Picking which of Jazz Fest‘s 12 stages to try next presents countless dilemmas. It was no different deciding where to close out the festival’s second weekend, as two generations of New Orleans rhythm kings held court for tens of thousands of fans at opposite ends of the Fair Grounds. Here were the highlights of weekend two. (For weekend one highlights, click here.)
You won’t find a sharper, turn-on-a-dime horn band than Tower of Power. They might be one of the outside touring names that has infiltrated Jazz Fest over the years, but they represent some of Fest’s best aspects. Syncopated funk, soul power, and a good-time party aura curled around and through the military-like precision that punctuated “What Is Hip,” “You’ve Got To Funkifize,” a medley of James Brown riffs, and “Soul With a Capital S.”
Trumpeter Herb Alpert, a young 82 years old, took the Jazz Tent crowd — at least those of a certain age — on a soundtrack tour of their lives through a medley of Tijuana Brass hits as well as tracks used in commercials, movies, and TV themes (like the Allen Toussaint-penned “Whipped Cream,” which was adopted by The Dating Game). Meanwhile, Widespread Panic put in a loud two and a half hours of Southern psych jamming, while Grand Ole Opry member Darius Rucker solidified his standing as pop-country talent, post-Hootie & The Blowfish.
Also notable: Cedric Burnside Project, Chilluns, Dale Watson & His Lone Stars, George Porter Jr., CJ Chenier
Cut short by the weather last year, Wilco proved to be the most dynamic and versatile rock crew at Fest, with an adventurous setlist that included top-shelf versions of “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” and “Random Name Generator. Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds also stepped out as an acoustic duo with an engaging unplugged performance featuring appearances from trumpeter Rashawn Ross and Jimmy Buffett, ending with an encore of “What Would You Say.”
But it was Earth, Wind & Fire who best matched the mood of the sunny-day Fest crowd. Without or without lyrics, the dozen-member EW&F were a classic syncopated-funk machine. The show would have made founding member Maurice White proud (White died last year) as it scorched through “Boogie Nights,” a kalimba jam with saxman Kamasi Washington (Kendrick Lamar), Philip Bailey flaunting his still-prime voice on “Fantasy,” and the eternal “September,” which apparently, by some measure, is the “fifth-most-popular song of all time.” (Who am I to disagree?) As with Tower of Power the day before, the love songs for the ladies occasionally slowed the party down, though at least half of the audience couldn’t have minded less.
Also notable: Anders Osborne, Lake Street Dive, William Bell, Sonny Landreth, Margo Price, Sweet Crude, Alvin Youngblood Hart.
He has returned several times since his first Jazz Fest appearance in 1973, but making up for last year’s extreme weather wash-out was foremost in Stevie Wonder’s mind — that and daring the president to “unify, not divide.” Wonder’s two hour-plus revue appeared to draw this year’s biggest crowd to the Acura field (maybe 40,000, or more), for a breezy set that peaked numerous times with hits from his massive songbook. “Higher Ground,” “Don’t You Worry About a Thing,” “Superstition,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “Cherie Amour” — all the instant singalongs were there.
Meanwhile, at Congo Square, a chill Snoop Dogg glazed his set with some smoky raps on “Sexual Seduction,” “Gin and Juice,” and, somewhat appropriately, “Smoke Weed Everyday.”
Warming up the Acura Stage for Steve Wonder’s day-ending show were standout sets from New Orleans soul queen Irma Thomas and Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, showing off a new drummer and the deep-funk of some solid new material. Dumpstaphunk reiterated a Jazz Fest golden rule with a message to take all negative energy and “Put It in the Dumpster.”
Also notable: Royal Teeth, Savoy Family Cajun Band, Judith Owen, Beausoleil, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Original Pinettes Brass Band
Legendary godfathers of New Orleans groove the Meters held a bubbling, grinding party at the Gentilly Stage. The Meters played at the very first Jazz Fest in 1970 and their distinctive, churning rhythms became part of the very definition of funk. Together again, Art Neville, Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste, Leo Nocentelli, and George Porter Jr. performed with a horn section that helped to expand the interplay of their rolling beats and melodic hooks through favorites like “Hey Pock A-Way,” “People Say,” “They All Ask’d For You,” and the timeless “Sissy Strut.” The Meters’ message was clear: “Peace, love, everybody.”
Meanwhile, Troy Andrews, better known as Trombone Shorty, was over at the Acura Stage, five years into his current role as official Jazz Fest closer — a distinction inherited from the Neville Brothers. His double-drummer band Orleans Avenue infused their New Orleans roots with rampaging brass, guitar and hip-hop vibes. Drawing from his new album Parking Lot Symphony, his first for the venerable jazz label Blue Note, Andrews and Orleans Avenue rocked the house with a 90-minute set that included Ernie K-Doe’s “Here Come the Girls” and a finale of Shorty crowd-surfing on an extended jump-along, “Do to Me.”
The Meters-Trombone Shorty finale, matching the classic with the new, was a fitting way to close out seven days of music and the endless choices of great music that Jazz Fest presents. In that spirit, here are more highlights of a few of the highlights.
Also notable: Kings of Leon, Blues Traveler, Buddy Guy, Patti LaBelle, Dawes, Electrifying Crown Seekers, Walter Wolfman Washington, Galactic
The Preservation Hall Jazz Band returned from a recent trip to Havana invigorated, with a new animation that shined through in their set on Gentilly Stage. Drawing from their new album, So It Is, there were inspired hints of Havana rhythms and Caribbean horn lines. But moreover, Pres Hall have bumped up the creative vigor. Following the lead of bassist Ben Jaffe and 84-year-old saxophonist Charlie Gabriel, PHJB offered bouncing beats and snaking horns that teamed New Orleans brass tradition and modern street energy. Word has it that they’re backing Beck at Red Rocks in July.
This year’s cultural exchange focus on Cuba by Jazz Fest was also a blazing success, featuring dozens of hot-blooded players including jazzy high-energy legends Los Van Van and Chucho Valdez, an Afro-Cuban jazz giant. Cuba was an influential stop on the slave routes from Africa that shaped New Orleans music. Percussion and vocal harmony were at the base of all the Cuban performers at Fest, from the raw power of Pedrito Martinez’s Rumba Project to the on-fire party dance of Septeto Santiaguero and Changui Guantanamo. The music often expanded into heady layers of syncopated Latin drumming and horn lines, but most impressive was how the performances were generally tutorials on how do (much) more with less. Now that the doors have swung open, the inclusion of such great Cuban talent should be a regular Fest feature.
NIGHTTIME IN THE DAYTIME
Festivalgoers who weren’t able to stuff themselves into the Little Gem Saloon for the nighttime celebration of Basin Street Records’ 20th anniversary were able to catch the artists’ special daytime sets instead. Trumpeter Kermit Ruffins led a tribute to Louis Armstrong. Piano great Henry Butler played like he was ignoring his cancer diagnosis. Feeding off raves for his “Live at Newport” album, trumpeter Irvin Mayfield scored with his jazzy big band. Pianist Davell Crawford welcomed guitarist L’il Buck Senegal to sit in for his Blues Tent set. And Jason Marsalis once again proved to be a master of the mallets.
CALL IT A TRIBUTE TO NEW ORLEANS
Annual, only-at-Jazz-Fest treats are provided by the strings of groups that feature one-time/part-time lineups of monster musicians, such as the all-star bands that honored the late, great Buckwheat Zydeco, Central City gospel singer Jo “Cool” Davis, and Miles Davis. Or the a dazzling set by vocalist Germaine Bazzle, Kermit Ruffins and Torkestra who ran through the Great American Songbook of jazz standards. Or the Ponderosa Stomp-style swamp pop revue with GG Shin and others.
Add to that home-grown attractions like brass bands fresh off the streets, the best Cajun and Zydeco music anywhere, the always testifyin’ Gospel Tent, Mardi Gras Indians chants, second line parades, and the hundreds of other local and international performers at Jazz Fest, and you understand why there is no other celebration like it. You might come for the Snoops and Stevies, but you come back for the New Orleans. See you next year.