Live Review: Trombone Shorty Brings NOLA Flavor To Koka Booth Amphitheater

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Trombone Shorty plays Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary, N.C., June 21. (Wendy Pearl / Staff)

Trombone Shorty brought the tasty, rich musical gumbo of New Orleans to Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary, N.C., Tuesday with his raging, musically vibrant Voodoo Threauxdown Tour. 

The Threauxdown is a thoughtfully curated mix of heritage performances, stars on the rise, and stellar musicianship that left the enthusiastic crowd breathless. Overheard leaving after the 4.5 hours show: “Well, that was an awesome I wasn’t expecting.”

Trombone Shorty (born Troy Andrews) resided at the epicenter, part circus ring leader and part symphonic conductor, clearly in full command of his art and vision of representing the diverse styles that define New Orleans’ musical bedrock: jazz, blues, soul, hip-hop, and the intangible influence of rock and country. 

Born in 1986, he is no longer the 4-year-old prodigy that was crowd-surfed to the stage to perform with Bo Diddley at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival; and he’s 50 years away from the jazz masters he revers. He is in a class by himself, an ambassador and innovator driven by enormous talent and the weighty responsibility of preserving the legacy. 

He deftly traversed both at Koka Booth. 

The 7,000-capacity amphitheater, which was a mix of pre-set folding chairs and sloping grass for lawn chairs, was the perfect venue. Slightly steamy with temperatures in the high 80s at showtime, the close proximity to the stage made it feel like New Orleans’ Jackson Square, famous for street performers and intersecting sounds. The closeness contributed to a heightened level of energy between the musicians and audience that felt reminiscent of Trombone Shorty’s childhood busking with his older, trumpeter brother James “12” Andrews in the Crescent City. 

Raised in the multi-cultural neighborhood of Treme in a family of brass band greats – including his brother, a respected jazz player, and his grandfather R&B recording artist Jessie Hill – he started playing trombone as soon as he could hold one because they already had a trumpet player in the house. 

That didn’t stop him in Cary. He opened the show with a trombone in one hand and a trumpet in the other. Throughout the set he alternated on both treating each like a lead instrument not the usual punctuation points reserved for the horn section.

Akin to its creator, the Threauxdown is a living lesson in New Orleans music history and a potent vision of where the music is headed for a new generation of music enthusiasts and players.

The Threauxdown kicked off with Soul Rebels, who got their name from Cyril Neville after the then nameless group opened for him at New Orleans’ notable music hall Tipitina’s. On Tuesday, Cyril Neville the Uptown Ruler performed with Dumpstaphunk and George Porter, Jr.

Dumpstaphunk, which was formed in 2003 by Ivan Neville (son of Aaron Neville), demonstrated why they set the bar for jazz/funk modern jam bands. Careening and spontaneous, the set was a potent lesson on the power of groove and improvisation.

Bassist and vocalist, Porter was one of the founding members of The Meters. Formed in the mid-1960s, the band never achieved the mainstream success they deserved, but they were recognized as the early originators of funk and were presented a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018. 

Even seated, the bass-line funk master, performed with a gritty intensity that inspired several ovations. Cyril Neville, who also performed with The Meters, joined the talented cast on tambourine for a raw, soulful cover of the Neville Brothers’ “Fire on the Bayou,” which was written by Porter, Cyril Neville, Art Neville, Joseph Modeliste and Leo Nocentelli, and The Meters “Talkin’ Bout New Orleans.”

Tank and the Bangas followed. The band won the 2017 NPR Tiny Desk contest and in 2019 they were nominated for Best New Artist for the 2020 Grammy Awards. They effortlessly flowed in and out of genres including funk, soul, hip hop, gospel, rock and spoken word. Poetic and whimsical, the set crashed through format constraints on the strength and purity of Tarriona “Tank” Ball’s vocals including a poignant version of “Black Folk” during what Ball called “a beautiful month of liberation.”

Ball introduced Big Freedia to a repeated chorus of “Queen Diva” from the audience. 

The day before on June 20, Beyonce released “Break My Soul,” featuring Big Freedia, who also contributed to the Queen Bea song “Formation.” “Break My Soul” is the first song released from Renaissance, which comes out on July 29. Freedia is credited with reviving the style of New Orleans hip hop called bounce and performed “Big” with Tank and the Bangas to a surging crowd ovation. 

The atmosphere was charged as the sky darkened for the headliner Trombone Shorty and his outstanding band Orleans Avenue. 

He recently released his first album of original music in five years, Lifted, which he recorded in his own Buckjump Studio with producer Chris Seefried and he opened with the lively namesake instrumental.

He performed several songs from the record including the title track, “Come Back” and “Might Not Make It Home.” 

Even with newer material, the band was seamless and played with the spirited abandon of a jam band without losing any of the musicality that sets Trombone Shorty’s arrangements apart. A natural collaborator, he provided the necessary space for the full band to shine – even with a searing pace. 

The result felt like taking a corner on two wheels – slightly dangerous and thrilling as the band zigzagged between career songs “Ain’t No Use,” “Where It At,” “Craziest Things” and “One Night Only.” The musician interplay was chaotic, genuine and challenging to follow as players shuffled in and out of the spotlight.

The audience couldn’t get enough and when it was over there was a standing ovation and encore including an homage to the second line marching groove of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Hurricane” and “Do to Me.”

The Voodoo Threauxdown was a proud moment for a city that has enduring so much adversity and an artist who represents New Orleans musical evolution and future.