Four years ago, as my friends and I left the Fair Grounds on Jazz Fest’s final day of the weekend, a good samaritan offered us a free ride in a white convertible back to the Uptown area, where we were slated to see a show that night at Tipitina’s. As we slowed to a stoplight, another convertible, led by a seasoned, middle-aged gentleman alongside two attractive women in the backseat, pulled up beside us and offered an assuring glance. When I asked him how things were going, he quickly shrugged and muttered, “could be worse,” before ripping the pedal and peeling ahead into the city. Since then, those three words have been the mantra of our Jazz Fest crew, a state of mind worth striving towards throughout the year and achieved during the Big Easy’s annual bacchanalia.
This year, we arrived at the Fair Grounds early Friday morning with a new flag in tow boasting our new mantra. Within minutes, we started hearing positive feedback about our message from some friendly festivalgoers, but the best was yet to come. During Wilco’s set, frontman Jeff Tweedy acknowledged the festival’s good vibes, admitting: ”I don’t know how many times we’ve played here but this feels like the best.” Then, much to our surprise, he pointed out our flag: “Could be worse. That’s our motto. Did you know that? On our guitar picks it says: ‘It could be worse.’ We wanted to send a message that’s hopeful, but not too hopeful.” That message was loud and clear in New Orleans last weekend, especially as festivalgoers trudged through the mud and rain.
Yet we wouldn’t miss another year. To those arriving this week or sticking around for its second weekend, I envy you. Soak up as much as you can. Stay out as late as you can. Your weekend should be long, tough, and exhausting, but above all, fun and exciting. Just because the gates close in the early evening doesn’t mean the entertainment has stopped — not at all. The culture of Jazz Fest, both in and out of the Fair Grounds, is an addicting spirit that never ends and insists that you rise above any challenge, even the nastiest, messiest weather system.
Ahead you’ll find my 10 highlights of weekend one. To better outline my own adventures, I’ve also provided a list of the acts I caught late into the night. Once more, The Word ruled the wee hours of the morning with Sonny Landreth, Oteil Burbridge, and Johnny Vidocavich right behind them. Basically, once night fell, there were zero letdowns.
Late Nights Attended: Stanton Moore Trio at Blue Nile (Thursday), Greyboy Allstars doing Axis: Bold As Love at Tipitina’s > Sonny Landreth, Oteil Burbridge and Johnny Vidacovich at the Maple Leaf > Skerik, Oteil Burbridge and Johnny Vidacovich at the Maple Leaf (Friday), Dumpstaphunk at One Eyed Jacks (Saturday), The Word at The Joy Theatre (Sunday) and Tipitina’s Foundation Instruments-A-Comin featuring Galactic, Honey Island Swamp Band, Cha Wa, Al “Carnival Time” Johnson, Donald Harrison and the Tipitina’s Interns.
Fest Food / Drinks: Duck and Shrimp pasta (this year’s winner), fried chicken with jambalaya, Ya Ka Mein, Oyster Po Boy, crawfish mac and cheese, rum and punch, Coors Original/Miller Light and on and on.
Jonathon Boogie Long
It was clear that the Louisiana guitarist felt at home in the confines of the Blues Tent, making instant fans of the few thousand who were smart enough to get in the mix early Saturday afternoon to pay witness to one of the Gulf Coast’s budding stars. Jonathon Boogie Long plays the guitar with an exasperating fury, one of those artists who seems to be channeling an extra power as he cuts through riffs that could come straight out of a classic like “Cortez The Killer”. Boundaries and barricades weren’t an issue during the set and Long made a purposive run through the patron section, shredding up close and personal while managing to keep focus — a dream of many.
New Birth Brass Band
Photo by Jazz Fest
“Living in a Crackhouse on Frenchmen Street” will go down as one of the best refrains I’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing at the Fair Grounds. Even after living in New Orleans and aggressively covering the music scene for nearly half a decade and attending Jazz Fest five out of the last six years, it’s hard to have seen all the great brass bands the city has to offer. New Birth Brass Band hail from NOLA’s Seventh Ward and were further evidence that jazz and brass will continue to thrive in this city for ages to come. Much applause is due to organizations like the Jazz & Heritage Foundation.
Despite ominous skies and a fair and honest forewarning before the Gentilly headliner hit the stage, Wilco managed to deliver 40 solid minutes of frenetic and energy-packed heavy hitters. Stuff like the noisy and dissonant “Handshake Drugs” or the friendly confines of “Kamera”. Jeff Tweedy later remarked that it was a “scary” experience playing in these elements, a saga that would continue throughout the weekend. Closing with “Impossible Germany” could’ve likely been the result of a setlist rearrangement, but it gave the fans at least one huge, blissful look at Nels Cline’s jaw dropping talent. As Tweedy might say, it could have been worse. Much agreed.
Getting a coveted closing slot in the famed WWOZ Jazz Tent had to be quite a thrill for Snarky Puppy, and the highly eclectic and hard-to-categorize jazz ensemble made the most of a mere 25-minute set. Recent years have seen this band gain a lot of popularity and a cult-ish following that’s unsurprising, given how unique their sound is and and the genre-hopping nature of their live shows. Keyboardist/producer Cory Henry established himself as one of the most exciting musicians at the Fair Grounds all weekend, playing with a ferocity that matched the ensuing storms and wind-swaying signs going back and forth above. Despite being an abbreviated set (one that included “Lingus”), the sheer number of people huddled into the shelter of the Jazz Tent most likely made Snarky Puppy glad things shook out the way they did. It was like watching a futuristic big band movie soundtrack playing before our eyes; calling their music “visual” or “cinematic” in nature would be an vast understatement. Watching Snarky Puppy perform is a downright meandering journey and one, in this case, I wished would’ve lasted much, much longer.
There are a handful of Jazz Fest staples who could easily fit on any number of the genre-based stages. Just as easily as he grooved the Blues Tent on Sunday, Port Arthur’s GRAMMY-nominated CJ Chenier (son of the legendary Clifton Chenier) is a Zydeco favorite and would’ve undoubtedly started a mud bowl dance storm had he been slotted on the other side of the Fair Grounds at the Cajun Fais Do Do stage. Chenier has a commanding stage presence, wielding a huge, imposing piano accordion and flanked by washboards, and he razed and percolated a dance floor scene down below. This was authentic Creole music at its finest and, alongside Lost Bayou Ramblers (who I caught briefly later on), these were the two most authentic Louisiana acts I would see all weekend.
Tonia Scott and the Anointed Voices / Leo Jackson and the Melody Clouds
These two sets should provide a proper orientation for those un-anointed by the Gospel Tent. Now, it’s a personal tradition of mine to spend a good chunk of time in the misty, spiritual confines near the main gate and feel the uplifting spirit that makes this festival so unique. First up was Tonia Scott and the Anointed Voices. The group’s most capable leader led the 20+ member choir while an unnamed tambourinist flanked stage right, banging away for the duration of both Scott’s set and the Melody Clouds performance that would follow after. A flurry of labeled handkerchiefs were tossed out into the crowd, and a full on NOLA style jubilee unfolded in the crowd below as people kicked out of their chairs and reveled in the merriment of the situation.
Perhaps no act in the tent brought more of an old-school, R&B, and gospel mix than Leo Jackson & The Melody Clouds. The trio of dapper front men are three brothers (Leo, Carey and Melvin) with booming voices and Ronald Scott added his impressive talents on both guitar and vocals. Together, this rural Mississippi outfit brought a rollicking and driving brand of country-fied gospel, as Jackson exalted lyrics like “Jesus brought me home from a mighty long way.” As much Isley Brothers or Al Green as traditional gospel, this set was as professional and high on musicianship as anything I’ve witnessed in the Gospel Tent, surely to become a staple on my future Fest itineraries as long as this group is on the bill.