Thursday, May 2 marked the kick-off to Weekend 2 of the 50th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, presented by Shell. It’s a day that will live in Jazz Fest infamy, not for who performed, but for who didn’t. May 2 was supposed to be the day The Rolling Stones played. Then, Mick Jagger’s doctor told him he had to cancel. The band was replaced with Fleetwood Mac, but Stevie Nicks got the flu and the band also canceled. Finally, May 2 became a regular day, with no special tickets needed and a nearly three-hour set from Widespread Panic in the Stones’ and Fleetwood’s place.
Despite all the lineup hoopla, it was a beautiful (albeit muggy) day at the Fair Grounds. It really felt like Locals Thursday, with acts like Anders Osborne, Samantha Fish, Ivan Neville/Dumpstaphunk and Cowboy Mouth rocked the Acura Stage. Cowboy Mouth and Dumpstaphunk, like a few other acts throughout the day, interpolated some Rolling Stones material into their set. The inclusion worked perfectly alongside the dozens of Festers I saw sporting the vintage Stones and Fleetwood Mac t-shirts purchased at tours in decades past. It was clear many of us were dismayed, but with remarkable performances from the likes of Mavis Staples, Ziggy Marley and Tom Jones, it was hard to be disappointed.
Widespread Panic, a jam band of sorts from Georgia, made their 11th Jazz Fest appearance with May 2’s set. As recently as 2017, the band served as a Thursday headliner. Their frequent appearances didn’t seem to put a damper on the mood as they closed out the Acura Stage. In fact, they elicited what was arguably some of the most high energy crowd reactions of the whole day.
Over at the Gentilly Stage, the incomparable Tom Jones put on a headlining performance, delighting fans with classics like “Delilah,” “It’s Not Unusual,” “What’s New Pussycat” and much more. For the reggae lovers, Ziggy Marley’s Congo Square Stage show was a must-see. The son of a global icon (Bob Marley, heard of him?), Ziggy reminded Jazz Fest that he’s a gifted musician in his own damn right.
– Amanda Mester
Between Big Chief “Little” Charles Taylor’s prayerful opening of “Indian Red” and Tom Jones singing a celebratory version of Prince’s “Kiss,” it was a full day of rousing music on what was to have been “Stones Thursday” at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Snippets of the legendary band’s music was heard, including a full version of “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’” from Dumpstaphunk with a guest solo by the Stones’ touring saxophonist Karl Denson. Countless fans represented including one proud geezer sporting a 1978 “Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World” tour T-shirt.
Jazz Fest producer/director Quint Davis introduced 3L Ifèdé, a magical drum and dance troupe from the African country of Benin, on the Congo Square stage by saying, “we got the name backwards, it should have been the New Orleans Heritage of Jazz Festival.” The group, which featured hand drummers and costumed dancers, mesmerized a small crowd that grew exponentially as festers were drawn to the chanting, drumming and swirling dancers.
The Sons of Jazz Brass Band could arguably be called the fourth generation of the brass band revival that began in earnest with the 1960s return of Danny Barker to New Orleans after a long career in New York. The group of youngsters rolled through tunes from the brass band canon with a vigor reminiscent of the early days of the Rebirth Brass Band. They had one ringer in the group—trombonist Tyrus Chapman—a veteran of Rebirth and the founder of his own Highsteppers Brass Band.
The Gumboot Dancers are another fascinating dance troupe from South Africa. Backed by an acoustic guitar, fiddle and keyboard, the group of ten men wearing the kind of boots that would be perfect for a wet day at the Fairgrounds, stomped and marched and stepped in syncopated unison while the fiddle keened behind them.
In the Jazz Tent, trumpeter and keyboardist Nicholas Payton debuted his latest project, the Light Beings. With local stalwart Cliff Hines on modular synthesizer and guitar and psychedelic bassist MonoNeon, the new music pulsed with intensity as Payton, wearing what appeared to be a bullet-proof vest, roamed the tent followed by a lithe dancer. At other points, he sat at the Fender Rhodes while simultaneously playing his trumpet.
– Jay Mazza
Like a prehensile tale, the myth of the Stones at Jazz Fest persisted as week two loomed. Stones fans came out in force, wearing their colors Wednesday night for the Foundations of Funk show at the Fillmore, where Keith Richards was rumored to be joining his X-Pensive Winos bandmate Ivan Neville. No show there but the fans got treat to a healthy dose of Meters funk powered by the timeless rhythm section of George Porter Jr. on bass and Zigaboo Modeliste on drums. As he showed during a masterful set at Jazz Fest, Porter is the real leader of this band, leading them through changes and dynamic shifts, and Ian Neville on guitar does a spectacular job of playing this music faithfully but with his own approach.
There was a buzz at Jazz Fest Thursday morning that Richards would be joining Neville on the Acura stage later in the day. There were plenty of Rolling Stones shirts in the crowd when Andy J Forest & the Swampcrawlers opened the proceedings at the Blues Tent with “Blues Blues” and ripped through a set featuring a smoking “Mellow Down Easy,” “Breach in the Levee,” the John Lee Hooker-style blues “12 Bar Dive” and his showstopping finale, “Crazy Legs.” Forest’s harmonica blues was definitely a tonic for Stones fans who liked Blue and Lonesome. The Blues Tent was really the place to be Thursday from Forest’s spirited opener, through a madhouse set by Glen David Andrews and on to a spectacular finale from Mavis Staples. Glen David fronted a three trombone rock band with two backing vocalists and rolled out with a 20 minute version of “I Can Be Bad By Myself” that had the crowd on its feet and screaming from the get-go. Andrews always brings his best game to Jazz Fest and he was his usual self, arriving onstage in an iridescent green jacket which he quickly disposed of and running around the stage, urging the audience to react to his bandmates after each solo. GDA is so over the top that he enlisted one of his singers to perform an operatic version of “Over the Rainbow” that had many in the audience scratching their heads. But it was just another moment in the ever-surprising GDA circus. Later in the day, Mavis Staples was joined by Glen David’s cousin Trombone Shorty on a set that featured several numbers from her new album, We Get By.
There were some strange moments Thursday. Like when the wacky Egg Yolk Jubilee tumbled into “Time Is On My Side” on the Lagniappe Stage. Seeing a New Orleans band imitating the Rolling Stones imitating Irma Thomas was, well, surreal.
Jazz Fest is always great for the unexpected treat, and my favorite moment of the day came at the Kids Tent, where Bruce Daigrepont played a lovely set of Cajun two-steps and waltzes featuring the virtuoso fiddle playing of Gina Forsyth as dozens of toddlers gleefully hopped around to the music. The irresistible dance beat of Cajun music is clearly something humans can relate to while they’re still in diapers, which is a wonderful thing to witness.
Thursday night Marc Stone organized a Stones tribute at the Little Gem. It was sold out, and they could have sold out a second show based on the demand.
Stone was joined by Alvin “Youngblood” Hart on guitar and mandolin, John Mooney on National Steel guitar, Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes on harmonica, a vocal quartet
Mikey B3 Burkart on keyboards and vocals, Terry Scott, Jr. on drums, Reggie Scanlan on bass. In addition to a four-voice vocal section, everyone except Reggie sang. With all those guitarists, a boozy chorus and a swinging rhythm section it was easy to please Stone and Stones fans alike with a two set that included Mark’s solo intro “Rolling Stone,” Stone and Mooney playing together on “Stop Breaking Down,” Mooney’s take on “Love in Vain,” Alvin taking the band through “Little Red Rooster” and Sunpie doing
“Hip Shake, “You Got To Move” and “Mannish Boy.”
– John Swenson
The rain never broke on Friday, May 3 for Day 6 of Jazz Fest. Overheard frequently were sentiments of gratitude for the cloud cover and slight breeze. After devouring two yakiniku po-boys from Ajun Cajun, I visited the Gentilly Stage to catch Shamarr Allen & The Underdawgs. The whole band, Allen included, were adorned with True Orleans merch, named after the group’s 2018 album. Alternating between his signature tiny horn and vocals, Allen deftly delivered an early afternoon set featuring the brassy, funky and hip-hop infusion of music he’s known for. He was sporting gold sneakers (the trumpet ones from Humidity?) and by the time he left the stage, his grey T was drenched through with sweat.
Meanwhile, one needed only a glimpse of the red bandana and Sam Price’s overalls to know Honey Island Swamp Band had arrived to the Acura Stage. Over at Fais Do Do, the delightful Leyla McCalla illuminated the area with her smile and sweet energy, playing her unique brand of folksy global music. She closed her set with “Rose Marie,” a Haitian folk song from 2013’s Vari-colored Songs.
By the time Leo Nocentelli began his Gentilly stage performance, it was nearly 20 minutes late. The sound-related delay was tolerable that early on in the day, while all of our collective energy was still high, and our skin not quite yet burned. Backed my musicians including Big Sam and Khris Royal, the former Meters guitarist (and Lifetime Achievement Grammy winner) played classics like his former group’s “Cissy Strut.” He enlisted the help of some singers (including Darcy Malone and Naydja CoJoe) for “Say Na Hey.” Nocentelli’s name was assigned an asterisk in Jazz Fest programming, to note his being a “1st Festival Artist,” performing at Jazz Fest 1970.
Over at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, Herbert McCarver & The Pin Stripe Brass Band had a crowd dancing to songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and a cover of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day.” Steps away, Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers were doing a cover of their own, “I Can See Clearly Now.” Elsewhere, the North Mississippi Allstars had Gentilly rockin’, with minutes of uninterrupted washboard playing converging with soulful singing and tons of twang.
A Cree tribe from Canada could be spotted near the Cultural Exchange Pavilion teaching a large group of onlookers about the traditional pow wow and warrior songs. Meanwhile, Wayne Toups sported his bright red accordion on the Acura Stage.
When Los Angeles jazz composer and saxophonist Kamasi Washington took the Gentilly Stage during the four o’clock hour, the sky was pierced with his band’s Afrofuturistic take on the canon. Fans of Washington could be overheard explaining how excited they were to hear what kind of extended rendition Washington and his band would take on any given song. In all, they performed only five songs: “Show Us the Way,” “Rhythm Changes,” “Truth,” “Street Fighter Mas” and “Fist of Fury.”
– Amanda Mester
Saturday, May 4 may prove to be one of the more memorable days of the 50th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival Presented by Shell. After a rain delay left gates opening nearly two hours later than planned, the early-day acts had their sets cancelled. But that’s not what made the day one to remember.
My first set of the day was Tank and the Bangas, who just a day before dropped their major label debut, Green Balloon. As such, their costumes and set were tinged in various shades of green, with Tarriona “Tank” Ball wearing a billowing gown. Performing singles like “Spaceships,” “Nice Things” and “Smoke.Netflix.Chill,” the New Orleans group was less frenetic than years past, but nonetheless displayed the funk, hip-hop, poetry, soul and rock influences prevalent in their dynamic sound. At one point in the set, Tank told the crowd “It’s a big deal for New Orleans. Born and raised!” while discussing the group’s recent appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. It was a sweet moment on the Acura Stage, when New Orleans music fans in the crowd shared in a collective sense of pride that Tank and the Bangas are homegrown.
It was off to the Congo Square Stage for the Queen Diva. Big Freedia entered the stage to “Formation,” the anthemic hit by Beyonce (who has sampled Freedia in the past). The crowd was positively overflowing for the bounce superstar’s performance, which was as high energy and entertaining as last year’s. Flanked by her signature dancers and endless stage presence, Freedia had the crowd as excited to hear her say “girl down” and “you already know” as full-fledged songs. From “Rent” to “Duffy” to “Explode,” Freedia’s discography is easily one of the most exciting things to hear at Jazz Fest.
At 5:45 on the dot, Diana Ross hit the Gentilly Stage. For anyone on social media, her performance became the talk of the town, and for good reason. I counted six costume changes, five more than I’ve ever seen at Jazz Fest. Between a white fur coat, a red ballgown, a gold number and three other looks, the icon was a showstopper in every sense. She performed everything from “The Boss” to “Do You Know Where You’re Going” and a handful of the songs that made her a household name. Of course, there was material from her tenure with The Supremes (I wouldn’t be surprised if neighbors living around the Fair Grounds could hear us all singing “Stop! In the Name of Love”). Performing past 7 p.m., when Jazz Fest officially ends, Ms. Ross delighted the crowd with an encore. Most memorably, though, she seemed genuinely pleased to be on stage for us. The 75-year-old also gifted us “The Theme From Mahogany” and “Ain’t No Mountain High.”
Other highlights of the day included Mr. 305, Pitbull, performing on the Congo Square Stage. Plus, Dave Matthews Band performed with surprise guests Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
– Amanda Mester
Jazz Fest wrapped up with one of its strongest days of music. The resilience of the culture really stood out as both big stages were packed with local artists; the Delfeayo Marsalis Big Band and John Boutte opened for Herbie Hancock at the Jazz Tent; soul music superstars Chaka Khan and Maze Featuring Frankie Beverly rocked the Congo Square Stage; The Mavericks headlined the Fais Do Do stage after a solid lineup of Cajun and Zydeco music; and Indians, brass bands and Boukman Eksperyans of Haiti kept the Heritage Stage packed with dancers all afternoon. The music comes with its own survival strategies to keep things growing even after 50 years and a lineup of ancestors longer than the list of current performers. Trombone Shorty of course has brought the New Orleans family tradition into the 21st century with a triumphant fusion of the Andrews and Neville families to close out the festival. Indians show a remarkable ability to keep adapting their traditional chants and sacred songs into larger formats embracing a lot more of the tradition. The Hardhead Hunters Mardi Gras Indians, resplendent in their colorfully feathered suits, used a woman vocalist and a funk rhythm section to take their music into different directions. Combining Indian chants, brass band rhythm with tuba-powered bass and powerhouse funk, they chanted “Clap Your Hands, Move Your Feet,” sounding like a New Orleans edition of P-Funk.
Elsewhere, Yvette Landry stirred them up at the Fais Do Do stage with her hot rockabilly band. Dressed in a silver lame dress, the guitar slinging Landry greeted the crown with the incendiary “Let’s Have a Party” and rolled through a scintillating Louisiana rockabilly dance party, blazing through “Slow Down,” Bobby Charles tunes and swamp pop.
For years Jazz Fest has featured another country’s music as part of the menu and this strategy has reaped many benefits, creating a whole new tent, the Cultural Exchange Pavilion World Journey, with returnees from South Africa, Congo, Bahamas, Haiti, Cuba, Brazil, Benin, Puerto Rico and elsewhere, all emphasizing the common ground that New Orleans music shares with music of Africa and the African diaspora. These musicians are not headliners but they carry the Jazz Fest ethos forward effectively, especially in the context of New Orleans musicians (just off the top of my head, Leyla McCalla, Panorama Jazz Band, Michael Skinkus and Moyuba, Patrice Fisher and Arpa) who embrace similar territory.
One service Jazz Fest has reliably provided is the keep the Radiators an active force in the festival’s lineup even after the band stopped performing regularly several years ago. The only other place on earth the Rads sound as good as they do on the Gentilly stage is at Tipitina’s, and Sunday’s set was a happy reunion for the band’s dedicated fans. From the melodic strains of Ed Volker’s “Love Grows On You” and “Rise and Shine” to the great new Earl King tribute, “King Earl” and old favorites like “Death of the Blues,” “Sparkplug,” “Papaya” and “Smoking Hole” the band dazzled in the late afternoon sunshine. Guitarist Camile Baudoin wore his star-shaped stage pass like a sheriff’s badge and he wielded his authority on a blistering “No. 2 Pencil.” And the Radiators made sure they left no Stone unrolled with terrific renditions of “Let It Bleed” and a set-closing “Sympathy for the Devil.”
– John Swenson
George Porter, Jr. opened the last day of the celebratory 50thNew Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival by reaching back 50 years to play old familiar songs as well as tunes of a more recent vintage. His regular Runnin’ Pardners unit was augmented by a stop-on-a-dime horn section featuring Khris Royal on alto sax, Tracy Griffin on trumpet and Jeff Albert on trombone.
Porter, Jr., whose voice was showing a little of the wear and tear most festers were feeling, told a story about being a young musician and being schooled by David Lastie of the famed Lastie musical family. “He told me what notto do instead of what todo,” he said with a chuckle before launched into “Make Me A Pallet on the Floor.” The tune started as a slow gospel incantation and ended as an up tempo funk raver.
In the Cultural Exchange Pavilion, the family of Big Chief Monk Boudreaux celebrated his long career with an intimate gathering. Flanked by his daughter, son and grandson in addition to several other family members, the black Indians reached back to a time before the tribes performed with electric guitars and funk musicians. Supported simply by the drums of his brother’s Indian Rhythm Section and their own tambourines, Monk said, “this is how we used to do it, then we had to take it to another level.”
The Tribute to Allen Toussaint demonstrated the fact that while Jazz Fest is communal, it is also personal. The Allen Toussaint Orchestra featured musicians who performed regularly with the legendary songwriter over the years including his son, Clarence. A parade of “very special guests” included musicians and singers who knew the pianist personally.
John Boutte sang “Lipstick Traces.” Davell Crawford was visibly moved as he worked through three Toussaint classics and remarked, “This is his legacy and his children up here.” Rita Coolidge, Jimmy Buffett and Irma Thomas followed with a song each. Ivan Neville led a sing-along on “Yes We Can” before his uncle Aaron hushed the giant infield with a stellar rendition of “All These Things” complete with the original horn arrangement.
– Jay Mazza