Woodstock Turns 50

August 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of Woodstock, the granddaddy of all music festivals. It wasn’t the biggest festival ever, and certainly not a profitable endeavor, at least not initially. What set Woodstock apart was its agrarian nature. Set amongst the rolling terrain of the Catskill Mountains, organizers cobbled together this ginormous festival by the proverbial seat of their pants, lacking adequate planning or logistical support, and yet with a heaping dose of peace and love, a magical moment in time was created.

It was not supposed to be possible. The powers that be in 1969 remained in a 1950s mindset. The hippie movement that coalesced into a counterculture revolution was a rebuke of the establishment’s restrictive mindset, and manifested its identity into protest over the Vietnam War.

This same brand of regressive thinking was exemplified by elected or appointed leaders at all levels across America’s cities, townships and states. The idea of throwing together an event the size and scope of Woodstock, with as little planning as took place was inconceivable by the older generation. Especially when it was being done by a bunch of hippies. But the freaks pulled it together and Woodstock’s success went worldwide.

The assembled mass of Woodstock.

Four guys, Artie Kornfeld, Michael Lang, John P. Roberts and Joel Rosenman, had a plan to open a recording studio in Woodstock, and thought it would be a cool idea to host a music fest in the farmlands of southeast New York, as a way to promote their endeavor.

Billed as an “Aquarian Exposition: 3 Days of Peace & Music,” Woodstock took place August 15-18, 1969, on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in the town of Bethel, NY, 80 miles northwest of New York City. It became a counterculture pilgrimage made by more than 400,000 attendees. By its conclusion Woodstock was a historic milestone.

JOE COCKER – Let’s Go Get Stoned (Live @ Woodstock)

The festival set out as a money making venture. Tickets for the three-day event cost $18 in advance and $24 at the gate (the equivalent of $130 and $170 today). Around 186,000 advance tickets were sold, and organizers anticipated as many as 200,000 attendees. It was the other 200,000 that chose to show up that forced organizers to declare Woodstock a free event.

The backup of cars, and pedestrians heading to Woodstock.

Traffic completely overwhelmed the rural roadways. Instead of frustration, people just abandoned their vehicles, not on the side of the road, but in the road. Then walked the rest of the way. They kept coming. By the thousands to tiny Bethel. With tickets and without. The fences came down. Torrential rain fell. There was mud, music, love and a shared belief in companionship by the assembled masses.

With the roads log-jammed, once initial festivalgoers arrived they were stuck until Monday. The miles of abandoned vehicles served as a buffer to cut off the outside world. A state of emergency was declared by Sullivan County. Musicians, food, water, first aid supplies and those requiring serious medical attention had to be transported by helicopter into or out of the venue.

THE WHO – My Generation (Live @ Woodstock | 08.17.69 | 5AM-6:05AM)

Traveling from every corner of America and beyond, they no longer were strangers once reaching Woodstock. This quagmire of humanity took it upon themselves to share whatever they brought (food, drink, shelter, blankets, drugs) with their adopted brothers and sisters. It all became possible, “With A Little Help From My Friends,” as Joe Cocker would famously sing on Sunday.

There was a genuine camaraderie, a solidarity, among members of “Woodstock Nation.” They were vested in taking care of each other. To that end the Hog Farm hippie commune provided free food to thousands. It was this willingness to accept without judgment that cast the “Be-In”/”Love-in” culture apart from society at large. They weren’t trying to game the system. They simply didn’t want to participate in what was considered antiquated thinking and an unnecessary evil of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

As Woodstock roared to life, the venue had become a city unto itself. No way in, no way out, just 400,000 people living in the moment. Inside the venue not one sign of corporate sponsorship or a commercial entity existed. It was total lo-fi. Admittedly, organizers didn’t have a handle on traffic, food, security, bathrooms, sanitation, first aid or transportation, but who does when 400,000 people show up to party for three-plus days. Still, Woodstock was legit. It was the ultimate scene to make.

Organizers recognized the innate necessity to assemble a roster of headlining acts that had credence in the hippie movement. To make that happen it required paying the bigger acts double their going rates – and they wanted it up front before hitting the stage.

Several top artists turned down invitations, like The Byrds, The Doors, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones. As the scene unfolded rumors circulated that bands were no longer getting paid. Some artists threatened to back out, which necessitated organizers convince a local bank to open after hours and provide them an emergency loan.

Jimi Hendrix was the top headliner, playing with his new band Gypsy Sun and Rainbows, or a Band of Gypsies. The British invasion was represented by The Who. The funk scene was fronted by Sly and the Family Stone. The hippie/anti-government movement was saturated with the likes of the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin, Joe Cocker, Crosby Stills, Nash & Young, Creedence Clearwater Revival and The Band.

Ritchie Havens on stage at Woodstock.

Ritchie Havens kicked off the festival. He and his band drove up from NYC early, and since the scheduled opener, Sweetwater, was stuck in traffic, Havens played for some three hours to cover time. His intense performance of Freedom was spellbinding. This was one of a handful of sets by certain performers that defined their careers going forward. Another was at 2PM Saturday, when Carlos Santana, 22, a relatively unknown guitar virtuoso, who happened to be whacked out of his mind on mescaline, turned in an improvisational set that launched his superstar career.

CARLOS SANTANA – Soul Sacrifice (Live @ Woodstock | 08.16.69 | 2-2:45PM)

The Saturday evening sets were pure hippie moonshine featuring Canned Heat (7:30-8:30PM); Mountain (9-10PM); Grateful Dead (10:30-12:05AM); Creedence Clearwater Revival (12:30-1:20AM); Janis Joplin with The Kozmic Blues Band (2-3AM); Sly and the Family Stone (3:30-4:20AM); The Who (5-6:05AM); and Jefferson Airplane (8-9:40AM).

Can you imagine Sly and the Family Stone ripping into I Want to Take you Higher, at 4AM. That was some crazy shit right there.

The following afternoon, Joe Cocker and The Grease Band played a career defining set, filled with Cocker’s manic gyrations. He was followed by the likes of Country Joe and the Fish, Ten Years After, The Band, and CSN&Y. Again they played all night.

It was 9AM Monday morning when Jimi Hendrix took the stage for his two-plus hour closing set at Woodstock. By then the vast majority of the crowd had begun their journeys home – tired, hungry and damp. Some 30,000 people remained across the litter-strewn dairy farm to observe what many critics have deemed the singular greatest musical moment of the 1960s – if not the greatest rock concert in history.

Jimi Hendrix on stage Monday morning at Woodstock.

Hendrix’s interpretation of The Star-Spangled Banner, with its wailing feedback and irreverent distortion, remains groundbreaking, and a creative symbol artists continue to derive inspiration from today.

A sizable taste of this mega festival was captured in the 1970 Oscar-winning documentary by Michael Wadleigh. That same year Woodstock: Music from the Original Soundtrack and More, was released. The three LP set went to No. 1 on Billboard’s top records chart. In 1971, the double album Woodstock Two came out and went gold.

JIMI HENDRIX – The Star-Spangled Banner (Live @ Woodstock | 08.18.67 | 9-11:10AM)

Since then several expanded musical releases have followed, including Woodstock – Back to the Garden: The Definitive 50th Anniversary Archive, a 38-CD, 36-hour, 432-song box set of nearly every note played at the original festival. Additionally, full Woodstock sets by individual acts like Hendrix, Joplin, Grateful Dead and CCR were made available. As have expanded documentaries examining Woodstock’s lasting impact after time allowed for additional perspective.

Immense optimism exuded coming out of Woodstock. The popular thought was why not do it again. This was tried at Altamont. The Rolling Stones did a polite pass when pitched the Woodstock gig. This time the Glimmer Twins were the showcase, along with numerous acts from Woodstock’s roster. The Stones brought in the Hells Angels to run security. For beer money of course. What could go wrong?

Everything.

The Altamont Speedway Free Festival was to be the crowning jewel of the 1960s. Held in Livermore, CA, situated on the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay Area, Altamont took place on Saturday, December 6, 1969. This was the chance for the West Coast to shine, as California was home to the counterculture movement.

Some 300,000 journeyed to witness the death of hippiedom. One man was stabbed to death, and three others died accidentally; two caused by a hit-and-run car accident, and one by LSD-induced drowning in an irrigation canal.

ROLLING STONES – Sympathy for the Devil (Live @ Altamont 12.06.69)

Considerable violence took place across the venue. Much of it instigated by the Hells Angels. By most accounts there was a foul spirit in the air from the outset of Altamont.

According to Grace Slick of the Jefferson Airplane, “The vibes were bad. Something was very peculiar, not particularly bad, just real peculiar. It was that kind of hazy, abrasive and unsure day. I had expected the loving vibes of Woodstock but that isn’t coming at me. This was a whole different thing.”

There was no shortage of affordable hallucinogenics at Woodstock – but watch the brown acid.

Still, as poorly as Altamont came off, Woodstock endured. It was the clarifying moment of the 1960s, captured in a bottle. Yet its afterglow disintegrated on impact in the 1970s. Hippiedom ran counter to America’s capitalistic society, and its consumer-based operating system.

The smell of money was in the air. Greed. The rat race to the top of the corporate ladder was off and running. Gone were the days when one could get by with just a little help from your friends. The rock-n-roll kept on chooglin’ – by all means love the one you’re with, but several notable musicians who played Woodstock failed to survive the 1970s. As for attendees, if one wanted to afford that house, a car, 2.5 kids and the status quo Madison Avenue was marketing, it took money and a real job.

Meanwhile, society steadily became more litigious, and violence permeated America’s fabric. Twice organizers believed they could lasso lightening by hosting Woodstock reincarnations in modern day America.

The 25th anniversary show, dubbed Woodstock ’94, took place August 12-14, 1994, on Winston Farm, just west of Saugerties, NY, some 70 miles northeast of the 1969 original. Promoted as “2 More Days of Peace and Music,” two familiar scenarios unfolded with predictable outcomes. Though some 164,000 tickets were sold, 550,000 attendees showed up for the concert, overwhelming the venue and facilities. Rain was persistent throughout the weekend. Mud pits, mud fights and mud slides were the most memorable entrants of this revival.

NINE INCH NAILS – Closer (Live @ Woodstock | 08.13.94)

MTV essentially put on Woodstock ’99. Held in Rome, NY, on July 22-25, 1999. Approximately 400,000 attended. The performances were marred by environmental conditions, violence, sexual assaults, allegations of rape, looting and wide-spread fires.

LIMP BIZKIT – Break Stuff (Live @ Woodstock | 07.24.99)

Organizers seemed intent on bringing 1969 back to life, but that is a tough ask when hard edged bands like Nine Inch Nails, Limp Bizkit, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Metallica, and Rage Against the Machine are featured. Great bands all, but not your chill and hug type of music.

Some of the original Woodstock organizers sought to throw a 50th anniversary festival. Potential host venues proved less than enthusiastic about taking the legal risk of holding a mass event that had more than a better’s chance of going sideways with the whole world watching.

Lightning in a bottle. It’s nearly impossible to catch twice.

Over time Woodstock did become profitable for its original planners. Through books, movies, soundtracks, merchandising and spinoff concerts. Woodstock became a way of life, a trademark, that homogenized the experience, which I can’t imagine was the intention of the organizers, but times change.

The 1960s were idyllic in concept. Though only a decade, over those 10 years a cultural impact was unleashed that continues to reach across generations. The audacious freedom to express one’s self, owning your sexuality, empowering young people in the political process, and artistic individuality – these fundamentals were released from captivity as a result of the 1960s counterculture movement.

No longer could society turn a blind eye to its children, expecting young people to simply sit in the corner quietly. It was okay to let your freak flag fly. Woodstock was a celebration of these personal freedoms realized, and became a tangible calling card through time for what is possible.

JANIS JOPLIN – Try (Live @ Woodstock | 08.17.69 | 2-3AM)

In 2017, the Woodstock site became listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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A Friday Off to Attend Bourbon & Beyond

It was a normal Friday morning on September 20 at my office. I was riding out an uneventful work day, followed by the prospect of attending my boys’ high school football game that evening. Around 10AM my phone rang with an offer to take my day in a totally different direction.

My buddy Michael had a set of weekend passes for Bourbon & Beyond, the classic rock music festival hosted in Louisville, September 20-22. His intended companion for the Friday shows was not feeling well, so he offered me the slot. This was a rather generous offer, as the Friday single-day ticket cost $99.50 (plus fees). Weekend passes to Bourbon & Beyond would set you back $199.50 (plus fees). In addition to admission, this offer came with transportation to and from the venue, and a free night’s lodging at the Courtyard hotel, walking distance to the venue.

Come on now, you had me at hello!

After clearing this change in plans with my employer and family, wheels quickly started turning to switch gears from work mode into festival pre-gaming. Now one could get hung up on wanting to get on-site as quickly as possible to not miss any of the music action, but neither of us were interested in rushing. Michael and I do not get to hang like this often these days.

I left work at lunchtime to change clothes and gear up. After Mike picked me up around 2:30, it took some time to navigate the crowded exit coming into Louisville and access the hotel area with our parking pass. By the time we parked, checked in and actually keyed the hotel room it was after 3:30PM. Now we could properly mix cocktails and begin the imbibing process in earnest.

No doubt we missed some fireworks. On the Barrel Stage: The Record Company @ 12:40; Lukas Nelson & Promise Of Real @ 2:10; and Live @ 4:10. On the Oak Stage: Preservation Hall Jazz Band @ 12; Blackberry Smoke @ 1:25; and Joan Jett & The Blackhearts @ 2:55.

Our festival beverage of choice. Longbranch is a recent edition to the Wild Turkey family. The product of a collaboration between Matthew McConaughey and Master Distiller Eddie Russell.

We made a conscious decision to party in the hotel room for a bit, listen to some music and chat it up instead of entering the venue, where our drinks would not be cheap. We were totally content to take our time and comfortably wander inside for the 5PM set.

My issues with Bourbon & Beyond are several. Primarily this is a geezer fest. The majority of these acts lost their fastballs in the 1970s or 1980s. Secondly, the location is dreadful. Bourbon & Beyond, along with the heavy metal festival, Louder Than Life, were previously located in Champions Park near downtown Louisville, but were partially or entirely cancelled last year due to flooding.

This resulted in a deal being cut with the Kentucky Expo Center. While this area is not flood prone, it is a sea of asphalt and concrete, with no redeemable scenery that lends itself to spending multiple days at a music festival. To ease this concern the fairgrounds crafted a fake landscape referred to as the Highlands Festival Grounds. This area was augmented to offer some mounds of land to walk over, faux landscaping and a couple trees to try and make attendees forget they were in a giant parking lot.

To make matters worse they paired the two main stages side-by-side. This way when one stage was live the other went dark. This meant attendees spent the entire day moving from one side to the other. Definitely not terribly imaginative if one is spending three frigging days on basically 50 yards of land.

Cascading confetti and electric rainbows on display as The Flaming Lips closed their set.

Friday was by far the best day for me to attend, as the Foo Fighters, who remain a relevant act, were headlining that night. Michael and I made it inside around 5:30PM, in time to see the majority of the psychedelic shenanigans from The Flaming Lips.

The Lips are one of those unique bands that matters not if you know their music, by the time Wayne Coyne and these Oklahoma City boys are finished, you’ll be singing along and they will have left a lasting impression on you with their stagecraft and bombast.

The Flaming Lips brought all those elements to their Friday set, as giant inflatable robots roamed, Coyne crisscrossed the crowd inside a clear inflatable ball and seas of confetti descended upon the crowd as the band brought home its anthemic closer, Do You Realize.

Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats hit the stage next. I was excited to check these guys out. They are a working man’s rhythm & blues combo out of Denver. They had a sort of tent revival feel to them. Not religious per se, but it did feel as if the sin was being washed away by their rock-n-roll. Rateliff rarely stood still. With his barrel-chested physique and facial hair, he made for a fascinating front man as he busted some James Brown footwork. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined Rateliff for the last two numbers, including their huge hit, S.O.B.

NATHANIEL RATELIFF & THE NIGHT SWEATS – I NEED NEVER GET OLD

Now much anticipation followed for John Fogerty’s set. It was 50 years and about a month to the day Fogerty and his band Creedence Clearwater Revival played at Woodstock in 1969. He was touring in celebration of his 50-year trip. I wish I had something positive to relay about his performance. I love CCR. Fogerty is an American icon and legend in the music business, but he performed as a contrived shadow of his former self.

He was given the full headliner treatment – a killer band, including drummer Kenny Aronoff, three massive video screens and pre-produced video vignettes to go with the individual songs. Unfortunately nothing could distract away from this subpar performance.

JOHN FOGERTY – FORTUNATE SON + BAD MOON RISING

Fogerty, 74, apparently had some unfortunate plastic surgery. His face was stretched tighter than a snare drum. His look alone cut into Fogerty’s authenticity – CCR’s primary calling card. Fogerty’s guitar served more as a prop than an instrument. There were 12 or so performers on stage. CCR was always a minimalist outfit. That number of excessive artists can only mean something is needing to get obscured. When he addressed the crowd it came off as pre-programmed. I was genuinely worried he might have a senior moment.

Again, I luv me some CCR. This was more like watching a CCR cover band. I’m mystified why organizers gave Fogerty such a valuable time slot.

Dave Grohl of the Foo Fighters.

This left the Foo Fighters. Thank goodness for something modern. As a big Nirvana fan, I have mad appreciation for Dave Grohl, and all the work he has done with a variety of bands. Yet the Foo Fighters remain a bit of an odd duck. There is some core element that leaves me cold. Hard to put a finger on it. Still, I was psyched to check them out live.

The energy was there. They are plenty loud when they choose to be, and excellent musicians. But midway through all their songs blended together into a remarkably similar melody and tone. Their songs are primarily rock ballads, that start off slow and build to a crescendo of screaming angst. Even their opening was weird. They came running on stage, ripping guitars and pounding drums, screaming, “are you motherfuckers ready for some rock and roll!!!” Then limped into this soft instrumental opening of The Pretender. It instantly killed all the crowd energy, and left people looking at each other bewildered by the confusing mixed message that just took place.

FOO FIGHTERS – INTRO + THE PRETENDER

That being said the set was 20 songs strong. Drummer Taylor Hawkins sang an interesting cover of Queen’s Under Pressure. Must say it’s always great to see former Nirvana touring guitarist Pat Smear in action. The Foo Fighters closed strong with This Is A Call and Everlong.

FOO FIGHTERS – THIS IS A CALL

Overall, while less than impressive, Bourbon & Beyond delivered on offering a beautiful summer day to hang with friends and enjoy some live music outdoors. Personally, I would recommend folks spend their money on either Forecastle or Railbird in Lexington next year. Try checking out some more immediate bands that are relevant, impassioned and actually have their original members together on stage. Just a thought.

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Railbird Music Festival is Feast for the Senses

Jack White of The Raconteurs performing Saturday night at Railbird.

The inaugural Railbird music festival, held August 10-11 in Lexington, left the gate as a long shot, but for all who attended, it paid off like hitting an exacta on Derby Day. Held across the picturesque grounds at the Keeneland horse racing track, the event left a lasting impression with its friendly staff, upscale amenities and broad spectrum of musical talent.

To be honest, my choice to attend Railbird was predominantly influenced by the inclusion of The Raconteurs headlining Saturday night. Jack White, of White Stripes fame, is a guitar god, and alt-rock pioneer. He is one of a select few musicians from the current generation who has crafted a lasting career across numerous incarnations, and left an indelible mark upon popular music.

THE WHITE STRIPES – SEVEN NATION ARMY

When the White Stripes stopped playing in 2007, White, who hails from Detroit, MI, joined forces with the existing members of The Greenhornes, to form The Raconteurs. This became White’s rock-n-roll band. They cut two commercially successful discs together, Broken Boy Soldiers and Consolers of the Lonely. After this, White, along with The Greenhornes’ bassist Jack Lawrence, left to hook up with Alison Mosshart from the Kills, and Dean Fertita from Queens of the Stone Age – to form The Dead Weather.

Maia and the Urban Llama on grounds @ Railbird.

This engagement also proved commercially successful, even with Jack White choosing to serve as the drummer in this supergroup. White has since embarked on a multi-disc solo career, and resides in Nashville, TN, where he formed Third Man Records, an independent record label, whose headquarters serves as a record store and performance space.

The Raconteurs got back together in 2018, releasing two singles. These both ended up on the band’s June 2019 disc, Help Me Stranger. A world tour was scheduled to accompany their Billboard No. 1 album, including a stop on a gorgeous Saturday night in Lexington at the Railbird Festival.

General admission tickets for the weekend were $140 each. Yes that would be a tad extravagant to see only The Raconteurs – but they were by no means playing alone. Other headliners included Gary Clark Jr., Tyler Childers, Hozier, Brandi Carlile, Old Crow Medicine Show, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams, and St. Paul and the Broken Bones, to name a few.

This diverse assemblage of musical acts by organizers was ambitious for public consumption. It could have fallen apart with their attempts to meld country acts with alternative, blues, funk, gospel and pop – but the right mix of talent enabled folks to dive in head first into unknown genres and uncover common ground amongst unfamiliar artists that led to a marvelous weekend of discovery.

Our daughter Isabella joined us @ Railbird on Sunday for the festivities.

It was super helpful that Railbird offered a layaway option for tickets. Two general admission passes, with all applicable fees and handling charges came to $352. I paid an initial $68.10 to hold the tickets, and then four payments of $70.98 over the next three months.

Another selling point for this fest was it only took place on the weekend. This meant I didn’t have to burn leave to attend Friday shows, in turn Railbird didn’t dilute its talent by attempting three days of music. This made attending cheaper, and offered less wear and tear on my body.

Parking was super easy, at least entering Keeneland. Re-entry to the venue was allowed on tickets, so attendees could dip out to their cars, where many had coolers and chairs. Folks parked near the stages could tailgate and still hear performances, if not see the bands on stage. The venue was easy to navigate, with a plethora of food and drink options, especially high end bourbon and craft cocktails.

For me Saturday remained all about The Raconteurs, but no doubt Low Cut Connie earned some fans with their full-on stage acrobatics. The voice alone from Mavis Staples, 80, was enough to stop many in their tracks. She belted out funk driven rock and blues to go with her gospel roots. Staples did wonderful takes on Slippery People from the Talking Heads, and For What It’s Worth by Buffalo Springfield.

Entering the 7:30PM sets it became time to start strategically thinking about getting into position for The Raconteurs. Considering the number of folks who clearly came to see Brandi Carlile I felt obliged to check her out, and I must say she won me over. Her determination, voice and stagecraft were impressive. She ripped a wonderful take on Babe, I’m Gonna Leave You, popularized by Led Zeppelin. A few songs later she showed off her platinum pipes with a cover of A Case of You by Joni Mitchell.

Brendan Benson of The Raconteurs.

I wanted to see Old Crow Medicine Show, but they were playing on the Elkhorn Stage at the far end of the venue. We chose instead to stake out a prime spot left of the Limestone Stage ahead of The Raconteurs set.

The boys from Nashville did not disappoint. Jack White exploded onto the stage, pumping his arms as he fed off the raw energy emanating from the growing crowd. It was quickly clear some of the more gentile in the audience who stuck around to see what all the fuss was about were not down with the rambunctious sounds, and they could be seen streaming for the exits after the opening track. For the rest of us, it was a decadent treat to witness a master in his element.

THE RACONTEURS – YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME

I particularly enjoyed White on piano for You Don’t Understand Me, and the ragged glory of Carolina Drama, a murder ballad from the band’s sophomore release. Only Child, off the new disc, was also a concert standout.

THE RACONTEURS – STEADY AS SHE GOES

Gary Clark Jr. performing Sunday @ Railbird.

Sunday was more chill. Railbird allowed kids 10 and under to attend for free, so Maia and I brought our 7-year old, Isabella, with us to rampage across the hillsides.

Major props to the Fruit Bats. These Chicago boys were at their alt-folk best, throwing trippy vibes to a packed lawn at the Burl Stage. My priority show for the day was Gary Clark Jr. This Austin, TX, blues-guitarist menaced the stage with his trademark scowl, blistering out notes from his six-string sidearm. He was channeling a serious Curtis Mayfield vibe, in his wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. The man was cool before the term was invented.

GARY CLARK JR. – COME TOGETHER

Honorable mentions go to St. Paul and the Broken Bones, Lucinda Williams and the festival closing act, Hozier. This Irish vocalist gave expansive renditions of his pop ballads, blending layers of sound and voice perfect for display at a large outdoor venue.

Hands down my surprise performance of the festival and arguably favorite set belonged to Kentucky’s own Tyler Childers. Each song seemed to have a building drama to it, with signature catch lines the crowd knew well. These were narrative-driven tales, mixing bluegrass, with country, folk and Americana rock.

TYLER CHILDERS – WHITEHOUSE ROAD

Isabella rocking out @ Railbird.

Childers emotional delivery and intense stare let on these were autobiographical tales of excess and tragedy. His songs were a fitting soundtrack to inspired drinking and painted a vintage romance about small town country life. He had me with his set’s strong opening of House Fire, Whitehouse Road, Redneck Romeo, and Country Squire. This Lawrence County native was spitting fire from the jump as the crowd gave Childers an enthusiastic homecoming embrace.

About midway through Childers played his current hit, All Your’n. For those who watch SEC football, which are legion in this part of the country, Childers’ song is the soundtrack to a current advertisement for SEC Football’s “We Love It Here” campaign. Even on the vast expanse of a main stage lawn, Tyler Childers cooked up what felt like a intimate house party.

TYLER CHILDERS – ALL YOUR’N

Railbird returns August 22 & 23, 2020. We will see if Railbird organizers have another carefully curated festival roster of artists to offer, but their first effort was cash money. If they can come close for a sophomore edition I’ll wager on attending again.

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A Big Four Bridge Walk Leads to Schimpff’s Confectionery

Isabella atop the Big Four Bridge.

My daughter was hankering for a serious milk shake, and the sublime sugar rush that comes with such a decadent treat. Now I try not to overindulge, but a milk shake craving is no joke. This type of itch can’t be scratched by some shake-like creation from DQ, Mickie D’s or Sonic. So if we’re going for this level of caloric intake, it’s best earned.

On a toasty clear weekend afternoon, my daughter Isabella, 7, and I parked at 1101 River Road in Louisville’s Waterfront Park. This was the jump on spot for the Big Four Bridge, a pedestrian and biker-friendly crossway over the Ohio River that connects Louisville, Kentucky with Jeffersonville, Indiana. Our reward for the day’s little adventure was a visit to Schimpff’s Confectionery, the 128-year old candy emporium, located in the Old Jeffersonville Historic District.

There’s public parking beneath the giant circular bridge onramp, but plenty of street parking is available if the lot is full. As we began our stroll up the onramp, the wide inclined pathway offered plenty of space to talk and joke about as we marched the 1/4 mile to bridge level.

A mixture of humanity joined us this day, families, some pushing infants, kids, runners, serious walkers and bikers. A few illicit skateboarders and motorized long boarders were in the mix too. Also going up was a bridal party making the journey for some fun wedding snapshots atop the bridge.

The UrbanLlama taking in the bridge-top view.

A refreshing crosswind whipped about once we reached elevation, some 50-plus feet above the water below. The views of Louisville, the river’s expanse, and business conducted on this waterway were spectacular. It was a 1/2 mile across the straightaway, where twice while walking classical music wafted down from speakers fixed to the above truss work.

The Big Four Bridge is a former railroad crossing completed in 1895, that took its name from the defunct Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, nicknamed the “Big Four Railroad.”

It was decommissioned in 1969, with both ramps to the bridge removed. This became the first bridge to fall out of use in Louisville and earned it the nickname “Bridge That Goes Nowhere.” In February 2011, a joint venture between Kentucky and Indiana was announced for the creation of a pedestrian and bicycle path linking Louisville with the City of Jeffersonville. It opened to the public on Feb. 7, 2013, and averages more than 1.5 million visits per year.

Isabella reveled  in the breeze gusting about, and the freedom of feeling suspended above the river. She twirled and skipped along the pathway. There’s a lot to take in from this perch, and my energetic and enthusiastic companion wanted to see it all.

Once on the Indiana side, a 1/4 mile circular ramp led down to the park below. There folks were playing Frisbee and partaking in a celebratory barbecue. A few yards further found us in the Old Jeffersonville Historic District.

A frozen treats store resided on the corner as the bridge’s offramp merged with the street. Several cafes and restaurants looked on invitingly from across the way. I flipped on my GPS to navigate the few blocks to Schimpff’s Confectionery.

Walking up to the storefront, a gentleman sweeping the sidewalk greeted us in his apron with a welcoming salutation. It was pleasant in a manner not heard much these days.

Upon entering this candy emporium, it gave one a sense of returning to simpler times. Glass cases were filled with radiant shelves of confectionary treasures. Aisle-way displays tempted with Modjeskas (caramel-covered marshmallows), hand-dipped chocolates and crunchy almond toffee. Behind the counters were row-after-row of clear glass jars filled to the brim with rainbow colors of lemon drops, red hots and fish candy (celebrating Kentuckiana’s river heritage).

Sweets are serious business in my house. Isabella can render a scouting report on an impressive array of sugared treats. In her young eyes Schimpff’s was nirvana.

In 2001, the store expanded for its 110th anniversary, to include a candy museum, with thousands of pieces of memorabilia, equipment and artifacts collected during the family’s generation-after-generation of being in the confectionery business. Tours and candy making demonstrations were available as well.

Isabella and I did a bit of reconnoitering. A big favorite she still speaks volumes about were the miniature gummy pizzas and hard candies shaped into Lego pieces that could be assembled into edible creations.

With treats in hand we took a seat at the 1950s style soda fountain, located toward the rear of the store’s main room. If a bite to eat is in order, the deli counter is open for lunch Monday-Saturday. Today we were strictly concerned with ice cream treats. Isabella went with a vanilla shake. I have a thing for root beer floats, and this seemed like just the joint that would serve up a memorable one. Both of us were beyond impressed with the velvety smoothness our frothy selections provided.

Never underestimate the simple pleasure a kid gets from sipping ice cream through a straw.

With our whistles whetted, Isabella and I began our mile-long jaunt back to the Kentucky side of the Ohio River. Round trip, including our planned detour, clocked in at 2.5 miles. We accomplished the walking part in 1:09:22.

How long one chooses to enjoy the Old Jeffersonville Historic District or a candy encounter at Schimpff’s is up to the individual. No doubt the walk back was felt, especially toward the end by my 7-year old, but the candy buzz carried her most of the way.

Next time you have an hour to kill and could use an urban adventure with a view, check out the Big Four Bridge and the candy treats awaiting on the Hoosier side.

Schimpff’s Confectionery | 347 Spring Street | Jeffersonville, IN 47130 | 812.283.8367

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Highlands Tap Room Soothes the Late Night Beast

Regardless in what city one resides, there’s always a joint or two that services the night owl community. A place where mutants can howl when the mood strikes. Often these are establishments of distinctive, if not questionable character, that serve viscous alcohol into the AM hours, and keep late kitchens catering to nightcap diners. In Louisville one such place is the Highlands Tap Room.

Located at 1058 Bardstown Road, in the heart of the nightlife friendly Highlands neighborhood, this fun, food (and supposedly) family friendly l0cation has multiple personalities.

Open seven days a week till 4AM, the Tap Room is frequented in daylight hours by neighborhood residents, walkers-by, and employees from small businesses that line Bardstown Road. But this location hits its stride after 11PM. That’s when the nocturnal movers and shakers give this place its character and energy.

On a recent Monday night, after attending a Gov’t Mule show at Iroquois Amphitheater, the need arose for drinks and food after 11PM. The Tap Room was clearly alive and well upon arrival, whereas most other spots around were already closed or barely registered a pulse.

It was Metal Monday, and the buzz saw beats were rattling the windows loose in the cottage performance space. Young men were visibly flying through the air inside the stage area. This merely added to the quality people watching for those seated on the patio. Here a menagerie of regulars were table-hopping their hype and hustling schemes over serious craft beers.

The Tap Room attracts a thirsty lot, particularly in the AM hours, with many partaking in extracurriculars. This is part of the joint’s charm. Be patient and go with the flow when ordering. There are two full bars housed side-by-side, with some 25 draft beers on tap. The kitchen offers a wide variety of interesting cuisine, from steaks and seafood, to burgers and veggie options, all priced kindly.

The next time out on a midnight creep, light past the Highlands Tap Room. All are welcomed and chances are the “open” light is burning bright.

Highlands Tap Room | 1058 Bardstown Road | Louisville, KY | 502.561.2100 (Tap) or 502.584.5222 (Grill)

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Gov’t Mule Brings Southern Jam to Louisville

Vocalist and guitar player extraordinaire Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, performing in Louisville.

Got Mule?

For those needing some Warren Haynes – a heavy dose was delivered June 24 at Iroquois Amphitheater. Gov’t Mule returned to Derby City in all its Southern jam band glory. The festivities kicked off with Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe ably opening the show. Mule took the stage an hour later, delivering the precise, hard rocking performance this power outfit has come to define.

In particular Mule hits a sweet spot for the Grateful Dead faithful. When that jonz hits to hear a live guitar weep, such as how Mule vocalist Warren Haynes can play, there is no substitute but to find the boys out on the road. Mule, like the Grateful Dead or The Allman Brothers Band, are road warriors. Every year, every season, they are out making the rounds.

Formed in 1994, Gov’t Mule was originally a side gig Haynes and bassist Allen Woody came up with while on a break from their day gig with The Allman Brothers Band. Along with drummer Matt Abts, with whom Haynes played alongside in the Dickey Betts Band, Mule was considered a constructive way to fill time when not touring with the Allman’s. But quickly the new gig shifted from side project to the member’s primary focus.

They were a power trio churning out blistering Southern blues rock, with a flair for expanding the tunes live into jam sessions. After Woody’s tragic passing in 2000, a string of legendary bass players took turns filling his shoes. Guys like John Entwistle (The Who), Jack Bruce (Cream), Phil Lesh (Grateful Dead), Bootsy Collins (Parliament-Funkadelic), Flea (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Les Claypool (Primus), Mike Gordon (Phish), Dave Schools (Widespread Panic), among others.

They’ve since added Danny Louis on keyboards (2002), and a permanent bassist, Jorgen Carlsson (2008). With The Allman Brothers Band now gone, and Lynyrd Skynyrd wrapping its final nostalgic tour, Gov’t Mule takes the mantle as one of the last bands carrying on the Southern rock legacy.

Monday night’s performance opened with “Bad Little Doggie,” an uptempo number that castigates a metaphorical love interest who stayed out all night, returning home in the morning smelling of guilt. This was followed by “Blind Man in the Dark.” Both numbers are great scene setters for a Mule show. Two standouts in the eight song first set were the hard-living anthem “Rocking Horse” and “Thorazine Shuffle,” an ode to self medication.

My vantage point for this concert was spectacular, Row C, just left of center, to the side where Haynes was set up. It was a pleasure to have such close proximity to this master craftsman, from which to observe him work. Haynes speed on the frets and clean fingering of notes was wicked impressive.

The scene at intermission is why folks love Iroquois Amphitheater. It was a perfect summer night, warm with clear skies. As the cover of darkness fell, the heads were free to roam the elevated walkway in the rear of the pavilion, out into the grassy expanse that strategically failed to be lighted. The haze was thick and staff left peaceful pursuits alone.

Set two showcased an aspect of Gov’t Mule’s repertoire that is a fan favorite – giving referential recitations to other artists’ music, affectionately known as cover songs. This evening those in attendance were treated to multiple gems, including “Eyesight to the Blind” by Sonny Boy Williamson, “The Other One” jam from the Grateful Dead that was  incorporated into Mule’s “Fallen Down,” “Kind of Bird” by The Allman Brothers Band, and the epic closer “32-20 Blues” by Robert Johnson.

Gov’t Mule | 32-20 Blues | Iroquois Amphitheater | Louisville, KY | 06.24.19

Haynes looked the best I’ve seen him in years. He had clearly lost considerable weight, his skin tone was better and the man looked like a healthier Warren. The concert concluded at 11PM, and away we went with music in our ears into the evening for what came next.

Again, beautiful summer night, outside on a Monday in Louisville, with Warren Haynes on guitar – yep I “Got Mule.”

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Late Night Dining in Louisville at The Silver Dollar

I was faced with an interesting predicament recently. I took in an 8PM Friday performance of “Hamilton” in downtown Louisville. It ended at 11PM. By the time I was out of the garage and on the road it was nearly 11:30. Where could I drive that was still serving, that wasn’t greasy drunk pizza or mediocre bar cuisine? The answer was The Silver Dollar on Frankfort Avenue.

No doubt I was pushing the envelope. The kitchen at The Silver Dollar closed at midnight. But hopping on I-64, I was walking up to this red brick edifice in the Clifton neighborhood of Louisville by 11:45. Don’t get me wrong, I hate jetting in that close to shut down, but the hostess and waitstaff were nothing but polite and welcoming.

It was clear The Silver Dollar inhabited a former fire station. Built in 1890, this used to house Hook and Ladder Company No. 3 until 2009. Inside the fire poles, fireman’s map of the city and old call boxes remained as vestiges of the building’s former life.

The restaurant was longer than it was wide. Weathered brick walls stood untouched and offered the perfect backdrop to the strings of colorful lights running throughout. The muted reds, greens, and blues created a cantina feel and threw shadows into the alcoves and corners where diners and drinkers sat conversating.

With the fire engine door rolled up an immense entryway further lengthened the space and gave the brick enclosure a certain airy quality. Diners seated near the entrance were treated to urban views of street passersby and the festive goings-on at the Hilltop Tavern across the way.

The primary takeaway about The Silver Dollar is bourbon. It’s lit up in neon on the sign out front, “Whiskey by the Drink.” Behind a 42-foot bar fashioned from reclaimed tobacco barns and old distillery rick houses, on plank shelves running the length of the bar sat the collection. They stock a lot of Kentucky’s native spirit. I lost count after some 200 different selections on the whiskey menu.

I’m a big Eagle Rare fan, and they carry several house select single barrels over 10 years of age at $14 a glass. There are a serious number of bourbons priced $30 a glass and up, topping out at $200 for John E. Fitzgerald 20 YR. That makes Pappy Van Winkel’s Family Reserve 23yr a virtual steal at $135 a glass.

To be fair there also are a head-spinning number of thoroughly interesting and satisfying pours at $10 and under. Not to mention the rotating choice of labels daily at $3 a glass. Then there is the rye, beer, wine and the tequila collection is impressive as well.

Strike up a conversation with any bartender. They are knowledgeable about everything bourbon, from the cheap, to the trendy, to the purple unicorns of pours. They love a good chat, mix a mean cocktail and are efficient at what they do.

Silver Dollar in Louisville. (Lauryn Morris)

This alone could draw plenty of folks inside. Yet The Silver Dollar’s story gets deeper. The owners envisioned a melting pot of sorts, inspired by the unintended results of the 1930s Dust Bowl. When residents of the Midwest and South were driven from their homes to the fertile West of California, locals ostracized them, referring to the newcomers as Okies. This banded together these displaced inhabitants, and they entertained themselves with their own unique brand of rough, hardscrabble country music that was as tough as the folks who played it. It became known as the “Bakersfield Sound.”

The Silver Dollar pays homage to this Bakersfield melting pot with its sprawling juke joint fashion and soundtrack to match. It’s subtle but heavy atmospheric when matched with the lighting, firehouse, food and bourbon. I doubt it’s quiet in here at rush hour, but around midnight it was perfectly chill on this Friday.

You can say the kitchen features its own version of the “Bakersfield Sound” in that it’s a mixture of talents turning out Texas fare, Southern staples and south of the border specialties. There are house fried pork rinds in rosemary & salt, baskets of buttermilk fried chicken livers, short ribs, baby back ribs, chicken & waffles, fried catfish, monstrous burgers and even a beer can hen (sitting atop an Old Milwaukee can).

Considering the late hour, I went with something comforting and simple – chili. Texas style to be exact, with white cheddar, pickled jalapeños, onions, cilantro and cornbread. A heaping bowl arrived filled with dense chunks of tender simmered beef, seasoned less than Texas hot. Mix in all the trimmings and splash the bowl with the house-made arbol hot sauce and the chili was spot on for a decadent midnight treat.

Drop in to see why GQ magazine named The Silver Dollar one of the Top 10 whiskey bars in America.

The Silver Dollar | 1761 Frankfort Avenue | Louisville, KY | 502.259.9540

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Hamilton Performance Dazzles the Senses

Whether one is a fan of the theater or not, it was virtually impossible to miss the promotional onslaught and news coverage surrounding “Hamilton: An American Musical” upon its arrival in Louisville for a June 4-23 engagement at the Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts.

This Tony-Award winning musical came from the genius of Lin-Manuel Miranda, who starred in the original, and incorporates rap, hip-hop, R&B, pop and soul to tell the story of American founding father Alexander Hamilton. The subject may sound dry on the surface, but Miranda has taken the story, inspired by Ron Chernow’s 2004 biography, “Alexander Hamilton,” and turned it into an edgy re-telling of Hamilton’s importance in the country’s formation.

The musical debuted Off-Broadway in February 2015, and was sold-0ut through its run. In August 2015, “Hamilton” made the transition to Broadway and received unprecedented advance box office sales. It was nominated for a record 16 Tony Awards, winning 11 in 2016, including Best Musical. “Hamilton” went on to receive a 2016 Grammy Award for Best Musical Theater Album and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

The crazy thing is with all the hype behind this production, and the expectations that come with it for attendees at each performance, it meets and exceeds whatever bar one might apply to a theater experience. It’s one of those performances that transcends the normal boundaries of popularity. It has become a happening, a groundbreaking occurrence, that continues to draw sold out audiences some four years later.

Upon arriving at the show in Louisville, there was an impressive number of groups, families and couples that clearly had made a pilgrimage to see this performance. Pictures were being snapped with attendees together before billboards and banners to memorialize the moment. Many near our balcony seats discussed how this was not their first time seeing “Hamilton.” That is rarefied air, and in a place like Louisville, which is not the most affluent of major cities, to have a three week run where most seats are going for $200 each – it’s quite something to fill the house each night and twice on Saturday and Sunday.

Conveyed primarily through rap lyrics, the show details the baggage that comes with Hamilton being an orphan, and an immigrant who arrives in New York from the West Indies, with a confident strategy to join other young rebels in the fight for American independence.

Alexander Hamilton ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda @ White House Poetry Jam

One of the early highlights is Hamilton expressing his vision to friend Aaron Burr, among other young influencers, portrayed in the song, “My Shot.”

My Shot ~ Lin-Manuel Miranda and Hamilton Cast

It was brilliant to witness this use of hip-hop as the soundtrack to the American Revolution. From the moment the house lights fell at 8:03 until three hours later, minus a 20 minute intermission, it was non-stop action. There is this initial buy in that must be made by everyone who attended in Louisville – that when the actors bum rushed the stage it quickly became clear that  Hamilton, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr, etc., were all portrayed by men of color. To Manuel’s credit, and the audience’s, all bought into this vision within the flash of an eye.

The use of African Americans in these roles was not by accident mind you. The entire cast featured a majority of men and women of color and differing races, many laced with tattoos and eye catching hair styles not usually displayed in a Broadway setting. It was a statement that further became clear during the performance of the unavoidable contribution people of color and those coming from different cultural backgrounds contributed during this crucial time of America’s formation.

Comic relief came in the form of King George III. He only made a few spot entrances with song, which intensified his humorous portrayal. Dressed in full royal red and gold garb, King George was the splitting image of a spoiled, arrogant, and detached autocrat, grown lethargic from generations of being a member of the ruling class.

The Songs of King George III from Hamilton

As the performance evolved, we see Hamilton become Gen. Washington’s right-hand man through the Revolutionary War. Meanwhile a quiet rivalry simmers to a boil with Aaron Burr. The show bristles with a raw intensity, athletic and sensual dance moves, frequent cursing and sexual escapades. The story continues to build, including some epic rap battles between Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson.

And just as furious as “Hamilton” rushed to life when the curtain rose, Hamilton died in a duel with his now nemesis Aaron Burr and the stage fell silent. It left a sold out crowd speechless momentarily, until waves of standing ovations erupted through the theater.

If a chance presents itself to see “Hamilton” make that opportunity happen. It’s a performance that is in a class by itself.

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Leah Chase, Queen of Creole Cuisine, Passes Away

She was a New Orleans original. Leah Chase, chef and restauranteur, known to the culinary world as the Queen of Creole Cuisine, passed away June 1. She was 96.

For decades now Chase was widely recognized as a cultural icon, a piece of living history, who continued working in her world renowned restaurant, Dooky Chase’s, located in the Treme section of New Orleans, until her passing.

If you were feeling down, Dooky Chase’s was the place to go. Chef Chase’s cooking would put a smile back on your face, and soon after visiting you would feel right as rain.

For it wasn’t merely the cooking. It was Chase’s personality, demeanor and mile-wide smile that warmed the coldest blues away. Dooky Chase’s was a mile marker for times gone by and for what the woman behind it endured on her road to becoming this beloved cultural figure. Whatever troubles most may face down, try walking a mile in the shoes of Leah Chase. She was an African-American female who owned a restaurant in the segregated deep South of the 1960s.

Chase was a civil rights activist, and her historic restaurant was on the front lines of the fight to secure equal rights for African Americans. It was one of the only locations in New Orleans, where white and black activists were welcomed to dine, defying the law of the day by providing a safe haven. In the 1960s, Martin Luther King, Jr. would join local leaders like Thurgood Marshall and Ernest “Dutch” Morial, to strategize over piping hot dishes of her famous Gumbo Z’herbes in the upstairs meeting room at Dooky’s.

“One of her most prized contributions was advocating for the Civil Rights Movement through feeding those on the front lines of the struggle for human dignity,” said a statement from Chase’s family.

Born on January 6, 1923 in New Orleans, Chase was one of 14 children. She was raised in the small town of Madisonville, LA. There were no high schools for black children, so after sixth grade, Chase moved to New Orleans to live with an aunt. After completing high school, Chase had a colorful work history including managing two amateur boxers and becoming the first woman to mark the racehorse board for a local bookie. Her favorite job, though, was waiting tables in the French Quarter. It was here that she developed her love for food and feeding others.

In 1946, she married local musician Edgar “Dooky” Chase Jr., whose father had opened a street corner stand selling lottery tickets and his wife’s homemade po’boy sandwiches in 1939. Eventually, Leah and Dooky Jr. took over the business, which by 1941, had become a sit-down restaurant and a favorite local gathering place. Under Chef Chase’s guidance, Dooky Chase’s became one of the first African American owned and operated fine dining establishments in the United States.

She served Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, along with countless entertainers like Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Quincy Jones. Charles even mentioned the restaurant in his song, “Early in the Morning.” Chase was the inspiration for the Princess Tiana character, Disney’s first African America princess, in the “Princess and the Frog.” Beyoncé featured a cameo of her in the video for “Lemonade,” and Chase earned a Lifetime Achievement Award from the James Beard Foundation in 2016.

One of Chase’s most famous statements was, “To be a woman you have to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.”

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina destroyed Dooky Chase’s, but two years later Chase reopened her restaurant.

“People said well, what are you going to do at your age. There was only one thing for me to do. No matter what you do on this Earth, do it and do it well,” said Chase.

On a personal level, as someone who grew up in the border-south region of Kentucky, Leah Chase was one of the first ambassadors of New Orleans cuisine I identified back in the 1980s. Since this was before the Internet, it required quite a presence to emanate beyond certain geographic boundaries.

It was Chase’s recipes that first schooled me in how to make a roux and introduce the subtle use of heat in dishes like shrimp & Andouille gumbo, jambalaya, and crawfish étouffée.

Before eventually moving to New Orleans, I sought out dining at Dooky Chase’s on early pilgrimages to the Crescent City. It was here I learned what real fried chicken was truly about, and found an appreciation for greens, okra and red beans & rice.

I am indebted to Chase’s tolerance and quiet dignity. It’s comforting to know that Ms. Chase will live on as the spiritual grand matron of N’awlins.

“In this restaurant, in some ways, we really changed the course of America, and I say we changed the course of America over a bowl of gumbo,” said Chase.

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Dr. John, A New Orleans Original, Takes the Big Adios

He was known as Dr. John, the Night Tripper, part hoodoo medicine man, part psychedelic parishioner. The individual behind this persona was Mac Rebennack, who as a person and musician, embodied all the mysticism that fills the heart and soul of New Orleans. Rebennack died June 6 at the age of 77.

New Orleans is littered with boogie woogie piano players. Setting Rebennack apart from the crowd was his virtuoso capabilities on the piano and guitar. Add to this his flamboyant personification of the New Orleans spirit, and this earned Dr. John a top tier spot with Louisiana keyboard greats like Fats Domino, Professor Longhair, Art Neville, Huey “Piano” Smith, James Booker and Jerry Lee Lewis.

To attend a Dr. John show was the equivalent of a Mardi Gras celebration, cut with a voodoo ceremony and the rambunctious nature of a traveling medicine show. There was funk, blues, a dash of jazz and pop, and rock-n-roll all mixed together that dripped thick with New Orleans, like the mixing bowl that city has always been.

DR. JOHN w/THE BAND – SUCH A NIGHT ~ The Last Waltz (11.25.76)

His bandmates would set a hard funky beat for several minutes before the Night Tripper would come strutting out onto the stage, always at his own pace. In the second half of Dr. John’s career he was New Orleans royalty, and never had to move fast for anyone.

Rebennack always looked the part, sporting a fashionable chapeau to compliment his pointed greying beard, tribal beads were strung around his neck and he carried along his trademark oversized wooden walking stick. This accessory was a sight to behold, adorned with voodoo beads, a yak bone, an alligator tooth and milestone rings from Narcotics Anonymous. It spoke volumes about the life of the man who carried it.

Born Nov. 20, 1941 in New Orleans, his awakening as a musician began around age 12, when he started performing with Professor Longhair, and was tutored on guitar by Walter (Papoose) Nelson, who played guitar for Fats Domino. Rebennack would play guitar up to 18 hours a day, seven days a week – sitting in at Bourbon Street clubs and strip joints.

He dropped out of high school to pursue his passion full time after the Jesuits informed a young Rebennack that he would need to steer clear of the New Orleans clubs. By the late 1950s, his professional career was off and running as he became a well regarded session musician on the scene. To his credit, Rebennack would piece together integrated bands, which at the time was not something commonly seen, especially in the deep South.

This life brought with it certain perils that are all too familiar to those who make a living after midnight. Rebennack took part in many of the criminal hustles of the day and developed a well recognized and lengthy heroin habit. A pivotal moment came in the early 1960s, when Rebennack aided a friend being attacked, and was shot in the ring finger of his left hand. This necessitated a switch in musical instruments, from guitar to piano.

In 1968, Rebbenack recorded “Gris-Gris,” which captured his unique blend of the New Orleans sound, Creole magic and psychedelic rock. Included on this debut was the Dr. John classic, “I Walk on Guilded Splinters.” This record also saw the introduction of Rebbenack’s Dr. John character.

DR. JOHN – I WALK ON GUILDED SPLINTERS (1968)

This classic blending of styles and sounds was further evidenced on the 1972 recording, “Dr. John’s Gumbo.” Allen Toussaint produced and the Meters backed up Dr. John’s recordings of New Orleans classics like “Iko Iko” and “Tipitina.”

Hit songs were not something that defined a performer like Dr. John. He was more atmospheric and the duly appointed representative of the New Orleans sound, yet he did score one Top 40 single in 1973, “Right Place Wrong Time,” that reached No. 9 on the Billboard chart.

DR. JOHN – RIGHT PLACE WRONG TIME

Considering all the albums he recorded, more than 30, winning six Grammy Awards and a 2011 induction into the Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame, records were not the part of his musical career that earned him the most money. It was his side gig cutting jingles and theme music. There was Popeyes chicken, Scott tissue and Oreo cookies. His trademark delivery was heard by a new generation of young people in the theme music for “Blossom” and in the opening song of the “Curious George” cartoon. Rebennack also was the inspiration for Dr. Teeth, the leader of the Electric Mayhem on the Muppets.

You can also credit Dr. John as responsible for providing the name given to a little music festival that takes place annually in Manchester, TN. Organizers were researching old recordings to find inspiration in naming their new festival, and came upon Dr. John’s 1974 release, “Desitively Bonnaroo.” The Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival has continued to grow in size and influence since 2002, pulling in 80,000-plus attendees annually.

Rebennack gave voice to his blending of sounds and culture in his 1994 autobiography, “Under a Hoodoo Moon,” saying, “In New Orleans, in religion, as in food or race or music, you can’t separate nothing from nothing. Everything mingles each into the other – Catholic saint worship with gris-gris spirits, evangelical tent meetings with spiritual-church ceremonies – until nothing is purely itself but becomes part of one funky gumbo.”

Mac Rebennack was a man with one funky soul. We’re going to miss you Dr. John – R.I.P.

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