“Where are you going with that smile on your face?” “I’m going to the international circus of Jazz Fest, where I will hear all the possible permutations of the spirit of Professor Longhair. I’m going to hear the music of Fats Domino, of Ernie K-Doe, Allen Toussaint, Eddie Bo, Earl King, Tootie Montana, Clifton Chenier, Boozoo Chavis, Bo Dollis and especially the newest soul released, Charles Neville. Because the secret in New Orleans is that when you die you don’t go to heaven, you go to Jazz Fest forever.”—John Swenson
Jazz Fest is often defined by events that are not listed in the cubes. Many times it’s the weather that takes control. The last three Fests have had to contend with serious rainfall and lightning, enough to cancel some of the music. Then there are the times when spirits pass, sending their message through the music itself. Who can forget Jazz Fest 2007, when Alvin Batiste passed the night before his scheduled Jazz Tent performance and a tearful tribute was delivered by his musician relatives and students?
Then of course came 2016, when Prince died just before Jazz Fest and everyone from the Deslondes to Janelle Monáe paid musical tribute.
This year we had gorgeous weather leading up to Jazz Fest and the party was already in full swing Thursday morning as the Radiators were presented with this year’s USPS Postal Cachet and played a mini-set to a packed house at the Jazz Fest headquarters on North Rampart Street. The mood changed shortly thereafter as word hit the street that saxophonist Charles Neville of the celebrated musical family had passed. Fats Domino’s death was still resonating with one full-out musical tribute scheduled at the Fest and several unofficial ones in the offing, but you sensed that Charles’ spirit, which was so ingrained in Jazz Fest history, would somehow make its mark on this year’s renewal.
The Neville Brothers ruled the New Orleans music scene in the 1980s and 1990s, with festival-closing sets every year until the group gradually dissolved into numerous individual projects. Charles was seldom the center of attention in the Nevilles, but his magnificent saxophone solos and shrewd colorations were an essential part of the group’s sound. He also brought an overriding spiritual presence to the band. He was deeply involved in Eastern meditation as well as Native American spirituality. Charles’ magnificent vibe shimmered across this year’s gathering, especially during Aaron Neville’s set because Charles was Neville’s saxophonist on so many signature tunes, and younger brother Cyril Neville’s set. The surprise came during Trombone Shorty’s Fest-closing performance, when he brought up several Neville family members to pay tribute to Charles.
The first reference I heard, though, came the night before the Fest began. At a crawfish boil just off of Bayou St. John Thursday night, Ed Volker’s Trio Mollusc played a version of the gospel traditional “Ain’t No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down,” and Volker dedicated it to Charles Neville.—John Swenson
Opening Friday was perfect weather, sunny with low humidity and a light breeze, and the crowd was in a low-key but joyous mood. Michael Skinkus (a member of Trio Mollusc) and his band Moyuba opened up a Haitian-influenced invocation of the Orisha spirits at the Lagniappe stage to dedicate the festival. The terrific band is built around rhythms from Skinkus’ elaborate bata drum setup with great accompaniment from Sam Price on bass, Gabriel Velasco on percussion and Brent Rose on sax and flute. The wonderful singers sang and chanted the Orishas down, included a new piece written for the god of the wind. Sula Janet Evans-Mshakamari, Andaiye Alimayu and Margie Perez had the breakfast crowd dancing in front of the stage.—John Swenson
Opening day at Jazz Fest, trumpeter-composer Mark Braud told his Economy Hall audience they’d be hearing mostly original music. Of course, Economy Hall is Jazz Fest’s home for traditional New Orleans jazz. Braud and his compositions, steeped in jazz tradition as they are, fit the bill perfectly. That goes for his well-versed Jazz Giants band members, too.
Many of the songs Braud—a member of Harry Connick Jr.’s band and former leader of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band—and the Jazz Giants played are available on his new album, Living the Tradition. “You’re the One,” “I Should’ve Known” and other selections capture the joyful spirit of traditional jazz from New Orleans. The presence of drummer Herlin Riley, trombonist Freddie Lonzo and clarinetist Tim Laughlin, all local music experts, further ensured authenticity. Their performances plus Braud’s born-in-the-tradition trumpet playing made that familiar musical structure—statement of the theme followed by solos all around—engagingly fresh.—John Wirt
Trumpeter Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah was center stage most of the set with alto saxophonist Logan Richardson often at work by his side. The two egged each other on as they traded bars, which was a bit reminiscent of when, years ago, Adjuah played regularly with his uncle, alto saxist Donald Harrison Jr. Some hard bop was goin’ down enhanced by the rhythmic conversation between drummer Corey Fonville and djembe master Weedie Braimah, who is the nephew of the late great New Orleans drummer Idris Muhammad. The solid ensemble got down on Adjuah’s “The Last Chieftain.”
Nicholas Payton is always up to something new. Nonetheless, the trumpeter turned some heads—blew some minds—as he led his band at Jazz Fest that included a trio of female vocalists, Jolynda Phillips, Robin Barnes and Yolanda Robinson. Payton tends to like to work with two drummers and for this set went with Joe Dyson, with whom he’s played and recorded before, and the young NOCCA graduate Brian Richburg. Payton, who played both trumpet and keys and sang, surprisingly didn’t present tunes from his latest, fine album, Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, but all new material. One was hilariously called “Nicholas Payton” and another named “The Duke of George” in honor of pianist George Duke.
To open his set, Terence Blanchard blew his trumpet as if announcing his arrival, or like Joshua blowing down the walls of Jericho. The persistent drum of Oscar Seaton and a demanding piano encouraged his crying out on his instrument that, for a time, he accomplished from a bent over, squatting position. Blanchard and the E-Collective presented a number of tunes from his new album, Live, and particularly engaged the crowd with the melodic “Unchanged.”—Geraldine Wyckoff
There’s no way to not hear the similarity between Lukas Nelson, 29, and his 85-year-old father, Willie Nelson. Their singing shares a dry, high, nasal whine and an understated yet deeply earnest delivery. Judging from the younger Nelson’s well-attended Jazz Fest set on the Gentilly Stage during the festival’s first Friday, he’s also an accomplished songwriter and totally at home on stage. A fluent lead guitarist, too, although he prefers an electric instrument rather than an acoustic nylon-stringed model of the kind his dad plays.
Nelson also has a knack for narrative. In “Forget About Georgia,” he sang a poignant true story about a soul-shaking lover who got away. Her name was Georgia. “We made love for the first time in a hotel in New Orleans,” Nelson improvised at Jazz Fest. And after he and Georgia parted, much to the wounded Nelson’s regret, he had to listen to his father sing “Georgia on My Mind” every night on stage during their tours together. At Jazz Fest, Nelson made that haunting pain hurt so good.—John Wirt
Big Freedia is looking more and more like Queen Bey these days, and not only because of the long blonde tresses. With her own form of media domination and wildly energetic stage choreography that had half the field in front of the Congo Square Stage shaking its own booty, the Queen Diva was resplendent in gold lamé, working (and twerking) the beats between disco air horns and samples of everything from Michael Jackson to, yes, Beyoncé’s “Formation.” The biggest local name at the Congo Square Stage (hey, Khalid is from Texas), Big Freedia kept the volume and pace ramped up, as if to prove that she’s ready for her first-ever label release—an album due in June. When you can get a truly mixed crowd up and cheering along to “Azz Everywhere,” you know you’re royalty.—Clea Simon
Archie Shepp on Lee Morgan
Saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp, best known for his seminal protest albums, Attica Blues and The Cry of My People, stopped by the Allison Miner stage before his Jazz Tent performance for an interview with jazz writer Ashley Kahn. Virtually every answer he gave contextualized his own experience in a larger framework of African-American history (even before his decades-long tenure as a university music professor, he was researching African music and cultural traditions and incorporating them into his early work as a leader).
Asked to share a “snapshot” of growing up in Philadelphia in the ’50s, he began by noting he was born in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, then gave a brief lesson on how and why “the North of the United States, as far as black people are concerned, is very much an accumulation of the South,” so “the source of that music is really the South.” The roots of the blues that came out of Mississippi, Shepp said, technically originated further east, where slaves were first taken before the country expanded westward.
“These places preserved the blues and the blues evolved in the context of the migration of blacks from the East Coast to the Midwest, to Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas…” he explained. “I grew up with the blues and I was very fortunate. My father was a banjo player. I think the blues was the first music that I really could associate with.”
After the nutshell music history lesson, he gave Kahn the Philadelphia snapshot he’d asked for:
“I remember when I met Lee Morgan I was living in Philadelphia, we were both very young men. I was a little older but he was very accomplished—a brilliant trumpet player even at the age of 15. I was about 16 and I asked him to help me with my instrument. And I remember he invited me to his home and he asked me to play something for him and the only jazz performer I knew at the time was Stan Getz. So I tried to play something that I’d heard Stan play on the radio, ‘How High the Moon,’ and I tried to play it like Stan. [Morgan] seemed to be a little amused by my effort. And then I tried something else which seemed to be even more amusing, so finally he said, ‘Let’s play the blues.’ Well, I’d learned the blues from my father. I could sing the blues, I didn’t really need chord changes. I was hoping I could feel. So we made a little jam session and I played the blues. And when we finished, he seemed a bit amazed. And he said, ‘Man. Don’t ever change.’”—Jennifer Odell
Grateful for the Gospel Tent
Seasoned Festers know that the tent with the most energy is the Gospel Tent. I’d planned to go later in the day, but it sucked me in as soon as I walked through the gate. Pastor Tyrone Jefferson of the Abundant Life Tabernacle church was going full blast with a choir of over 50 red-and-white clad, tambourine-shaking, fired up young people. He was in the midst of a back and forth between the crowd and the choir repeating over and over, “I’m grateful! Are you grateful?” The crowd shouted and cheered. The choir sang the words over and over. “I’m grateful! I’m grateful!” Unfortunately I had to move on before the end of the set, but I heard later that at the end the crowd rushed the stage.—Stacey Leigh Bridewell
My main destination for the day was Congo Square, which boasted to my mind the strongest combination of music. But the much-anticipated Batiste Fathers & Sons was nearly derailed by the inexplicably bad sound. Patriarch David Batiste came out and reminded the crowd that the band was in the Louisiana Music Hall of Fame as the Gladiators, but when he tried to play his portable keyboard nothing happened and he wandered offstage. MC Russell Batiste did his best to rally the troops, getting the crowd to engage in a call-and-response of “Where y’at?”/ “New Orleans” but when the sound is that bad things just can’t take off. Speaking of which, multiple flyovers by jet planes were visually impressive but very distracting to the music. Meanwhile Givers were more than holding their own on the Acura stage. At the Jazz Tent Cuban conguero Alexey Martin played an impressive set.
Time for a Cuban sandwich at Canseco’s before the great Donald Harrison at Congo Square. Sound problems continued but Harrison, resplendent in his white suit, used what he had and led his jazz quintet through 40 minutes of beautiful R&B-influenced jazz and funk led by his ever-impressive alto saxophone work. Harrison proved adept on vocals, getting the crowd to sing with him on “Ain’t No Party Like a New Orleans Party.” A version of “Cissy Strut” was followed by Harrison taking a “Jazz Fest selfie.” Then came the finale.
“We’re gonna make Mardi Gras in April,” Harrison exclaimed as six full-suited Indians paraded onto the stage and the band kicked into “Iko Iko,” followed by “Hey Pocky Way.” Master percussionist Bill Summers really took over this section musically.—John Swenson
Though the crowd on day two felt a little light it was packed solid at the Acura Stage—Rod Stewart turned out to be quite a draw for this audience, and Bonnie Raitt, with her dynamic, Jon Cleary–led band, was worth headliner status in her own right. But the main attraction for a lot of people Saturday was the Fats Domino tribute. Fats graces this year’s great poster and one of the best T-shirts Jazz Fest has produced in a while, and the musical tribute lived up to expectations. There was a little something for everyone in this revue-style presentation—old-school turns by Deacon John and Irma Thomas, a showcase for Fats protégé Davell Crawford, millennial content with The Late Show’s Jonathan Batiste, Fats doppelganger Al “Lil’ Fats” Jackson and the Raitt-Cleary show.
Most importantly, this tribute was organized around the man behind the scenes, Dave Bartholomew, who co-wrote much of Fats’ material, built the band that defined his sound and produced the records. The band was magnificent, and everything rolled behind the continuous theme of one of its more memorable creations, “It Ain’t My Fault.” Hearing Roger Lewis on baritone in the Herb Hardesty chair sent chills up my spine. When Lewis played Hardesty’s solo note for note on the first “Blue Monday” solo behind Jackson he could have cracked open the sky.
The talented Batiste veered furthest away from doctrinal R&B with a melodica solo (the sound man blew the cue on this one and Batiste was playing dead air for the first chorus) on “I Want to Walk You Home” and a James Booker–esque classical introduction to “Ain’t That a Shame” that may well have left Fats scratching his head.
If you think Raitt was an odd choice for a Fats tribute, think again. After taking the stage and name-checking the late Charles Neville, Raitt charged into “I’m In Love Again,” which turned into a medley with Cleary singing “All By Myself.” Their call-and-response version of these two classics was a brilliant piece of arranging worthy of Bartholomew and one of the highlights of the show.
Jackson, looking uncannily like Fats himself as he hunched over the piano in a yellow jacket with blue chalk stripes and navy blue slacks, brought it on home with a cry of “Long live Mister Domino!” and a second line version of “Saints.” During the wonderful extended coda Deacon John return to the stage cakewalking and waving a handkerchief. If that didn’t put a smile on your face, god bless you.—John Swenson
What a very pleasant surprise to see New Orleans’ own Mem Shannon added on the Blues Tent schedule—yeah, he was a substitute but he should have been there in the first place. He quipped, “I had other plans this morning…” Shannon is a true original blues man with a style all of his own. The lyrics of his wonderful, self-penned tunes tell a story and he delivers them in his unique voice and often with a little smirk on his face. Similarly, his guitar work remains at once innovative, modern and down-home.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Take Me to Your Planet
“Let’s go to the Congolese jungle,” vocalist and percussionist Jupiter Bokondji exuberantly suggested while leading his band Okwess at the Congo Square Stage for the first of three performances at the Fest. Now this group that blends its African roots with modern styles and instrumentation had fun every time they played—they messed with each other much like New Orleans musicians tend to do. The crowd really had a blast with them at the smaller, more intimate and dance-friendly Jazz & Heritage Stage and the Cultural Pavilion where they performed on Saturday. Jupiter is one compelling character and his band full of singers were on his space ship all the way.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Belgian-born cellist Helen Gillet has made a name for herself as the consummate collaborator, bringing her cello, tape loops and effects into pairings with Skerik, Nikki Glaspie, Animal Collective and a score of others recently. But her own music contains multitudes, and that made her Lagniappe Stage solo appearance on Sunday, April 28, particularly welcome. Celebrating the release of her new Helkiase, she presented newer songs, such as her lyrical tribute to the legendary New Orleans bassist “Slow Drag Pavageau” (finally recorded). But Gillet’s genius includes her reworked covers, and a particularly ferocious version of X-Ray Spex’ “I Live Off You” should qualify the cello as a punk staple, while her wonderfully eerie take on PJ Harvey’s “Angelene” will haunt many a Fest goer, as it should: Such live performances—even with some feedback problems that didn’t seem to faze the tech-savvy musician—serve as a tonic in other ways, as well. On record, with songs like “Angelene” or 2012’s moody, mournful “Julien,” Gillet sounds haunted, a creature of beautiful introspection and despair. Live, with fans doing “interpretive” dancing before the stage, she’s a hoot: a one-woman party as well as a solo genius.—Clea Simon
As for Sanchez, his musical revue the Rolling Road Show on the Gentilly Stage Thursday featured guest turns from Alex McMurray, Ray Ganucheau, Debbie Davis, Jim McCormick, Sonia Tetlow and Craig Klein, who paid tribute to the departed New Orleans legend Mr. Okra. Sanchez himself sang his signature tune “Hurricane Party,” the wonderful “Life Is a Ride,” and “Love Is Blind,” which was supposed to include special guest Shamarr Allen playing trumpet. This time Shamarr’s super hero power of showing up in the nick of time failed him. “If anyone sees Shamarr Allen, tell him I said hello,” said Sanchez. Sanchez finished his fast-paced set with a great version of “At the Foot of Canal Street.”—John Swenson
Paul Sanchez remains the most generous man at Jazz Fest: His Rolling Road Show sets regularly throw the spotlight to various friends and colleagues, though this year he got a half-dozen of his own numbers in (including the new “Talking Spanish,” one of the best rockers in his catalogue). Guests this year included Debbie Davis, who helped him get properly torchy on Dire Straits’ “Romeo & Juliet,” and Sonia Tetlow, whose song “Mr. Okra” (written while the man was still with us) was an appreciated tribute. The Road Show this year included two of the original Continental Drifters, bassist Ray Ganucheau and drummer Carlo Nuccio, so the sound and spirit of that band was revisited with “The Mississippi.” Another Drifters fix came later in the afternoon when two other alums, Susan Cowsill and Russ Broussard, played “The Rain Song.”—Brett Milano
This Is Rock ’n’ Roll
Over at Economy Hall, Aurora Nealand was raising the roof with her Royal Roses. The clarinetist/vocalist really stands out among the young crop of musicians playing traditional jazz in that her band plays this music with the feel and intent of the masters rather than punk-era musicians who like the sound of the old tunes. Good thing Nealand had her sneakers on because she had to run to the Lagniappe Stage to take part in the ridiculously intense set from the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars. All played at breakneck speeds with two drummers (Stanton Moore and Doug Garrison), insane bass playing from Joe Cabral, Glenn Hartman’s accordion and organ, Jonathan Freilich chopping away on guitar and an unbelievably great front line of Nealand on clarinet with Dan Oestreicher on baritone, Ben Ellman on tenor and special guest Steve Bernstein on trumpet and slide trumpet. After a particularly raucous version of “Mazel Tov Cocktail,” Freilich exclaimed, “This is rock ’n’ roll.”—John Swenson
Next up on the Lagniappe Stage, Garrison stayed in place and Cabral switched to tenor sax for Ed Volker and Los Reyes de Legardo, Volker’s Iguanas-backed unit that had previously only performed for MOMs Ball gatherings.
Volker had a surprise for the crowd as he opened the show with his own tribute to Fats Domino, a version of “Walking to New Orleans” that evolved into a jam with Volker chanting “Talkin’ ’bout the Fat Man,” then bringing it on home with the refrain “Blue, blue, blue, blue Monday.”
After “Dancing On the Grave of a Son of a Bitch,” “It’s Only Good When It Hurts” and “Knocked Out Loaded” Volker announced, “The MOMs people don’t usually let us get out like this,” then launched into “Go Down Swinging,” with guitarist Rod Hodges playing some mean slide. The MC said goodbye but the crowd wouldn’t let them go, so Volker took a rare Jazz Fest encore with “Coup De Grace.” Freilich plugged in and started to warm up into his guitar solo when the MC cut them off. And the Lizard King returned to its lair… until next time.—John Swenson
Some of the best moments at the Fest came at the Allison Miner Stage inside the grandstand, where Ben Sandmel curated an interesting array of interview/performances. (Full disclosure: I did one with the Radiators that was an awful lot of fun.) Scott Billington’s interview with Bobby Rush was sensational. Billington, who produced Rush’s Grammy-winning Porcupine Meat album, joined in on harp as Rush played guitar. “Jimmy Reed taught me everything I know,” said Rush, who then played “You Don’t Have to Go” Reed-style, showing how he adapted Reed’s approach to his own ends. It was a fascinating piece of hands-on musicology. Rush pointed out that the Beatles took “Come Together” from Jimmy Reed as well. Reed and Billington played a great harmonica duet on “Have You Ever Been Mistreated.”
The great musicians and historian Mark Stone had an educational exchange with vocalist Luther Kent, who noted that his big band was celebrating its fortieth year of existence. Kent reminisced about his time with Blood, Sweat & Tears and his early years hanging out at various clubs around the city. “In the 1950s and early ’60s the greatest music in the world was recorded right here,” said Kent. “It moved the whole world. I was hooked.” Kent sang a moving R&B version of “You Are My Sunshine” and finished with a rendition of “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?”—John Swenson
Accordions and Louisiana
It’s always the unexpected pleasure that makes Fest for me. We went to the Allison Miner Heritage Stage to hear Marc Savoy talk about accordions and Louisiana (and, okay, for the air conditioning), hoping that the Cajun revivalist would illustrate his history lessons with some tunes on one of his handmade diatonic instruments. (Accompanied by wife Ann on guitar, he complied.) And Corey Ledet, a Clifton Chenier disciple, was obviously going to be great as a zydeco/piano accordion counterweight. But with the music, these masters illustrated the history of the instrument—from its arrival in German Jewish dry goods shops to its local reinvention after World War II—and that was equally as fascinating. And excuse me for originally doubting the inclusion of Glenn Hartman in this Barry Ancelet-led discussion: The New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars player touched on the global reach of this relatively young (just hitting 200 years old) instrument with a few tasty numbers (including a particularly intricate Turkish tune that dates back to the 1400s), all while lamenting its current lack of respect. At the Miner Stage that lack was amply, and rightfully, remedied.—Clea Simon
Three of Charles Neville’s siblings (and his daughter Charmaine, who we unfortunately missed) played on the second weekend: Aaron, Cyril and Athelgra (one of the Dixie Cups). The latter two both paid tribute, with Cyril announcing upfront that “This whole set is bring brought to you by the spirit of Charles Neville.” But Aaron’s set went straight for the heartstrings, from its opening of “Bird on a Wire” to the closing “Amazing Grace.” Without speaking too many words Aaron kept his brother’s spirit present, drawing most of the set from the Neville Brothers’ songbook and keeping the mood a little somber (former Nevilles’ guitarist Eric Struthers subbed for the sax on “Yellow Moon”). Charles’ saxophone was displayed onstage, his smiling face was projected on the screens, and the whole band was wearing tie-dyed shirts that must have been his.—Brett Milano
Indians and brass bands at the Heritage Stage are no longer two distinct entities. The TBC brass band had Indians on stage during their set as they played “Sew Sew Sew”/”Hoo Na Ney” and of course Cha Wa mixes the two genres beautifully (see Geraldine Wyckoff’s piece on Cha Wa in the May issue of OffBeat.) Cha Wa co-leader J’Wan Boudreaux, Monk Boudreaux’s grandson, got a solo spot during Monk’s set with the Golden Eagles. Monk and the family were resplendent in their 2018 red Mardi Gras suits on a set that included Monk’s “Lightning and Thunder”/”Shallow Water” medley, “They Don’t Know,” “Dance With Me,” “Little Liza Jane,” “Indian Red,” “Sew Sew Sew,” “Meet the Boys On the Battlefront” and “Shotgun Joe.” The set was percussion heavy with the electric guitar playing mostly rhythm accents and keyboardist Tom Worrell playing to the drum rhythms with rumbling undercurrents and textures.—John Swenson
Dave and Tommy
Magnificent 7 lived up to its name—frontmen Dave and Tommy Malone are always a treat when they perform together, and they played their tribute to Earl King, “King Earl.” John Gros on keyboard and vocals was the perfect foil to the Malones, delivering a powerful version of his “Black Rider.”—John Swenson
There only exist two rock quintets who still play with their exact ’70s lineups: the Radiators and Aerosmith (Los Lobos are close, but they added their fifth member in the ’80s). And in all honesty, Aerosmith’s set could have used more of the freewheeling spirit that the Rads displayed in theirs. In their only scheduled 2018 show, Aerosmith emphasized their ’80s comeback years at the expense of their earlier, better material: I would have slotted “Back in the Saddle” in place of “Love in an Elevator,” “Draw the Line” in place of “Rag Doll,” and anything at all in place of “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing” (technically their biggest hit, but they didn’t write it and it gives their two guitarists almost nothing to do). I also would’ve axed the synthesizers and taped backing vocals that were way too loud in the mix throughout. Fortunately Aerosmith did include some of the real stuff, especially a tear through Fleetwood Mac’s “Oh Well” and their own barrelhouse rocker, “Adam’s Apple.” At those moments, their being at the Fest made a lot more sense.—Brett Milano
It was the best of Smokey, it was the worst of Smokey: Motown legend Smokey Robinson has been playing the exact same show for decades now, and the good news is that it includes a bunch of hits and some beautiful singing: He turned the ballads “Ooh Baby Baby,” “Quiet Storm” and “The Tracks of My Tears” into extended vocal showpieces that rightly brought the house down at a beyond-packed Congo Square. His many Motown stories were also a kick, especially if you haven’t seen the show before. But nearly 15 minutes’ worth of “Cruisin’”—including one of those “let’s see which parts of the audience can sing louder” deals—ate up time that could have gone to more from his mighty catalogue.—Brett Milano
Some people just know how to get the party rolling. Johnny Sansone and his quartet, with John Fohl on guitar, lifted the Blues Tent crowd into a frenzy on the final Sunday at 11:15 in the morning by opening with his anthem “OZ Radio” from his 2015 classic Lady On the Levee. Sansone thanked “All my sweet early birds out there” and played a couple of tracks from his new release Hopeland before bringing things to a fever pitch again with “The Lord Is Waiting and the Devil Is Too” and the galvanic finale “Once It Gets Started.” It was started all right. And it just kept on going.—John Swenson
Ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro’s appearances during Jazz Fest’s opening Friday delighted big crowds at the Fais Do-Do Stage and the Music Heritage Stage. Wait a minute. Can there really be such a thing as a ukulele virtuoso? Yes, and Shimabukuro, a native of Honolulu who’s been playing the diminutive four-stringed instrument since he was four, is its best-known contemporary proponent.
Accompanied by bassist Nolan Verner and guitarist Dave Preston, Shimabukuro opened with the Zombies’ 1960s classic, “Time of the Season.” He’s made a specialty of applying his signature melody-and-strum technique to ’60s and ’70s classics. His Jazz Fest set also featured the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Jimi Hendrix’s “If 6 Was 9” and “Little Wing” and, the song that made him famous a dozen years ago via YouTube, George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.” Shimabukuro hooks listeners with delicately whispered introductions that build into grand finales. His mastery of the ukulele never fails to surprise and astound.—John Wirt
Jon Batiste bounded out onto the Gentilly Stage as the frontman for the Dap-Kings displaying the same energy he expresses weekly as the leader of his group Stay Human on the television program, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. At first Batiste just gave it his all rockin’ it as a soul singer in remembrance of the Dap-Kings’ dynamic lead vocalist, the late Sharon Jones. A man in motion and a musician of great versatility, Batiste danced all over the stage before heading to the piano. Naturally, he paid tribute to Fats Domino, whose image graces the top of that proscenium, and did a solid version of “Ain’t That a Shame.”—Geraldine Wyckoff
Lionel Richie’s set included one of the only power failures I’ve ever witnessed at Jazz Fest, about five minutes during which the stage sound cut out entirely. Fortunately the man’s a pro, and it didn’t take long to recover. Greatest-hits sets are always better when the artist is clearly enjoying the ride, which was the case here: Before one of his many bedroom ballads, he noted that “This song either got you married, got you engaged, or got your ass in trouble.” And “Dancing On the Ceiling,” lasers and all, reveled so much in ’80s nostalgia that it was tough to resist.—Brett Milano
There are many good things you can call George Porter Jr.’s music—most of them variations on “funky”—but this year’s set with the Runnin’ Pardners was surprisingly emotional as well. Before the understated memorial song “Talkin’ Bout My Old Friends” he noted that it was his first Jazz Fest since his wife’s passing; later he laid down some tough wisdom on the song “Careful Who You Idolize.” The set also marked a farewell to guitarist Brint Anderson—who’s leaving the band after 25 years to start a restaurant [see feature in next month’s issue]—and previewed his next project, an album of collaborations with female singers. Two of that lineup, Susan Cowsill and Mia Borders, made strong vocal turns in his set.—Brett Milano
As the heyday of classic New Orleans R&B moves further into history, the traditional “Classic R&B Revue” set at Jazz Fest is even more to be treasured. It’s still worth taking every chance to hear Al Johnson do “Carnival Time” or the Dixie Cups do “Chapel of Love” (though the latter group could have done one of their other hits—“Iko Iko” or “People Say”—instead of “God Bless America”). Though he’s now largely retired, Clarence “Frogman” Henry still has the same voice that lit up “But I Do” and “Ain’t Got No Home”—the latter of course with the frog and female imitations—and his performance of those songs was the definition of joie de vivre.—Brett Milano
Jazz Fest can take the measure of the hardiest of us but that doesn’t mean we stop altogether. Wednesday night before the second weekend began the Radiators played a spectacular set at Tipitina’s front-loaded with songs from their great new record Welcome to the Monkey House. The performance level was the highest I’ve heard from this band in years—it felt more like 1988 than 2018. Apparently the pace took its toll on the band’s hardworking frontman Dave Malone, who needed medical attention after the gig. But Malone bounced back and will no doubt enjoy his rest after Sunday’s great set on the Gentilly Stage, which finished with a rousing “Can’t Take It With You When You Go.”—John Swenson
Later that day Paul Sanchez popped up during Susan Cowsill’s set at the Lagniappe Stage to sing during Cowsill’s memorable love song, “The Rain Song.” Another highlight of the show was the exhilarating “Just Believe It.” Cowsill, who has performed a series of shows reviving classics from the 1960s and 1970s, sang several inspired covers—Carole King’s “I Feel the Earth Move,” Neil Young’s “Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere” and a wild, set-closing version of Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets.”
Speaking of covers, one of the big surprises of this year’s Fest was Jamaican Me Breakfast Club, which had to be heard to be believed. Fronted by Rueben Williams, with a three-voice female vocal chorus and a full-tilt reggae band, the band played surprisingly apt versions of tunes like the Thompson Twins’ “Let Loving Start,” Blondie’s “Call Me” and Billy Idol’s “White Wedding.”—John Swenson
George Porter Jr.
At his mid-afternoon set on the Gentilly Stage during the last day of Jazz Fest, George Porter Jr. said farewells—a 2018 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award winner with his fellow Meters, the master of the funky bass bid adieu to his longtime guitarist, Brint Anderson. After 25 years as a Runnin’ Pardner, Anderson has returned to his hometown, Natchez, Mississippi, to play music and operate a food truck business there. Porter also—in his introduction to an emotional performance of “Talkin’ ’Bout My Old Friends”—acknowledged the death of his wife, Aralean, in November and Charles Neville’s passing in April.
The recent partings didn’t stop Porter and the Runnin’ Pardners from delivering another of their wide-ranging sets. Special guests Susan Cowsill and Mia Borders also showed up to sing songs that will appear on a forthcoming Porter album. That intriguing collection of collaborations with female singer-songwriters—not to mention everything else Porter does—is something to look forward to.—John Wirt
A surviving figure from the classic rhythm-and-blues New Orleans scene, Walter Wolfman Washington, 74, looked dapper as ever on the Congo Square Stage during the festival’s warm final Sunday. Seated centerstage on a tall stool, Washington and his band rolled through nine songs that surveyed his nearly 60 years of R&B and funk history.
Anti- Records, the Los Angeles label that’s released albums by legacy artists Mavis Staples, Tom Waits and Solomon Burke, recently issued Washington’s new album, My Future is My Past. Because the elegant intimacy of My Future is My Past is more suitable for late-night reflection than a sunny Jazz Fest afternoon, Washington opened his 2018 Festival set with one of his standards, the blues-infused funk-and-soul song, “I’m Tiptoeing Through.” He mostly kept the show’s tempo up, ending with one of his signature howls and a humorous song he’s been doing for decades, Johnny “Guitar” Watson’s “You Can Stay but the Noise Must Go.”—John Wirt
Reggae Got Soul
It’s always obvious how much the Jazz Fest audience at the Congo Square Stage loves its reggae music. It just feels right in the peace, love and happiness atmosphere that prevail at the Fair Grounds. Of course, along with its sway, reggae delivers a socially conscious—and often protest—message and few do it better than Toots & the Maytals, who got right to it with hit tunes like “Pressure Drop” and “Time Tough,” the themes of which remain relevant today. Toots (Hibbert) strapped on his guitar for “I’ll Never Grow Old” and got lively on “Funky Kingston” and “Sweet & Dandy,” with the crowd singing along.
What was cool about Steel Pulse, which despite changes in membership over the decades always sounds like, well, uniquely Steel Pulse, is that it includes a horn section in the band. Too often, in reggae groups and other styles too, horns have been replaced by keyboards to—trying to—mimic their sounds.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews is a class act. He displayed that attribute once again at Jazz Fest when, in tribute to the recently departed saxophonist Charles Neville, he invited Charles’ brother, vocalist/percussionist Cyril Neville, and the nephews of the “horn man,” keyboardist/vocalist Ivan and guitarist Ian Neville, to join him and his band, Orleans Avenue, on the Acura Stage for his closing act of the Festival. As Andrews was very much aware, it was a time slot and venue that Charles as a member of the Neville Brothers had performed many times. It was moving yet fun to hear the combined ensemble do “No More Okey Doke” and “Fire on the Bayou.”—Geraldine Wyckoff
Web-only Jazz Fest Redux:
Acura Stage Early
Some people avoid the Acura Stage at all costs as they envision the entire area as perpetually too crowded for words. However, early in the day that reputation doesn’t hold up. The large proscenium allows fully loaded bands like the one led by keyboardist and vocalist Nigel Hall that included drummer/singer Jamison Ross, Shea Pierre on organ plus back-up vocalists, to spread out. Hall, who began the set with his hit, “Gimme a Sign,” grew up in the church and paced the expanse of space of the stage much like a preacher might do when rallying a congregation. In honor of Fats Domino, the repertoire included “Blueberry Hill.” Just a note: Since instituting the “no chairs” zone, the Acura Stage is often very approachable except in extreme cases.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Glen David Andrews
When you see in the cubes that Glen David Andrews is playing the Gospel Tent with the Treme Choir, go. Glen David has become known for two things: his powerful stage presence and his rocky past. When you combine those two elements, you’re sure to get the kind of performance people are gonna talk about—especially when it comes to gospel. Glen David came out wearing a T-shirt that said “I (heart-shape) N.O.” He wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room. In fact, he punched that elephant in the face. “God has been so good to me,” he called out as he paced the stage. “That was yesterday. Let the haters hate, that’s what they’re good at. I’m here to praise God, not to impress anybody.” From there the band struck up a funky version of “I’ll Fly Away.” The backup singers he brought were absolutely incredible. Eventually Glen David went down into the audience, which by that point had been whipped into a frenzy. They were cheering and clapping and singing along. After a loop of the room, he returned to the stage and called out his star guest: Grammy-winning drummer and vocalist Jamison Ross. They sang “Surrender” as a duet, which eventually bled into “Amazing Grace” followed by a version of “Didn’t It Rain” dedicated to Mahalia Jackson. Each song was filled with vocal fireworks from Andrews, Ross and the backup singers. Jamison is as gifted a vocalist as he is a drummer and Glen David proved once again that he has the power to bring down the house.—Stacey Leigh Bridewell
India Meets Nola
The Lagniappe Stage is one of my favorites because it’s sheltered from the chaos, it’s shaded, and they have oysters! I also like it because you get to see unique, smaller acts in an intimate setting. I settled in on Friday afternoon, weekend two, for JIVA-NOLA. They’re a group that blends Indian, New Orleans, bhangra, trip-hop, jazz and progressive rock elements to create a dreamy, percussive new style. The magical Mehnaz Hoosein-Dear sang in classical Indian style and was wrapped in brightly colored silks. Andrew McLean played electric sitar and traditional Indian drums called tablas. They also had Ethan Stern on keys, James Killeen on bass, Matthew Blaze on tabla and bass, and Tom Chute playing samples and drum machine. The result of this blend is like a high-stakes juggling act. There were so many complex rhythms crossing and interacting with each other that it felt as if at any minute they’d all crash into each other, but the performers pulled it off and seemed natural doing it. At one point they all came together on the stage and built a song from the ground up. First they got the audience to clap an Indian rhythm pattern. Then the band clapped a different rhythm on top of that. Next, Mehnaz started doing tabla bols, which is a lighting-quick vocal rap meant to mimic the sound of the tabla drum. Eventually the other band members went back to their instruments and started layering with them and just like that, everyone in the Lagniappe tent was making music together.—Stacey Leigh Bridewell
Baby’s On Fire
Weirdest cover heard on the fairgrounds: by some distance, Feufollet’s version of Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire.” It works remarkably well as a Cajun stomp, despite the lyrics being quite a few light years from the norm. True enough that the song, originally released in 1973, is probably older than a few Cajun standards, but Eno would have loved seeing this crowd with no idea what it was dancing to.—Brett Milano
The ladies of the Shake ’Em Up Jazz Band packed the Economy Hall Tent on Friday May 4. They favored the audience with tunes from their first and newly released second albums, which the audience received with enthusiasm. The band started off with “Dusty Rag” to get things going, then Marla Dixon stood up and laid into “Root Hog, or Die.” If you’ve ever questioned whether women can swing hard, you’d have your answer if you were there because mid-song the bridge of Julie Schexnayder’s bass collapsed! The audience gasped and she dashed off stage where for a replacement bass. The rest of the band kept right on without missing a beat. Pun intended. She was back onstage by the end of the song and the crowd went wild. From there on out they had the audience in the palms of their hands. Chloe sang a dirty “Sugar Blues,” Molly did a tender “The Love I Have for You,” and Marla did the calypso classic “Shame and Scandal in the Family.” Their close harmony version of the Boswell Sisters’ “Puttin’ It on” was a favorite with the audience. It’s a shame they only play a few gigs here and there around town and abroad. Catch them if you ever get the chance.—Stacey Leigh Bridewell
During Jazz Fest’s final Sunday, Motown star Smokey Robinson needed more time to do the beautiful things he does. In his one-hour, ten-minute set, the singer and/or composer of “My Girl,” “Cruisin’,” “Tears of a Clown,” “The Tracks of My Tears” and “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” merely scratched the shell of the hits he crafted for himself, Mary Wells, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye and more. His overflowing audience also needed more space on the festival grounds.
“I can’t even tell you how excited we are to be at Jazz Fest!” Robinson enthused after a swoon-inducing “Ooo Baby Baby,” his 1965 hit with the Miracles. Condensing some classics into medleys helped the still silky-voiced, 78-year-old singer touch upon a trio of hits by the Temptations, “Get Ready,” “My Girl” and “The Way You Do the Things You Do.” He ended with a marathon performance of his post-Miracles 1979 solo hit, “Cruisin’.” Ladies in the audience, saying “Go, Smokey,” expressed their approval.—John Wirt
Saxophonist Edward “Kidd” Jordan was surrounded by family and longtime musical associates for an excellent exploration of creative music. His son, flautist Kent Jordan, offered Kidd another intuitive artist who he could swirl his visions around. His younger son, trumpeter Marlon, played a supportive role with the Improvisational Arts Quintet that included the ferocious pianist Joel Futterman, New York bassist William Parker, who came down especially for this gig, and the one-of-a-kind drummer Alvin Fielder. When he wasn’t blowing, Kidd sat on a stool center stage listening attentively. When it was time to blow, the fiery saxophonist would be up on his toes with the pure excitement of the music.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Holy Ghost Power
The Rocks of Harmony carries its own band so everyone knows where and when to get going and when to let the front man, the preacher of sorts, take it on. On tunes like “Holy Ghost Power,” that means testifying at the front of the stage and, joined by other members of the group, dancing, jumping and spinning with joy. “(It Will Be) By the Grace of God that I’ll Be Here,” was the Rocks’ final song. With the vocalist looking forward to returning to the festival next year, it was a sentiment that was shared by those witnessing the Rocks of Harmony’s inspiring set.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Ooh Na Nay
Chief Howard Miller led the Uptown Mardi Gras Indian rhythm section, which included members of other Indian gangs, several from Big Chief Monk Boudreaux’s Golden Eagles who were masked, plus a full backup group playing various percussion instruments. Early in the set, Chief Howard, who is most commonly associated with the Creole Wild West, reverently remembered saxophonist Charles Neville, who passed on April 13, 2018 and performed with the Wild Tchoupitoulas when led by his uncle, Chief Jolly. Later, Chief Howard, unlike some sterner Black Indians, sang with a hint of a smile on his face, “I am a warrior, I am a ruler.” When the group did the traditional “Ooh Na Nay,” the chief called out the names of Downtown gangs like the Flaming Arrows, Fi Yi Yi and the Yellow Pocahontas.—Geraldine Wyckoff