By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival takes place at the Fair Grounds racetrack each day from about 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. And while the gates to that legendary annual festival that celebrates all genres of music may close as the sun starts to go down, party life in the Big Easy is a 24-hour affair. During the second weekend of the festival (that ran from Thursday, May 4, to Sunday, May 7, 2017), all the clubs in the city had world-class talent booked for shows every one of those nights and beyond. With no curfews to enforce, concerts around town ran into the early morning hours, some until sunrise. We did our best to sample lots of the nightlife – and barely survived to tell about it.
Our Thursday night destination was The House of Blues NOLA where the spectacular homegrown talent, Troy Andrews – known as Trombone Shorty – hosted his fifth annual Shorty Fest. The night was a fundraiser and concert for his Trombone Shorty Foundation and its Trombone Shorty Academy, which provides gifted high-school kids with an after-school chance to study the rich music of the region. Our extensive coverage of the event can be found here.
For Friday night, we went to a pretty special show. Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe was playing at The Orpheum Theater, with indie rockers White Denim (who hail from Austin, Texas) opening. That alone would draw a large late-night crowd. However, when Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville and North Mississippi Allstar’s Luther Dickinson joined Karl Denson’s band for the special show, it was truly a night to remember.
With the theme “Exile On Bourbon Street,” the whole evening of incredible music centered around a tribute to The Rolling Stones’ seminal 1972 double album, “Exile on Main Street.” Tackling the intricacies of that album with a live show was a natural for the group, as Karl Denson has contributed his exceptional saxophone skills as a touring member of The Stones since 2014 and Ivan Neville recorded with The Stones in the 80s and 90s. Add in Luther Dickinson’s masterful blues-rooted guitar and vocals – the basis of many Stones classics – and the combination was electric.
The show was a huge triumph. After a jam-heavy, psychedelic-rock set by White Denim, the headliners came out. Denson played amazing saxophone and flute solos as well as handled lead vocals on many of the Rolling Stones’ songs from the classic album. Neville played the Hammond B3 organ and took over lead vocals on a couple of tunes. Dickinson played explosive guitar riffs throughout the show and took turns trading slide solos with KDTU’s regular guitarist Seth Freeman.
Chris Mule, from Honey Island Swamp Band, sat in for vocals and guitar during a scorching “Ventilator Blues.” Neal Evans, from Soulive, and also KDTU drummer Alan Evans’ brother, sat in on keyboards for “Stop Breaking Down.” By the time the band finished the show with “Sweet Virginia,” the fans in attendance were thrilled, but exhausted.
On Saturday night, we started at the beautiful Saenger Theater for another tribute show. The same group of great musicians that had successfully performed The Band’s “Last Waltz” during Jazz Fest at The Saenger in 2016 took on Little Feat’s “Waiting For Columbus.” Warren Haynes, Don Was, Jamey Johnson, Dave Malone, Terrance Higgins, George Porter Jr., Mark Mullins and other local musicians refashioned the classic album for hundreds of adoring fans.
The Saenger event ended at a reasonable hour so we moved on to another storied New Orleans venue, The Howlin’ Wolf, for a late night/early morning show. Anders Osborne, the Swedish transplant and longtime New Orleans based rock guitar hero, led the multi-band bill. His Anders Osborne & Friends show included his regular band, plus Dumpstaphunk’s Ivan Neville, ALO’s Dan “Lebo” Lebowitz, pedal-steel master Roosevelt “The Dr.” Collier, guitarist Billy Iuso and percussionist Mike Dillon. Osborne led the super band through a lengthy set of his songs as well as a number of Grateful Dead covers.
When the Anders Osborne & Friends show ended, Roosevelt Collier took over in the venue’s smaller Den Room for some pedal-steel magic. He was joined by Turkuaz drummer Michelangelo Carubba, who seemed to be everywhere during Jazz Fest. Once the Collier set wrapped up, the Brooklyn-based Pimps of Joytime took over on the big stage.
The band blasted some positive soul and funk dance grooves into The Howlin’ Wolf’s die-hard crowd, who were clearly pooped, but hardcore music lovers. The Pimps boosted their already big sound by including guest appearances by Galactic trombonist Corey Henry, Tedeschi Trucks Band trumpeter Maurice Brown and super saxophone player Mike Tucker. When we left at well past 3 a.m. the band was still going strong.
The traditional Sunday night show at Rock ‘n’ Bowl after Jazz Fest ends is a blues guitar showdown with Tab Benoit, Sonny Landreth and rotating opening acts. We did not want to miss this show as it always has great music and unusual surprises. This year, Jonathon “Boogie” Long got the opening slot and he impressed the early crowd with his soulful vocals and guitar shredding.
Landreth played both amplified acoustic and wailing electric guitars during his set. His slide technique left the crowd in awe, while his homage to zydeco kept many dancing. The dedicated crowd stuck around during the set break in anticipation of Benoit’s set.
Benoit and his band hit the stage with a flourish. His smooth vocals and delta blues guitar licks electrified the crowd. The inevitable duet with Landreth and the antics that followed are what make this show special. As always during this yearly tradition, the two guitar masters traded impressive solos. Benoit then brought John Gros to the stage to play keyboards, as well as his Voice of the Wetlands band mate Johnny Sansone, who played harmonica and sang.
The jam session continued as Benoit introduced vocalist Jeff McCarty. Benoit recently signed McCarty to his record label and produced his new album. Both Josh Garrett and Tab Benoit Jr. joined McCarty on stage, adding two more guitars to the mix. The crowded stage was teeming with talent as the extended band blazed through some of Benoit’s most popular songs.
The wild show came to an end, but not before club owner John Blancher thanked the audience for supporting Louisiana music. He reminisced about how he and Tab struggled in the old days to convince people that a bowling alley with live music would work. He also talked about how lucky he was to survive heart surgery and have the support of friends and family.
Tab Benoit nearly had to wrench the microphone away from Blancher so he could play another song. The band played another fast, foot-stomping tune while Blancher and his son-in-law gyrated on stage, tore off their shirts and competed in an impromptu push up contest. The crazy antics finally came to an end early Monday morning as another Rock ‘n’ Bowl Sunday night after Jazz Fest came to a close.
Although Jazz Fest was officially over, the New Orleans music scene never stops. One of the city’s best places to purchase and enjoy music is the Louisiana Music Factory, located on the edge of the French Quarter and the Faubourg Marigny neighborhood. The store offers free live music in the daytime during the extended week of Jazz Fest and on Monday, May 8, they had a fine lineup of musicians performing. We sampled some of the tunes from the John Gros Band, Eric Lindell and Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Later than night, we caught our last show at Blue Nile on Frenchman Street in the Marigny. The Nth Power, a soul, jazz, funk and groove band, were joined by vocalist Cheryl Pepsii Riley. The club was filled with diehard music aficionados, including fellow musicians still in town after the fest. The band played two sets of infectiously danceable songs that kept the crowd gyrating. It was another night show that turned into an early morning show – symbolic of life in New Orleans where the music never stops.