By Brian Wise.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Fairgrounds Racetrack, New Orleans – Thursday May 4 – Sunday May 7, 2017
In a continuation of the first weekend the weather tried its hardest to spoil the start of play. A severe rainsquall swept through the city in the morning but by the early afternoon it had cleared leaving only cool weather for people to battle. After nearly 24 hours of rain the Fairgrounds were in surprisingly god condition with some mud and dampness underfoot but not enough to stop the audience for what is usually Jazz Fest’s quietest day.
Lacking the heavy hitters amongst the headliners it is a day to relax and enjoy the music in comfort, albeit a chill that was almost the equal of several years ago when I nearly froze through a Willie Nelson set on the Gentilly stage.
The Acura stage featured local jazz hero Irvin Mayfield, Meter man George Porter Jr and his band as well as Voice of The Wetlands who pushed their message about the environmental threat to Louisiana. Featuring Tab Benoit, Jumpin’ Johnny Sansone and others it is a potent combination. The Acura was closed out by Widespread Panic.
Marcia Ball and Cajun rocker Wayne Toups were on the Gentilly stage, while one of my favourites, Big Chief Donald Harrison was on the Congo Square stage with his full electric band putting in a funky set. I had seen him just a few nights earlier at Snug Habor when he proved himself to be one of the best jazz sax players in the business in a wonderful show.
While Corinne Bailey Rae an then Tower of Power closed Cong Square I headed the to the Blues Tent to check out Eric Lindell and then Lisa Fischer, former backing singer for the Rolling Stones.
Lindell was helped out by guitar Anson Funderburgh for a really soulful set that highlighted the strength of the song writing in recent years.
Lisa Fischer’s set featured a number of Stones’ covers done in a jazz style but there was certainly nothing subtle about the show. Fischer has an impressive set of tonsils and she was determined to use them – at full force.
As a complete contrast, I headed across to the Jazz Tent to see Herb Alpert and Lani Hall. Herb obliged by compressing all his well know tunes into one segment that included ‘The Lonely Bull’ and ‘Tijuana Taxi.’ Then, claiming that he didn’t usually perform it anymore, but would if we sang along, he graced us with a lovely version of ‘This Guy’s In Love With You.’ Even at the age of 78 Alpert’s playing still has a superb tone.
Friday May 5
Bonerama and its funky New Orleans brass were on the Acura stage early, followed by local guitar hero Sonny Landreth, who remains one of the most distinctive slide guitarists around.
The Revivalists were great last year with their modern rootsy pop rock songs that are all very catchy. I thought they would be much better known by now. But for some reason they are not.
While Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds were headlining the Acura and Lake Street Dive, Anders Osborne and Wilco were on the smaller Gentilly arena and Earth Wind & Fire were on Congo Square, I decided on William Bell and Rhiannon Giddens in the Blues Tent.
Septuagenarian Bell is in remarkably good shape – physically and vocally – considering he started his career sometime back in the 60s. In his silver lame suit he jumped around stage like a man half his age. Bell’s latest album This Is Where I Live has rejuvenated his career and songs from the featured heavily along with some of his classics such as ‘You Don’t Miss Your Water,’ ‘Private Number,’ ‘I Forgot To Be Your Lover’ and ‘Born Under A Bad Sign.’ It was and 11 song power-packed set which marked Bell as one of the finest of the old-soul generation left. Surely he must be due to appear at an Australian festival soon.
A couple of hours before her own set Rhiannon Giddens appeared as a guest with Leyla McCalla, with whom she had workd in the Carolina Chocolate drops. Cellist/banjo player McCalla is destined for her own stardom but Giddens is already there.
Last year Giddens and her group, featuring mutli-instrumentalist/producer Dirk Powell and former Chocolate Drop Hubby Jenkins, received a standing ovation after every song. This year the reaction was almost identical, perhaps slightly tempered by the fact that she is now a known quantity. After more than a year on the road, this is a finely honed combination sounding superb. The highlight of the show was the closing bracket of songs from the latest album: ‘Birmingham Sunday’ and ‘Freedom Highway’ (the title). It was a potent comment on current political events.
Saturday May 6
While Rhiannon Giddens commented about politics through her music, Stevie Wonder – the act everyone wanted to see on Saturday – had no hesitation in talking about current events. At the start of his show he spent some time talking about how we needed to come together and referred to the incumbent President as ‘Mr 45,’ never mentioning him by name.
Michael Doucet’s Beausoleil on the Fais Do Do Stage were a delight and a reminder of just how mighty this Cajun outfit has been over the decades.
Irma Thomas preceded Stevie Wonder on the main stage, which was quite a task, as the arena was packed with fans waiting for Stevie. But Thomas charmed with her array of great songs so much associated with the city.
Wonder’s show last year was rained out but this year he was able to prove why his career has had such longevity. As someone pointed out to me, there are very few musicians who enjoy the luxury of the audience knowing every word to every song.
While the two hour long show was peppered with some up-tempo numbers such as ‘Signed, Sealed, Delivered,’ ‘Living In The City’ and ‘Higher Ground’ it was surprisingly mellow with ‘My Cherie Amour,’ ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life,’ ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’, ‘I Wish’ and ‘Don’t You Worry Bout A Thing’ featuring as well. Corinne Bailey Rae guested after Wonder led the crowd in a chant of ‘racism is unacceptable.’
Sunday May 7
Sometimes at Jazz Fest it is good to give the headliners a miss and seek out other treats. Since the retirement of the Neville Brothers, Trombone Shorty now closes Jazz Fest and he followed Kings of Leon who also drew rave reviews.
I opted for the Gentilly stage to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Buddy Guy and The Meters. That is not a bad trifecta for the closing afternoon.
The choices were plentiful. The Jazz tent featured patriarch Ellis Marsalis, trumpeter Nicholas Payton and Latin great Chucho Valdez. The Blues tent featured Tab Benoit and Blues Traveler.
Buddy Guy started with a killer version of ‘Damn Right I Got The Blues’ and one had to be reminded that he is now 80 years of age. Younger acolytes such as Jonny Lang and Kenny Wayne Shepherd who played in the Blues tent over the festival might have taken note. Then Buddy was his old self, paying tribute to many of his blues idols when he deserves to stand amongst them as an equal. Interestingly after he played ’19 Years Old,’ he exclaimed, ‘I didn’t right the song!’ as if he had noted how odd it was for an 80year old to be singing it!
Leaving Buddy Guy a few minutes before the end of his set, I managed to catch about an hour of Dawes on the Fais Do Do stage and I have to say it is the most impressive show I have ever seen them give. The sound was crisp and clear and uncluttered and the harmonies were superb. You can imagine this band having a cult following for years if they don’t manage to break into the big time (which they deserve to do).
The festival finished for me with The Meters and their incredibly influential grooves. You can’t beat a funky version of ‘Hey Pocky Way’ to close your Jazz Fest and listening to the band’s groove as I walked out of the festival seemed the perfect way to exit.
The 2017 Jazz Fest might not have had many of the heavy hitters of previous years but the fact that crowds were slightly down (425,000 overall by the official count) made it very enjoyable, as did the cooler weather. As always, the experience is made richer by discoveries and there were plenty to be had. Roll on 2018.
Jazz Fest 2018 will run from April 27 – May 6.