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LouFest 2016 reflections and surprises

Jess Luther | St. Louis Public Radio
Ms. Lauryn Hill's backup singers

Driven by proven talents and entertainers, LouFest aims to capture college students and older folks, too. It succeeds with a schedule that rolls out like tickertape, allowing attendees to easily flow from one concert to the next with no downtime in between. Hang around long enough and you’re bound to find music you like — and have a good time. 

This year, the Forest Park field was a mess after Friday night rains, yet many people chose to kick off their shoes and walk barefoot through the mud instead of turning sour.  People joked that you could tell how long other attendees had been at the fest by just how high the mud spattered their legs. Some affectionately called it “mudfest” or “slopfest.”

If you missed LouFest 2016, St. Louis Public Radio offers some reflections on five stirring shows.

Credit Cambria Harkey, Provided by LouFest
Charlie Gabriel of Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Midway through the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s set at LouFest on Saturday, 84-year-old saxophonist and vocalist Charlie Gabriel began clapping the clave, the 3-2 beat that underlies  much of Latin American music.

As Gabriel summoned festival-goers to put their hands together, the band delivered a lively version of "El Manisero" (The Peanut Vendor) a classic Cuban tune long played by jazz orchestras.

The song was a perfect vehicle for the New Orleans band, which for more than half a century has been a leading exponent of traditional music in the port city, where Caribbean and West African influences are part of its cultural heritage.

A Preservation Hall Jazz Band performance is a reminder of the enduring power of jazz as a living art form — one that allows musicians to engage an audience with accessible, danceable and timeless compositions.

The seven-member ensemble did that from the start, prompting the crowd to sing along on “Shallow Water,” and heads to bob on “Popo.” With tight rhythms, thumping bass lines and blaring horns, the band evoked an age when jazz was popular music. But the musicians didn’t forget to engage each other in musical conversation, leaving room for vibrant horn and piano solos.

They finished with soul: the gospel-infused “I Think I Love You,” which bassist and creative director Ben Jaffe co-wrote with Chris Stapleton (who performed Saturday night); the rousing “Dear Lord” and a Jackson 5/Stevie Wonder medley — all with improvisational flourishes.

This was no history lesson. It was live.

— D.C.

Quaker City Nighthawks

The Quaker City Nighthawks are a southern rock ‘n’ roll band almost perfectly articulated to the late-afternoon slot of any music festival. Multiple guitars, walking bass-lines, four-four rhythms from a former St. Louisan and vocals that shift from nonchalant to insistent characterize a band that claims ZZ Top as a direct influence.

The band’s sound brings to mind wide-open skies, warm summer sun and cool drinks sweating on your hand. 

On Saturday, the band’s first songs were pretty straightforward rock and roll that would fit snuggly into the more rambunctious Americana acts that seem to have made a home on the St. Louis music scene over the last couple decades (Bottle Rockets, The Maness Brothers). 

As the musicians got a feel for the crowd, they began to show their eccentricities and their performance was better for it. 

At times they introduced heavier, swampier rhythms that fit well with the festival grounds' slowly drying mud. At times guitar lines would connect, step in time for a while and split into looser complimentary melodies, like friends meeting at a bar and sharing conversation before heading back to their dates across the building. 

The Nighthawks seemed strongest when they followed the lead of contemporary guitar group My Morning Jacket and indulged their weirder impulses. When the band seemed less interested in showing its Texas rock bona fides and leaned into droning keyboards or unexpected descending melodic structures that repeated trance-like, it seemed ready to find its own place.

— W.R.A.

Credit Jess Luther | St. Louis Public Radio
Buddy Guy performs on LouFest's Bud Light stage.

Buddy Guy

I was born to play the guitar/I’ve got a reputation, and everybody knows my name/I was born to play the guitar/People, I’ve got blues running through my veins.

If there is any musician alive who embodies the blues, it’s Buddy Guy, the guitar player and singer who influenced some of the biggest names in rock music.

From Eric Clapton to Jimi Hendrix, Guy has been a defining force, delivering the licks that changed pop music — even if many people have no idea who he is.

At 80, Guy is still a brilliant guitarist, showman and singer, and he left no question about that on Sunday in a rousing LouFest show that left his audience mesmerized.

“I’m going to play something so funky, you can smell it,” he said, launching into an hour-long set of traditional blues, from “I Just Want To Make Love To You” to “I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man” and others.

Guy paid homage to blues giants Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and B.B. King, of course. But during a weekend that showcased rock, hip-hop and other genres, his playing made it clear that the blues is at the root of the North American styles that followed.

In a performance that employed multiple beats and tempos, Guy also showed remarkable dexterity, playing his guitar with a drum stick, behind his back and with his teeth. He traded stirring solos with others in his band, particularly guitarist Ric Jaz and pianist Marty Sammon. Drummer Tim Austin and bassist Orlando J. Wright powerfully pushed the beat.

The performance was earthy and eclectic, but sophisticated. In one exchange, Sammon deftly worked in a few notes of the jazz standard “Willow Weep For Me.”

Guy’s playing spoke to the dynamic presence of the blues in other genres over the last century, showing how a bluesman can easily pick up Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar,” Clapton’s licks on “Strange Brew” while playing for Cream, and a Hendrix tune.

The bandleader is determined to keep the blues alive.

“I didn’t get this from a school,” Guy said. "I got it from some of the greatest blues musicians.”

— D.C.

Anderson .Paak

On his records, Anderson .Paak seems to pick up where Andre 3000 left off with “The Love Below.”

.Paak pulls from soul, rhythm and blues and every era of hip-hop.

His most recent album, “Malibu,” ranges from slow-burning love songs with psychedelic guitars to flow-flexing narratives that weave together personal stories and black history. Live, these songs become bass-laden rave ups.

Sunday afternoon, .Paak took the stage confident and energized. His first song set the tone immediately as he bounced from one end of the stage to the next, calling for people to dance while whipping up the band to driving force. Throughout the show, he maintained a constant connection with the crowd.

After a couple songs .Paak took over on drums and carried both rhythm and vocals for the rest of the show. He kept energy high throughout the show, calling for the crowd to throw their hands in the air, dedicating songs to his guitarist’s girlfriend — “Oops, his ex. When did that happen?” — and praising the festival.

The band easily translated albums that exemplify contemporary remix culture into a captivating live performance. Partway through the set, he turned to the audience and uttered his thesis: “If nobody loves you today, I love you."

.Paak’s show was an easy demonstration of talent that never overshadowed the late afternoon good vibes. Throughout his set, the audience continued to grow, pulling people from Bud Light stage headliners The Kills and the Nosh Pit.  The crowd only began to thin during Anderson .Paak’s last song as many drifted over to the Forest Park stage in preparation for Ms. Lauryn Hill’s performance.

— W.R.A.

Credit Jess Luther | St. Louis Public Radio
Ms. Lauryn Hill performs the last day of the festival.

Ms. Lauryn Hill

“Will Ms. Lauryn Hill arrive late to the show?” was one of the most prevalent questions shared by people anticipating this year’s LouFest. The hip-hop icon took the stage 15 minutes after her scheduled start time on Sunday, but few in the crowd seemed to care.

There was almost no lull from the moment Hill appeared before a highly anticipatory crowd. Stylistically, the music had more in common with Nigerian multi-instrumentalist Fela Kuti than her late 1990s performances when she was rhyming and singing with The Fugees, or touring behind her universally acclaimed debut solo album.

A full band featuring three horns, a DJ, drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and three backup singers supported Hill’s performance, providing complex rhythms, strong grooves, and sing-along choruses. 

Hill embraced her role as bandleader throughout the performance, cueing horns and signaling key changes, raising her hands to increase the band’s intensity, and placing palms toward the ground to quiet musicians and singers alike. Hill and her band shifted from song to song with little to no break or banter in between. 

Midway through her show, the band took a backseat, holding a simple rhythm while Hill launched into some of the tightest rhymes and breath control of the entire festival.

The singer largely relied on her hits, which have come to symbolize maintaining personal authenticity — and demonstrations of deft mic control.

Hill has recorded little over the past decade. But on stage at LouFest, she reinterpreted a couple songs and musical sketches releasedonline. The live presentation followed the tradition of established African performers instead of Hill's initial New York hip-hop sound. 

— W.R.A.

Follow Willis Ryder Arnold and David Cazares on Twitter @WillisRArnold and @dpcazares

David is the health, science and arts & culture editor for St. Louis Public Radio.