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New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, Weekend One – 4/26-28

Khris Royal -photo by Jeffrey Dupuis

Day 3:

The weather had just been too cooperative, so by Sunday it was time to give Festival goers a real taste of New Orleans. The skies turned dark and the rain came. Early in the day, rising star Alinda lee Segarra and her intriguing folk band Hurray for the Riff Raff were the first to brave the onslaught. Remaining poised, the band finished their set while onlookers got soaked.

Conditions didn’t improve much from there but there was a point where the crowds seemed to accept their fate, trudge through the mud and have a hell of a time anyway. Khris Royal, the brilliant young saxophonist, and his band Dark Matter bravely brought the funk to the Gentilly Stage. Soon after, consummate showman Big Sam and his Funky Nation took to Congo Square and whipped the crowd into a frenzy with their explosive mix of funk, rock, and jazz.

An interesting contrast to the brass and funk-heavy afternoon was Tuscon, Arizona band Calexico, whose songs are at times dark and brooding, at others romantic and wistful. A sweet blend of tex/mex, indie rock and Americana, they delivered a welcome burst of diversity to a responsive crowd.

A truly touching moment, which began in the Economy Hall Tent, was the Tremé Brass Band’s tribute to the late Uncle Lionel Batiste, the band’s assistant leader and an iconic figure of brass band culture, who passed away in July of 2012. A second line parade in his honor danced through the festival grounds as the band played gems like “Lil’ Liza Jane” and “Down in the Tremé”.

The Blues Tent was one of the only dry spots at the festival. It got packed for jazz trumpeter Kermit Ruffins and his latest band, the Barbecue Swingers. Ruffins played with a jubilant and silvery tone, delighting those who had sought refuge from the rain. Once it was time for the great B.B.King to play, it was standing-room only. One of the greatest guitarists of all time, his presence was awe-inducing for many in the tent. The thunder outside only added to the drama. Remaining seated while playing, his guitar wailed and soared, telling stories as only he can. Standouts included “The Thrill is Gone”, “Every Day I Have the Blues”, playing with Allen Toussaint and a nod to New Orleans with “When the Saints Go Marching In” but every moment felt epic to most in attendance.

The weekend came to a muddy close with the largest crowd heading over to see Dave Matthews Band at the Acura Stage, though Earth, Wind and Fire and the Gipsy Kings also drew a respectable number of those who had succumbed to the downpour. Dave Matthews Band got drenched right from the beginning of their set but didn’t flinch as they played to an adoring throng of mud-soaked dancers. It really began to pour as the band played “Louisiana Bayou” and by the time they launched into “Ants Marching”, DMB fans defied the elements by embracing them, many of them purposely sliding in the mud as if it were all part of the scenery. It was, in a word, awesome.

The same type of party was going on at the Gentilly Stage as the Gipsy Kings and their furious flamenco provoked even more mud-wrestling and hand-clapping. Since it’s impossible not to move when you hear their gorgeous intermingling of musical traditions (flamenco, Romani, salsa), they had their own jubilant horde of filthy revelers.

It was a weekend of contrasts and colors at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The upcoming second weekend may have a lot to live up to, but with a lineup that includes Widespread Panic, Jimmy Cliff, Willie Nelson, the Meter Men with Page McConnell, Fleetwood Mac, and more local talent than can even be summed up here…lightening has a good chance of striking twice.

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