The Congo Square stage on the second day of Jazz Fest 2018 was the place to be for anyone interested in the city’s vibrant youth culture. There, the stage housed a triple threat, back-to-back set from three of the greatest acts on the bill. Big Freedia, Common and Khalid offered up samplings of bounce, hip-hop and contemporary pop-soul with such brilliance, it’s a wonder anyone would have wanted to be anywhere else on the Fair Grounds.
Flanked by her trusty team of twerkers, the Queen Diva delighted a crowd that included future mayor Latoya Cantrell, who could be seen dancing along while bare bottoms decorated the stage. She performed a bevy of her hits, eliciting eager call and responses from a horde of fans; shrieks of “YOU ALREADY KNOW!” and “RELEASE YO WIGGLE!” punctuated the hot air. It was a particularly thrilling performance from Freedia, who on June 1 will release her debut label album, Third Ward Bounce. Naturally, she blessed the crowd with some of her own signature twerking.
Next, it was Jet Life camp’s DJ Kelly Green’s turn to keep the energy pumping, which she did with an immaculate blending of Soul classics and dancefloor hits. It was all a prelude to a powerful performance from Common, an Oscar-winner whose career in hip-hop dates back to the early 1990s. For longtime fans, it may have been disappointing that the majority of his set list was comprised of records from the mid 2000s and on. However, he did open his set with “Time Travelin’ (A Tribute to Fela)” from his 2000 seminal, Like Water for Chocolate. What followed were a handful of Kanye West-produced cuts from 2005’s Be (“The Corner”) and 2007’s Finding Forever (“The People”). Perhaps the most poignant moment came before he performed “U Black Maybe,” another Finding Forever cut on which Bilal is featured. Before getting into it, Common spoke to the crowd about the importance of memorializing the murders of Stephon Clark, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland and others. He also made specific mention of Chikesia Clemons, who was “dragged out of a Waffle House like an animal.” Asking the crowd to join him in raising up a fist, it was an arresting moment.
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 “Let Me 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.
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 “Mazeltov Cocktail,” Freilich exclaimed “This is rock & roll.”
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 MOM’s 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,” “No Fun Unless 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 Gras.” 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