New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival- 4/24-5/4
The 2014 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
On the backend, digesting the musicultural deluge that is the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the surrounding night shows (the Fest’s nebulous and more adventurous companion) is an arguably more challenging endeavor than mapping out one’s plan of attack at the outset of the marathon. The 2014 event will forever go down as one of the world famous Fest’s finest productions. On paper, Jazz Fest 2014 looked hugely appealing across the top thanks to headliners like Phish, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Santana, John Fogerty, The String Cheese Incident and more. Throw seven absolutely spectacular sunny days (and three in between Fest weekends) and the 45th Anniversary Fest is bound to go down as one of the greatest ever. Here are the standout moments from all eleven days of the run through the gauntlet.
Thursday, April 24th – Night Show
It doesn’t get much more authentic in the city of New Orleans then spending a Thursday night with the Johnny Vidacovich Trio in the dank and legendary confines of Oak Street’s Maple Leaf Bar. Joined by trumpet/keys scion Nicholas Payton and bass wizard Erick “Jesus” Coomes, the band whipped through a good 45 minutes of swirling improv before locking into an extensive collection of tight grooves through the end of set one and much of the entirety of set two. This kickoff managed to engender and encapsulate the general freewheeling spirit of the Jazz Fest after dark scene perfectly, setting the tone for an amazing ten days that would follow.
Friday, April 25th – Day One
To get fully indoctrinated into the spirit of Jazz Fest, as an annual rite of passage, the first stop into the Gospel Tent to see The Showers for a quick soul cleanse was a healthy beginning. Over at Congo Square, one of New Orleans most exciting and dynamic modern brass bands the Brass-A-Holics were the first of countless bands to get the crowd in front of the central stage soaring with their jubilant, covers-heavy set. Keeping it local, Honey Island Swamp Band blew through a set mixing southern rock and zydeco seamlessly, capturing the general vibe of the Fest at large in a workmanlike fashion.
For the sake of thematic continuity at the newly named Samsung Galaxy Stage (it’ll always be the Gentilly Stage to me), former Drive-By Truckers guitarist/vocalist Jason Isbell further cemented the fact that his solo act (alongside the 400 Unit) has fully transcended his early work with DBT. Hot off the release of 2013’s critically-lauded Southeastern record, Isbell wowed a swelling crowd with a deadly serious and sometimes autobiographical showcase of his extraordinary songwriting talent. The set hit on nearly every song from the new record (notably “Cover Me Up” and the mellow “Live Oak”) and nodded back to the band that helped him get his start with takes on “Decoration Day” and “Never Gonna Change”.
Over in the WWOZ Jazz Tent, Irvin Mayfield conducted a sizable local orchestra and provided the first taste of trad jazz of the weekend. Santana’s main stage crowd was nearly impassable but the sounds of recognizable classics like “Oye Como Va” and “Black Magic Woman” washed over over the massive Acura Stage audience all the way to the back of the track. With the help of a highly percussive and first-class backing band, Santana managed to leave an indelible impression at his first trip back to Jazz Fest in six years.
Late Nights: Page McConnell of Phish joined The Metermen (George Porter Jr., Leo Nocentelli and Zigaboo Modeliste) for a perfectly locked in run through a greatest hits Meters show at a very sold out Republic New Orleans. Then, across the street,Dumpstaphunk played a straight-down-the-line “anti-funk” rockin’ Zeppelin show at The Howlin’ Wolf. Few stranger bedfellows could be found than Dumpstaphunk and Led Zeppelin one would think, but rest assured: few bands know how to get the Led out quite like Dumpsta. It was a downright pleasant surprise to say the least.
Saturday, April 26th – Day Two
The first Saturday was worthy of a big circle on the calendar from the day it was announced that Anders Osborne would be followed by Phish on the main stage. A veritable 1-2 punch of guitar-laden glory, this was a rare Fest occasion worth planting down all day in one spot to soak it all in. Over the past few years, Osborne has become one of a few modern artists that truly captures the essence of the city and with multiple appearances at Jazz Fest (he’d play again the second Saturday with Voice of the Wetlands Allstars), the guitarist managed to resonate with longtime fans and first-timers alike. Joined by man-about-town keys wizard Marco Benevento, Osborne channeled his past inner demons, pouring through arguably the most genuinely impassioned set the main stage would see all weekend (with apologies to The Boss and Arcade Fire) that included newer fare like the opening “Peace,” an island-flavored cover of “Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door” and an utterly blistering encore with “On The Road To Charlie Parker.” Tipping his hat to the day’s three-hour headliner, Osborne even riffed on Phish’s “Wilson” during “Ya Ya” before exiting the stage during his set.
Phish festival sets generally don’t meander too far outside of the band’s ordinary structures or themes and the Jazz Fest set didn’t get notably exploratory save of a few exceptions. Without the assistance of lighting director Chris Kuroda, Trey, Mike, Page and Fish mainly focused on playing to the picture-perfect atmosphere, crafting a freewheeling and fun setlist that could be appreciated by most everyone planted down on the race track, from the greenest newcomer to the cagiest of veterans. Highlights from the set included the “Kill Devil Falls” opener (if for nothing else than the fact that the long-awaited show was now underway), “Sand,” Page’s standard Sinatra moment during “Lawn Boy” and “46 Days.” While it was tough to miss the golden god Robert Plant’s set across the track, Phish delivered on the promise of providing a joy-filled and crowd-pleasing afternoon for all who stuck it out for the duration.
Late Night: moe. headlined their second show in as many nights at the newly-refurbished Civic Theatre, marked by an out-of-this-world xylophone duel between percussionist Jim Loughlin and the wild man xylophone extraordinaire Mike Dillon during “Buster.” moe. also busted out their first cover of The Radiators classic tune “Suck The Head” in years.
Sunday, April 27th – Day Three
Arguably the Fest set of the weekend, Tuareg guitarist Bombino’s early afternoon jam session in the Blues Tent proved tonic for weary Fest goers, getting the generally-seated crowd on their feet for most of the set with an uber amped up, high energy set of hard-driving desert blues that was unlike anything else played throughout the Fairgrounds over the seven day marathon. Exotic, ecstatic and extraordinary are three words that come to mind when describing Bombino’s set and, after two incendiary performances in three years, it’s a safe bet that the guitarist will be a near-constant staple at the Fairgrounds in the years to come. Bombino would later serve as the surprise guest at the intimate confines of Preservation Hall in the French Quarter as part the Midnight Preserves series.
Galactic serves up a staple, can’t miss show in the Crescent City each year during both Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest yet you’ll never see the city’s foremost rhythm section going through the motions. If you only saw one set a year, the Jazz Fest performance would serve as a reminder that the veteran quintet is constantly in motion, changing up the lineup with a revolving door of guest vocalists and players with each passing tour and album. The latest featured long-running guest is female vocalist Maggie Koerner, who took the lead on “Heart of Steel” and the new “Dolla Diva” single. Mike Dillon once again served as guest percussionist for the duration of the set, juicing up the already rollicking set with his nearly unparalleled stage presence and energy in the background.
Much like Galactic, Preservation Hall Jazz Band has played in many iterations and on many different platforms (such as when they closed the Fest with an epic, Last Waltz style 50th Anniversary celebration in 2012). Here in 2014, Pres Hall performed with their core to a totally packed-out and engaged crowd in the Blues Tent, further stapling their reputation as a required Jazz Fest act on the itinerary. After running into a gracious Allen Toussaint in the food line behind the Acura Stage, efforts were made to nudge into the far-as-the-eye-can-see crowd for Eric Clapton’s first-ever Jazz Fest performance. After a long weekend it would have been ideal to get a few juiced up classics from Slow Hand, but instead, the legend delivered a mostly languorous and seated acoustic set that hit on fan favorites (“Layla”, “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out”) and paid tribute to the recently-deceased JJ Cale (“Crazy Mama”) in a generally subdued fashion. For all the anticipation and expectations leading to this weekend-closing set, this one fell a tad short.
Late Night: A rare set by The Word (John Medeski, Luther Dickinson, Cody Dickinson, Robert Randolph and John Medeski) at the (also) newly-refurbished Joy Theatre left an indelible impact on almost everyone I spoke with following the show. The gospel-steel driven rock set floored most in the building and, in a weekend filled with “wow” moments, was perhaps the bona fide best show I’d see throughout the eleven day marathon. Simply phenomenal, don’t miss The Word on this run. After all, who knows the next time they’ll pop up for a brief run of shows.
Midweek Night Shows
Monday, April 28th Tipitina’s five-star Instruments-A-Comin fundraiser featured a brief ceremony honoring Phish for a generous donation to the Tipitina’s Foundation (attended by Mike Gordon) and incendiary performances by Galactic (featuring Anders Osborne), Dumpstaphunk, New Orleans Suspects and Honey Island Swamp Band. Despite a hefty price tag (all for a great cause), this midweek gathering is worth every penny.
Tuesday, April 29th A day off from music, just an afternoon round of doubles with a friend, drummer Simon Allen of The New Mastersounds and David Bailis of Pimps of Joytime. Even casual sporting exercises could technically be construed as a “Superjam” during Jazz Fest.
Wednesday, April 30th Eric McFadden, Jerry Joseph, Norwood Fisher and Eric Bolivar headlined the seasonal Wednesdays at the Square concert series in the Central Business District’s Lafayette Square, greeting weekend two arrivers with a snarling and hard-driving set and offering a glimpse of what sort of free musical happenings go down when Jazz Fest isn’t in season.