The New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Course is home to horse racing most of the year, and it’s been so since 1852. But on the day of the 143rd Kentucky Derby, the most important horse race of the year, thousands of people packed between the horse tracks here in New Orleans, not to gamble, but to celebrate unity, music, and the art that binds us.
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 bird nests. A full second line brass band parades up her spine.
The Jazz & Heritage Foundation commissioned Osborne to paint the official Jazz Fest poster on four separate years, most notably 2012’s rendering of Trombone Shorty. With the rainbow-colored houses seeming to dance with the instruments in Osborne’s paintings, there’s an audible element to his paintings. The NOCCA alumnus and Magazine Street gallery artist explains, “Music brings light to darkness. My art reflects the community around me, this festival spirit.”
This festival spirit thrives in the message of Tank and the Bangas, who played their “theatrical soul” music in the shade of 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 onesie 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.”
Across the Fair Grounds at the Acura Stage, perhaps the largest crowd of the fest grew for Irma Thomas ahead of Stevie Wonder’s long awaited show. 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 (Wonder’s show came roughly a year after his 2016 Jazz Fest appearance was called off due to horrible weather). 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.”
Snoop Dogg was also rained out last year, but he 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.
Also accompanying them onstage was Nasty Dogg, a Doggystyle mascot who added comedic relief to some of Snoop’s most explicit songs. Nasty Dogg whipped out a stuffed penis while Snoop paid homage to the late Nate Dogg’s special, “Ain’t No Fun.” Snoop apologized and kicked Nasty Dogg off stage.
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.
On the day that a thoroughbred named Always Dreaming won the Kentucky Derby, the New Orleans Fair Grounds exhibited what the Crescent City does best by “shining positivity” back onto the rest of the country.”I love NOLA,” read the writing scrawled across the sky. And it’s fair to assume that most everyone at Jazz Fest agreed. All the musicians and artists who performed yesterday, whether local or not, appreciate the power of the festival spirit. It’s always dreaming and always uniting.
All photos by Elsa Hahne and Noe Cugny.