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New Orleans Jazz Fest 2014: Top 10 Moments of Weekend One

A reminder of why the Big Easy is one of our most vital cultural assets.

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new orleans jazz fest 2014

    Photography by Paul R. Giunta

    The first day of the first weekend of Jazz Fest has the tendency to be both exciting and confusing. When you enter the festival grounds, the sheer scale of the operation, combined with the intriguing multitude of “only in New Orleans” knickknacks, makes getting oriented something of a challenge. However, once you’re in, you’re in; all you can really do, then, is get into a flow as you drift from stage to stage. In a way, that mentality is a metaphor for the way of life in the Big Easy, where things don’t always make sense and people often overindulge in food, drinking, and debauchery.

    What’s custom in NOLA isn’t exactly the norm in most places. Jazz Fest recognizes this and functions as a microcosm (and perhaps an exaggeration) of New Orleans culture. Mardi Gras parades, free-flowing daiquiris, brassy bands, and gumbo galore are all readily available within the confines of the Fair Grounds Race Course nestled in the historic Mid-City. And despite a recent flair for the mainstream — ahem, Robin Thicke, Christina Aguilera — the festival remains a ritual, like so many others, in the Crescent City.

    Given that the festival’s spread out over 12 stages and squeezed into seven short days, it’s pretty much impossible to do it all at Jazz Fest. Those who try will likely be wheeled out on a stretcher come sundown. Because of this, the best method for absorption is to do like the locals do and just let yourself go. There’s always something to miss but also always something to see. As soul diva Irma Thomas said during her Sunday set, “In New Orleans, we celebrate everything.”

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    Everything is fair game.

    Best Casual Owning of a Stage

    Irvin Mayfield & the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    At 36, Irvin Mayfield has accomplished quite a bit. These days, he’s as much a cultural ambassador of New Orleans (Treme, anyone?) as he is a musician. Onstage, he held down the role of natural leader and conductor, leading his large orchestra through loose, sprawling soundscapes. Similar to his peer and fellow local Wynton Marsalis, Mayfield can effortlessly keep himself front and center, serving as liaison between the musicians he rules over and the audience he holds in the palm of his hand, occasionally chiming in with a smooth trumpet solo here and there. Towards the end of the band’s set, Mayfield invited out Haley Reinhart of American Idol fame to swoon, croon, and charm the audience with her sensual take on jazz standards, making for a lighthearted set to accent a warm spring afternoon.

    Best hippie-hillbilly dance party

    The Infamous Stringdusters

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    A little bluegrass never hurt anyone, right? Amidst the Cajun and zydeco bands playing the Fais Do-Do stage, somehow it made sense for a bluegrass act to play a late afternoon set. While hippies basked in the sun and danced barefoot in the green grass, the Charlotte-based Stringdusters threw down a set of contemporary jam band-influenced bluegrass, impressing most and disappointing few.

    Best Set from a Legend

    Santana

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    Carlos Santana’s smile as he took the Acura stage on early Friday evening said it all; the 66-year-old guitarist was happy as all hell to be lighting up Jazz Fest. From the opening notes of “Black Magic Woman” until wrapping up two hours later with his 1999 megahit “Smooth” – devoid of Rob Thomas – Santana stuck to the hits, specifically universal classics like “Oye Como Va”, the Latin-tinged “Maria Maria”, and the laid-back cruise of “Evil Ways”. Each inclusion pinched at his trademark flares and tones while surging through nearly every guitar-based genre of music. Later, he brought out drummer and wife Cindy Blackman to hit the skins for a guest solo. His rant of peace, love, and understanding was a little sluggish, but he made up for any lost time by going 20 minutes past schedule.

    Best Afternoon Shred Fest

    Anders Osborne

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    Opening for Phish is no easy task, but the grizzled, tattooed Anders Osborne and his band appeared at ease when they made their well-earned main stage debut on Saturday afternoon. The New Orleans guitar slinger rambled through a powerful set of Dead-influenced riffs and even a reggae jam or two before closing out with his heavy rocking ode to his former life as a dope junkie, “On the Road to Charlie Parker”.

    Best Trip Out Moment

    Phish

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    Before saying anything about the Vermont jam band’s three-hour Jazz Fest set, it’s important to note that a Phish festival set is an entirely different beast than seeing the band headline their own shindig. That being said, the band’s Jazz Fest appearance was significant given that it marked their first show in New Orleans in 18 years, which, in the subculture of Phish, meant the show came with high expectations. For first-timers, the set served as a solid introduction to the band with well-known songs like “The Moma Dance”, “Wolfman’s Brother”, and “Harry Hood” featured prominently.

    However, for longtime fans (who are hands down the band’s most cynical haters), there was a shared sentiment that Trey Anastasio & Co. took few risks and never really stretched any of their songs out. Even the 16-minute “Down with Disease” felt a little rushed. Regardless, to those that love the band, a Phish show is always fun because of its ability to take you out of your own head and into a shared collective mindset of positive energy with thousands of others while you dance along to the jams. Sounds trippy, right?

    Best Actual Jazz Set

    Astral Project

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    Few bands embody the contemporary jazz sounds of New Orleans as much as the Astral Project. The quartet’s set was unquestionably one of the most impressive sets of the weekend, and given that they date back to 1978, there was an air of nostalgia amongst the fans. Throughout the set, each member gave each other space to solo yet remained stoic in unison as they laid down entrancing grooves. The standout moment of the set came during the closing “Sidewalk Strut”, a tune that skillfully fuses the funky riffs and backbeat of seminal New Orleans bands like the Meters with more abstract modern jazz improvisation.

    Best Mass Second Line

    Irma Thomas

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    The “Soul Queen of New Orleans” can still out-sing most divas at the age of 73, and her midday set only hammered this point home. Backed by an ensemble of talented musicians who all wore shirts bearing her image and name, Irma Thomas smoothly made her way through a set of hits chronicling her 50-year career while tapping into a mélange of regional genres like swamp pop, zydeco, boogie, and jazz. Only Thomas could teach a crowd of thousands how to do New Orleans’ signature second line dance before closing out her set with a tear-jerking, chill-inducing take on “Forever Young”.

    Best Down and Dirty NOLA Party

    Galactic

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    Photo by Paul R. Giunta

    These cats have forged a sound that’s completely their own yet functions as the prime embodiment of modern New Orleans funk. When Galactic hit the stage to one of the biggest crowds of their career, their slinky organ play and raunchy saxophone lines had everyone, including the chair dwellers in the back, grinding along with their dirty, nasty blend of funk. Guest vocalist Maggie Koerner livened up the first part of the set, belting out soulful vocals and proving once again that, while Galactic are a quality act by themselves, they also know how to be one hell of a backing band.

    Best “Old White Guy” Set

    Eric Clapton

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    Photo by Arthur VanRooy/em>

    Thousands swelled the grounds prior to Eric Clapton’s headlining set. Old, white men, not unlike the guitar god himself, couldn’t help themselves from dropping lines like “Clapton’s still got it, man” and speculating on who he’d bring out onstage. Would it be Tab Benoit? Anders Osborne? Maybe even Trey Anastasio? Anything could happen because, after all, it’s Jazz Fest and the guitar gods are everywhere. Yet the bluesman did none of that, delivering, instead, a straightforward set with few surprises. He even opted for the acoustic version of “Layla”, much to this writer’s chagrin.

    Admittedly, though, a few inclusions, like the soulful Leroy Carr tune “How Long Blues”, were a nice touch for the Big Easy. Still, those looking to wax nostalgic were probably let down by the set’s jammy nature, and while he didn’t exactly blow out the weekend a la Springsteen, Slowhand did play his trademark blues, and those aforementioned white men tapped those knees right along with him.

    Best Closer

    New Birth Brass Band

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    Photo by Arthur VanRooy/em>

    It seems like an obvious choice to say Clapton was the best closing act for Jazz Fest; it sure as hell wasn’t Vampire Weekend. But the only way to truly end with a bang was to savor for one last time the music that makes New Orleans so special. In this case, it was New Birth Brass Band at the Jazz & Heritage Stage, where a gaggle of locals threw down the kind of dance moves that occur when you just don’t give a damn. New Birth’s gumbo mash-up of hip-hop, second line brass, funk, jazz, Mardi Gras Indian chants, and the traditional sounds of so many NOLA musicians who’ve come before was a reminder of why Jazz Fest can still be called Jazz Fest and why New Orleans will always be America’s most vital cultural asset.

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