Bo Dollis Made Me Cry

Apr 17, 2012 by

Bo Dollis Sr. - French Quarter Fest 2012After almost three years away from the Crescent City I had a very definite hit list of music I wanted to see at this year’s French Quarter Fest. Bingo,Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, The Help, The Tin Men, and at the top of the list The Wild Magnolias.

The Jazz Fest before we moved up to Ohio was a scary one for Mardi Gras Indians and their fans. You see, Bo Dollis Sr. had  heart attack the night before the Wild Magnolias were supposed to play. Despite having spent most of the night in the hospital he arrived on stage that day looking physically frail, but ready to belt out some tunes. It was the first time that I saw him sing sitting down, and it drove home to me how transitory our time with him truly is. This man who took the stage at the very first Jazz fest in 1970, who was named Chief in 1964, who has one of the most recognizable voices in NOLA music, is limited to the brief span of years allotted all men. It was a realization that our legends are mortal.

Then came almost three years in the frozen north. While my lovely wife was in grad school we were unable to make it down to NOLA more than once or twice, and once I came down with viral pneumonia and almost died. The whole time I wondered, as you tend to do when you’re from NOLA, whitch of my friends and favorite artists would still be alive upon our return. After that Jazz Fest I truly feared I might not ever see Bo Sr. perform again.

Flash forward to this last Sunday. Running late for their set we arrived at the tail end of it. Luckily we got there just in time for Bo to hit the stage. Supported and steadied by Indians he made his way up to the mic and leaned up against a bar stool, while the crowd roared it’s approval. While he was obviously frail and shaky the rightness in his eyes and smile lit up the stage.

One song. That’s what I got to see. One song where the entire crowd was pointing their fingers in the air shouting, “one more time!” One song that generated the largest outpouring of love from crowd to performer that I saw over the entire fest. One song that made me cry.

Seeing him on stage, sheer force of will trumping physical frailty so as not to let down his fans, cemented the feeling in my heart that I am finally home again. It Bo Dollis Sr. and the Wild Magnolias at French Quarter Fest 2012also showed me in a painful fashion, much like the recent death of Coco Robicheaux, that we cannot put off seeing our legends perform. Their time is limited and we are privileged to be here, right now, to see them. At one point in mid song I saw Bo clutch his chest and a look almost of pain crossed his face. At that moment I feared that I would see him pass right in front of my eyes just like Big Chief Tootie Montana did in the city council chambers mere months before Katrina. Within moments it became clear that this was not a heart attack, but a man overcome with emotion due to the outpouring of love being aimed in his direction. I breathed a heavy sigh of relief and screamed even louder.

Like so much of life in New Orleans this show was both uplifting and heartbreaking at the same time.

As his wife and son helped him off the stage you could see him leaning on them for support. It was obvious that he could not walk on his own, yet even so as they helped to hold him up during his exit I was able to see his feet. Even unable to stand unaided Bo Dollis was dancing with his feet as he left, those same steps that I’ve seen him make when covered in beads and feathers on Super Sunday. I can only hope I have a fraction of that life in me when I reach his age.

We are now in the era of Bo Dollis Jr.’s reign as Big Chief, something that will take some getting used to for me. I am confident that he will lead the Wild Magnolias to amazing things, but I wonder how it must feel to take on the mantle of his legendary father.

Bo Dollis Sr. and the Wild Magnolias at French Quarter Fest 2012


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