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High Point honors Coltrane, Lupe rocks a fiasco

by Ryan Snyder

Barbara Weathers and Kirk Whalum duet on the Atlantic Starr hit “Always.” (photo by Ryan Snyder)

It didn’t go down anything like Mel Gibson and Paul Larsson in the Thunderdome, but two new festivals entered the Piedmont live music sphere over Labor Day weekend, and it’s almost certain that only one survived. In one corner, the inaugural John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival experienced a healthy turnout and relatively smooth production in High Point’s Oak Hollow Park on Saturday. In the other, the first Triad for the Love of Music Festival at Newbridge Bank Park was by almost all measures a flop. It was the blueprint for how basically everything that can go wrong will go wrong. Yet, while both were equally ambitious in their concept — one paying homage to a giant of jazz in his childhood home and the other aiming to put an exclamation point on the summer — there’s an argument to be made that for now, the dud of the two left a far more lasting impression.

With great branding comes great responsibility, and having the name John Coltrane attached to a festival unquestionably brings both. Coltrane’s contributions to jazz music simply cannot be overstated in any way. He was one of the most elusive and one of the most uncompromising artists of his time, and nothing Coltrane ever played felt too safe. Equally fluent in hard bop, modal jazz and everything in between, he was a constant challenge to consume, and that he called High Point home in his formative years presented an opportunity that the Friends of John Coltrane are right in seizing.

That said, the potential for the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival is, like the catalog of festival’s namesake, practically inexhaustible. Like discovering a previously undetected texture in Coltrane’s treatment of Ornette Coleman on The Avant-Garde on the fourth or fifth listen, digging through his genealogy yields a cornucopia of names from all across music. Some are obvious — saxophonist Joshua Redman is the heir apparent, the most important jazz sax man to emerge in decades. Others, not so much — Steve Ellison, otherwise known as electronic producer Flying Lotus, is not only the grand-nephew to Alice Coltrane and cousin to Ravi, but an artist whose cosmic sonic palette tackles complex musical issues with a passion similar to John himself. Yet, in the Coltrane festival’s first year, hardly a scratch was made in the surface of that potential.

An early set by Zac Harmon was a rambunctious, sweltering Deltaguitar missive that saw Harmon trading instrumental barbs with keyboardist Corey Lacey before introducing ex-Prince protégé Sue Ann Carwell on vocals. The Coltrane pedigree presented itself most prominently in successive early-evening sets by son Ravi Coltrane leading his quartet, who performed an outstanding selection of his father’s work from Giant Steps and A Love Supreme among others, and a formidable fusion unit of Lonnie Liston Smith, Tom Browne and Ronnie Laws under the one-off named Perspectives.

But as the sun set, when the identity of a festival most asserts itself, the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival seemed to suffer a bit of a crisis. More of the element of musical adventurousness that was ensconced in Coltrane’s vision felt appropriate, yet this wasn’t a time for hard-boppers or post-boppers. The night took a slightly different direction as Barbara Weathers crooned her Atlantic Starr hit and wedding staple “Always” alongside smooth jazz saxophonist Kirk Whalum, imbuing the ambiance of an Urban AC festival more than a celebration of the legacy of High Point’s most famous son. Not to diminish Weather’s stirring performance, but where that sound fits into the Coltrane puzzle is uncertain.

It is, however, reasonable that a new festival must first build an audience, and putting surefire draws like the Greensboro native Weathers and the esteemed Patti Austin in the peak hours did just that. The festival drew more than 1,000 in its first year with attendance peaking as Whalum and Weather shared the spotlight. Whalum took on stirring instrumental selections from his Donnie Hathaway tribute album, which Austin answered later by channeling Ella Fitzgerald against subtle and minimal accompaniment. Not exactly the unpredictable spirit of jazz, but quality music paired with an extremely amiable atmosphere made for an enjoyable evening nonetheless. The inaugural event also did well enough that organizers are already talking about expanding to a two-day event, offering the possibility to tap deeper into its potential.

Unpredictability in music, as it were, can be as much of a curse as it is a blessing. It’s been said that the surest way to lose $50,000 is to open a restaurant, but if the performance of one of Triad for the Love of Music is any indication, putting on a music festival looks like a far more certain bet. While attendance at the John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival made a slow crawl upwards all day, the numbers at Triad Music Festival were dead on arrival. There appeared to be more fans in the stands to see the Greensboro Grasshoppers win in the bottom of the 19 th inning on Aug. 25 than there were listening to the Carolina Chocolate Drops play a late afternoon set at Newbridge Bank Park. The writing was on the wall Thursday when a Groupon went out offering tickets for a mere $12.

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Ben J of the New Boyz joins Lupe Fiasco for the epic finish to a hitchy set. (photo by Ryan Snyder)

Poor attendance, however, was not the worst of the festival’s worries. Artist cancelations (adios, Miguel) and a lagging production schedule had the festival behind nearly an entire set by the time Lee Brice took the stage for a hardrocking, if uneven set. The result was shorter performance times for Brice, New Boyz and pre-headliner Fuel to get back on track for prime draw Lupe Fiasco, who still went on a half-hour later than intended. The slew of problems didn’t end there, however.

Despite being riddled with dead pixels, the park LED board made for the most significant light source as darkness settled over the few hundred in the skeletal crowd scattered all over the field, most of whom came out specifically for Fiasco’s set. Bassist Bubby Lewis stretched his fingers out on his six-string with a swift chromatic run just before the stage lights dropped, and the guitar intro to “Shining Down” played. The first 20 minutes of his set went off without a hitch, and Fiasco is simply so good a performer that he can absolve any misgivings that occurred up until that point. His charisma gave the Triad Music Fest a clean slate, if but for those 20 minutes.

The stage went dark right at the conclusion of “State Run Radio,” and Fiasco signaled his band backstage while production worked to restore power. Lewis plucked the bass line to the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” to signal that order was being restored, the band returned after a few minutes, Fiasco made it through another song, and power dropped once again. Undeterred, Fiasco invoked camp rules and hushed the crowd before asking for cell phones out to light the stage.

“We’re going to take it way back before they had electricity,” he said as he summoned his skater anthem “Kick Push” a capella, the crowd beefing up the chorus better than any Marshall stack ever could. He made it through “Words I Never Said” and the oh-so appropriate “The Show Goes On” before the juice was finally restored, and went off script a little in “Superstar.”

“If you are what you say you are, then do what you say you gonna do. Don’t be no phony, flaky person,” he spoke rather matter-of-factly as he adlibbed the chorus.

Lewis would later say that that was one of those unpredictable moments that make rock and roll so great; a serendipitous occurrence for a crowd that wanted a great show and in spite of every setback possible, got more than they ever expected.

Follow Ryan on Twitter @YESRyan

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