I’m a firm believer that you can find anything in New York City if you’re willing to look, and on Saturday, way down at the end of the 7 line at the Flushing Meadows Corona Park, we found a little slice of Crescent City Charm at the third annual Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World Festival.
In fitting New Orleans style, not long after I, and many other Festgoers arrived, a bout of rain and subsequent delays pushed the day’s three headliners back by nearly an hour (though based on my meteorological track record this festival season, I’m starting to think I might actually be to blame). Thankfully, the Queens Museum was open to Festgoers, so time was more than happily spent perusing the Ramones exhibit or oohing and aahing over the crown jewel of the museum’s collection, the Panorama of the City of New York, above which flashed black and white photos of the day’s hero, Louis Armstrong.
Time was also all too easily spent at one of two indoor “beer gardens” set up for the day, one of which featured that Classic N’awlins drink you’ll never remember, the Hurricane. Though scaled back a bit from their Bourbon Street bretherin, they still packed a fruity punch, and served as one more fun reminder of New Orleans spirit(s). Unfortunately, the food truck lineup left something to be desired, and though yummy, tacos, grilled cheese and gelato cannot compare to the gastronomic delights from down south. An attempt to showcase some creole cooking would have been appreciated. Unless- say it ain’t so- NYC just can’t deliver.
Now onto the music (as I begin to draw up plans for my gumbo restaurant)… Finally taking the stage at 5:45, Kermit Ruffins blasted into a short but lively set of tunes made famous by Armstrong, living up to his reputation as a stellar showman, topped with his signature bandana and puffy newsboy. He opened with “Sleepy Time Down South” and segued into “Jeepers Creepers” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” showing off his scatting chops in fitting tribute to Pops. Though Ruffins was unquestionably the master of ceremonies with his full bodied charm (that belies his short stature), he made way for his BBQ Swingers to shine, stepping into the wings and allowing each member to have ample time on most songs to take a solo. Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji was especially impressive on keys, playing with a wild, possessed intensity.
To end his set, Ruffins brought out singer Nayo Jones, who performed an inspired, rafter shattering version of the oft covered “At Last,” pausing and repeating some of her most powerful vocal trills when the audience wasn’t giving her enough love in return. “Thank you music lovers, thank you music lovers, thank you music lovers!” Ruffins shouted into the audience, as joyously as he might have to a crowd ten times the size of the one gathered on the damp day.
I have to confess (though I’ve been warned a critic should never cop to ignorance) that I’m not well versed in the language of funk, but you don’t have to be a pro to feel it; the unadulterated passion Soulive pours into their collaboration is infectious– spontaneous, electric, sexy. As cliche as it is to say, these guys are not only having a blast playing together, they’re also clearly impressed with each other’s talents, and take delight in extended, intricate jams that take shape in the moment. After all, the trio, made up of guitarist Eric Krasno (who just released a new solo record) and brothers Alan Evans on drums and Neal Evans on organ and keys have been playing together for over a decade. Towards the end, Ryan Zoidis of the Shady Horns added an extra layer to the group’s sound with his sax. Before and after the show, members of the trio mingled along the side of the stage, doling out hugs to old friends and fans alike, adding to the unpretentious, convivial mood of the day.
As the final band took their place on stage, Dr. John’s trombonist, tambourine player and hypewoman extraordinaire, Sarah Morrow, riled up the crowd for the final performer of the night. “Does anybody need a doctor!?” She shouted, to wild shouts and applause.
Shakily, Dr. John made his way to his grand piano, decorated with a golden fleur de lis on purple velvet and topped with a skull. Without delay, he launched into “Iko Iko” and “Shoo Fly” on grand piano, dispelling all fears with his raspy croon that still sounds terrific. He steamed into “Renegade,” leaning on the kind of anti-establishment wordplay that makes him such a relatable legend; “I been working for the man 26 years, and I ain’t even met that son of a bitch.” Our collective breath was held as the Doctor relinquished his cane and slowly steadied himself to take the guitar. But again, he showed the skeptics he’s still going strong, delivering some tasty licks on “Let the Good Times Roll.”
He played his iconic hits, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “I Walk On Guilded Splinters,” and offered his rollicking, uptempo jazz version of Armstrong’s “What A Wonderful World.” On his way off stage, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer finally seemed to take notice of the audience, waving, flashing a big grin and blowing kisses, and was met with a rowdy standing ovation.
These days, we’ve become all too used to news of hatred, injustice and terror. But for a few sweet hours, we found Nola by way of Queens, and paying tribute to Satchmo, were reminded that indeed it is– far more often than not– a wonderful world.