Heading home from Jazz Fest 48 it seemed I’d passed through a lifetime’s worth of sounds, tastes and bonding since arriving in New Orleans a few weeks back. Friendships deepened, the palette was bathed in constant indulgence, the liver took a bit of a hit and a soundtrack that will echo well into the dog days of Summer still resonates sweetly. For the uninitiated, Jazz Fest (short for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival) is the most diverse musical party on the planet replete with 13 stages, tents and pavilions spread across the Fair Grounds Race Course, a few miles from the French Quarter. Quite simply, there is nothing like it. And, as with the city that bears its name, Jazz Fest is not something you wrap your head around, it’s something you feel in your exhausted and happy bones. And, man, were they exhausted and happy.
My perspective is of a working photographer first and a fan second. I am on task covering 15 – 20 acts and 7-8 miles of ground a day. My musical encounters are often brief, and occasionally cosmically timed. My colleagues in the pit are extremely talented and a pretty respectful and decent bunch to boot. And, yeah, I love what I do.
As always, this year’s lineup was thick with local acts, but was not as top heavy as years past. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers kicked off their farewell-ish tour the first weekend and Stevie Wonder held down the second, playing to the sun drenched, rather than the rain drenched sent home before his set last year was cancelled due to severe weather. Nuggets abounded, with an edge to the second weekend when The Lone Bellow (another weather casualty from last year), and my hometown Dawes played enthusiastic sets at the Fais Do-Do stage and Rhiannon Giddens again showed why she is one of the most beautifully powerful voices in Americana (or any genre) touring these days.
First weekend moments that stuck with me… Kicking it off with the Louis meets Newman growl of Alex McMurray backed by a full band at Gentilly and “You Have to Be Crazy“. The gutbucket pull of Mr. Sipp that drew me into the Blues Tent. Helen Gillet spinning layers of sound mixing cello loops and vocals at the Lagniappe Stage.
The New Orleans Suspects muscling the Acura Stage. Trumpet Mafia and their 20 or so horns in the Jazz Tent followed later by the virtuosity of 13-year old Joey Alexander leading his trio. Blodie’s Jazz Jam on Saturday led by the Dirty Dozen’s Gregory Davis and those dirty horns playing straight ahead unfunked free swinging jazz – an appreciation I shared with the trumpeter as he was strolling the Fair Grounds afterwards. Those are the kind of Fest moments I’m talking about. Stanton Moore augmenting his jazz trio of David Torkanowsky and James Singleton with frequent collaborator Skerik, and killing it. Honey Island Swamp Band, my favorite New Orleans bred Bay Area cultivated band filling the Blues Tent with spiky horns and punchy tunes. Aaron Wilkinson and Chris Mule in constant 6-string interplay, and Sam Price in constant motion. Now, a lot of this may sound very inside baseball, but it’s the essence of what makes Fest, Fest. Can’t talk about it. Can’t write about it. Just have to experience it for yourself.
All eyes were on the forecast for Sunday with nasty weather barreling down on Southern Louisiana, and for the first time in my years of Festing, the day was in doubt, with only a cryptic Tweet to stay tuned for updates. I was skeptical, and thought Sunday could be a complete washout, then the deluge relented, creases of sky appeared, and close to 3 PM, the gates opened. I caught the start and the end of Petty, and damn, if that wasn’t one of the best “American Girls” I ever heard. Mike Campbell gripping and ripping at his strings for a crescendo that rewarded the large and hearty crowd well past the scheduled 7 PM finish and redeemed the day.
The daze between kept flowing from Fest, The Tipitina’s Foundation Instruments A Comin’ benefit on Monday was a highlight with the youth brass bands duking it out on Napoleon Avenue and Anders Osborne the Tip’s Walk of Fame inductee, before a stacked show featuring brief sets by Galactic, Honey Island, the Suspects with Fred Tackett and others. Tuesday landed at Day 2 of Shaggy’s second annual NOLA Crawfish Fest with very generous sets by MVP (Jon Cleary, Tony Hall, Nigel Hall, Derwin “Big D” Perkins and Raymond Weber) and the NFC Funk Squad (Eric Krasno, George Porter, Jr., John Medeski and Terence Higgins). These mashups abound at night shows throughout the Fest, and some are hit and miss, but these two sets were strong. The “Lovelight” NFC Funk Squad threw down in memory of the sudden passing of Col. Bruce Hampton was just full of fire. Shaggy done good with this one and Central City BBQ was a great location. I’ll ink it on the calendar for next year.
Second weekend moments that stuck with me…The big chill Thursday after a front rolled through Wednesday. Long sleeves and long pants, another Fest first. Going local again on Thursday with the Jesse McBride Big Band in the Jazz Tent and Wayne Toups balls to the wall zydecajun-ing the Gentilly Stage. Toups plays almost every year, and it don’t get old. Think ABB influenced squeeze box driven jams. Eric Lindell getting saucy with horns in the Blues Tent. Speaking of horns, three words. Tower. Of. Power. Almost at it for 50 years and Doc and Lenny still just play the shit out of those charts. Dug what I caught of Widespread’s set, and that Herring dude is pretty good, btw.
I’m not a big FOMS (fear of missing something) guy, but putting The Revivalists opposite Anders Osborne just ain’t right. Osborne won out for most of the set. My first Fest epiphany was seeing Osborne in 2000. 15 Fests later (we missed a few), and his sets are a big reason I return year after year. The there and back truth telling, the fury and tenderness in his playing and vocals. The emotion all over his face during “Had My Reasons”. This is why I Fest. Back to solid ground, I was lured to Margo Price from afar and her Dolly twang and rocking mates were pretty damn winning. A lot of happiness around Earth, Wind and Fire, but I was other places including the start of Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds and the end of Wilco. The real show stopper was Rhiannon Giddens, again (following her appearance last year). On “At the Purchaser’s Option”, from her most recent record “Freedom Highway”, she sang of slavery, separation and indifference with her Bowlin fretless gut string banjo and sparse accompaniment from her band, tears welling with each verse.
The Lone Bellow getting their do over was a highlight for my Saturday, with a due any day now Kanene Pipkin not holding back between turns at mandolin, keys and bass, and Zach Williams passionate energy seizing the moment. Great fit for the Fest. I was not on the approved Stevie list to shoot and only caught the tail of his set. Curious, when I arrived, he was playing DJ for 20 minutes in dedication to the likes of Bowie, Prince, Frey and others gone in 2016. Nice sentiment, not what I expect from a headliner.
After seven days of Festing, my dogs were barking pretty good. Sunday was rich with moments, sounds and emotion. Galactic’s Fest sets never disappoint and Erica Falls was having an especially good day with the band. The sounds from Gentilly were drawing me before I looked at my cubes to find it was the Preservation Hall Jazz Band pushing in a new direction with their latest release (and second of all original material), the Cuban inflected “So It Is”. With Walter Harris behind the kit, this was a more propulsive and contemporary sound, yet one that still leans hard in to its traditional roots. And, damn, I had the blues missing the pit to shoot Buddy Guy, though managed to take in a tune from the crowd before pressing on to Dawes at Fais Do-Do. Who pretty much stole most of the day. They had the faithful going with every tune and converted newbies big time. One of the highlights of both weekends. And then it got better. I finally checked out the Cultural Exchange Pavilion celebrating Cuba this year. Cuban music was spread throughout all seven Fest days on different stages and settings, of which I heard little. When I entered, the crowd had formed a large circle around several dancers driven by the pulsing Afro-Cuban rhythms of Adonis y Osain del Monte from the stage. The dancing was ecstatic and so was the room. The movement, the colors, the abandon, were unforgettable and so much at the core of the cultural heart of the Fest. Aah, the last Fest lap beckoned with The Meters holding down the Gentilly end and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue the Acura end. The Meters are the master groove machine of New Orleans funk. Art Neville may be slowing down, but these guys still own that pocket. The Blues Tent was packed for John Popper and Blues Traveller and when the young interns from the Tipitina’s Foundation joined the band for an extended encore, the full circle of the Fest seemed right where it should be. Of course, Shorty was still going at Acura well past 7 and was deep into the crowd by the time I arrived for his anthemic closer of “Do to Me”.
And so, the sun set on another Jazz Fest. Another gathering of the tribes that truly brings the best out in folks, regardless of the elements or challenges. Swaddled in music, culture, butter and kindness, while crossing all gens and demos to feel a part of, not apart from. If live music is a good salve for the spirit in these dangerously off the wall times, then Jazz Fest is full immersion in why we’re gonna be alright.