With Hurricane Isaac providing a reminder of the tenuous state of New Orleans seven years after Katrina, the inaugural Big Easy Music Festival offers a timely taste of the culture that makes the Crescent City such an essential spice in America's musical melting pot.
An all-day event presented Saturday by the Poor House Bistro and the Silicon Valley Black Chamber of Commerce (SVBCC) at Arena Green (opposite HP Pavilion), the festival will feature an array of acts with strong Gulf Coast roots, including Zigaboo Modeliste and the New Aahkesstra. A hard-rockin' Oakland funk outfit, the New Aahkesstra is a potent party band led by Modeliste, the original drummer for the Meters, the storied New Orleans R&B combo sampled by innumerable hip-hop acts and DJs.
Conceived as a fundraiser for the SVBCC's Next Gen Business Academy, a long-running program that teaches entrepreneurial skills to high school students, the Big Easy Festival is an attempt to groove well by doing good.
"We needed a signature event for our entrepreneurial academy," says Joel Wyrick, the chamber's president and the veteran event producer who founded San Jose's sadly defunct Mardi Gras party. "We're hoping to break even this year and get the festival on good footing for the future. The musical focus was a no-brainer. New Orleans is the only place I've experienced where live music is always at the forefront."
Jay Meduri, who has turned the Poor House into the South
With the Poor House Bistro all-star band, featuring Ron Thompson, Kid Andersen, Gary Smith and Sid Morris, and Girls Got the Blues with vocalist Lara Price and her all-girl band, Meduri put together two acts showcasing Poor House regulars. The Dis Stage closes with Bay Area soul royalty, Lydia Pense and Cold Blood. The Redwood City-raised Pense has been a force since 1969, when Janis Joplin recommended the band to Bill Graham for an audition.
"I've been wanting to put together a downtown festival ever since all these festivals have been dropping off," Meduri says, mentioning the Fourth of July America Festival and the Tapestry Arts Festival. "I wanted to have a local flavor, focusing on some of our great, overlooked Bay Area artists, but also a New Orleans flair. This is a social setting, a place where people can see live music and enjoy some food."
The Dat Stage programming overflows with New Orleans flair. The turbo-charged Zydeco Flames, one of the Bay Area's busiest zydeco bands, plays the opening set, followed by Beaufunk, a band that combines East Bay grease with Crescent City beats. Blue-eyed soul singer John Németh, a riveting Bay Area performer who has just released two albums ("Soul Live" and "Blues Live," which both include tracks recorded at the Poor House), hails from Idaho, far from the Gulf Coast. But his original tunes are often set to Crescent City beats, and he's been known to dip into the New Orleans songbook, for instance opening "Blues Live" with "Every Night About This Time," a Fats Domino/Dave Bartholomew tune introduced by Little Richard in the Upsetters.
"Some of these players, Zydeco Flames and Beaufunk, have roots in the South, and they've developed it out here," Meduri says. "Zigaboo Modeliste -- he's a legend living in our backyard."
The most interesting New Orleans connection can be found in the Ray Charles Project, a band spearheaded by Santana organist Dave K. Mathews. Designed as a showcase for South Bay blues master Chris Cain, the band features an overload of vocal talent, with Tony Lindsay, who scored a truckload of Grammy Awards during his "Supernatural" years with Santana, and the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils' Glenn Walters.
While Charles isn't usually associated with the Big Easy, he honed his sound there in 1953 as he was getting ready to make his first recordings for Atlantic.
"When he put together his first seven-piece band, they went to New Orleans, to Cosimo Matassa's studio," says Cain (who headlines at the Poor House Oct. 5). "When you listen to 'I've Got a Woman,' the whole New Orleans connection is strong. That early period ... kind of hatched down there. I think Ray Charles is the greatest musician who ever lived. He could touch the people with eight bars. Just unbelievable."
Big Easy Music Festival
When: 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
Where: Arena Green, West St. John and West Santa Clara streets, San Jose
Tickets: $15, www.bigeasymusicfestival.com