Clear skies and a lack of overwhelming crowds made for an inviting first day of Jazz Fest 2016. The occasional mud pit aside, things were looking pretty good throughout the Fair Grounds, as festival-goers moved easily from stage to stage and suffered minimal lines at the bathrooms and food stands.
Steely Dan’s effortless mix of jazz, funk and ‘70s pop-rock sensibilities made for a solid opening day headliner for the Acura Stage. Backed by a tight band that included four horns and a trio background singers, Donald Fagen and Walter Becker led the audience on a journey through the front of their catalog.
“We’re going to play all of the hits,” lead guitarist and co-founder Walter Becker explained early in the set. “Boom! Hits. Boom! Hits,” he repeated before promising that the band would team up with one-time member and fellow Acura Stage performer Michael McDonald at the end of their show.
Both of those declarations turned out to be true. From the opening notes of “Aja” to “Hey Nineteen,” “Josie,” “Muy Old School,” “Reelin’ in the Years” and more, the group delivered a string of immaculately executed numbers that had the generally middle aged crowd singing along from start to finish. The band itself was also used to great effect, as nearly each song ended with a solo of sorts, be it from the keys, sax, trombone, guitar or drums.
It was those drums that played out “Reelin’ in the Years,” a track that usually marks the end of the band’s live set. Rather than walking off stage before the obligatory encore, Fagen announced that the band would instead stick around for the final songs because encores were “too much fucking trouble.”
“Kid Charlemagne” kicked off the finale before McDonald took the stage to join his former bandmates for the day’s last tune. Becker explained that McDonald used to sing the forthcoming song when he was a member of Steely Dan’s touring band, making way for a closing “Pretzel Logic” with the former Doobie Brothers singer on vocals.
Just a few hours earlier at the Gentilly Stage, singer/guitarist Grace Potter treated the crowd to a powerful set that silenced anyone who may have questioned her rock credentials following last year’s pop-tinged release, Midnight. While she may be relying on a bit more on style than she did with her old (and substantive) backing band the Nocturnals, Potter made it clear that she can still shred her signature Flying V guitar or get funky behind the keys when the moment calls for it.
Like countless artists all over the world, Potter took some time to pay tribute to Prince on the day after his passing. Toward the end of her set, she implored the audience to live in the moment, telling them, “Don’t party for yourself. Party for Prince.” What followed was a genuinely heartfelt take on “When Doves Cry.” (It wasn’t Potter’s only cover of the day either: she joined Gov’t Mule for Fleetwood Mac’s “Gold Dust Woman” during the Warren Haynes-led jam band’s Gentilly Stage headlining set).
Fortunately for fans of Potter, the Flying-V was not the only holdover from her days with the Nocturnals. The set-closing drum jam remains a part of the equation as well, with Potter and the rest of her band gathering around the drum set for an animalistic onslaught of percussion.
However, that explosion of energy was only the show’s second-to-last number, as things finally wrapped up with a roaring rendition of her 2011 hit “Paris (Ooh La La)” that included a surprising–but welcome–“Iko Iko” cover. After all, this is Jazz Fest.