New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Weekend One – 4/26-28
Charles Bradley- photo by Jeffrey Dupuis
On Saturday (or “Billy Joel Day”, as some were prone to call it), sunshine and humidity ushered in a loud mixture of Mardi Gras Indians, jazz bands and delicious smells. Early on, Festers got a taste of rockabilly as Johnny J and the Hitmen got things started at the Acura Stage. John Michael Rouchell gave the crowd a bit of indie-rock with a solid, melodic set that was a nice departure from his work with Mynameisjohnmichael.
As the afternoon heated up, the sounds of up-tempo zydeco filled the air by the Fais-Do-Do Stage as Dwayne Dopsie and the Zydeco Hellraisers put in an energetic performance. Latin music has been prominently featured and impressive so far this year; the fiery Eddie Palmieri Salsa Orchestra emboldened even non-dancers to swing their hips with their infectious percussion.
Local favorites Rebirth Brass Band set the Congo Square Stage on fire with their signature brass funk sound. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, a powerhouse ensemble that has the uncanny ability to get every single booty in the crowd shakin’, played at the same time as Rebirth and the legendary Allen Toussaint, but still brought in a big crowd.
Those who did sojourn over to the Acura Stage to see Toussaint were not disappointed. Dressed to kill, charming as ever and sounding incredible, Toussaint played only a small fraction of his portfolio of compositions that span decades but the crowd enjoyed every morsel. A rollicking “Lady Marmalade” and exuberant “Yes We Can Can” were just plain fun and had hundreds of people of all ages dancing and grinning; a highlight of the weekend.
And then it was time for Billy Joel. He drew the largest crowd of the day, making it impossible to move anywhere near the stage and causing parts of the throng to begin pushing and cursing at each other. The heat, the waiting, the crowd – totally worth it. With a voice of undeniable strength that’s barely aged and those songs that stand the test of time, he opened with “Movin’ Out” and played hit after hit – “My Life”, “New York State of Mind”, “We Didn’t Start the Fire”, “Only the Good Die Young” and on and on. He honored New Orleans by playing with the Preservation Hall Band and scattering references to the Crescent City throughout the set. The crowd swayed in unison as he closed out with – what else? – “The Piano Man”.
One of the acts who held their own while playing at the same time as Joel was the magnificent Jill Scott, who closed the Congo Square Stage. Scott’s voice can be husky, tender and operatic, all in one song, and she is the type of performer you can’t keep your eyes off of. Her confidence and grace emanated off the stage as she sang soulful tracks off “Light of the Sun” and “Who is Jill Scott? Word and Music, Vol. 1”.
Ben Harper and Charlie Musselwhite also drew a large crowd to the Gentilly Stage, mostly staying true to their recent collaboration “Get Up!” Blues legend Musselwhite and Harper stood in mutual admiration of each other as harmonica and guitar blended together in the elation, defiance, and sorrow of the blues.
Many who wandered into the Blues Tent late in the day ended up dumbfounded by Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires. Though he initially appears to be a James Brown impersonator (a gig he has had in the past), his deep, soulful voice shocked those who didn’t know who he was and his performance was nothing short of spectacular. Singing about love and loss and backed by a flawless band, Bradley’s flamboyant outfits and dance moves that no man in his mid-60’s should be able to do brought the house down – a perfect ending to a sweaty, triumphant day.