New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
Fairgrounds Racetrack, New Orleans – Thursday May 1 – Sunday May 4, 2014
Now in its 45th year Jazz Fest has reached middle age and has become more successful than ever. The question of whether it is better than ever will be left to long-time festival-goers but there seemed to be few complaints. Is it too big? Are there too many ‘pop’ acts? Are the headliners soaking up money that could go to local acts? Has the audience become mainly out-of-towners intent on partying and turning the event into Bourbon Street at the Fairgrounds.
No doubt the post-mortems will be many but over the course of two weekends I heard few complaints and, as Director Quint Davis pointed out in a press conference to announce another 5-year sponsorship deal with Shell, Jazz Fest is worth a staggering $300 million a year to the city. To put this into perspective, the city I come from pays to host a car race that costs taxpayers $60 million a year! (Of course, no one mentioned the plane flying over the festival towing a banner protesting Shell’s environmental record).
The final few hours of Jazz Fest epitomized what the event has become. Big name ‘heritage’ headliners such as John Fogerty, Bobby Womack, Chick Corea, local legends The Radiators and Aaron Neville rubbed shoulders with a younger generation in Arcade Fire, Trombone Shorty (who closed the show on the main stage), funkster Ivan Neville and cajun band Feufollet.
Regardless of the massive drawcards such as Fogerty, Springsteen, Christina Aguilera, Robert Plant, Phish and others there are plenty of other acts that offer much enjoyment away from the throngs of the main Acura or Samsung stages.As far as I am concerned, the chance to see the great Bobby Womack put in a wonderful show at the Congo Square stage on the final day was worth the admission alone.
Thursday is by far the least crowded of Jazz Fest’s seven days and for some that makes it the most enjoyable day, especially with a bill that is weighted heavily towards Louisiana. A quick study of the entire program reveals an incredible line-up of local talent that might be overshadowed by banner acts on other days. Compare this with an event such as Byron’s Bluesfest where there are ongoing complaints about the quantity of both blues and local acts, or ACL Fest where the Texas component has been diluted in recent years. The vast majority of acts at Jazz Fest are still sourced from Louisiana.
The Fais Do Do stage featured Lil’ Nathan The Zydeco Big Timers, Rosie Ledet & The Zydeco Players and Beausoleil avec Michael Doucet. Neville Brothers’ drummer ‘Mean’ Willie Green had his new outfit the New Orleans Suspects on the main stage (who sounded best when they sounded like the Nevilles) and was followed by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Blues Kenny Bill Stinson & The ARK-LA Mystics channeled Jerry Lee Lewis early in the Blues Tent, while later Johnny Sansone and Luther Kent flew the state’s flag.
Saxophone maestro Donald Harrison invited JB Horns legend Fred Wesley onto the Congo Square stage and later dressed in his colourful Mardi Gras Indian costume while other ‘Indians’ paraded on stage as singer/keyboardist Davell Crawford sang ‘Iko Iko.’ On the Samsung Stage, keyboard player Marcia Ball put in a rollicking set of boogie woogie and blues.
However, the standout act for me was Lyle Lovett who introduced his ‘Acoustic Group,’ a marvellous ensemble that included drummer Russ Kunkel, along with bassist Viktor Krauss, fiddle player Luke Bullock and singer/mandolin player Keith Sewell (who Lovett graciously allowed to perform a song from his own album).
One of the highlights of the set was a version of Jesse Winchester’s ‘Isn’t That So?’ dedicated to the late singer. It was a perfect tribute. We left Lovett as he launched into Townes Van Zandt’s ‘White Freightliner Blues.’
Hurray For The Riff Raff are fast becoming one of this year’s ‘next big thing’ (if they are not so already). Led by songwriter Alynda Lee Segarra the group highlighted songs from the latest album Small Town Heroes, with the standout being ‘I Know It’s Wrong (But That’s Alright)’
One of Friday’s headliners had already popped up in New Orleans. The Alabama Shakes had appeared at the Preservation Hall’s Midnight Preserves show the evening before they headlined the Samsung Galaxy stage. Their set at the intimate venue had been thrilling with Brittney showing that she has one of the great modern soul voices.
Last time he played at Jazz Fest Alejandro Escovedo was on the main stage but it was at 11.00am, meaning only the most dedicated fans got to see him. This time it was the much smaller Fais Do Do stage but a much better time at 4.20pm.
Escovedo remains a ‘cult’ hero but his fans include Bruce Springsteen, Lucinda Williams and R.E.M’s Peter Buck. A dozen or more other high profile artists got recorded a tribute album to him a few years back when he was ill and needed assistance. He has been hailed as an alt.country pioneer but his roots are really in rock ‘n’ roll with a Texas twist. There might have been a lot of people in the audience who were unfamiliar with Escovedo’s work but they were converted to fans after his energising performance.
Escovedo made light of the fact that someone had insisted he was Rodriguez and I watched him and his band power through some songs drawn from his latest album Big Station and its predecessor Street Songs of Love before leaving to get a spot in the Jazz Tent for Pharoah Sanders. So, I missed Escovedo performing Neil Young’s ‘Like A Hurricane’ in what was apparently a brilliant version of the song. As I said, you win some and you lose some.
The day ended for me in the Jazz Tent enjoying the legendary Pharoah Sanders who at 73-year-old has lost none of his chops. At times he can lull you and then suddenly shake you with a ferocious solo inserted it seems to make you pay attention. Occasionally, he will look at the audience quizzically as if wondering if we get it. I arrived at the tent early to get a seat and was amazed that it was not packed to the rafters. Surely the day’s other closing acts – Christina Aguilera, the Alabama Shakes, Charles Bradley and Chaka Khan could not have diminished the audience for a true legend?
Saturday’s banner act was Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band which overshadowed just about everything else on the entire festival line-up. Springsteen’s post-Katrina appearance with the Seeger Sessions Band in 2006 has become legendary as one of the greatest shows in the history of the event and his show in 2012 was also acclaimed.
If you had any doubt that Saturday belonged to The Boss you only had to look at the long lines of people waiting to get into the festival – some of the biggest I have seen – to know that he remains one of the event’s biggest-ever draw cards. Festival oganisers seem reluctant to publish daily figures but there must have been well over 120,000 attendees.
Marc Broussard, Allen Toussaint and Voices of The Wetlands preceded The Boss on the main stage and subdude Tommy Malone had a solo set at the Samsung stage to highlight songs from his fine new album Poor Boy. He also became the second artist that I saw to pay tribute to the late Jesse Winchester (Lyle Lovett was the other) when he performed ‘Everybody Knows But Me.’ (A subdudes reunion this at the House of Blues was an instant sell-out).
Springsteen opened his near three-hour show with ‘High Hopes,’ ‘Johnny 99,’ ‘Badlands,’ ‘No Surrender,’ Hungry Heart,’ ‘Jesse James’ and ‘The River.’ No real surprises there. But then he launched into ‘How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live’ – one of the standout songs of his 2006 post-Katrina show here and you were reminded of his ability to touch an audience where they live.
Later, Springsteen invited John Fogerty on stage to sing ‘Green River’ and ‘Proud Mary’ with him but by that time we had retreated to the Blues Tent to see Johnny Winter. You win a few, you lose a few!
This year Johnny Winter was able to walk onstage without any assistance which I hope is a good sign for his health. His band is anything but subtle and they powered through a batch of blues rockers including ‘Johnny B.Goode,’ ‘Good Morning Little Schoolgirl,’ ‘Got My Mojo Working’ and Larry Williams’ ‘Boney Moronie’ with the finesse of a Mack truck. Amidst the wall of sound you could hear Winter struggling with his rasping voice but his playing remained powerful, which is good news for fans.
Arcade Fire were the big ‘pop’ draw on Sunday May 4, the final day of Jazz Fest but the draw for me was Bobby Womack on the Congo Square stage. Maybe people had arrived there early for Maze (featuring Frankie Beverly) but whatever the reason it was one of the biggest crowds I have ever seen at that stage. By some miracle, I was able to locate my chair that had been strategically placed earlier in the day.
Perhaps the large crowd had also been drawn by the weather, which was almost perfect for the entire festival: a little warm on the last few days but that is preferable to last year’s big wet.
Bobby Womack always does a compelling show and none more so than here to a partisan and involved mainly African-American audience. Despite recent health problems Womack sounded fantastic as he tackled a brace of hit songs that resonated powerfully with his fans.
If Springsteen yesterday was singing to a middle class white audience that had aspirations of climbing in a car and driving off into the sunset down Thunder Road, then Womack was singing to an entirely different group of people who were just trying to survive life and their relationships. Like the very best shows at Jazz Fest (including Springsteen’s post-Katrina epic) this made you feel as though you were all sharing something.
‘Across 110th Street’ was the perfect opener and brought a lot of knowing nods. ‘Nobody Wants You When You’re Down And Out,’ ‘Harry Hippie,’ ‘I Wish You Didn’t Trust Me So Much,’ ‘That’s The Way I Feel About You,’ ‘Woman’s Gotta Have It,’ ‘If You Think You’re Lonely Now’ and ‘Looking For A Love’ – this is a batch of songs as good if not better than any almost everyone else at Jazz Fest. Then cap it off with a stunning version of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ and it has the makings of another unforgettable Womack Jazz Fest set! It was impossible to leave before the end of the short but extraordinarily powerful show.
Robert Earl Keen was quite a contrast to Bobby Womack in his light blue suit and Stetson hat on the Fais Do Do stage but he was engaging as well. Keen comes from the right side of country music – the side that hasn’t been processed in some Nashville hit factory. He’s a Texas boy and it shows. The influences here are Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark.
“What could be better than good food, good drink and good weather?” Keen asked. No one disagreed but later they would have added that great music has its place too.
Keen and his rocking four-piece band, with guitarist Rich Brotherton, opened with ‘Corpus Christi Bay’ and added some songs from his latest album Ready For Confetti, including the title song, ‘The Road Goes On And On’ and ‘Play A Train Song.’ There was also the Grateful Dead’s ‘New Speedway Boogie,’ while one of the highlights was his dedication to Levon Helm, ‘The Man Behind The Drums.’
The closing hours of Jazz Fest always have a tinge of sadness to them – as well as relief that one has survived.
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue are now in the closing slot on the mains stage that the Neville Brothers occupied for so many years with Professor Longhair their predecessor there.
John Fogerty was on the Samsung stage and delivered a set that was just packed full of great songs. And how could it not be? ‘Born On The Bayou,’ ‘Green River,’ ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain,’ ‘Looking Out My Back Door,’ ‘Hot Rod Heart,’ ‘Ramble Tamble’ (with a thumping Kenny Aranoff on drums), ‘Jambalaya’ (with Rockin’ Dopsie Jr as guest), ‘Midnight Special,’ ‘Long As I Can See The Light’ were enough classics for me because I had another mission. But Fogerty also added lots more, including a guest spot from Allen Toussaint.
My Jazz Fest 2014 had to end in the Blues Tent with Aaron Neville and I arrived there in time to hear him do a stunning version of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ (with brother Charles on sax). It was the second version of the song I had heard that day, after Bobby Womack, and the perfect place to stop. It doesn’t get better than that!