Preservation Hall Jazz Band played Davies Symphony Hall Sunday night on its “That’s It” tour and gave it a Creole Christmas twist but Ben Jaffe the tuba and bass player, the son of the founder who played tuba, gave some insight into why the band is called Preservation Hall. The dapper seven gentlemen in their dark suits seemed relaxed and affable and joked while playing, clowning and parading around with each musician getting a solo to improvise. They had no opening act and no women this time although Ruthie Foster had opened one year and WOWed everybody with just her voice and her guitar.
The band underscored the meaning of carrying on tradition when after the show 81 year old Charlie Gabriel and 37 year old and newest band member Ronell Johnson emerged on stage to chat with fans.
Ben Jaffe and Charlie Gabriel
Jaffe gave some insight into why the group is called Preservation Hall, it’s more than just the name of the dilapidated architecture in the French Quarter. How does one preserve improvised performances anyway. Going beyond the performance of traditional jazz and New Orleans classics, Ben Jaffe introduced living legend Charlie Gabriel, the 81 year old clarinet player. Gabriel, looking distinguished in his dark suit, performed on his clarinet and sang for most of the first half. He’s a seventh generation musician going back to the 1850s and fourth generation clarinetist with three generations beneath him playing. He started his set singing, “Come with me to New Orleans”.
Gabriel would be flying out directly to the funeral of his baby brother, who just died at 76.
Seven musicians came to San Francisco and Jaffe said they had been on the road two weeks. When they meet New Orleanians at the performances, the band hopes and prays they bring food. No real New Orleanian would show up empty handed, he said for emphasis.
By the third song the musicians switched instruments, the sax player picking up a banjo while Jaffe put down his tuba and picked up the bass. The band seemed warmed up more when it returned for the second half with 44 year old Clint Maedgen the theatrical sax player bursting into a vocal solo. Maedgen rested his sax against his shoulder like a dance partner’s cheek, wailing a soulful rendition “Home for Christmas”. Elvis would have been proud or stunned.
The band picked up the pace with a danceable number before moving into a show stopping “St. James Infirmary Blues” first slow and intelligible by the 40 year old trumpet player Mark Braud, then a second version by Maedgen at double the speed but who at times seemed difficult to understand. No matter. The rollicking version meant bringing out the cowbell and two banjos but the style is a lot more about group chemistry than volume and percussion even with Maedgen's country rock edge.
Rickie Monie played piano; Joseph Lastie, Jr. played drums; young Ronell Johnson on tuba.
Casey Jones’ Dixie Giants from the North Bay gets patrons dancing in the street
63 year old trombonist Freddie Lonzo sang a song to make Tim Burton and Danny Elfman proud, the spooky song from “That’s It” called “Rattlin’ Bones” and seemed to sing from six feet under with his bass baritone. Eventually Lonzo got the 2700 audience members to their feet and by the time the encore was over, most of the audience was ready to dance or have a second line parade. For some reason the energy just wasn’t right for that.
However, a young and earnest clarinet player named Casey Jones from the North Bay stayed after to meet the tuba player and newest member of the band, Ronell Johnson, who was hired last summer. Jones had snagged proudly a set list, one of the seven scrawled in black marker in large letters, the 8 x 11 white pages taped on the boards next to each musicians’ spot.
Jaffe had introduced Johnson as one of his former students at NOCCA, a modest school for the arts in the historic little neighborhood next to the French Quarter, the Faubourg Marigny. That sliver by the river survived Katrina. That’s where I had left my bicycle purchased as a rental bike from Bicycle Michael, when I came home to the San Francisco Bay Area and the bike survived.
Young white stage crew, one blond with tattoos, started to pack up the stage but Johnson packed his own tuba in a case that itself weighed 25 pounds he said. He was sweating after he had danced and paraded around in place during the show. He dabbed his forehead with a kerchief but didn’t toss it to anybody.
Meanwhile, young Casey Jones had his own seven Dixie Giants playing live outside Davies Symphony Hall on the sidewalk, getting the departing patrons dancing under the full moon. Take a look at the videos, shot with the light of a fullmoon here.
All in all it was a good date night with young couples dancing after and one couple lingering to kiss alone in the beautifully lit lobby near the towering Christmas trees. Yeah, I took the shot. It’s in the slideshow. After all, New Orleans is one of the sexiest cities in the universe.
For more information: www.SFSymphony.org, PreservationHallJazzBand.com
Related: CBS SF: Best Holiday Celebrations in the North Bay 2013
Tickets were half price for those seventeen years of age. The limited number of tickets left had cost $19.50 to $75.00.
The symphony did not appear at this performance.
Parking vouchers and ticket info here.
Easily walkable from Civic Center BART, one tiny bike rack outside the lobby.
Grove Street, between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin, across from the opera house
(415) 864- 6000
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