Text by Brian Wise. Photographs by Michael Mackenzie.
JAZZ FEST – WEEKEND #1 : Friday April 27 – Sunday April 29
On Sunday evening the post-mortems raged on. David Byrne or Charles Lloyd with Lucinda Williams? How could you separate such brilliant shows? In the end, as befitting a festival staged at a racetrack, we could easily declare it a dead heat. They will both live in the memory for years to come and, in the way that this festival so often does, they offered something extraordinary.
Not only that, here were veteran artists in their sixties (and 80 in the case of Lloyd), who are still creating magic on stage. Lloyd and Williams exuded a quiet majesty while Byrne fashioned a stunning performance piece framed by the music.
The opening day of Jazz Fest was given a special appeal because of the appearance of Charles Lloyd & The Marvels with Lucinda Williams and, if anything, it exceeded lofty expectations.
It almost seems as if saxophonist Lloyd might have a whole new career. In 2016 he released the wonderful album I Long To See You with The Marvels which included Greg Leisz and Bill Frisell. Now, he has recorded an album with Lucinda Williams and she arrived for the second part of his set, dedicating it to Charles Neville who died just a day earlier.
In fact, Lloyd’s career is almost coming full circle because he began playing with the likes of BB King, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and Howlin’ Wolf. Frisell was not here but guitarist Stuart Mathis from Williams’ band was a more than adequate sub, playing against Greg Leisz’s pedal steel.
After Lloyd and the ensemble warmed up with tunes such as Ornette Coleman’s ‘Ramblin’,’ Williams emerged and began with Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Nobody’s fault But Mine.’ Immediately, you knew that this was a special combination of singer and musicians. Lloyd’s saxophone lines were to embellish every song beautifully. ‘Dust’ and ‘Ventura’ from The Ghosts of Highway 20 and World Without Tears followed. Then Williams launched into a superb rendition of a relatively new song, ‘We Have Come Too Far To Turn Around’ followed by ‘Joy’. Then it was a surprise rendition of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come’ that had everyone gasp as Lloyd and the ensemble delicately coloured it. ‘A Place In My Heart’ closed what was all too brief a set. It made us long for the new album to be out soon. If this is any indication it should be sensational.
If Charles Lloyd opened the weekend with grace, David Byrne closed it in style with exuberance, colour and rhythm. It was like a bookend to an almost perfect three days.
It is difficult to describe Byrne’s show without running out of superlatives. Suffice it to say that after he performed ‘I Zimbra’ from Fear of Music and then ‘Once In A Lifetime’ and ‘Born Under Punches’ from Remain In Light, I was checking my phone to find out his coming tour dates to see if I could get to one!
It is also more than a little difficult to describe the show so that you get an idea of its full artistic impact. Byrne, barefoot and clad in a tight grey suit that must have become incredibly hot as the afternoon wore on, began by serenading a replica of a brain that he held aloft. (I half-expected him to mutter, ‘Alas poor Yorrick, I knew him well’). This is an image that we will not soon forget.
This was not just a rock show, with a dozen people on stage choreographed to perfection. This was something completely different. And weird. In a really good way! Some of the ensemble in their matching grey suits might have stood still for a second or so but I didn’t spot it. This was a dancing, joyous mass movement. We could have been at the Lincoln Center in New York.
All in all, there were seven Talking Heads songs in the eighteen-song set: enough to keep die-hard fans happy. Byrne then peppered the show with songs from his latest album American Utopia, his duet with St Vincent and selections from his other solo album, finishing with ‘Burning Down The House’ and encoring with a Janelle Monae cover.
Hearing the songs from Remain In Light was a reminder of how that album has hardly aged a day, if at all, since its release nearly 38 years ago. Is that possible? What other albums have aged so well and remained so relevant? Listen to it now and you might think that it was recorded within the last few years. Surely, it remains one of the truly great albums of all time.
So, at the end of the weekend, the Byrne show was the one everyone was talking about.
It is often too easy to use the term ‘inspirational’ but, in this case, I think it was apt.
After the first three days of Jazz Fest it was fairly clear what the standout acts had been. Not that makes the remainder of the line-up pale into insignificance it’s just that those two acts that took the event to another level.
Friday April 27
Sometimes, you take the legends that appear here for granted because there are so many of them but 80-year-old bassist Ron Carter stood out like a beacon on the very first day. An alumni of the Miles Davis Quintet, and quite possibly the most prolific and influential bassist in jazz history, Carter oversaw his trio, featuring guitarist Russell Malone and pianist Donald Vega, like an old lion as they delighted with some classics.
If you are looking for a younger musician able to inspire then look no further than Christian Scott a Tunde Adjuah, who preceded Carter and whose words were almost as powerful as his music (and nearly took as long). Scott is a charismatic band leader, nephew of Big Chief Donald Harrison and now a chief in his own right. He wants to bridge cultures and he is doing it with his ensemble and in practical terms with his own label and teaching. He is also the future, along with a few others here, of New Orleans jazz. I was to see Scott three nights in a row at the Preservation Hall Midnight Preserves and his shows were thrilling every time!
For the conclusion of his Congo Square Stage set, Donald Harrison Jr., in a white suit, was joined by a half-dozen Mardi Gras Indians in full regalia for “Iko Iko” and “Hey Pocky Way.” It encapsulated everything about New Orleans’ culture and Harrison is one of the key people in keeping that culture alive.
Other acts on offer during the afternoon as I sat in the jazz tent included Wayne Toups, Lukas Nelson & Promise of The Real, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Samantha Fish (who apparently wowed the audience).
Many people seemed excited to see Sting close the day on the main Acura Stage but for me it was an opportunity to catch Sturgill Simpson at the other end of the field. Steel Pulse were at Congo Square and Bobby Rush was in the Blues Tent.
Simpson is one of the two young lions of the Americana scene, the other being Jason Isbell and I have always found him the more interesting and challenging. Simpson’s guests were the local dance krewe the 610 Stompers. He also enlisted local sax player Brad Walker, who toured with him a couple of years ago. This is where Simpson’s set veered sharply from the sort of set that Jason Isbell will do tomorrow on the main stage in that he went off into a wild jam that lasted about ten minutes. It was kind of like Merle Haggard meets the Grateful Dead.
Saturday April 28
Apart from Charles Lloyd and Lucinda Williams in the Jazz Tent, today’s most obvious drawcards were the Fats Domino Tribute and Bonnie Raitt (who also sang a song in the tribute) on the main stage. Introducing the show, festival director Quint Davis rightfully gave a nod to the great Dave Bartholomew who steered much of Fats’ career.
Tribute shows are often difficult to put together when they involve people from out of town but here there were mainly locals, including members of Fats’ band, so you knew the music was going to be tight. Domino left us less than 6 months ago but his loss still weighs heavily. The catalogue of hits was enormous and we got a taste here. Deacon John kicked off with ‘Going To The River’ and ‘All By Myself.’ Davell Crawford sang ‘Let The Four Winds Blow’ and ‘I’m Ready.’
Then Irma Thomas came out and blew everyone away with a story that riffed on the ‘right key but wrong keyhole’ theme before singing ‘I Hear You Knockin’’ and ‘Blueberry Hill.’
Jon Batiste performed ‘Ain’t That A Shame’ before Bonnie Raitt (who dedicated her spot to the late Charles Neville) and Jon Cleary arrived to sing alternately ‘I’m In Love Again’ and ‘All By Myself.’
Finally, I caught Al Jackson, who could easily be mistaken for Domino, doing ‘Blue Monday’ and ‘When The Saints Go Marching In.’
While the temperature was alleged to be 27C, it felt a lot more like 37C out in the sun (even with an umbrella for shade) so after the Fats tribute there was a hasty retreat to the Jazz Tent for Christin Scott and Charles Lloyd.
Rod Stewart, who was a late replacement for Aretha Franklin, closed out the main stage to rave reviews, the Fabulous Thunderbirds (who I caught a little of on the way out) were in the Blues Tent, Jack Johnson was at the Gentilly Stage.
Sunday April 29
The day centred around David Byrne and the fact that he was on the Gentilly Stage while Jimmy Buffett drew lots to the Acura Stage was a bonus.
But, apart from Byrne, who I have already raved about, the day’s other highlight was Nicholas Payton’s Too Black show in the Jazz Tent. Payton has talked a lot about Black American Music in recent years and for this show it looked like he was channelling Miles Davis and his bands from the late ‘60s Bitches Brew era to the mid-‘70s. It was probably the coolest looking band at JazzFest this year and I have absolutely no problem in anyone emulating Miles from that era – as long as they are as good as Payton!
Once known for his trumpet playing Payton also plays keyboards and here he alternated. The first funky tune involved backing singers chanting ‘Nicholas Payton’ to introduce him. Payton then introduced a tribute to Bobby Hutcherson, titled the same, and a touch of humour with ‘ABC – Anything But Chardonnay’, inspired, he explained, by sitting in airport lounges. A tribute to George Duke, ‘The Duke of George’ followed, by which point Payton had displayed that he has some formidable talent behind his ideas. Though I could only stay for 45 minutes due to a pressing engagement to get a spot for David Byrne’s show, this was yet another festival highlight.