April is “The Music of New Orleans” Month at The Kennedy Center, and it takes a big tent to accommodate the eclectic artistic styles of the Crescent City. That explains the circus atmosphere of the celebration’s signature event, The New Orleans Bingo! Show, which turned the Kennedy Center Concert Hall into a burlesque and jangly dance hall Saturday night.
It was a crazy cross-pollination of two American shrines – the nation’s pillar to the performing arts named for our 35th president and New Orleans’ Preservation Hall, which stands as a fortress behind distressed wooded gate in the French Quarter to honor and protect America’s own original musical stew of jazz.
The mastermind behind this protracted party is Clint Maedgen, a vocalist and saxophonist with the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Before getting that gig, he spent eight years delivering food on bicycle for Fiorella’s in the Quarter, where every doorbell represented an adventure waiting to happen “inside the onion and behind the wall,” as he described it, pacing the stage. He and his quirky, creative friends would host back-room bingo games using vintage cards, which evolved into performance art. You have to know what it means to miss New Orleans to fully get it, but the colorful characters and funky flavor of the city’s street scene come to life in the multimedia presentation of short films and Jumbotron projections as each vaudeville act parades out, from tripped-out puppeteer Miss Pussycat to harlequin-erotica aerialists Mystic Ponies.
The first clue that Washingtonians were in for an evening of pandemonium were sirens blaring before the Noisician Coalition stomped in, banging trash can lids and monstrous noise makers. Led by MattVaughn Black, this marching krewe stalked the aisles shining searchlights and playing “in the key of mayhem.” Next up: the celestial Helen Gillet appeared under spotlight to improvise on cello. She looped in tracks, building a haunting accompaniment while controlling an eight-track recording board with her foot. Mayhem ensued when her mic failed, and patrons heckled the sound crew with “Microphone!” until a techie produced a working one, which she seduced in syrupy French.
Alexis Graber of the Brechtian burlesque troupe Fleur de Tease increased the tension with a strip routine as character Trixie Minx, in which she used a parlor piano and a miracle-grown rubber duckie to obscure some private parts. The only act that could possibly follow her illusion of playing Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” with her boobs (can we say boobs at the Kennedy Center?) was the truly orgasmic Preservation Hall Jazz Band. If you’ve experienced them in their reverent, museum-like setting at 796 St. Peter St., where jazz worshipers cram in on wooden benches and pray for a breeze, this was them busting out for recess. With horns glittering under the lights, the ambling cool of these master musicians amped up to electrifying heights in “Down on Bourbon Street.” Torrid trumpeter and vocalist Mark Braud induced a euphoric roar from the crowd. Clarinetist Charlie Gabriel delivered a superhuman, blazing-hot solo. Ronell Johnson’s infectious joy could not be contained. His tuba hugging him like a boa, he acted as a master snake charmer, sashaying and pumping up patrons, who exploded to their feet, again and again.
In the end, nothing compared to this crème de la crème combo. The rest was mostly noise, including a droning set by mad-scientist “swamp tech” trance pioneer Quintron. Headliner Big Freedia (real name Freddie Ross) and her hip-hop/Bounce dancers managed to momentarily mesmerize and shock with raunchy booty call-and-response and hyper-twerking. The indie-pop group GIVERS sang solid backup but did little to enhance the show.
Maedgen, a one-man whirlwind who plays keyboards with one hand while slinging a juicy sax in the other, celebrated NOLA’s post-Katrina survivalist spirit after intermission with a silky smooth Preservation Hall Jazz Band encore showcasing its modernist flip side. He hypnotized with raspy, tinny, bluesman vocals channeling Tom Waits. But MC Ronnie Numbers, a winking clown whose real name is Ron Rona and whose day job is Managing Director at Preservation Hall, kept warning it would be a long evening and that the show lasted seven hours. That rang true. Despite the second-line-inspired Young Fellaz Brass Band’s ear-piercing phreshness, the second half got bogged down by an actual round of bingo.
Bingo may work in a club among drunkards, but not at the epicenter of cultural class. Rona did manage to parlay an intimate vibe in the cavernous space, as three potential winners from the expensive seats were collared, and two women were pitted amusingly in a robot dance-off. But by then the voodoo spell had worn off, and the crowd was ready for a round of Hurricanes as it spilled into the Millennium Stage’s grand foyer and partied with Big Sam’s Funky Nation past 1 AM.
Running Time: About 3 hours, with a 15-minute intermission, plus a 2-hour after-party.
The New Orleans Bingo! Show played for one-night only on April 13, 2013 at The Kennedy Center – 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC. For info on “Music of New Orleans” free events at the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage through April 24th, check the online schedule.