When we think of New Orleans, certain images, phrases and life-changing events come to mind: Mardi Gras, Creole Cuisine, Second Lind, French Quarter, Dixieland jazz, Bourbon Street, Katrina and the long hapless Saints winning the 2010 Super Bowl. Even in their darkest moments, NOLA’s citizens seem to be able to celebrate something. They’ve been to hell and back since the devastating hurricane in 2005, and fully deserve their party this year as the city reaches its 300th Anniversary since its founding by the French Mississippi Company under the direction of Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville, on land inhabited by the Chitimacha.
Throughout 2018, New Orleans has celebrated its Tricentennial with its citizens and opened its doors to the word to share its rich history and culture while celebrating past accomplishments, the resilience of its people and setting the course for its future. Mayor Mitchell Landrieu formed the 2018 NOLA Commission to allow input for special events that will honor the anniversary, including concerts, fireworks and completion of major infrastructure projects.
For those who connect with the spirit of The Crescent City but couldn’t make it in person, the Hollywood Bowl offered the next best thing: a three night celebration led by three time Grammy winning jazz great, Saints fan, NOCCA grad, Mardis Gras krewe founder and diehard Crescent City booster Harry Connick, Jr. The Bowl promised and delivered smashingly on a “Fireworks Finale,” but the suave, stylish, forever young singer, consummate pianist and (who knew?) not half bad tap dancer and his ten-piece (six horn) ensemble were already bursting big, bold, funky, brassy bombs in air long before the actual pyrotechnics rose forth during Allen Toussaint’s densely percussive, irrepressible “Yes We Can Can.”
With his wealth of recorded material (extending back over 30 years) and so many indigenous New Orleans delights to draw from, Connick could easily have held court for more than the 90 minutes allotted to his headlining spot. But he chose to balance his ‘bones with those of Bonerama, a popular NOLA ensemble marking their own 20th anniversary, whose founders Mark Mullins and Craig Klein were members of Connick’s big band for over 15 years. The best way to describe them is the Tower of Power of New Orleans – all groove and potent funk, driven by their three sizzling trombones and the sousaphone of Matt Perrine, and anchored by the versatile powerhouse drumming of Walt Lundy. Some of their material, like the fruit and vegetable filled ode to “Mr. Okra” and the 50’s pop/soul flavored “My Girl,” is tongue in cheek, but the soul got more serious with the appearance of another NOLA native, singer Erica Falls. Falls truly stole the show with her intense, churchified jazz-R&B vocals and occasional fluttering, bird like high notes. Her tribute to Aretha Franklin included some boisterous gospel shout-outs.
With his dapper blue suit and perfectly styled hair, Connick could have sung the proverbial phone book and his overflowing charm and sex appeal would have wooed the ladies and made the dudes all say, “Dayum!” He came out swinging with his playful brass boys, making a mission statement for the evening with his lighthearted delivery of NOLA tour guide lyrics of “Bourbon Street Parade” over the boom of Arthur Latin’s drums. Connick’s accomplishment as a singer tend to overshadow the brilliance of his piano playing, and it was wonderful to see him sit down in the middle of this number and regale the crowd with his formidable improvisations.
He kept the Saints marching in on another native New Orleans classic, “Didn’t He Ramble,” which featured an even more intense traditional jazz fusion highlighted by Neal Caine’s nimble upright bass solo, and on “Take Her To the Mardi Gras,” during which Connick engaged in a playful rap with a female audience member about flattering camera angles. Part of the joy of a Connick show is listening to his anecdotes, and he contextualized his own place in the pantheon of the music that formed him by talking about a unique culture where “older guys look out for younger musicians” and his early love for Louis Armstrong. He even played a snippet of his nine year old self doing the classic Louis rasp before launching into a stripped down piano, vocal and trombone spin through “Hello Central, Give Me Dr. Jazz.”
Connick then switched gears from the main theme of the show to share a few crowd pleasers from the soundtrack to “When Harry Met Sally” that launched him to superstardom. He complemented his strong, soulful vocals on “Our Love is Here to Stay” with a lovely piano solo, and got the band hoppin’ on “It Had To Be You.” Then he engaged in another wondrous tempo shift to another foundational aspect of his career (and New Orleans music in general), discussing the power of gospel music in his life. He brought cool swing and understated swagger to one of the greatest hymns of all, “How Great Thou Art,” allowing guitarist Jonathan Dubose, Jr. to shine on solo sections that ranged from fiery to soft and crying. No matter what anyone came in believing, they left believing in the way music connects with Spirit to transform lives.
Another tonal shift, to the tap dancing segment featuring Broadway tap dance great and choreographer Luke Hawkins, was certainly intriguing but ate up a lot of stage time that might have been filled with more of Harry’s formidable songbook. No matter, though, because Harry looked like he was having a blast up there, taking a “lesson” and showing off a skill most fans seemed not to be fully aware of before. Connick is one of the few artists whose energy and enthusiasm makes these breakneck genre jumps seem like a true extension of his boyish personality. Then it was back to the NOLA magic with a lovely Stride flavored solo piano tune, and the big boom of “Yes We Can Can” (cue the crackling, multi-colored fireworks the Bowl is famous for) and an encore of another New Orleans classic, “Big Chief.”