“Happy Fest” is a springtime greeting in New Orleans, our own kind of “Aloha.” People say it to start a conversation and again to depart. I heard this greeting a hundred times this festival season around town. I heard dog-walking neighbors say it during the week in the streets. Outside the Fair Grounds, street performers and Mid-City residents with packed porches and open doors shared it with the streams of people converging near the entrance. I heard it in cheers at logjams in the streams where people clogged around trays of jello shots. Inside the Fair Grounds I saw parties split ways saying “Happy Fest” as they went to different stages. It’s a greeting that comes commensurate with a smile.—Alex Johnson
Usually, we like to start our Fest with some Mardi Gras Indians. But on the opening Thursday, the Semolian Warriors weren’t scheduled until 12:30, and so Michael Skinkus and Moyuba won out. It was an auspicious start, with the New Orleanian-based troupe invoking the orishas in a respectful (and pointedly non-sacred, given their appearance on a racetrack paddock Lagniappe stage) fashion. Not that respect means dull. Although the troupe did succumb to the unnecessary revisionism of sax solos occasionally, the core of overlaid vocals and polyrhythmic Afro-Caribbean percussion shone through—making a grand opening both for the Semolians (who keep that pulsing bare-bones parade sound alive) and for the Cuban bands that graced this year’s Fest. These were a great and long overdue addition, and the various bands, which each played several sets, drove the lesson home. Take the Septeto Nacional Ignacio Piñeiro, for example. Even performing dance music, they knew to keep the brass sharp, tight, and in the back, behind the congas and the vocals, while the more basic lineup of Grupo Caury—again, vocals and percussion—evoked nearly as wild a response. When the rhythm is right, less is so much more.—Clea Simon
Hitting the Ground Running
On opening day of Jazz Fest 48 the hot and humid weather was mitigated by cloud cover and a gusty wind that made baseball caps the choice over straw hats. Crowds were sparse except for the two big stage headliners and lines for some hard-to-obtain goodies like cochon de lait po-boys were reasonable all day.
My first move was to buy the commemorative post office release from “Big Chief Monk Boudreaux Station.” Don’t know if Monk ever dreamed he’d have a post office named after him but he has now lived to see it. Monk also curates the Mardi Gras Indian performances at the Fest and he started the program by booking the Semolian Warriors to represent at the Jazz and Heritage stage. The uptown gang hit it hard with a nonstop call and response that touched on all the rituals, from “Shoo Fly” to “Big Chief.”
Over on the Gentilly stage things got started with a bang, as Alex McMurray rocked out his killer new tune “Ninth Ward Chickens” and played a set based on material from his latest, Alex McMurray Sings His Greatest New Orleans Hits.
Michael Skinkus and Moyuba performed a stirring invocation at the Lagniappe stage by summoning down the Vodun orishas to bless the festival. Cuba was this year’s featured guest country at the Fest and Skinkus is well versed in that country’s musical heritage. “This is Afro Cuban music,” he announced as he led his eight-piece band, all dressed in white to honor the spirits, through a high-energy set that had the largely female audience dancing enthusiastically. Though the music is based in ancient traditions, it moves directly into contemporary jazz via the extraordinary playing of Martin Krusche on soprano saxophone and Brad Walker on tenor.
Once his set was finished, Skinkus rushed over to the Acura stage to sit in with the New Orleans Suspects, who played one of the best sets I’ve ever heard from them. Skinkus was blazing throughout, especially during Mean Willie Green’s terrific drum break.
Meanwhile over at Economy Hall, trumpeter Jamil Sharif was leading his sextet through a hot set of traditional New Orleans jazz. Clad in a sharp black and white checked jacket, Sharif had the fans clapping and second lining to “This Little Light of Mine” five minutes into his set.
I had to miss the Paul Sanchez set because I was interviewing Kim Carson over at the Alison Miner stage. I should not have been surprised when Carson volunteered that Sanchez, then with Cowboy Mouth, was one of the people who encouraged her to start writing songs when she first came to town. We’ve all benefitted from that because Carson has gone on to become one of the top local songwriters. The interview was a delight as she recounted her days working with Theresa Andersson, having Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown sit in during a gig in Slidell and recounting an observation made by Dave Malone about the differences between herself and Dolly Parton. She didn’t even have to employ the punch line to get a huge laugh. Carson played a few of her songs as well, including her first, a tune called “Where’s the Jukebox?” written on napkins at the Saturn bar, and her great song about a dog named “Buddy Johnson.” Carson later played with her full band at the Lagniappe stage, bringing out some of the songs she talked about during the interview.—John Swenson
Cuban Cultural Exchange
The music festival culture created by George Wein at the Newport Jazz Fest and perfected here in New Orleans by Wein and the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage organization has become an institution of its own. For 48 years Jazz Fest here in New Orleans has presented the best of what the city’s unique culture has to offer. In recent years, as many of the icons of the city’s music have passed away, local headliners have been replaced by national acts that have expanded the festival’s commercial appeal but have not managed to rob the event of its core identity.
Alongside the decision to bring in non-New Orleans headliners was the brilliant idea to feature a guest country each year, bringing musicians with roots common to those of New Orleans into the mix. This has been a refreshing, educational and musically stimulating addition to the Jazz Fest lineup. Up until now my favorite cultural exchange had been the year the Brazilian musicians came to town and played with everyone.
But this year’s guest country, Cuba, proved to be the most spectacular choice yet. We have been cut off from interacting with this nation’s music for more than half a century, but the lifting of the embargo allows us to see how closely Cuban music is aligned with the music of New Orleans. The common roots are intertwined in the African ancestry of the music, but there is more than just common ground here. There’s a sense of identity, like being reunited with a long lost family member. The deep links between Havana and New Orleans, the two major port cities in the region since the colonial era, have been reestablished.
It’s almost as if Jazz Fest was taken over, or somehow completed, by the Cuban correspondence. It seemed like everywhere I walked over the course of Jazz Fest I heard congeros beating a clave rhythm into the air. Often I couldn’t tell where it was coming from, because it was represented everywhere, from the Kids Tent to the Jazz and Heritage Stage, from Congo Square to the Fais Do-Do Stage. And of course at the cultural pavilion, where a festival inside a festival rolled with its own rules.
Conga drums figure prominently in New Orleans music as well, and even national acts like Stevie Wonder and Earth, Wind and Fire use congas as part of the rhythm section. So the sound was wonderfully ubiquitous, and also a kind of completion. Many of the Cuban musicians used nothing but the human voice and percussion instruments to create exciting montunos that built in intensity and seemed to overspill their borders at will. A five-piece band at the cultural pavilion might suddenly at the end of the set explode into a 15-piece maelstrom of chanting voices, polyrhythms and dancers. More than one observer noted how close in spirit this music is to that of the Mardi Gras Indians, and on the last day, Big Chief Juan Pardo & Jockimo’s Groove featured two Cuban percussionists in the mix at the Heritage Stage. Once again, Jazz Fest was able to renew itself in a surprising way.—John Swenson
The superabundance of Cubans was great of course. Lots of rumba (room-bah), a term that in North America is very loosely used, but in Cuba refers to a specific kind of vocal-and-percussion music.—Tom McDermott
Saw Stanton Moore on Saturday, April 29 at the Jazz Tent and he was at his best—started out with a trio featuring Astral Project bassist James Singleton and pianist David Torkanowsky. The trio played two out of three James Black songs—“Whistle Stop” and “Magnolia Triangle”—to start things off. The rest of the set, all taken from Moore’s upcoming album, was made up of Allen Toussaint songs.
Moore brought out Eric Bloom on trumpet, Skerik on tenor sax and Mike Dillon on percussion for a version of “Java,” Toussaint’s million-seller for Al Hirt. Bloom laid back for the first pass but soon rode into his virtuoso comfort zone. Don’t make things too easy for this guy.
Next, the terrific rendition of “Magnolia Triangle” highlighted by Moore’s thunderous drum intro and a game-changing arco-loop solo from Singleton. Moore then stood up from his drum kit and addressed the crowd: “Every musician in New Orleans considers him one of the greatest soul singers of all time.”
Enter Cyril Neville, resplendent in a tan outfit topped with a white fedora. Stanton hip-checked the band into a tricky 5/4 slicing of “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” with Cyril navigating the beat deftly. Great horn arrangement. Then Cyril just took over on a finale of “Night People” that had him pushing the band to successive heights with his vocals. “Shake it…” Cyril shouted. “Jazz Fest ‘17.”—John Swenson
Moore Than Meets the Eye
The schedule simply read, “Stanton Moore,” yet being presented in the Jazz Tent, those in the know figured that meant the drummer’s trio with pianist David Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton. Yet there was, well, more. The three were joined by percussionist Mike Dillon and saxophonist Skerik. The group bowed to the late, great drummer James Black by doing a stunning version of his “Magnolia Triangle.” Later, Moore introduced, “One of the greatest soul singers of all time.” Cyril Neville stepped out and, among other tunes, sang two Allen Toussaint classics, “Everything I Do Gonna Be Funky” and “Night People.” A apt wrap to a great set.—Geraldine Wyckoff
I loved Feufollet, who seem to have pivoted from a very good but conventional Cajun band to a multistylistic Americana/Cajun Pop band with very interesting harmonic progressions and counterpoint (at least on the few songs I heard). The Savoy Family Band were the usual delightful selves, as was Roddie Romero, all at the same stage.—Tom McDermott
Belgian transplant Helen Gillet may be best known these days as the ultimate collaborator: this Fest, she not only played nighttime gigs with the sax player Jessica Lurie (at Bacchanal) and drummer Nikki Glaspie (Chickie Wah Wah), she also introduced the films of the Belgian avant garde at the Zeitgeist. But there’s something to be said for the woman alone. With her loops and delays, Gillet conjures a full ensemble out of her cello, with a sound that ranges from gypsy jazz to Indian drones, with a strong song sensibility beneath it all. On the Lagniappe Stage the first Friday, she was in prime form with a packed set that ranged from some of her usual covers (PJ Harvey’s “Angelene” and the Belgian songwriter Julos Beaucarne’s “De Memoir de Rose”) to newer originals (“Slow Drag Pavageau,” about the legendary New Orleans bassist) and old favorites (“Atchafalaya”). It’s always a blast to see newcomers respond to Gillet, and the standing-room-only paddock fell silent as the cellist (in a red jumpsuit) layered vocals over percussive beats (made by slapping the body of her cello) adding in bowed and pizzicato passages as each song progressed. At times like this, solo is more than enough.—Clea Simon
The first Sunday was a wash until the gates finally opened around 3 p.m., but being pent up in the Seahorse Saloon was a quintessential Jazz Fest experience in and of itself. The Po Boyz rocked the house for over three hours straight as the rain refused to quit. Throngs of dance-happy festers from near and far (mostly far) boogied down to the band’s funky brand of Latin/soul/gospel-inflected country party music. —Laura DeFazio
Rainy Day Dream Away
Woke up Sunday morning April 30 and got ready for Fest Day 3. We all knew it was gonna rain, but it hadn’t started yet when word came down that the opening would be delayed. When some 3-4 inches came down sideways during the space of an hour around midday it was hard to believe the gates would open at all. But by 3 p.m. the rain had stopped and they were letting people in. The crowd at the main gate was out of control so it took quite a while to actually get in. As a result we missed Dr. John, who was treating Jazz Fest to a look at his revived New Orleans band with special guest Charles Neville on saxophone. Mac is part of the life blood of the city’s music so it’s wonderful to see him reconnect with it. Everyone I talked to who saw the set loved it and remarked on how happy Mac seemed. I’m happy for him.
Rainy days certainly have their downside, as Little Milton well knew. More than half of the scheduled performers had their gigs cancelled, and acts who could have played, but didn’t, included Pitbull and George Benson, both major draws, so their fans were bummed. Nobody took it harder than Dave Malone of the very interesting all-star lineup Magnificent 7, which includes his brother Tommy Malone, John Gros, Mark Mullins, Robert Mercurio, Raymond Weber and Michael Skinkus. Dave and Mark were part of the recent Last Waltz tribute tour, and I was looking forward to hearing them play “Cripple Creek.” And of course the vendors and food merchants were pretty much wiped out. If you ordered the Jama Jama you got enough spinach on the plate for three people.
On the other hand, a philosophical bent might lead to—even—a sigh of relief. Alex McMurray, who had played three gigs until 4 a.m. the previous morning, rustled himself out of bed for his 11 a.m. gig with the Tin Men, found out it was cancelled and went back to sleep. He was gonna need the rest with Chaz Fest coming up that Wednesday.
Somewhere during the deluge, Ed Volker got the call that his Quintet Narcosis band would hit as scheduled on the Lagniappe Stage at 3:50 p.m. Though he might have been skeptical, he assembled the group only to find that there was no power. The outage had also stopped the Alison Miner stage.
“I thought about asking the guys to just come over to my place and play,” said Volker, “but here we are.”
About 4 p.m. the word came out that power would be restored in five minutes.
The band got up there and everyone was set except for Volker’s piano, which was inaudible. Bassist Rene Coman, percussionist Michael Skinkus, guitarist Camile Baudoin and tenor saxophonist Joe Cabral began playing a 20-minute sound check/jam with Cabral playing all the way through and Volker hitting the keyboards but getting no response. Then, at 4:31 p.m., the keyboards magically appeared in the mix and Volker immediately launched into a composite of “Sailing Shoes,” lines from “Fish Head Music” and the repeated refrain “Sail Away.”
“We’re actually playing!” shouted Volker to the assembled dancers. “You’re actually here!”
The group played a truncated set of “Dancing On the Grave of a Son-of-a-Bitch,” “Go Down Swinging” and “Coup de Grace,” three songs about not leaving quietly.
“Thirty years ago,” Volker mused, “we probably would have played in the rain.”
On the day after the Fest, May 8, Volker got a chance to play two meaty sets with this same band at Chickie Wah Wah.—John Swenson
Another Magical Day
Over at the Gospel Tent, Glen David Andrews got cancelled but Val and Love Alive, backed by the 30-voice Mass Choir and a slamming rhythm section that included an amazingly powerful trap drummer, must have thought God himself performed some kind of miracle to get them on that stage. Across the track at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, the Midnight Disturbers looked like a musical version of Noah’s ark with at least two of everything—or two sousaphones anyway—six percussionists, including drummers Stanton Moore and Kevin O’Day, six saxophonists led by the incredible Roger Lewis (he’s everywhere!) on baritone, three trombones including Big Sam Williams and Corey Henry, and three trumpeters led by MC Shamarr Allen. New Orleans bands know how to play fanfares and finales better than any other musicians on the planet, and the Disturbers’ break tune, 12 minutes of killer funk vamp featuring an eight-bar cameo from each member as he was introduced, was sheer ecstasy.
“When I say ‘Midnight,’ you say ‘Disturbers,’” Allen hyped the crowd at the end.
A trip for some of that spinach led me into the Tom Petty zone, and it was better than good. Petty writes rockers with a two-guitar bite and memorable hooks and he can line up an impressive array of those tunes. Many of this band’s peers are now relegated to self-parody but Petty’s band is impressively musical and he really treated his fans to something special.
In any other setting I would have stuck around for more Petty, but not with Chief Monk Boudreaux hitting the stage. Monk is like a great preacher—you might know the scripture he’s citing, but it’s the way he tells the story that counts. Wearing a gorgeous purple and orange Indian suit, surrounded by seven family members in variously hued costumes, Monk starts out slowly with the warning “They Don’t Know,” then invokes the elements with his dramatic “Lightning and Thunder” dirge: “You walk outside… and it’s raining…” which breaks into the up-tempo call-and-response of “Shallow Water.” Monk tells the story of “Shotgun Joe,” reconfigures an old favorite as “When you come to New Orleans, You wanna come and dance with me,” brings up his grandson to sing “Sexual Healing,” then finishes out with “Little Liza Jane,” the reggaefied “Rising Sun” and a stirring “Indian Red,” with the 9th Ward Hunters in force in front of the stage, singing along and dancing with the crowd. As his family sings “Let’s Go Get ‘Em,” Monk slowly leaves the stage, ending another magical day at Jazz Fest.—John Swenson
Cynthia Sayer and her Joyride Quartet was a fresh breeze, with Dennis Lichtman on fiddle and clarinet. Power banjo and tango on banjo, very cool.—Tom McDermott
Wearing a handmade banana leaf-printed shirt, Batiste left his piano for a stand-up solo on his melodica, or what he calls his “harmoniboard” for its harmonica-keyboard combination.
Batiste smiles as big and wide as the white keys on his piano. At the Allison Minor Music Heritage Stage, he spoke of his calling to the piano, the band’s “social music” and “jazz two-point-oh.” Batiste expressed his love for home, “this creative community,” and distinguished two of his mentors of the same name: John Lewis, the composer and pianist; and John Lewis, the congressman and civil rights leader. Batiste sees his music as spreading the good word and a hope to positively influence the community.—Alex Johnson
Delfeayo Marsalis: King Big Band
The smartest man in the room celebrated Donald Trump’s first 100 days in office by closing out the Jazz Tent lineup on Day 2. Delfeayo Marsalis released one of the best New Orleans albums of 2016, ironically titled “Make America Great Again,” before the election. Let’s hope his reign as the leader of the city’s best working big band lasts longer than Agent Orange. Delf brought his 15-piece band in top form, with a four-trombone chorus pumping the front line. Roger Lewis carried the weight with his powerful baritone saxophone, soloing against giant slabs of sound in classic Ellington/Mingus style. A great way to end the day and don’t let anybody tell you there’s no jazz at Jazz Fest.—John Swenson
Even though two of the stars of the New Orleans Classic R&B Revue featuring Clarence “Frogman” Henry, Robert Parker and Al “Carnival Time” Johnson sang just a few songs each, a huge amount of New Orleans R&B history accompanied them on stage on Sunday, the final day of Jazz Fest.
Robert Parker’s voice sounded strong on the Gentilly Stage, but at 86, he wasn’t up for both singing and dancing to “Barefootin’,” his international dance hit.
Nor did Al “Carnival Time” Johnson do much moving during his two songs. Johnson, 77, opened with his relatively recent “Mardi Gras Strut,” followed by “Carnival Time,” his Mardi Gras classic from 1960. Like Parker, his voice was intact and recognizable, but he, understandably, didn’t do any jumping around either.
The mobility difficulties and other health challenges Clarence “Frogman” Henry, 80, has experienced for years have not taken the sparkle from his infectious stage presence. Endearing as ever, he sang like a girl and a frog for “Ain’t Got No Home” and charmed his way through “(I Don’t Know Why) But I Do” and “You Always Hurt the One You Love.”
Still irrepressible, Henry stayed on stage longer than Johnson and Parker. He sang more songs than they did and, at the end of his set, valiantly lifted himself from the seated position he’d spent most of his show in.
Bobby Cure and his band, a group that’s specialized in classic New Orleans R&B for decades, opened the set with their own selection of local R&B favorites. They later provided expert backup for the R&B legends.—John Wirt
Panorama Jazz Band
The Panorama Jazz Band were wonderfully eclectic, with some fantastic friends sitting in.—Tom McDermott
Usher and the Roots
Starting ahead of schedule, the collaboration with Usher and the Roots covered George Clinton, and also Kool & the Gang’s “Jungle Boogie.” With The Roots’ percussion and sousaphone additions, Usher’s “Yeah!” and “U Don’t Have To Call” were especially funky renditions.
Questlove’s drum leads drove the scene while Usher and Black Thought traded lead vocals. Black Thought, in a denim jacket and a red-white-and-blue-ribboned panama hat, held the crowd’s attention with his lyricism. Usher, with his hair dyed varicolored—perhaps to match the Jazz Fest logo on the curtain behind him—led the crowd through his catalogue of sexy hits, like “My Way,” “Love In This Club,” “Confessions,” and “Climax,” all while shedding his vanilla cream button-down. Ultimately, Usher skinned up and led the dancing crowd shirtless and in charge. —Alex Johnson
Cinco de Mayo
It took a week to get off the ground, but Jazz Fest was flying high on Friday, May 5. The place was packed on Cinco de Mayo under a sunny sky with cool temperature and a stiff breeze that continued to dry out the rain-soaked infield.
For me, it was one of those Jazz Fest days where I kept running into old friends and getting sidetracked. As a result, my observations are sketchy.
Plus side: A friend wanted to meet at William Bell. It was as good as it gets, a Stax classic straight out of the Isaac Hayes days. The band was tight and the arrangements superb. Bell is a great singer who has lost nothing from his heyday.
“I’m back on Stax, 40 years later,” said Bell, looking suave ‘70s in a silver Mylar suit. He introduced his classic “You Don’t Miss Your Water” with a shout out to New Orleans: “This city was the first city where the song was Number One.”
Bell played several other classics, a couple from his new album This is Where I Live and closed with “Born Under a Bad Sign.”
Minus side: I ran into some other great friends and drifted over to Wilco, which I found very disappointing. They overloaded the sound system to distortion levels. But I had a great time with my friends.
My original plan was to hang at the Lagniappe Stage, where I enjoyed Leyla McCalla’s set and sitting in stall 5 at the paddock listening to the Deslondes’ easygoing Holy Cross groove. That’s when I ran into my friends.
More plus: There’s always something wonderful when you least expect it. Walking away from a truly mediocre national act on the Gentilly Stage, I peeked into the Kids Tent and there was James Singleton playing a gorgeous bass solo. He was playing with David & Roselyn, who were positively joyous. “We used to sell our cassette tapes off the stage to make money,” said Roselyn by way of reminding the crowd how long they’ve been playing Jazz Fest. —John Swenson
Irma Thomas and Stevie Wonder
Perhaps Jazz Fest’s largest crowd grew for Irma Thomas at the Acura Stage ahead of Stevie Wonder’s long-awaited show (Wonder’s show came after his 2016 Jazz Fest appearance was rained out). Irma Thomas instructed the many thousands of festers on how to waive their handkerchiefs and bandanas in the air. “It’s an old New Orleans tradition, and I want y’all second lining out there right now,” the Soul Queen said before launching into “Pocky Way.”
Stevie Wonder delivered a lengthy message of love and unity before launching into his highly-anticipated—and densely packed—headlining set on the Acura Stage. John-Michael Early of local funk band Flow Tribe squeezed up front between the stage and sound booth to witness “the master” play after last year’s cancellation. “The feeling up front was well worth the wait,” Early said. Wonder’s set wound through two hours of “favorites and deep cuts,” and each song spread “Stevie’s messages of love and positivity.”—Alex Johnson
May 6 was Stevie Wonder day, which was apparent from a midday venture into the Gospel Tent, where Kim Che’re opened up with an inspirational and rocking version of Stevie’s “Higher Ground,” a song that pretty much offers a synopsis of Wonder’s career aspiration to use music as a force for social and spiritual enlightenment. Backed by three backing vocalists and the slamming house band at the Gospel Tent, Kim plumbed the song’s message in both secular and spiritual terms: “Teachers, keep on teaching,” she sang, then added, “All the teachers in the audience raise your hands!” A lot of hands went up. “Preachers, keep on preaching!” The same shout out brought fewer raised hands. But the point is there’s an urgency to Stevie’s lyric, a call to public action that has been a hallmark of a career in which he’s never shied from political controversy. Calling on teachers to keep teaching at a time when Trump’s education secretary, the vile oligarch Betsy DeVos, is trying to dismantle the American public education system, is politics at its cutting edge. Stevie is gonna tell it like it is, and his songs will keep doing it even when he’s not there to do it himself. Just as he did with the uplifting tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King, “Happy Birthday.” Stevie may be the person most responsible for getting Dr. King’s birthday declared a national holiday.
It’s no surprise, then, that “Higher Ground” was close to the beginning of Wonder’s own set. Eight years ago, at his last Jazz Fest performance, Stevie was promoting the candidacy of Barack Obama and kept on during the set, repeatedly urging the crowd: “Don’t be afraid to win!” This time he couldn’t even bring himself to utter the current president’s name, referring to him as “45.”
He had a message for the current occupant of the White House: “God gave him the position he’s in for a purpose,” he said during a lengthy opening address to the audience. “To bring us together again. Divisiveness is not a solution.”
The crowd was as big as any I’ve seen at the Acura stage—maybe there were more for Aretha, it’s hard to tell with the addition of the grandstands—and Stevie, dressed in an orange, brown and turquoise dashiki, engaged them in a spirited, hit-packed show. The band teased the reggae groove of “Jammin’” to the crowd’s delight, but Stevie stopped them and said “This is a celebration of life, so clap your hands!”
He then got the crowd to sing the chorus, a trope that worked at various spots in the set. The band was tight, with two guitarists who played some terrific back-and-forth solos and an intense rhythm section. Stevie’s voice is still strong and his keyboard work on several instruments was as great as ever. The only parts of the set that didn’t project well to the festival crowd were the ballads, although you could tell he delivered songs like “When Did You Leave Heaven” and “Overjoyed” with all the emotion he could wring out of them. He was never far from a barnburner like “Don’t You Worry About a Thing” or “Sir Duke,” though, so it all worked out in the end.—John Swenson
Chucho Valdés Quintet
Fifteen minutes after the scheduled start for the Chucho Valdés Quintet, the audience in the Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent let its impatience be known. Even after the Jazz Tent announcer introduced Valdés, the Cuban pianist was nowhere in sight. The announcer soon returned to say, dryly, “Coming soon to a Jazz Fest near you.”
Finally, the tall, 75-year-old jazz master, wearing a beret and a shirt of vibrant, tropical colors, walked on stage and offered an embracing wave. His Jazz Tent audience was less than capacity, but extremely enthusiastic.
Valdés and his quintet—featuring a drummer, two percussionists and an upright bassist whose instrument was too low in the mix—got quickly down to their Latin jazz business. Presiding good-naturedly from a grand piano, Valdés dominated the keyboard with endless fluency. His florid musical imagination, transferred effortlessly into lines, patterns and lushly harmonized chord solos, never faltered.
Valdés represents the best of the jazz and classical traditions. These two usually disparate worlds exist without conflict in this one extraordinary musician. It’s as if 19th-century Romanticism and elegance meet mid-20th century jazz and Cuban rhythms at a dance.
With a drummer and two percussionists on stage, rhythm and percussion played a major role in Valdés’ Jazz Fest set. I would have preferred more of his piano, more melody, simply because Valdés is such a brilliantly skilled, elegant pianist.—John Wirt
There seemed to be an abundance of trumpeters featured at this year’s Fest, particularly in the Jazz Tent. That’s not a complaint in the birthplace of Louis Armstrong, but an observance. It sprang forth on the first Friday with the arrival of New Orleans Trumpet Mafia led by Ashlin Parker. The set started mildly enough with just four guys blowin’ out front. Soon, however, a line of trumpet players who had been waiting behind the scenes streamed onstage making a joyful noise. Responding to the sound, those in the audience jumped to their feet in what could be described as a good kind of shock and awe and offered a rousing applause. Former New Orleans resident and trumpeter Maurice Brown was the featured guest this day and performed several tunes from his new album, The Mood. Brown, an enthusiastic musician, added to the show with his sense of fun, dance moves and by twirling his trumpet. This set also provided the first sighting of Ghana-born percussionist Weedie Braimah who turned up to sit in or dance out front of stages—most often at the Cuban pavilion—all over the Fair Grounds. This man had some fun on both weekends.
Terence Blanchard substituted for trumpeter Hugh Masekela, who regrettably had to cancel due to health problems, for what was to have been a reunion with pianist Abdullah Ibrahim & Ekaya. Blanchard kept a somewhat low profile though blowing strong in the ensemble that included three saxophonists and a fine, young, low-riding drummer. The ever-distinguished Ibrahim often took solos rather than including himself with the multi-instrumentalists in the group that added harmonic flavor with the addition of flute and cello. A lovely set.
Blanchard was back the next weekend leading his E-Collective band. While it was great to hear him blow as a sideman with Ibrahim, the trumpeter was at center stage for this outing that combined some screamin’ blowing on his part, electronics, sampling and some pure funk.
Though very different, Blanchard and trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who performed three days later, share some common directions. Both New Orleanians boast deep roots and continue to challenge the music in order to propel it forward. Payton, playing horn and keyboards on music from his new album, Afro-Caribbean Mix Tape, embraced all—old and new—of what he calls Black American Music. Old school slurs met electronic sampling as Payton offered a knowing sly grin.
A tribute to Miles Davis was in order, provided by the all-star SF Jazz Collective. Surprisingly, the set opened with a sax solo though later the brilliant trumpeter Sean Jones got his share. Jason Marsalis stood attentively at the side of the stage apparently checking out the vibes of Warren Wolf or perhaps the sharp young drummer, Obed Calvaire. The excellent set included some hard swinging, Davis’ classics like “Tutu” and original material such as “Feel the Groove” provided by pianist Edward Simon.
Even several of the Cuban groups featured a trumpet-like instrument, a Chinese cornet, in their mostly percussive instrumentation. Conga Los Hoyos, with several members dressed in folkloric costumes, danced into the audience along with a very animated guy costumed as a horse. As another member used a brake drum as a percussion instrument—“We have lots of old cars in Cuba!”—the colorful steed danced with bassist James Singleton.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Jazz Fest is a good time to meet not just music players but music thinkers. One such scholar excited me with his discovery of syncopated piano and band scores from the Caribbean, dating back to 1780!—Tom McDermott
Lost Bayou Ramblers
The Lost Bayou Ramblers took two stages the first weekend, first playing a raucous set on the Gentilly Stage with their fiddle-and accordion-stomping Cajun music. Later, at the Allison Minor Music Heritage Stage, the Rambler’s Michot brothers played a more intimate set with storytelling between songs. They played a family favorite, “Blues de Tactac,” Cajun-French for popcorn blues. Andre Michot explained, “‘Blues de Tactac’ means I went out last night, going out tonight and I’ll do it again tomorrow. I ate all the popcorn at the bar and I’ll even eat some crumbs tonight. It’s just that kind of weekend.”—Alex Johnson
Stevie Wonder’s long-awaited makeup show on the Acura Stage had its ups and downs for sure. The sound quality was shockingly poor for the first few tunes, and a series of ballads during the middle section fell flat despite their sincerity. It just wasn’t that kind of crowd. Fortunately, the show really picked up during the second half as Wonder dove into a string of hits: ”Sir Duke,” “I Wish,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” and so on, that reminded everyone why he’s one of the most beloved pop stars of all time. Nevertheless, the thing that stuck with me the most was the Motown legend’s brief and somewhat bizarre foray into DJing. In a turn of events that I certainly did not see coming, Wonder brought out an electronic pad and began dropping samples of everything from Parliament’s “Flashlight” and David Bowie’s “Fame” to The Eagles’ “Hotel California.” He even threw in some on-the-fly remixing in there for good measure. This unexpected DJ detour came toward the end of the set, right after a “Living for the City” that featured guest vocalist Corinne Bailey Rae and right before the “Superstition” that closed out the show, so it was an odd use of prime setlist real estate. The crowd seemed to be kind of into it, though I’m not sure everyone knew what was going on. Hell, I barely knew what was going on. Is this just something Stevie Wonder does now? Were there technical difficulties I didn’t know about? Was he paying tribute to recently-departed musical colleagues? Is this the beginning of Jazz Fest’s transition to electronic music programming? Please, someone clue me in on what was happening there. I need answers. The people need answers.—Sam D’Arcangelo
Travers Geoffray opened with a Pete Johnson cover, “Death Ray Boogie,” and then steamrolled his hot piano through his own catalogue. Fresh off the Mississippi Rail Company, Geoffray plays as fast as the Ferriday Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the growing crowd sang along to “Mabel” and “Take Me Home,” even though these new songs from his first solo record, Highway Kings, were released less than a month ago. Clad in a navy suit, this showman proved he’s ready for the main stage.—Alex Johnson
Tank & the Bangas
The festival spirit thrives in the message of Tank and the Bangas, who played their “theatrical soul” music in the shade of the Gentilly Stage. Fresh off their recent NPR Tiny Desk Concert win—a major accolade besting more than 6,000 other contestants—Tarriona “Tank” Ball led her players and dancers, on stage and those in the enormous crowd, with her inspiring lyrics, bright smile and beautiful voice.
“I am the sun, boy, look,” Tank sang in “Oh, Heart.” Holding a beer in one hand and a water in the other, an old gray-bearded man sang along with Tank. As she went on about “swimming in an ocean of butterflies” in “Rollercoasters,” a young couple, both shoeless in the grass, danced together passing their baby between them.
After the Gentilly Stage set with the full band and green-and-blue spandex-onesied dancers, Tank and Merrell Burkett, keyboardist and NOCCA alumnus, performed a slam poetry-infused discussion at the Allison Minor Heritage Stage. Tank grew up on Music Street in the 8th Ward where she began writing poetry and, at first, felt insecure about her clothing. Her voice, singing or rapping, offers inimitable range, as unique as the woven fabrics she wears, or the flowers and beads in her purple hair.
When asked what it’s like to be in their band, Tank said, “We grew up singing in the church and don’t want to grow up. It’s like recess. We want to shine the positivity back for everybody.”—Alex Johnson
The highlight of the Fest? Pianist Henry Butler blazing away as fiercely as ever; given his current predicament, this was a very emotional thing to experience.—Tom McDermott
Michael Guidry, whose art hung from the bleachers displaying a gate-mouthed alligator releasing warblers and red-winged blackbirds, said he had an “amazing day” selling his paintings from his studio booth. “I hear them before I see them,” Guidry said of the birds, his voice only audible at a close distance because of the guitars and brass resounding from nearby stages.—Alex Johnson
I love that at Jazz Fest we can be swept away by huge, internationally famous bands but also stumble into tiny, low-tech local ones. I passed by Wilco (who I had never really listened to before) at the Gentilly Stage and was rooted to the ground by the heart-wrenching lyrics and musical build. The sound was actually good (always a crapshoot on big festival stages) so the messages hit home powerfully.—Laura DeFazio
“We made it!” exclaimed Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy as the band returned for an encore of the Being There favorite “I Got You (At The End of the Century).” Much was said, in the run up to Jazz Fest, about Stevie Wonder’s return to the Acura Stage following last year’s weather debacle, but the men of Wilco still had a show of their own to finish. Two years ago the beloved—and surprisingly enduring—American rock band was forced to call off its Gentilly Stage performance after half an hour when a downpour brought too much lightning for anyone’s comfort. The group wasted no time making use of 2017’s fairer skies, immediately launching into a beautiful “Ashes of American Flags” that soared toward its gentle peak. Other selections from the band’s 2003 magnum opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot appeared as well, including “Jesus, Etc,” “Heavy Metal Drummer” and “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart.” That last one showcased Nels Cline’s signature guitar distortion, a calculated cacophony that almost always gels into a lovely melody. However, the day’s highlight came with a particularly sprawling take on “Impossible Germany,” a dueling guitar jam-vehicle that reached its highest of heights on this Friday afternoosnoopn (the best version this Wilco fan has seen in his 12 shows). Between the career-spanning setlist and a healthy dose of cynical Tweedy banter, the only criticism to be made is that they didn’t play “Sky Blue Sky.” But then again, I guess they didn’t need to.—Sam D’Arcangelo
While the Soul Rebels played a midday set at Congo Square, artist Terrance Osborne showcased his signature Jazz Fest “Nola” portraits nearby. “I use my wife’s eyes for Nola and my daughter’s face.” With her face painted in various Dia de los Muertos patterns, Nola is a beautiful woman whose hair grows Creole cottages, roses and birds’ nests. A full second line brass band parades up her spine.—Alex Johnson
Pat McLaughlin and His New Orleans Outfit
Pat McLaughlin is such a good singer/songwriter/guitarist. Give him a two-guitar quartet and you’ve got a gourmet meal. At the Lagniappe Stage he teamed up with the inimitable lumberjack Alex McMurray, bassist Rene Coman of the Iguanas and potential monument Carlo Nuccio on drums. McLaughlin is a singer who puts so much into every vocal you link to Van Morrison (tone, phrasing) and Joe Cocker (sheer soul bearing emotion). But only Pat McLaughlin sounds like this. Blues and R&B, could be from underwater, Bobby Charles and beyond—send out a search party.
McLaughlin told the crowd that his day job was playing guitar with John Prine, then sang a song he wrote with Prine about going downtown to rattle somebody’s cage. And something about a monkey, I think. Lots and lots of songs, “Still In the Morning Light.” McLaughlin with his gritty red Telecaster with the PM inscribed on the neck and McMurray with his fat hollow-body Gibson, the perfect dialogue of twang and shaking reverb, rolling it up on “Repo Man,” “I’m In the Mood to Break My Baby’s Heart,” then the astonishingly dramatic “Cry On Me.”
“I don’t know if there’s a better gig than this,” said McLaughlin. “It just means so much to be able to get up here and play your shit.”—John Swenson
Blues Tent Blues: Great Music, No Dancing
It must have felt strange for the Cedric Burnside Project to be pounding out the raw and driving hill country blues without folks dancing like crazy. But that’s how it goes in the Blues Tent where the audience remains estranged from the performers. The power duo with drummer, vocalist and sometimes guitarist Cedric Burnside, the grandson of the late R.L. Burnside, and guitarist Trenton Ayers, the grandson of the late Junior Kimbrough, dug in nonetheless. Past time to rethink this venue.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Big Freedia, Queen Diva
Resplendent in bleach-speckled denim with a shock of blue hair cascading down her back, Big Freedia owned the Congo Square Stage from the moment she walked out and held a pose before commencing with the hit-packed show. Between the long blue-on-blue jacket that dipped down almost to her feet, her thick and swaggering vocals and her team of high-kicking, split-twerking dancers, she truly lived up to her Queen Diva moniker as she pumped up the large crowd with numbers like “Rock Around the Clock” and “Gin In My System.” (“I know it’s a little early in the day,” she acknowledged, “but how many of y’all have a little liquor in your system?”)
The almost gymnastic dance-off between members of the female backup crew and the single file, back-to-front of the stage “Back That Azz Up” twerk parade probably ranked as the best dance performance I’ve ever seen at the Fairgrounds. Part of what made it so compelling, though, was that all those “Azz Everywhere” moves underscored the larger message about self-love and empowerment that runs through Freedia’s music and stage persona. Bounce is an important part of New Orleans’ music heritage and in 2017, Freedia deserves to wear its crown.—Jennifer Odell
Amos Lee and Alabama Shakes
On the Gentilly Stage, Philadelphia’s Amos Lee played his hits, along with covering local favorites, like “Hey Pocky Way.” He also led the crowd in Ginuwine’s “Ride My Pony,” George Michael’s “Faith,” and closed with a lively version of Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road.” A mellower than usual Alabama Shakes followed Amos Lee with a relaxed set. Lead singer Brittany Howard, however, rocked local Krewe frames as she ripped her teal guitar and proved her voice is as powerful as ever.—Alex Johnson
Landry Walker Charter High School
The most moving performance I encountered was the Landry Walker Charter High School in the Gospel Tent, hands down. I love that a high school choir can move me as much and more than a group that’s all over mainstream radio. That’s just so cool! I won’t even bother to try to describe the sense of joyful uplift I felt hearing all those voices raised in unison. It was simple but powerful. It was better than drugs (I’d imagine). The soloist singing “His Eye is on the Sparrow” was particularly mind-blowing.—Laura DeFazio
Give Me That Old Time Religion
The big choirs that perform in the Gospel Tent can really pack a punch, yet the combos—quartets, quintets and such—who have been praising through song for decades also hold a special appeal. Groups like Leo Jackson & the Melody Clouds, the Rocks of Harmony and the Electrifying Crown Seekers create magic with the members’ fine vocal harmonies and sincere delivery. Leo Jackson, the son of the group’s founder, ran through the aisles of the tent, bringing his spirit to the crowd. Similarly, a member of the Rocks knelt at the edge of the stage to testify, a move that brought the audience to its feet. The Crown Seekers are unique in that they offer a country flavor to their show with some fine guitar licks provided by the group’s leader, James Williams whose wife, Lynn, plays keyboards with the group. The Seekers now have a couple of secret weapons—two men that sing falsetto and go up for the high notes. Wow.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Kristin Diable and James Andrews
The first Friday was hot and muggy, and after a couple of hours of fighting crowds and hearing snippets of different bands (turning the corner to Kristin Diable belting “I’ll Make Time For You” on the Acura Stage was particularly powerful), it was a relief to collapse on a chair in the comparatively cool Blues Tent.
But of course I got up again almost immediately, because when James Andrews and the Crescent City All-Stars take the stage, sitting is not really an option. Their brass is always electrifying, their rhythm section is always on fire, and (in keeping with the family tradition) Andrews is a ridiculously charismatic entertainer. Their Jazz Fest performance was just as good as I expected.—Laura DeFazio
After being rained out last year, Snoop Dogg made up for lost time at the Congo Square Stage. DJ Raj Smoove warmed the crowd before Snoop appeared onstage with long dreads and dressed in all black—all except for his silver shades facing the sun and a shining chain and diamond emblem, “Cold.”
Following him onstage were two female dancers who never tired of changing outfits to match the songs, from “Beautiful” to “Sensual Seduction,” “Drop It Like It’s Hot” to “Gin and Juice.” Caught up in the song “Gin and Juice,” the beer man stood on his cooler and waved handfuls of bills in the air dancing in synch with the music like a choreographer leading the audience along.
After “Who Am I (What’s My Name)?” got the crowd singing along, Snoop Dogg lit a blunt and asked the hand-waving crowd if seeing Snoop play was on their bucket list, and then got to his real question: “Or is smoking weed with big Snoop Dogg on that bucket list?” Thousands checked that box when he sang “Smoke Weed Everyday.”
Snoop played Tupac’s “Gangsta Party” immediately following Biggie Smalls’ “Hypnotize,” a way of bringing the festival spirit to a 1990s East Coast-West Coast rift. He ended the day by thanking New Orleans, professing his love for the city and promising to return anytime Jazz Fest asks him in the future.—Alex Johnson
Keeper of the Flame
Davell Crawford is known as the Piano Prince of New Orleans, though at this year’s Blues Tent set he could also be dubbed the Keeper of the Flame of New Orleans rhythm and blues. When Crawford, playing both a baby grand and electric keys, got down and sang classics like “Working in a Coal Mine” and “Ruler of My Heart” he did so with authenticity and love. This wasn’t simply a stroll down memory lane.—Geraldine Wyckoff
After a morning downpour, Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue rang in Thursday a.k.a. Locals’ Day at the Gentilly Stage with a lively set filled with old favorites and new tunes. Their new-ish (and predominantly female) band configuration sounds awesome. And get this! Guitarist Gregory Good’s one-year-old son, backstage with mom Ali, took his first step just before the show started. How’s that for some Jazz Fest magic?—Laura DeFazio
Do Whatcha Wanna
Big Chief Victor Harris, the Spirit of Fi Yi Yi, was flamboyant both in his spectacular orange suit adorned with shells and in his vibrant attitude. Leading the Mandingo Warriors, which included a full rhythm section, the Chief declared, “It’s all about celebration,” and proceeded to bring out his three wee grandsons, all of whom he proudly informed were born during a Jazz Festival week.—Geraldine Wyckoff
Back in April I wrote about French Quarter Festival’s lack of interest in doing anything about the overabundance of folding chairs in a piece on OffBeat.com. So I was pleasantly surprised to see that Jazz Fest went further with their chair control efforts in 2017. As far as I could tell, the “no chairs beyond this point” lines were placed further from the stage than in years past, and festival staff actually did its job of keeping chairs off the walking paths during particularly packed shows. This doesn’t change the fact that, on its most crowded days, Jazz Fest has simply outgrown the Fair Grounds. But it does go a long way toward making the festival experience more enjoyable for everyone. Well, everyone except people who like to build a chair fortress at the front of a 30,000 person mass. Good work, Jazz Fest.—Sam D’Arcangelo
Stage Krewe Thanks
We seem to notice when technical problems interfere with sound quality at Jazz Fest. As a collective audience, we’re less prone to appreciate the work the stage krewes do to turn out eight hours’ worth of music from acts with vastly different technical (and in some cases, personal) needs in an outdoor setting where stages are positioned relatively close to one another.
Abdullah Ibrahim’s unintentional moment of silence while he was playing piano stung a bit. It was balanced out a few days later, though, when David Torkanowsky stopped to publicly thank the stage krewe for squeezing a large horn section onto the stage along with a rotating cast of singers that included Germaine Bazzle, Kermit Ruffins and Sinatra devotee Clint Johnson.
Asking the audience to give the tech krewe a round of applause, Torkanowsky expained, “This is an unusual setup and they’ve had a lot of work to do to accommodate basically who the hell I think I am.”
During his set the weekend prior, Dr. John displayed similar grace when it came to acknowledging folks behind the scenes by shouting out both the front of house and back of house sound guys in his band introduction.—Jennifer Odell
Chaz Fest: Descent Into the Maelstrom
My favorite New Orleans festivals are the local gatherings around my neighborhood in Bywater, particular the quixotic Chaz Fest, named after local musician Washboard Chaz Leary and designed to showcase music that Jazz Fest usually overlooks. It’s a labor of love for organizer Alex McMurray, because it would be an understatement to call it a non-profit organization. The festival takes place at enormous financial risk, and this year’s event, on the Wednesday between Jazz Fest weekends, was battered and tormented by day-long thunderstorms, torrential rain that made it impossible to play for most of the day. During the late afternoon hours a break in the rain allowed the Valparaiso Men’s Chorus, one of McMurray’s several bands, to perform on the main stage. The group is basically the Tin Men—McMurray on guitar, Chaz on washboard and Matt Perrine on tuba—augmented by accordions, tin whistles and the “Chorus” of somewhere from 12 to 20 people singing the call-and-response work songs called sea shanties. It’s a wonderfully improbable aggregation that only comes together on special occasions for obvious reasons, and I’ve always been struck by its popularity. I suppose part of the reason people like it so much is that the audience gets to sing and drink along with the chorus. But standing there amid the drenched surroundings of this all-but-washed-out festival, listening to these musicians and their hardy fans sings songs about drinking, drowning, hangings and death on the high seas, I finally understood the tortured glory that informs the concept. McMurray and his gang were singing in the face of disaster, just as so many who sang these same songs amid maelstroms that threatened them to the point of death have over the centuries. Someone said it was like being in the band on the Titanic, playing as the sea claimed the ship. Even as the elements were bringing Chaz Fest down to Davy Jones’ locker, Alex McMurray stood there defiant and raised a can to the gathered crew, all of whom were damn glad to be there with him.
“Drink!” he exclaimed. And so they did.—John Swenson