New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, New Orleans, LA 5/5-5/8
Soul Rebels Brass Band – photo by Jeffrey Dupuis
The second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival hosted an array of local and nationally touring acts from an array of genres, but the collaborations were the big story. Some of them were jaw dropping (Warren Haynes with The Radiators). Others were lackluster (Cyndi Lauper with The Arcade Fire), and a few were unexpected (Marco Benevento with Bonerama). But at a festival that celebrates the collaborative nature of New Orleanian culture, the weekend’s showcase of collaborative talent did the Crescent City justice.
Jazz Fest is a locally self-sustained festival unlike any other in the country. The vendors are not your run-of-the-mill veggie burrito slingers you see at every other summer event. Local establishments serve all of the food and local artisans make the crafts. Most importantly, the overwhelming majority of the acts on the lineup are from New Orleans or Louisiana. Groups like Wilco and The Strokes have little connection to the city or festival, and head the bill to help the event compete with the plethora of festivals that sprang up in the wake of Bonnaroo’s success, but even amongst the headliners, nationally touring artists ranging from Lupe Fiasco to Galactic call NOLA home. Even Jimmy Buffet has a house in the Crescent City.
On Thursday, Wilco went head-to-head with Maceo Parker while Cyndi Lauper drew a crowd at the Gentilly Stage across the fair grounds. Wilco always nails it, but unlike the majority of the bands that played that day, the group didn’t seem to consider the event or their surroundings to be anything special. Frontman Jeff Tweedy’s usually-witty banter was minimal and their set was void of any deep cuts or covers that stood out from their other performances on this tour.
To a first-time Jazz Fest attendee, what stood out more than performances by Wilco, Parker, or Lauper was how large the audiences were for the local acts playing on tiny stages during the headline slots. As thousands of attendees sang along to “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and “Ashes of American Flags,” Ruthy Foster had the Blues tent packed and The Iguanas had people dancing their feet numb within 50 yards of Pee Wee Ellis’ guest appearance with Maceo Parker.
Friday featured a stellar performance by the Soul Rebel Brass Band that was highlighted by an instrumental cover of Katy Perry’s “California Girls,” followed by a Bonerama’s performance, which ended with an overpowering version of Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.”
For anyone looking to take in the best of what New Orleans has to offer, one of the toughest choices of the weekend was between Kermit Ruffins & the Barbecue Swingers playing in Congo Square and Buckwheat Zydeco on the Gentilly Stage. Ruffins drew plenty of love with his reputation as a modern day Louis Armstrong and teased Wyclef Jean’s “Gone Till November” for the fans who toughed out the midday sun to see his set.
The event came to a close with some serious cross-stage competition between The Arcade Fire on one side of the fair grounds, Willie Nelson on the other, and both Gregg Allman and NOLA’s own Lupe Fiasco in between. The Arcade Fire’s Grammy-winning status drew a large crowd, and plenty of baby boomers were seen toking up during Nelson’s performance, but Fiasco brought the energy unlike anyone else that weekend. Throughout the duration of his 75-minute set, it didn’t seem like Fiasco stopped moving once. Clad in military fatigues, Fiasco romped around the stage as he howled into the mic, looking more like a rock star than a rapper.
Saturday was the most crowded day of the weekend, and for that, attendees had Jimmy Buffett and his army of Parrotheads to thank. Earlier that day, Trombone Shorty & New Orleans Avenue gave one of the most entertaining performances of the weekend while rapper Mystical (also from NOLA) played hits like “Shake Ya Ass” with the help of a tight live band that included a brass section.
Saturday’s headliners had serious potential but unfortunately, they all fell short. Parrotheads surely had a great time, but Buffett failed to bring the heat. Lauryn Hill was a thrill to see live, but she leaned too heavily on covers and the rearrangements of her material confused her crowd. Last but not least, The Strokes won the award for “Least influenced by the music and culture of New Orleans.” The Lower East Side rockers came out late, clad in leather jackets (easy to mock in 90 degree heat). Unlike Hill, whose music couldn’t be recognized, The Strokes’ songs sounded identical to the studio cuts. They weren’t lip-synching, but they might as well have been.
It didn’t look it on paper, but Sunday proved to be the highlight of the four-day weekend. There was no Jimmy Buffett or Arcade Fire to attract a national crowd, but the best music of this years Jazz Fest took place on the last day of the two-week festival.
You wouldn’t think Kid Rock would find a lot of love at a jazz festival, but while waiting for a flight out of NOLA, attendees were raving about his performance. More people cited Rock’s set as their favorite of the weekend than any other artist. He kicked off his set with “American Jesus” and played other hits like “Cowboy” as he worked the stage like a native-born Mick Jagger.
The Neville Brothers drew the smallest crowd to the main stage of any headliner, but that had a lot to do with their competition across the fairgrounds. The Radiators have been working their way across thecountry on their farewell tour and folks had been talking about the gig as though it was their last ever. While they’ve got plenty of stops ahead, this was the Nawlin’s-bred groups last performance at Jazz Fest and they brought some friends to help celebrate in style.
Warren Haynes (who wasn’t on the bill), as well as Little Feat’s Paul Barrere, and the horn section from Bonerama sat in during The Rad’s set. The festival enforces their set times to the minute, and fair grounds close at 7PM each night… except Sunday. The Radiators showed little regard for curfew and finished up at 7:20PM with Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That.” The largest of the group’s farewell performances provided a fitting end a festival that aims to showcase its heritage. It seemed like the majority of ticket holders had been there before, but if it was your first Jazz Fest, the event was likely to draw you back again and again.