By Brian Wise.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – Friday April 28 – Sunday April 30 – Fairgrounds Racetrack, New Orleans
The weather did its best to interfere with the first weekend of JazzFest but in the end only four hours were lost on Sunday after a ferocious storm swept across the city.
The first two days had seen threatening weather but eventually there was welcome cloud cover and cooler conditions making it exceptionally enjoyable. Those who have sweltered through some of the hotter years revelled in the favourable climate.
For those who have never been to Jazz Fest it might be worth pointing out that the event takes place at the Fairgrounds Racetrack about a 15-minute bus ride from the famous French Quarter. There are 10 music stages (including blues, gospel and jazz tents), an interview stage in the grandstand as well as a children’s tent. Add to that a plethora of crafts stalls and food stalls of every conceivable local cuisine (and a few not so local). Some days there can be over 100,000 people and anything less than that is a bonus. This weekend only Saturday approached a large crowd.
While many big name commercial acts have dominated the bill over recent years the event remains the major showcase for Louisiana talent of all descriptions.
Of course, choosing whom to see from hundreds of acts on offer can provide a dilemma but in the end you have to go with your instincts. It is the only racetrack in the world where you cannot back a loser!
The first surprise of this year’s Jazz Fest was the sparse crowd on the opening day, making it the most comfortable first day for years. Did the weather put people off? Is tourism from Europe down substantially? Are ticket prices too high ($70 a day pre-booked and $80 on the day). Whatever the reason, the lower numbers certainly made it easy to get around.
Friday April 28
High Performance is the latest project from Steve Reilly of the Mamou Playboys and Lil’ Band O’Gold and they are a fine Cajun outfit – a little less purist than the Playboys but with plenty of grit. They kicked off the Fais Do Do (cajun & zydeco) stage for me and a little bit later I saw the impressive Pine Leaf Boys, the band that a few years ago were leading the Cajun revival amongst a younger audience and who can still take that mantle.
This year’s featured foreign country is Cuba and the Pedrito Martinez Group were on the Congo Square stage and out on a great show with their percussive Latin rhythms.
Leon Bridges had a featured slot on the Gentilly Stage (the second largest outdoor stage) and the 27-year old soul singer from Forth Worth, Texas, remains impressive enough to make you wonder just how good he will be in a few year’s time.
I had decided to get to the Blues Tent early to make sure I got a seat to see Aaron Neville, imagining it would be packed. I was wrong but at least I did get to see some of local Deacon John’s set.
Aaron Neville at 76 still has one of the most amazing voices in contemporary music. Sounding and looking as good as ever, Neville offered selections from his latest album Apache and delved into the catalogue for songs he recorded as a solo artist and with his siblings in the Neville Brothers. In fact, brother Charles stood in on saxophone. A standing ovation was mandatory.
Saturday April 29
Saturday’s weather loomed as gloomy as the previous day but had a more humid edge to it, which luckily failed to produce any rain. Soon the event was packed. People who were worried about predictions of a storm on Sunday were obviously prompted to come along. So, where Friday was sparse, today was a stunning reversal.
It was a day for the locals with brass bands predominating: the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band, the Rebirth Brass Band, the New Birth Brass Band and the Treme Brass Band.
Then there was Corey Henry, Steve Riley & The Mamou Playboys, Marc Broussard, Stanton Moore, Cyril Neville, Charmaine Neville and English-born now local Jon Cleary.
The Honey Island Swamp Band in the Blues Tent were reminiscent of The Band – and that is not idle flattery. They have definitely moved into that Americana direction that should surely get them a larger audience.
The Alabama Shakes on the Gentilly Stage were magnificent and drew a huge crowd. Brittany Howard remains one of the most compelling leaders of any modern band. A couple of years of touring have turned the band into a tightly-honed (but not necessarily polished) machine. When Howard lets loose it is impressive indeed.
I managed to catch a little of Jonny Lang in the blues tent on the way out and was impressed when he performed some of the more soulful songs from his catalogue. On a couple of other numbers he played a lot of notes, as required by ‘guitar heroes’ but not by blues players such as Buddy Guy.
Sunday April 30
A fiercesome thunderstorm whipped the city from 11.30am for a couple of hours and dumped 3 inches of rain. Calling back home to Melbourne as we waited for the weather to abate I was told that they had just endured less than an inch in a day. ‘That’s not rain!’ I replied.
Decades of experience in dealing with the weather has not made Jazz Fest organisers any more proficient in their communication. After tweeting after 1.00pm that there would be an announcement in 20 minutes it took nearly an hour for confirmation that the gates would open and the music would start at 3.00pm. In the meantime, there was hardly any other information, even on WWOZ the local Jazz Fest radio station. Sitting around waiting was, I suppose, inevitable but annoying. Some hardy fans had already gone out early and found shelter in the bars near the festival. Four hours was going to be much better than none!
As soon as the confirming tweet arrived we jumped into a cab and arrived in time to enjoy Dr John & The Gris Gris Krewe, which would have been a treat except for a booming bass that too often marred the sound. However, we could still enjoy the Doctor’s versions of ‘Wang Dang Doodle,’ Walk On Gilded Splinters,’ ‘Right place, Wrong Time,’ ‘Goodnight Irene’ and ‘Ida Red’ with Charles Neville on sax.
George Benson and Pitbull had both cancelled their afternoon shows, the former due to illness and the later due to the fact that his plane was delayed by the severe weather. The consolation for Benson fans was that Maceo Parker filled in for him and reportedly put on a great show (as you would expect from the master funk saxophonist).
Apparently, the Mavericks on the Fais Do Do stage were superb but I decided to stake my claim for a spot to watch Tom Petty close the day on the major stage with Lorde on the other main arena.
Petty must be taking the same eternal youth pills as Aaron Neville because, at 66, he looks terrific – bearded with still long-flowing hair held by a bandana – and also sounds as good as ever.
Celebrating 40 years since the first album with the Hearbreakers, Petty introduced and gave credit to his colleagues: Benmont Tench on keyboards, Mike Campbell on guitar, Ron Blair on bass and ‘newcomer’ (only 24 years in the band) drummer Steve Ferrone. Scott Thurston was the band’s multi-instrumentalist and the Webb Sisters, who had been with Leonard Cohen’s band, provided backing vocals. It is an awesome outfit.
Petty has a marvellous catalogue of songs and must rate as one of America’s top rock acts of the past four decades. We got to hear an interesting selection: opening with ‘Rockin’ Around (With You)’ from the very first album to ‘You Got Lucky,’ ‘I Won’t Back Down,’ ‘Free Fallin’,’ ‘Don’t Come Around here No More,’ ‘Learning To Fly,’ Refugee’ and more. There was also a nice three-song selection from Wildflowers.
The one and only problem with the Petty show (and I have noted this previously) is that he changes guitars after every song. So the crowd response builds to a crescendo then Petty walks to the back of the stage, the video screens go dark and he spends at least half-a-minute strapping on a new (and impressive looking guitar). It is a major vibe killer that annoys the hell out of me. How many guitars does he actually have on stage? How many does he need? (As a contrast, the last time I saw Jeff Beck, he used one guitar for the entire night!)
Do you think it might be possible to string together a set with 3 or 4 songs in a row that use the same guitar and tuning? I am not sure but I wish Petty would do this because if he did he could really lift the audience to great heights.
As I left I managed to catch one song from Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes in the Blues Tent. Their version of Sam Cooke’s ‘Having A Party’ really had the smallish audience jumping.