Note: For weekend one’s coverage, which included write ups for Billy Joel, Dr. John, Dave Matthews Band, et al., click here.
With all the great music during New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, it’s important to be reminded that before the Internet, personal computer, television, radio, or even telecommunications as a whole, the city was America’s 19th- and early 20th-century capital for culture. Blues from the rural South funneled into the bustling port city. Improvisation combined with African rhythms and blue notes would turn that blues into jazz.
The zeitgeist would flee to various places and, naturally, musicians would follow to Chicago, L.A., and New York to make distinct styles of jazz or blues which eventually became pop, rock, and the music we know today. But it’s also good to remember: most of American music started in New Orleans.
But that was a century ago and those originators are dead. In New Orleans, however, their legacies live on so strongly, it feels like they’re still alive. It seems morbid for it to come up so often but a lot of times at Jazz Fest, musical nods are made and performances are dedicated to those no longer with us: the untouchable legacies of Louis Armstrong or Mahalia Jackson; the recently deceased country legend George Jones, Uncle Lionel Batiste of the Treme Brass Band; and those tragically lost, victims of disasters recent (Boston) and not-so recent (plenty of artists at Jazz Fest still had Hurricane Katrina on their minds). The list goes on. None of us are long for this world.
But between then and now, music is here to comfort us. It seems like it would be a bummer or just really heavy with death hanging over so many music performances amongst the festival, but it’s not. It’s really moving and beautiful. New Orleans is a town of musical legacies (the Bouttés, the Marsalises) and though lives may end, legacies continue.
A frequent riff heard in New Orleans music across virtually all genres and artists is the traditional gospel/second-line funeral song “I’ll Fly Away”, heard anywhere from the Gospel Tent to Willie Nelson’s smoked-out set this year. Everyone from Kanye West to Johnny Cash has recorded some version of the song. “Just a few more weary days,” the song’s final verse goes. “and then I’ll fly away / to a land where joy shall never end / I’ll fly away.” From the Boutté Family Gospel to the opening strains of Phoenix’s “Love Like a Sunset”, the music at Jazz Fest feels spiritual — almost as if you could fly away.
Photography by Allyce Andrew
Thursday, May 2nd
Hot 8 Brass Band – Congo Square Stage – 1:25 p.m.
The idea of a brass band outside New Orleans is generally that of well-dressed horn players on a stand or a uniform marching band. But in New Orleans for young-uns like Hot 8 Brass Band, it might as well be the Cash Money Millionaires, complete with hype men and call and response with the crowd — except it’s rooted in traditional jazz. The arrangements and tones in “Won’t You Let Me Do My Thang” and “That Hot 8 Shit” sounded great, despite the small, die-hard crowd kept away by mud and rain early in the festival day. Still, its bandleader was appreciative, he stated: “Even with the rain fallin’, I still y’all out here still ballin’.”
Dee-1 – Congo Square Stage – 2:45 p.m.
New Orleans’ rap tradition is storied. But there hasn’t been much mainstream attention on its conscious rap until Dee-1, who’s toured with Macklemore and Killer Mike and worked with top New Orleans producer Mannie Fresh as of late. With a small, weather-stunted crowd and songs like “It’s My Turn”, Dee’s set sounded like “Beautiful Struggle” rap. As his set went on, Dee became more preachy with songs like the set-ending “Jay, 50, and Weezy”, an open letter both criticizing and praising three rappers he idolizes. “I could never be a politician,” he admitted during his set. “All you gotta do is: be real, be righteous, be relevant.” Something the crowd could definitely get behind.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band – Acura Stage – 2:50 p.m.
If Hot 8 Brass Band embodies how young New Orleans brass bands are doing it, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band shows how middle-aged brass bands are doing it. The band’s set had an incredible range of sounds beyond brass: funk-bass pockets, sci-fi-sounding keytar synth and free-jazz squeals reminiscent of its work on Modest Mouse’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News. At moments, the band sounded so over-the-top virtuosic, it resembled progressive rock as much as it did jazz.
Patti Smith – Gentilly Stage – 5:40 p.m.
Billy Joel’s headlining performance for weekend one wasn’t the only set to bring some New York love to New Orleans. Patti Smith, another artist whose work is inextricably tied to New York City, ended a festival day marred by shifting weather with gorgeous songs. People use the phrase “swampy” rhetorically but the lawn of the Gentilly stage literally felt and smelled like a Louisiana bayou swamp. Yet Patti was a savior to so many in attendance.
Perhaps throwing a bone to the unwashed masses in the mud dancing barefoot, Smith and her “personal bar band,” she said, including her longtime guitarist Lenny Kaye started with “Dancing Barefoot”. Smith introduced “Distant Fingers” as a song “about all the UFOs that used to hover over CBGBs”, adding: “[Television’s Tom Verlaine and I] used to stand in the alleyway and watch the UFOs hover over our little club.” Uh, sure, Patti.
Still, there’s an undeniably supernatural aura that Smith gives off. She’s alternately playful like a fairy, mysterious like a muse, fierce like a jealous Greek goddess, and so much more song by song. In short, she’s a witch of a performer. When the rip-roaring, mountainous “Fuji-San” came, it shook the muddy ground. Then she dedicated “Ghost Dance” to “all who lost their lives or their homes or were displaced in the floods of Katrina.”
“You are never forgotten,” she said, “and the sun will shine again.” And wouldn’t you know it? By the end of “Ghost Dance”, the first uninterrupted, direct sunlight all day appeared. Absolutely gorgeous. And then, as if that couldn’t be topped, the opening piano part of “Because the Night”, a song Smith co-wrote with Bruce Springsteen, shimmered across the field. Smith and her band eventually closed with the rousing “Gloria”, going over their time by 15 minutes. But no one cared. It was a welcome release from a crappy day of rain and mud.
Friday, May 3rd
Jerry Douglas – Fais Do-Do Stage – 4:25 p.m.
A great thing about Jazz Fest is its willingness to feature instrumental performers in instruments not usually celebrated. Case in point: Jerry Douglas and his Dobro, a sustainer guitar played like a lapsteel with a thumb pick, fundamental to the evolution of bluegrass music. Douglas’ sideman work has been featured by Mumford and Sons, Elvis Costello, Alison Krauss, and many more. But the man got a much-deserved solo billing, a first for Douglas, on a cold, cloudy Friday afternoon at Jazz Fest. Douglas has a devotional ease in his playing, going from jazzy grooves to funky ones to pretty ambient moments (see: Daniel Lanois) to straight string-band pluckin’. If one can “shred” Van Halen-style on the dobro that’s what Douglas did on his cover of Leadbelly’s “On a Monday”, absolutely owning his instrument.
Maroon 5 – Acura – 5:20 p.m.
Maroon 5 is not good. But that’s not a euphemism. The band is not at all bad, either. From beginning to end, their songs and basic live fundamentals were sound Friday evening. They’re just weren’t extraordinarily great outside of a handful of good songs, most of them well-known hits. The band live, and more so on record, shakes out to a post-Beastie Boys, post-Jamiroquai unformed mass of blue-eyed funk. And, again, it’s really not bad.
But when playing on the same stage that New Orleans funk legend Allen Toussaint (who would’ve politely kicked the band’s shaky background vocals off his stage, by the way) did last week and when scheduled against Willie Nelson, “not bad” starts to veer toward not so good. Even charismatic lead singer Adam Levine, a ball of energy on stage, admitted he would rather be watching Nelson.
So what was the band doing here, other than drawing one of the biggest crowds of the festival? Where’s the jazz or New Orleans connection? The band’s touring keyboardist, PJ Morton, is a New Orleans native, which Levine pointed out at least twice. Morton and the band’s grooves on “Lucky Strike” spoke for themselves, though, vaguely recalling 2002 dancepunk or ’70s disco. “One More Night” gave a tinge of reggae grooves. There was a short “Don’t Stop Til You Get Enough” tease before “The Sun”. Live, Maroon 5 mixes in just enough unpredictability to keep things somewhat interesting.
The hits “Makes Me Wonder” and “Harder to Breathe” came early on, evoking shrieks and singalongs from the crowd. The band and its adoring crowd made so much noise, you could hear it from a stage or two over. Levine led the crowd in a mass swaying of arms for “This Love” and by that point, it was hard to deny that Maroon 5 could move any and all with great grooves and hooks. Then came “Moves Like Jagger” and, of course, the crowd exploded. The public had spoken: Maroon 5 are better than “not bad”. Do you, then, Maroon 5, do you.
Willie Nelson and Family – Gentilly – 5:45 p.m.
It’s not exactly the most fluid of musical transitions to go from Maroon 5 to Willie Nelson, but damned if Jazz Fest isn’t just that kind of festival: one that doesn’t particularly care for a smooth segue, be it trudging across a cold, muddy field from one end of the festival grounds to another or going from poppy funk to venerable country and western.
How venerable are we talking here? Willie Nelson celebrated his 80th birthday last month, as indicated by signs and adoration hoisted from the crowd, some emulating the fashion of Nelson’s signature bandana. Worth filing under “The More Things Change the More They Stay the Same”: younger kids were rockin’ the same look for Frank Ocean the next day. The country legend wandered seamlessly from song to song at first, with “Beer for My Horses”, a song Nelson recorded with Toby Keith, “Good-Hearted Woman” and “Funny How Time Slips Away”. Then came the irresistibly catchy “Crazy”, a song Nelson wrote for Patsy Cline in 1961.
Nelson played his other hits, of course, from “You Were Always on My Mind” to “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” to “Shoeshine Man”. And, naturally, in true Willie Nelson tradition (especially during the chill vibes of “On the Road Again”), plenty of joints were getting fired up right as those songs were. Yes, where else could you find a finer collection of Baby Boomers standing in a cold, muddy field smoking pot?
And that’s kind of a beautiful thing. Nelson is one of the few remaining solid links to the easygoing subculture of ’60s and ’70s America of any artist left living or active on the touring circuit. And it’s not like Bob Dylan will ever shoot straight with us about anything or play what crowds want to hear live. So among few others, we get Willie to sit us down and show us what it was like back then — and the great songs kept coming. In the middle of his set, Nelson grooved into a quick Hank Williams kick with classics like “Hey Good Lookin'” and “Move It on Over”.
By the time Nelson sang “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” — yes that’s a real song title — the Gentilly Stage was fully smoked out. Also, this was the gospel encore of his set, by the way. But Nelson and his band were over their time. The second-line favorite “I’ll Fly Away” floated through the air, in the smoke, and as the smoke cleared, so did the crowd: a wonderful end to a miserable, cold, and windy Friday.