Yeah, it’s been a year of musical losses. But, Prince, the day before Jazz Fest 47 got underway? WTF? From the glyph etched in the blue above the Fair Grounds the first weekend, to the Treme second line the Monday following, to My Morning Jacket’s howling “Purple Rain” finish second Friday, Jazz Fest did its part, as it always does. “I am because he was”, Janelle Monae confessed to the Congo Square stage crowd. And whether Prince or Bowie or Toussaint or B.B. or Merle, and on and on, Fest is where the music is honored and celebrated like no other gathering on the planet, even when heaven and earth throw everything at you. And this was a Fest like no other, where Stevie Wonder’s only Fair Grounds performance was an acapella Purple Rain through a bullhorn in a deluge, and where it was impossible to tell the booming thunder above, from Neil Young and POR below. The music stuck like the deep muck of the infield and never let go. And whether on stage, dancing with a stranger, singing along, holding back tears, sharing a bite, sleeping it off, that’s just a Jazz Fest fact.
This photographer took it all in for most of seven days and offers a few passing reflections and musings along the way.
Out of the 15 acts I managed to cover in some form or another, the Subdudes followed by Walter Trout in the Blues Tent stood out, and Trout especially tore up the joint. The ‘dudes had not come together at the Fest for a few years, and Tommy Malone, John Magnie and company turned the tent into their own backyard party, brimming with singalongs and good vibes. Guitarist Trout left more than a few jaws on the floor (including mine) with his unrelenting Stratocaster blues and boogie. Trout, who played with John Lee Hooker and John Mayall earlier in his career, is a monster player, and his performance all the more remarkable given a life threatening health scare last year. Surprisingly, I looked past Michael McDonald until I checked out part of his set. While I didn’t make it to Grace Potter, I managed a little Mule before a last lap around the track. After which I found that Janelle Monae really knows how to make an entrance. Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings followed Walter Trout in the Blues Tent and “evoked Prince in just being herself”. Funky chicken, the boogaloo, all fever and sweat and sequins. Next door, Matt Lemmler and Brian Blade were stirring up their take on Stevie Wonder, and Blade’s joyful playing is always a treat. I got to the tail end of Steely Dan as I was not shortlisted to shoot (the Fest trend these days for many headliners), so into the maw I went. The set closed with “Reeling in the Years”, “Kid Charlemagne” and “Pretzel Logic” (with Michael McDonald). The latter two standing in for encores as Donald Fagen exclaimed “usually at this point we just walk off the stage, then come back and do our encore, but we’re just gonna stay here and play it, it’s too much fucking trouble”. We love you too, Donald. The Becker-Fagen touring unit is as precision tight as you would expect with just the right guitar sizzle and metronome groove. A worthy Day 1 closer and enthusiastically received.
Pearl Jam and Van Morrison were the big Day 2 draws (and notoriously “camera shy”, no short list for me). While I attempted a mid-set approach to Van Morrison, the hard shell of the crowd was just too packed to penetrate and comfortably hang. I heard his set was anything from pretty damn good to stunning, but, oh well. Choices, choices. So, my day included Fest regulars Blodie’s Jazz Jam, Anders Osborne and Galactic. Blodie (aka Gregory Davis of the Dirty Dozen) is an amalgam of brassers who go straight ahead in the Jazz Tent, including Roger Lewis and Kirk Joseph of the DDBB, as well as Marlon Jordan on trumpet, and they were cooking. Yeah, I’ve seen Anders Osborne and Galactic a lot, but both bands just seem to be getting better. The current constellation of guitarist Eric McFadden and drummer Brady Blade with Anders is humming and Carl Dufrene and Osborne are mind meld inseparable at this point. “Papa” John Gros joined on keys to boot. Galactic’s Moore, Mercurio, Raines, Vogel, Henry and Ellman brought out original vocalist Theryl “House Man” DeClouet for a few tunes. Jarekus Singleton, sporting a hollowed out Clevenger, whipped the Blues Tent into a screaming lather. Late afternoon was the thick part of the day with Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats owning the Gentilly Stage. Breaking into “Look It Here” and presumably never letting up, Rateliff is nothing short of a full on rock and soul revival. John Hammond’s traditional dobro and harp driven blues was also a worthy drop in. One of my more anticipated jazz slots featured drummer Jack DeJohnette leading a trio filled out by Ravi Coltrane and Matt Garrison (and the powerful next gen voices they carry). Garrison, who is also the Creative Director of Brooklyn based Shape Shifter Lab, stretched the sounds of his custom 5-stringer into syrupy and surreal territory. Unlike so much free improvisation, group ideas told interconnected stories and cultivated inner attention. While my shooting day ended with Boz Scaggs running through his hits in the Blues Tent (meh, for me, crowd loved it), my Fest day really ended in the Pearl Jam throngs for their cover encores of The Who’s “The Real Me” with a NOLA horn section that included Skerik and “Big” Sam Williams, and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World”, with the Chili Pepper’s Chad Smith taking over behind the kit.
One of the most talked about sets of Fest 2016 was Rhiannon Giddens’ on this first Sunday in the Blues Tent, and I’ll get to that. Little Freddie King in full duck walk mode started my day, but it was the tractor beam of New Orleans talent that pulled me throughout. From drummer Herlin Riley’s quintet in the Jazz Tent, to the Voice of the Wetland All-Stars that live up to their name, to Glen David Andrews spending more time in the Blues Tent crowd than on stage, to Terence Blanchard’s angular E-Collective. But it was the middle of the day in Jazz and Blues that was truly captivating. Two jazz giants, Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, painted notes together as only intuitive masters can. Textured and layered, simple and eloquent, it was a treasure. Having heard so much buzz on Rhiannon Giddens, I reluctantly pulled myself away to the Blues Tent mid-set to find Giddens and her eight-piece band (including cello, upright bass, electric guitar and trap kit) moving through the dark and light, the then and the now. During the time I was there, Giddens switched between fiddle, straight vocals and a Bowlin fretless gut string banjo that took the instrument to mysteriously beautiful places. This was hush to foot stompin’ stuff and the grizzle of Chance McCoy’s Epiphone hollow body and push of Jamie Dick’s drum kit rounded out what would otherwise be a traditional string sound to something heftier and deeper. That I could walk steps from Shorter and Hancock to this, is the essence of what Jazz Fest is, and happens nowhere else. A last lap returned me to these tents for John Mayall, the Art Blakey of the blues who at 82, looks and plays half his age, and then on to Blanchard’s E-collective, but not before a turn at the Congo Square Stage, where J. Cole sported a purple Vikings jersey bearing the Prince glyph and the younger crowd hitting the lyrics hard. It was a pretty wild scene. The Chili Peppers were not in the cards for me, and I couldn’t give a shit about Nick Jonas, so Day 3 was a wrap.
Second weekend Thursday has typically lighter crowds and is a pretty relaxed day. AM rain lead to muddy, but manageable conditions and with an ominous weekend forecast looming, getting a dry day in sounded awfully good. I was especially looking forward to the Tedeschi Trucks Band with friends Jimmy Vaughan and Billy Gibbons closing the Acura Stage, but my day started with the punk Cajun antics of the Lost Bayou Ramblers before rolling to Gary Clark, Jr. on the big stage, which he owns every time. Opening with “Bright Lights”, pretty certain most y’all know his name by now after relentless festival touring the past five plus years. I’ve seen Clark, Jr. in a 500 seat club and in front of 20,000 with the same squall like rumble. Starting with an SG before switching to his signature blue Epiphone, he seemed to wring himself out with his first solos, and that was way early in the set. Brandi Carlile was at Gentilly and her band, including long-time collaborators Tim and (brother-in-law) Phil Hanseroth, seemed to goose the rock and roll in the girl, her Gretsch tangling often with the brothers. Carlile has Lucinda Williams’ toughness and abundant lyrical gifts, but with the light often overpowering the dark in her tales. “The Story” from her last album, gets me every time. TTB and Elvis was not the first Hobson’s choice of the Fest, but a tough one. As many times as I have seen the band (three, just last year), this musical union is still unlike any other, a 12-piece unit with two trap kits, three vocalists, three horns and interplanetary guitar instincts all as nimble as a jazz trio. Trucks’ fretted journeys can start out as a cagey simmer beneath Tedeschi’s soulful vocals, or drop you straight into the furnace. These are worthy explorations, seemingly each and every one, where Eastern modalities and ABB fury are frequent companions. While I ducked away for some Elvis, from the buoyant opener of “Made Up Mind” to the encore of “Go Get Stoned” and the Billy Gibbons and Jimmy Vaughn fueled jams towards the end, TTB could come back to Fest every year, and I would not be disappointed. As to the aforementioned Mr. McManus, his set went headfirst into his earliest hits (“What’s So Funny ‘bout Peace Love and Understanding”, “Watching the Detectives” and “Mystery Dance”) as if to clear the decks for his more NOLA centric material, and collaborations with the late Allen Toussaint. My FOMS were high as I left Elvis to finish up with TTB. Such is how it goes at Jazz Fest.
A late push out the door meant I missed several regional acts I’ve covered more than a few times and really enjoy, including Feufollet (they always seem to draw the early slot), Wayne Toups, Bonerama, Jonathon “Boogie” Long, Astral Project and Tony Hall. Alas, Jazz Fest is all about what you didn’t miss, so my second Friday got going with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and I was rewarded with a shot of a wide eyed and bellows-cheeked Efrem Towns. Nicholas Payton mixed Lady Fingaz spins with his horn and keys, making sure we all knew jazz is a four-letter word. Raw Oyster Cult blossomed into a full on Rads reunion including a doubling up on bass (Reggie Scanlon and Dave Pomerlau) and keys (“Papa” John Gros and El Volker), and yes, it was pretty Rad. Never get me enough Honey Island Swamp Band and their Fais Do-Do set was the third time I connected with them since the start of the Fest. Spiked with horns and new material that stands up to their familiar best, HISB is a band that deserves an even larger following. I stopped by Economy Hall for a little of the Pres Hall brass and errantly wandered out behind the stage to find trombonist Freddie Lonzo running through slide technique with a young student. A little Jazz Fest magic captured. I burned too much break time before catching the end of The Revivalists at Gentilly. These guys really do crush it at the Fest every time. Los Lobos unplugged for Pistola y El Corazon at Fais Do-Do and Lauryn Hill was slow to get her set started, before My Morning Jacket and Paul Simon held down opposite ends of the Fair Grounds. MMJ went deep from the start and their “Sign o’ the Times” and “Purple Rain” closers left the Fair Grounds buzzing. Paul Simon didn’t fare quite as well per some reviewers, but there was a lot of love from the crowd and his tender “Sound of Silence” was a pin dropper.
Our rental is behind the Fair Grounds along Bayou St. John, and you can’t ask for a better alarm clock than a Stevie Wonder sound check (including full versions of “Master Blaster” and “Superstition)”. It sounded very, very fine and his set was bound to be a highlight of the entire Fest. But all eyes were on the forecast, and it looked nasty going into Saturday. Of course, when Wonder last played the Fest in 2008, he was accompanied by a downpour that didn’t phase a rather jubilant Acura crowd. Well, by the time I arrived at the Fair Grounds, dem skies were swollen and meteorological trouble was brewing big time. You could just taste it. That didn’t stop the Soul Rebels from throwing it down on the Acura Stage, or Cyril Neville, Bart Walker and the rest of the Royal Southern Brotherhood doing the same in the Blues Tent. Baton Rouge’s Kristin Diable and her band managed to get their set in at Fais Do Do, even pleading for a little more time to cover Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can”. You can’t get a better kick in the brass, then the annual gathering of the horns known as the Midnite Disturbers, and the drops weren’t heavy quite yet during their set. But the Doppler dance was soon over, and as thick radar bands of orange and red toyed with the Fair Grounds, thousands scurried for cover or the exits, the valves only opening more. It was ugly. As a photographer, keeping the gear protected and shooting in a deluge without the equipment going down, especially when shooting upward at bigger stages, is, let’s just say, a neat trick. So, after about 2:30, I opted to sit it out. Music continued in the tents, but water was accumulating throughout the infield in rather biblical volumes and word of mouth about calling the rest of the day started to spread until around 4, when it was official. Sound check Stevie proved propitious, but before the venue cleared, he serenaded what was left of the crowd with an acapella “Purple Rain” through a bullhorn (all stage sound had been cut by that point). No Beck, no Buddy Guy, No Snoop, and of personal disappointment, no Lone Bellow making their Fest debut, either. The day was done. The cosmic debris that strewn the Acura side of the infield was rather breathtaking, not to mention the knee deep water in spots. About the only mystery left was #wheresstevie on Saturday night (answer: at Mayfield’s, where he joined Irvin and his orchestra for a healthy set). Tough day, if you were a first timer.
Fest staff worked throughout the night to drain as much water away from the Fair Grounds as possible (Sisyphus had an easier job description). Amazingly enough, early reports were promising and the last day would go on as scheduled. Of course, around 11 AM when the gates opened, so did the skies. Count me among others who were seriously considering drying out, and calling it a Fest early. Gear was crashing right and left on Saturday (fortunately no casualties my way) and my Amazon Prime delivered rain boots were already breached. The prospects of dueling it out with the elements was losing its appeal, so dry out I did, as morning bled into the afternoon. The hearty, of which I was not, were rewarded with a tribute to Allen Toussaint with Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John and plenty of Nevilles to go around among other scheduled acts. Then again, there was Mr. Neil Young going on at 3:15 with those whipper-snappers the Promise of the Real, and even though I caught their tour back in L.A. last Fall, I could not miss Neil taking on Mother Nature at the Fest, whether cleared to shoot or not.
Off I went to the Fair Grounds through a steady rain and packing a lighter load (one body/one long lens suited up as much as my AquaTech rain sleeve allowed). My boots deconstructed within minutes of stepping on to the infield. Open toed Tevas at the ready, I went into the ankle deep slop, and forged my way to the Acura pit as the set was just starting to find that the pit was open for the first two songs. Now, I’ve seen my share of Neil Young performances including Jazz Fest 2009 when the torrents held off until the last note of “a Day in the Life” faded, and the Jurassic thunder of the Psychedelic Pill tour with Crazy Horse at Voodoo 2012. But this was Mr. Young tangling with the Gaia spirit in a big way, and I’d say he got over pretty good. Throughout Young’s five decade catalogue. love conquers, but nature rules. And the rain never let up through the two-plus hour, eight song set as Young rode Ol’ Black the whole way. “F!#*ing Up” and a mighty “Cortez the Killer” alone went over 40 minutes, Young lingering on “dancing across the water” over and over, a spiritual salve to the drenched who braved the day. And with the rain coming down harder, he had his crew cut the side lights to the stage. “Country Home”, “Monsanto Years” and “Seed Justice” followed and at one point, a booming thunder clap and close lightning strike startled the crowd, but left Young unfazed. I could swear he was conjuring the tempests. POR to a man, seem to ignite something potent in Young. He still prowls the stage, but with less stomping and more dancing, brothers Nelson and Young body heat close while trading solos. “Love and Only Love” went 15 minutes, and the coda that followed went that long plus. “Rockin’ in the Free World” hit hard, as it should in this election year and “Powderfinger” wrapped what was truly an epic set I’ll remember for years to come.
I’ve closed the Fest with Trombone Shorty the past few years, but had to check out the B.B King Tribute with Dr. John, Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt and others joining B.B’s touring band at Gentilly. Respect and affection for King was abundant, and especially poignant after his last Fest appearance in 2013 when he remarked to the packed Blues Tent crowd “If I can’t be with you next week, think about me some time.” And for a moment, the thrill was back.
Jazz Fest 2016 was a challenge, for sure. But what also keeps me coming back year after year, is more than the music. More than the food like nowhere else. It’s the sheer bonding of humanity bringing out the best in us, adversity and all. And that’s just a Jazz Fest fact. But next year, let’s leave the Ark at home.