I make this point fiercely and freshly every year: Arts & Ideas is a FESTIVAL. It’s best appreciated as an overwhelming mass of culture, some of which is familiar to you and some of which isn’t. If you don’t investigate the mysteries, and accept the context, you’re missing out.
Aaron Neville merely playing in New Haven isn’t what the Arts & Ideas festival is all about. Aaron Neville giving an afternoon talk about music and community, THEN playing on a New Haven Green strewn with circus tents and other crazy structures, family activities and food vendors not to mention tens of thousands of people who’ve come downtown to do many other things besides see a concert… that’s closer to what it’s all about. It’s a festival feel. It’s a festival mentality.
So, great start. One of my daughters was the very first to gain a building permit from “Box City,” a family activity which lets you decorate a box as a residence or business, then follow (admittedly liberal) zoning codes about where it can be placed in the sprawling tentbound cityscape. My other daughter, who’s 11, attended a workshop production of a new musical, The Last Queen of Canaan, which the Arts & Ideas festival was presenting in league with the Yale Institute of Music Theater. That show (which, since it’s a workshop, I am obliged not to critique) showed how unorthodox the offerings at A&I can be, since its lead character was a 76-year-old African-American emancipated slave woman. Both YIMT shows nearly filled Yale's Off Broadway Theater with curious and supportive musical theater fans
But the largest crowd on Day One, obviously, was for Aaron Neville on New Haven Green.
It's not a surprise to hear Aaron Neville doing oldies—his new album is doo wop- themed. He opened with "Stand By Me" and ran through numerous other romantic pop standards from the '50s and '60s. The set had an old fashioned air to it already, with Neville's band doing instrumental numbers prior to the soul/R&B superstar appeared, and even in lengthy breaks while he was on stage. Great band, so no problem there. And you lived until you've heard tens of thousands of people shouting out the title word (and sole lyric line) of "Tequila."
But while nearly every number was a familiar chart topper of yore, one or two came from a, later era than the middle of the 20th century. Probably the most sensitive and soulful song of the night was Neville's take on Hall and Oates' "Sara Smile," which took the blue-eyed blonde-haired original and gave it texture and gravity.
The kickoff concert of the 18th annual International Festival of Arts & Ideas began with the Governors Arts Awards being bestowed upon poet Elizabeth Alexander, artist/ theorist/ writer Olu Oguibe and jazz saxophonist Jimmy Greene. The short ceremony, which hasn't been held in New Haven for many years--it was celebrated at the Shubert for a time in the early '90s- led into an introductory speech by Mayor John DeStefano, lot of thanking of sponsors, and then a lengthy all- star jazz set from saxophonist Jimmy Greene, pianist Kenny Barron, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Louis Nash. Greene threw some originals into the mix, including one he'd composed in honor of his daughter Anna.
Arts & Ideas has often been inconvenienced by rain, so there's always a special employment when skies agree clear. Following the torrential rains of the past few days, the skies seemed even brighter. The green was packed, and some of the structures which rose above the picknickers and lawnchair recliners served as great advertisements for the rest of this multifarious festival. There's the tent encompassing Box City, a family-fun urban planning project. There are the unusual architectural forms designed by Yale School of Architecture students as playscapes and info booths. Then there's towering circus tent inhabited by L'homme Cirque. Three permanent buildings on the Green-- the three churches, celebrating the bicentennial of when they all were built (give or take a couple of years for a couple of them)-- included themselves in the general festivities, passing poor cookies to passersby in the afternoon as the fest was just getting started.
Arts & Ideas takes Mondays off, though the festival-sponsored String Quartet truck (a flatbed on which the Haven String Quartet plays) will be roaming around town that day. For the full A&I sched see www.artidea.org.