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Big Easy Living: On 60s from the ’60s, still rockin’ it

With apologies to Thomas Wolfe, you can go home again.

Sort of.

Last week I sat in the second row at Mahalia Jackson Theater of the Performing Arts and watched three of the four original (well, from the 1967 lineup, anyway) members of the Moody Blues prove that, the decades be damned, old musicians can perform with much of the rousing energy and all of the expertise of their youth.

And we’re not just talking Mick Jagger here. Or Steven Tyler (isn’t he a doll, though, on American Idol?)

At Jazz Fest on Friday (with arguably the best weather in my 30-plus years at the Fairgrounds), the biggest crowd-pleasers were as apt to be on the downhill side of 50 as the uphill side of 30. Ironic, perhaps, for those of us who belong to a generation whose call to arms was “Never trust anyone over 30” (a mantra, if you’re wondering, that can be traced to 1964 and then-24-year-old free speech activist Jack Weinberger of the San Francisco Chronicle).

Anyway, who could have guessed that two of the day’s top scorchers, with searing rifts and still-strong vocals, would be guitarist Jeff Beck, 66, and Led Zepplin’s Robert Plant, 62? Saturday’s headlining Jon Bon Jovi is still a year shy of 50, but Sunday’s Arlo Guthrie is 63. This year’s Jazz Fest poster features 64-year-old Jimmy Buffet, and this weekend’s lineup includes Gregg Allman (63) and John Mellencamp (59).

Baby Boomers, all of them.

“If you look at who’s touring out there,” said a neighbor/musician friend of mine the other day, “it’s totally the AARP crowd.”

I first saw many of these performers in concert decades ago, when they – and I – were still trying to figure out who we were and where we were going. In the late ‘60s in Dallas, I watched guitarist Peter Townshend and drummer Keith Moon of the Who smash their instruments to smithereens onstage; around the same time I swayed along with Donovan as he sang about circular happiness. I recall midnight rambles in borrowed cars in search of our favorite groups. New Riders of the Purple Sage, The Band, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, The Allman Brothers.

Not everyone survived the tumultuous and explosive era that was the ‘60s. I miss Janis Joplin (from Port Arthur, Texas, a short haul from my own hometown of DeRidder). And Jimi Hendrix (when I was homesick, I used to play “Purple Haze” on a café jukebox in Paris, the year I lived abroad).

Last summer, Stewart and I visited Jim Morrison’s grave in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. We stopped to ask a guy for directions to the tombstone.

“Just follow the smell of pot,” he replied laconically. (At the Moody Blues concert, the smoke was all special effect stuff, seeping up from the floor around band members’ knees. “They never had to do that in the old days,” my seatmate cracked.)

During the early years of kids and careers, it was hard to recapture the old concert glow. I remember in particular a Grateful Dead concert at the New Orleans Arena in the ‘80s. It was a weekday, and Stewart and I had both arrived from work, over-dressed and under-prepared – not only for Jerry Garcia’s 20-minute aimless guitar jams, but also the packs of 40-something groupies who had arrived in RVs (the ‘80s equivalent of ‘60s VW vans?) and who danced euphorically in the aisles. “Don’t any of them have mortgages?” I wondered.

I also recall sitting in the upper tiers of the Superdome, listening to the Rolling Stones, when I was 8 ½ months pregnant. (‘You’re going to the Stones concert pregnant?” several friends asked incredulously. I never quite got what they were so worried about.)

Last week’s Jazz Fest crowds and Moody Blues audience both attest to the fact that members of the Woodstock Generation remain rockers at heart. The guy in front of me at Mahalia Jackson may have had pewter-colored hair, but it still hung to his shoulder blades and he still managed a mean dance step to “I’m Just a Singer in a Rock and Roll Band.”

One of the best things about today’s senior rockers – and their aging groupies – is that they don’t seem to fight their age, but embrace it.

Moody Blues drummer Graeme Edge, whose shoulder-length white locks and matching beard makes him resemble an almost-svelte Santa, readily confessed to the crowd that he will soon be 70. “That means that I’ve seen the 60s twice,” he added wryly. “And for very different reasons, I don’t remember either of them.”

Quint Davis, introducing Jeff Beck on Friday, told the crowd, “We come to Jazz Fest to renew our batteries and refresh our souls.”

Some of us are running on older batteries, but we – and our musical heroes – still have something to give.

Postcript: Boomer bands may have their roots in the past, but they definitely keep up with the times, from cutting-edge web sites to daily tweets. Take a look at last Friday’s online blog post from Arlo Guthrie:

“We’re driving thru Louisiana and stopped in Shreveport in the evening. The tour busses loaded up in the morning to head down to New Orleans. The GPS doesn’t handle low clearance bridges very well and there’s lots of train tracks crisscrossing the streets overhead. So I thought I’d just ask someone how to get out of town leaving the roofs of the busses intact.

“There was a guy standing on the sidewalk with a guitar strapped over his shoulder, who looked somewhat familiar. I had the bus stop and we all got out. I walked over to the gentleman with the guitar and said ‘Excuse me, but how do you get outta town from here?’ The man didn’t say a word. He just was pointing down the street. I asked again ‘Are you sure it’s not ‘that’ way? or maybe ‘this’ way?’ Not a word came from the stranger with the guitar. He just kept pointing. I said ‘We’re going to New Orleans to play at the Jazz Festival. I’m gonna do some Lead Belly songs. He’s from here ya know!’

“I noticed a hint of a smile on his stone cold face. But he just kept pointing.”


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