Yesterday when I posted Coachella’s lineup as a possible preview for upcoming New Orleans festivals, I thought there were clues to Voodoo’s lineup in it, but I really didn’t expect to see Jazz Fest bands in it. It did occur to me that Mumford and Sons is hot enough to be this year’s Old Crow Medicine Show or one of the touring string bands that frequently play the Fais Do Do Stage, but I wouldn’t have expected the Strokes.
The simplest read of this year’s lineup is that it relies less on its baby boomer audience than it ever has in my memory and reaches out in a meaningful way to the next generation of festgoers. That’s only part of the story, but it’s worth thinking about. In Wilco and the Strokes, they have established, revered figures who are just as meaningful to one generation as the Bonnie Raitts and Van Morrisons have been to the ones before it.
But more than simply that, Jazz Fest this year is relevant. For the last decade or more, the fest has leaned heavily on the stars of the ’60s and ’70s—legitimate stars, legitimate draws, but artists whose appeal is rooted in the combination of music and nostalgia. This year’s lineup is the first time that I can remember where bands are playing at the point when they matter. The Arcade Fire is becoming a nationally significant arena draw now. The Decemberists are moving beyond their club and small theater audiences and becoming news now. Mumford and Sons is one of the bands that people have been talking about all year, and who sold out Republic in minutes this past fall. In recent years, Jazz Fest has nodded in this direction. It was just slightly behind the curve on My Morning Jacket, but not seriously so, and the Dead Weather were right on time last year.
Someone here in the office thought this year’s balance is exactly right, and from my vantage point, I’m inclined to agree, but I recognize that some Threadheads were less excited this morning, and I can understand that. There aren’t as many traditional favorites, though there are many returning artists and musicians who embrace traditional values: Jimmy Buffett, John Mellencamp, Willie Nelson, Robert Plant (whose Band of Joy record knocks me out even more than Raising Sand did), Jeff Beck and Arlo Guthrie just to name a few. But unlike some years when it was hard to imagine how Jazz Fest’s established audience would relate to the younger artists—last year’s Dead Weather show, for instance—it’s not hard to imagine long-time lovers of soul and R&B connecting to John Legend with the Roots (whose Wake Up is also really worth checking out), and the Fest’s traditional love of acoustic guitar-based rock should find Jason Mraz is speaking their language (even if he doesn’t really speak mine). The Decemberists and Arcade Fire share a love of acoustic instruments and natural voices, and the same musical values that have drawn Threadheads to the festival for years are also embodied by Punch Brothers, Lauryn Hill (Ms. Lauryn Hill, I’m told), Amos Lee and many of the higher profile names on the list.
My only quibbles come in hip-hop (Lupe Fiasco feels dated already, and Curren$y is local and missing), and jazz, where the lineup feels even more dated and out of touch by comparison. Two smooth jazz acts (Kenny G and Fourplay), but few if any jazz artists who’ve ascended in the last decade, and even fewer who are doing anything that was blueprinted 30-plus years ago. At the moment, Jonathan Batiste and Christian Scott are carrying the ball for modernity, and the Open Ears scene on Frenchmen Street once again appears to have been overlooked. If I read the list correctly (and there’s enough in it that I’ll still be digesting it and discovering names for the next few days), this absence should embarrass the festival. Sonny Rollins and Ron Carter are great, but did jazz really die in the mid-1970s?
As one poster at the Jazz Fest message board observed, this list is still incomplete, so there’s hope. He thought that there weren’t enough artists to fill the Blues Tent announced yet, and maybe he’s right. I haven’t done my own stage-by-stage breakdown to see what slots are left to fill. But it’s great to see the return of an international focus—this year, Haiti—and to see interesting young local bands get in the mix—the Generationals and Hurray for the Riff Raff jump to mind.
I’ve cranked on the festival for putting on the same festival again and again, so it’s only fair to observe that when I checked Twitter last night after the lineup was announced, I literally saw eight to 10 Tweets that started with “wow.” Yesterday when I corresponded with Ben Berman here in the office, I started an email the same way.