By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The second weekend of the 49th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival featured amazing performances by local, regional and international acts. From Thursday, May 3, 2018 to Sunday, May 6, thousands of fans enjoyed live music happening on 12 stages from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Held at the Fair Grounds Race Track, the horse track in New Orleans, the mostly outdoor festival draws talented artists from many musical disciplines. The first weekend of the festival saw amazing, sunny weather and, except for a passing rain shower on Saturday, May 5, the second weekend continued the trend.
Thursday at the fest is considered locals’ day, because Louisiana residents can purchase discounted tickets and many schools bring kids to the festival. Music highlights included an opening set at the big Acura Stage by Naughty Professor, a young group of talented musicians that are keeping the horn-based New Orleans funk tradition alive. J Monique D Blues Revue offered a blend of Chicago and Louisiana blues music. Cyril Neville, the multitalented percussionist from the Neville Brothers, played with his band Swamp Funk at the Congo Stage.
Late in the afternoon, Big Sam’s Funky Nation got the crowd dancing with rock, funk and hip-hop songs led by Sam Williams’ fiery trombone playing at the Acura Stage. Headliners that closed the day’s shows included Blind Boys of Alabama in the Blues Tent and Toots & the Maytals at Congo. Legendary pop star and five-time Grammy winner Lionel Richie played a set of his classic solo hits as well as songs from his time with The Commodores at the Acura Stage.
Over at Gentilly, Lyle Lovett and His Large Band had a large crowd happily singing along to the Texas crooner’s slightly wry, slightly country, always wonderful songbook. He did hits ranging from “If I Had a Boat” to “That’s Right” and “She’s No Lady,” much to the delight of the dancing crowd.
Friday, May 4 (Day 5 of NOLA Jazz Fest), was a gorgeous day with modest crowds despite the big names performing. Early in the afternoon, Darcy Malone and the Tangle offered rock and soul music at the Acura Stage. Retro-soul band The Nth Power were joined by Tedeschi Trucks Band keyboard and flute master Kofi Burbridge for a powerful set at the Congo Stage. Texas piano-playing dynamo Marcia Ball played her high-energy honky tonk at the Gentilly Stage.
Back at the Acura Stage, Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit offered an inspired set of music with both rock and country influences. Legendary crooner Aaron Neville sang at Gentilly. The day’s headliners included guitarist and singer Ruthie Foster in the Blues Tent and Sheryl Crow at Gentilly. LL Cool J was on the Congo Stage and showed thousands of enthusiastic fans that he can still deliver authentic, old-school rap.
Beck brought a big band to close the Acura Stage. He is known for playing most of the instruments on his albums, but his touring band sounded great. They ran through several of Beck’s hits from the 90s and 2000s including “Loser” and “Where It’s At.” As Beck introduced his band members, they teased several classic covers including the Doobie Brothers’ “Takin’ It to the Street,” Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” before ending the show with the conclusion of “Where It’s At.”
The shockingly good Jazz Fest weather trend hit a snag on Saturday, May 5. But as past experience has taught us, it could have been a lot worse, as forecasts called for a high chance of thunderstorms through the day and black clouds roiled in the skies about the racetrack. But it happily turned out to be only drizzles and light showers for about two hours of the afternoon. The rain did not have an impact on the size of the attendance as the second Saturday of Jazz Fest is typically the most crowded of the seven-day affair.
The stages were filled with great music throughout the Fair Grounds. Walter Trout melted faces with a loud, blistering blues-guitar set at the Acura Stage during the rain. Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk followed Trout at Acura with a set of thumping hardcore funk. The Revivalists, a group of local kids that have turned into a national breakthrough act, performed a great set at the Gentilly Stage. Lead vocalist David Shaw jumped into the crowd for hugs and high fives as he sang some of the band’s recent radio hits.
While Anita Baker, The Lee Boys and Cage The Elephant were closing stages around the grounds, the largest crowd was packed at the Acura Stage for four-time Grammy winners and Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members Aerosmith. Vocalist Steven Tyler, lead guitarist Joe Perry and the rest of “The Bad Boys from Boston” showed they still have the chops to play their hard-rock classics. The ninety-minute set was loaded with hits including “Love in an Elevator,” “Cryin’,” “Rag Doll,” “Janie Got a Gun” and “Sweet Emotion.”
Tyler and his bandmates came down the center plankway that extended into the crowd a few times during the show. As many in the audience sang along with Tyler, he twirled his mike stand and aimed it at the crowd. The band ended the set with “Dude Looks Like a Lady.” They left the stage but came back out to roaring applause and finished with “Dream On.”
Sunday, May 6, was the last day of Jazz Fest and the lineup was loaded with major talent, both local and national. It was another great, sunny day with manageable crowds spread throughout the Fair Grounds. The New Orleans Suspects, Flow Tribe and Johnny Sansone put on enjoyable opening shows. Anders Osborne, with a sit-in by Johnny Sansone on harmonica, did a wonderful set of his blues-based rock music at the Acura Stage. George Porter Jr., the legendary bassist from The Meters, did a funky set with his band the Runnin’ Pardners at the Gentilly Stage.
Local modern-funk leaders Galactic expanded their usual band with percussionist Mike Dillon and a former member, trombonist Corey Henry. Their high-energy set got everyone in attendance under the blazing sun super sweaty. Late in the afternoon, The Radiators did a rare reunion show on the Gentilly Stage.
Motown legend Smokey Robinson caused a huge traffic jam at the Congo Stage, with barely an inch to move in any direction, as the Baby Boomer crowd packed the field and overflowed onto the track and into the African Marketplace shopping stalls nearby. Everyone seemed to know all the words to his classic songs, as the spry 78-year-old crooned everything from his own hits to many he wrote for others. From “The Tracks of My Tears” to “Cruisin’,” “I Second That Emotion,” “My Girl,” “The Tears of a Clown” and many more, Robinson had the rapt crowd in the palm of his hand.
Back at Acura, twelve-time Grammy winner Jack White put on a fuzzy, distortion-heavy rock and blues show. White and his band played songs from his solo albums and his other bands, The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather. Highlights included his new single “Corporation” as well as older tunes like “My Doorbell,” “Fell in Love with a Girl” and “Ball and Biscuit.” The band ended the set with “Seven Nation Army.”
The closing acts during the last fest day are always big-name headliners. Buddy Guy closed the Blues Tent. Maze featuring Frankie Beverly signed off on Congo and Savion Glover was the last 2018 performer in the Jazz Tent. However, the honor of closing the Acura Stage always goes to Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue. Shorty has become an international star and his band knows how to get an audience dancing. Their set brought the usual high energy with Shorty showing his chops vocally as well as with his trumpet and trombone.
Rock & Roll Hall of Famers The Steve Miller Band took over the Gentilly Stage as the finale there, with terrific results. Miller has been making hits since the 60s and has not lost a step. The 74-year-old singer-songwriter-guitarist and his band played a greatest hits set of his music for thousands of adoring fans. Miller’s voice still sounds strong and his guitar playing is as solid as ever. It was a large group sing-along for tunes including “Space Cowboy,” “The Joker,” “Fly Like An Eagle” and “Jungle Love.” The set and the 49th Annual Jazz Fest ended with “Jet Airliner,” another sing-along classic.
That brought the 49th Annual NOLA Jazz Fest to an end and as thousands of sunbaked attendees walked toward the exits, many were heard speculating as to what big names will appear at next year’s 50th anniversary. We can only wonder, but the beauty of Jazz Fest is not in the headliners, it is in the sensational local and regional acts that introduce many people to the amazing, diverse talent in the area. Jazz Fest 2019 begins on April 26, 2019, and ends on May 5, 2019. We cannot wait to be there – and highly recommend that everyone plan to be there as well.
Check out our coverage of shows going on around New Orleans during weekend 2 of Jazz Fest here. Our recap of Shorty Fest is available here. Our recap of the NOLA Crawfish Festival during the days in between Jazz Fest Weekends is here. Our recap of the first weekend of Jazz Fest is here. Our recap of shows going on during weekend 1 is here.