New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – April 28 – May 1, 2016
Rain? What rain?
By Brian Wise.
If the most lasting image of Jazz Fest’s second weekend was Neil Young performing ‘Cortez The Killer’ on the main Acura stage then the rain itself must take second place; especially when you had to walk knee-deep in it to leave the festival on Saturday!
Thursday April 28
The second weekend began as it ended – with rain. Local guitar hero Sonny Landreth played on the main stage through a downpour, seemingly completely undeterred. Then, as he finished his set, the sky relented so that Gary Clark Jr was able to get through his hour unencumbered.
Clark becomes more impressive every time I see him and I don’t think that Festival Director Quint Davis was exaggerating when he introduced Clark as taking up the mantle of the greats. Songs from Clark’s major label debut, Blak & Blu, come over much better live. Clark started with a grungy ‘Bright lights’ and later there was a powerhouse version of ‘When My Train Pulls In.’
Had I braved the rain I might have caught some of The Lost Bayou Ramblers with Rickie Lee Jones and Spider Stacy on the Fais Do Do, where they reportedly performed a version of ‘Fairytale of New York,’ though it was neither that city or Christmas! One of the problems with Jazz Fest is that you just cannot see everything!
As I wandered across to the Gentilly stage for Elvis Costello, I caught a little of The Suffers who had starred the other weekend at Old Settler’s in Austin and seem destined for bigger things, a really impressive and Buffy St Marie with a really gutsy band on the Fais Do Do and some of Brandi Carlile who preceded Elvis. It was like getting a tasty sampler before the main course.
Elvis Costello bounded on stage in striped jacket and reversed purple beret (a nod to Prince?) with an Allen Toussaint badge affixed and burst into the set with the frenetic energy of a man half his age – a young Elvis Costello maybe?
The Imposters, anchored by drummer Pete Thomas and keyboard maestro Steve Nieve, with Davey Faragher on bass, provided solid backing to their energised leader. It must have been quite a job keeping up for the first four songs: Nick Lowe’s ‘What’s So Funny About Peace, Love & Understanding,’ ‘Watching The Detectives,’ ‘Mystery Dance’ and ‘Radio Radio.’
Then in quick succession we got ‘Flutter and Wow,’ ‘Beyond Belief,’ ‘Clubland’ and ‘Sugar Won’t Work,’ with the music ebbing and flowing and Costello in fine form and good spirits.
Of course, Costello’s devotion to New Orleans goes much further back than his collaborations with Allen Toussaint – he used the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on Spike back in 1989 – and he told some lovely stories about his work with Toussaint, including how he would never criticise but rather ask about a decision. Then, after ‘Ascension Day,’ Costello performed the remainder of the set – including ‘Who’s Gonna Help Brother Get Further,’’Wonder Woman,’ ‘I Cried My Last Tear’ and ‘Bedlam,’with the Crescent City Horns.
‘Pump It Up’ brought the level up yet again and closed what turned out to be an 18-song set full of energy and joy. It was a fitting tribute to Allen Toussaint and the spirit of New Orleans.
Friday April 29
The decision to park myself at the Fais Do Do stage after catching a little of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the Acura was well-rewarded with a terrific set from the Honey Island Swamp Band whose new album Demolition Day is impressive.
Then, I managed to hear a little of the The Revivalists at the Gentilly who have come a hell of a long way since forming in New Orleans in 2007. I made a mental note to check them out again as soon as I got the chance.
Making a decision to stay at the Fais Do Do meant that I would miss Irma Thomas and then Paul Simon on the main stage where the crowd was apparently enormous. As I said, you cannot see everything.
While the area in front of the Fais Do Do stage was packed for the start of Los Lobos performing the entire La Pistola Y El Corazon album, there were only about a quarter left by the end. This vindicated the group’s accurate assessment that the album was commercial suicide being released after the hit song ‘La Bamba’! However, it was superbly presented, the group sounded wonderful together and those who stayed were rewarded with an hour of magic.
Finally, the afternoon ended with My Morning Jacket on the Gentilly Stage, with some of the most pristine sound heard there so far. This was up against Paul Simon on the main stage (and Ms Lauryn Hill at Congo Square) but as he had drawn a large audience discretion was called for and so the smaller and less populated Gentilly proved perfect. (I have to admit that I also missed Irma Thomas on the Acura for the same reason).
Jim James and his cohorts shook their heads and had their long hair flying everywhere. Not as loud as I have heard them in the past the MMJ show was impressive.
Saturday April 30
There was steady rain in the morning and early afternoon, easing long enough to get to the bus stop and make it to Jazz Fest unscathed. The intention was to see Dr John & The Nite Trippers, then catch a little of Stevie Wonder before finishing the day with Buddy Guy in the Blues Tent. (Beck was on Gentilly, Snoop Dogg at Congo Square). But even the best laid plans can go wrong.
After watching an enthusiastic set from Jon Batiste and Stay Human prior to Dr John, the rain arrived. The good Doctor launched into his set with ‘Iko Iko,’ ‘Shoo Fly’ and ‘sing, Sing, Sing’ – sounding splendid. It got even better with ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’ and ‘Right Place, Wrong Time,’ as the intensity of the rain increased. Suddenly, Quint Davis appeared to announce that the show would have to end due to the possibility of lightning.
We then experienced what I think is one of the worst storms that I have seen at a Jazz Fest – and there have been some fierce ones – with the rain whipping the crowd, lightning cracking and thunder booming. The worst of it lasted only 30 minutes or so but soon the infield was a small lake and people hurriedly started heading away to the shelter of jazz, blues and gospel tents or the Grandstand.
Even the shelter that I had managed to find was evacuated and, after 15 minutes hiding in the Acura car display tent I made it to the Blues Tent in time for one song by Jon Cleary & The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. Then the announcement came that the entire rest of the afternoon was cancelled. No Stevie Wonder, no Buddy Guy, no Beck, no Arturo Sandoval and no Lone Bellow. (Stevie played later that night for a few hundred lucky people at Irvin Mayfield’s).
If that was not bad enough, getting out of the festival grounds required walking in knee deep water. Experience has taught me to wear old shoes on rainy days which is just as well because these ones, completely submerged as they were, may never be resuscitated!
Sunday May 1
It might seem crazy to head off to a festival in the pouring rain but Neil Young was playing and at least in New Orleans it was not cold. Planting myself near the main stage seemed like a good idea but it meant I would have to miss Bonnie Raitt on Gentilly at the other end of the track, the Isley Brothers at Congo Square as well as Marcia Ball, Mavis Staples and Arlo Guthrie in the Blues Tent. It is the sort of clash you would like to have every day at a festival.
Young’s performance (reviewed previously) made the choice and the rain well worth it as he ran up two-and-a-quarter-hours in a monumental show with Promise of the Real.
First there was the solid sounds of Zigaboo Modeliste’s Funk Revue and then Ivan Neville’s very funky Dumpstaphunk with guest Art Neville (‘Papa Funk’) on keyboards, sounding very much like the Neville Brothers at times.
It was also a chance to sample some more of the food. Of course, I had to enjoy one final bowl of Crawfish Monica. I had also taken a liking to the Cuban Sandwich over both weekends as well as the Crawfish Bread. Rounding out the Top 5 were the Vietnamese prawn and pork rice paper rolls which seem very un-New Orleans and almost a treacherous thing to eat, yet as a nice change from the usual fare they are delicious.
After Neil Young’s show it seemed the right time to leave, although I would miss Trombone Shorty closing the main stage and the BB King Tribute at Gentilly. Good as Shorty is I still miss the Neville Brothers performing closing duties! Though it was still raining as we left, the bus back to the French Quarter was full of drenched, happy people raving about Neil Young. No one mentioned the rain at all!
So, it was a different sort of Jazz Fest for me. Fewer acts in more depth. It worked well, though next year it would be nice to be a little more mobile to take in a few more of the eclectic treats.