By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The 48th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kicked off Friday, April 28, 2017, with overcast skies and breezes that helped to cut the intense, humid heat. The massive festival takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Course and features twelve stages of music spanning seven days over two weekends.
For starters, the big main Acura Stage hosted the New Orleans Suspects, an all-star lineup featuring former members of The Neville Brothers, The Radiators and Dirty Dozen Brass Band. At the same time, Trumpet Mafia was in the Jazz Tent. That horn-focused group includes up to 15 players, this time featuring Eric Benny Bloom from Lettuce and Maurice Brown from Tedeschi Trucks Band.
The Joe Krown Trio with Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Russell Batiste Jr. burned up the Blues Tent, while Meschiya Lake and The Little Big Horns played a set of traditional music back at Acura. At the Gentilly stage on the far side of the racetrack, Leon Bridges, a talented young soul crooner, played for a huge crowd filled with lots of swooning girls.
Trey Anastasio Band headlined at the end of the day on the Gentilly stage. They played an eclectic set of originals, as well as Phish songs and some interesting covers such as Gorillaz’ “Clint Eastwood” and Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused.” Anastasio uses this side project to expand his musical interests when he’s not touring with Phish. The band has a great horn section with solid additional vocals from trumpeter Jennifer Hartswick and trombonist Natalie Cressman.
Harry Connick Jr., along with his big band, closed the first day schedule on the Acura stage. Connick used his pleasant personality and great voice, as well as his extraordinary piano chops, to mesmerize the huge crowd. His big band featured talented musicians that played both traditional and modern jazz tunes. Meanwhile, over at the Congo Square stage, Nas with the Soul Rebels formed a hip hop-meets-modern brass band combination that kept the large crowd there dancing and bopping.
Saturday, April 29, 2017, was a beautiful day at the Fairgrounds. The cooling breezes helped to fight off the blazing sunshine. Mark Broussard, an Americana singer-songwriter played guitar and sang with his solid band. Corey Henry & Treme Funktet were on the Congo Square stage. Henry is the great trombonist and occasional rapper formerly with Rebirth Brass Band and recently a regular member of Galactic.
Kenny Neal and his excellent blues band lit up the steamy Blues Tent. Neal brought out several guests from Baton Rouge and other regional stars he has admired during his career. Stanton Moore, the exceptional drummer with Galactic, played at the Jazz Tent with a modern jazz trio. The Nigel Hall Band did a set of soul, funk and rock at Congo Square. Hall brought out Eric Krasno to sit in on guitar. Krasno is a frequent collaborator and produced Hall’s latest album.
The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, longtime legends of the genre, played at the Acura stage. Cyril Neville & Swamp Funk brought some dirty, funky music to the Blues Tent. Neville, the youngest of the famous Neville Brothers, excels on percussion and soulful vocals. Jon Batiste and Stay Human played modern jazz at the Acura stage while Rebirth Brass Band, another traditional band that incorporates elements of modern brass, performed at Congo Square. JOHNNYSWIM sang catchy duets at the Fais Do Do Stage.
Big headliners closed out sets on the main stages. Maroon 5 played all their hits for a large crowd at the Acura Stage, but strangely ended their set with 20 minutes to spare before closing time. Alabama Shakes offered up a blend of blues and rock at Gentilly. Brittany Howard, the band’s lead vocalist, displayed amazing range and power as well as fine guitar work. Guitar virtuoso Jonny Lang did a scorching set in the Blues Tent and shredded right up to the 7 p.m. cutoff. At Congo Square, Usher & The Roots formed a rowdy, upbeat combination that had a huge crowd partying until closing time.
Unfortunately, Sunday (April 30) was nearly a complete washout. Thunderstorms, lightning and the threat of tornados forced the festival staff to delay opening the gates. By the time the weather service and city officials deemed the venue safe for attendees many artist sets were cancelled. The gates did not open until 3 p.m. Attendance was down significantly due to the threat of more inclement weather. However, all the stages were active until the scheduled 7 p.m. closing time.
At the Acura Stage area, which was surprisingly undamaged with the expected mud bogs after the deluge, Dr. John put on his usual voodoo, swampy blues show. It featured his prolific keyboard skills and unique vocal stylings. The sparse crowd enjoyed listening to the master and his talented band perform several of his standards.
The closing sets had some big names to choose from. However, one of them, Pitbull, cancelled his performance that afternoon since he was unable to fly into town due to the weather. Gente de Zona, a Cuban duo, filled in with a lively, danceable set on the Congo Stage. Previously, George Benson had cancelled and was replaced by the sublime Maceo Parker in the Jazz Tent. Lorde performed at the Gentilly stage and Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were in the Blues Tent.
The biggest act of the day was Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers who performed an amazing set of hits on the Acura Stage. Petty and his band are celebrating their 40th year on the road and chose tracks from their albums throughout the previous five decades. The crowd sang along to classics like “Learning to Fly,” “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “You’re So Bad,” “Refugee” and “Running Down a Dream.” The encore was a spirited “American Girl.”
The first weekend of Jazz Fest 2017 went into the books with the usual bounty of excellent music. The fest will continue for its second weekend, beginning Thursday, May 4, 2017, at 11 a.m., and rolling through four days of eclectic music until it concludes on Sunday, May 7, at 7 p.m. Headliners scheduled for weekend two include Widespread Panic; Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds; Earth, Wind & Fire; Stevie Wonder; Snoop Dogg; Buddy Guy; The Meters; and Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. If you’re not already here, we suggest you get yourself to New Orleans quick, to experience the second weekend of the Jazz & Heritage Festival, especially since the weather forecast is fantastic. You will not be disappointed.