday night and Shemekia Copeland, the daughter of the late Texas guitarist Johnny Copeland, played a poignantly personal set that featured songs from her new album, America's Child, which ranged in topics from motherhood to the current political climate.
Closing out the Camp Street. stage on Saturday was Carmen "Cookie" McGee, a Texas guitar prodigy who spent her younger days watching her neighbor Freddie King practice with his band. Her first band was comprised mostly of King's children. That group won the talent show at Longfellow Elementary School. Her professional career has ebbed and flowed over the years with her love of playing the blues occasionally taking a back seat due to a dislike of the business side of the music industry.
Another new face at the festival was singer Keeshea Pratt, whose band was awarded the top prize at the 2018 International Blues Challenge.
A trio of Louisiana-born blues, swamp blues, and Zydeco royalty consisting of 93-year-old Baton Rouge pianist Henry Gray, Zydeco star Terrance Simien and 74-year-old R&B guitarist Paul “Lil Buck” Sinegal, kept the audience enthralled even when Gray slipped into the same song two or three times during the set.
Memphis soul legend Don Bryant -- best known for writing the song “I Can’t Stand the Rain” -- had some success in the '60s as a member of The 5 Royals but ultimately focused on songwriting and only performing live in the church. In 2016, he was coaxed out of retirement and paired with the Memphis-based horn band the Bo-Keys.
Bryant is a polished performer who commands the stage moving from side-to-side to completely engage his audience. His voice is raspy but strong and carried the short performance time which he shared with Memphis soul man, Percy Wiggins.
The final piece to the puzzle was the Saturday night headlining spot that was reserved for Texas Guitar slinger Jimmie Vaughan. The last time I saw Vaughan in New Orleans he was playing with his longtime band The Fabulous Thunderbirds at The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 1987. He was accompanied on stage by his brother Stevie Ray. While this performance may have not been as electric as the historical 1987 meeting, Jimmy Vaughn proved that he still warrants the respect of the blues community.