By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The 49th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival kicked off in fine fashion on Friday, April 27, 2018. The festival runs from 11 a.m. to about 7 p.m. over two extended weekends – April 27-29 and May 3-6. The glorious first Friday was bright and sunny with moderate crowds – and that was a welcome trend we enjoyed all weekend.
Jazz Fest is a vast event spread over thirteen stages with parades and additional performances happening throughout the massive venue. The festival takes place at the Fair Grounds Race Track, which is the horse track in New Orleans. For the festival, the Fair Grounds property is set up with stages, tents, food courts and craft booths.
Fans that arrived early on Friday could enjoy the music from Americana and blues rocker Eric Lindell, who got things rolling on the Gentilly Stage. Joe Ashlar played a few nice solos on keys while Lindell sang and played intricate guitar solos.
One of the not-so-secret hidden gems of the fest is the Lagniappe Stage inside the Grandstand of the racetrack. The small area has shade, seats and an oyster bar, in addition to an eclectic lineup of musicians. The New Orleans Guitar Masters featuring John Rankin, Cranston Clements and Jimmy Robinson played a terrific midday set there on the first Friday. These three guys can tear it up and their tight arrangements, scorching solos and virtuoso playing entertained a captivated audience.
Back at the Gentilly Stage, English transplant and Grammy winner Jon Cleary was performing with his longtime band The Absolute Monster Gentlemen. They were joined by special guests including the Shady Horns (Eric Bloom on trumpet and Ryan Zoidis on tenor sax), plus Nigel Hall on organ and backup vocals. They ended the set with “More Hipper,” a song Cleary wrote about New Orleans being hipper and funkier than any other city – no argument here.
After Cleary’s set, the Gentilly Stage featured Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real. While the young musician sounds vocally like his dad (Willie Nelson), his songs are more rock than country. He played a breakup song that he wrote about a former girlfriend named Georgia to offset the heartache he felt each time he played “Georgia on My Mind” when touring with his famous father.
Another big stage called Congo had The Dirty Dozen Brass Band late in the afternoon. The longtime New Orleans band brought their usual funky horn-focused songs to a large, appreciative crowd. At about the same time, a talented up-and-coming contemporary blues artist was melting ears in the Blues Tent. Samantha Fish is a young performer with an old soul. She wails on the guitar and has a strong, soulful voice. Her band was also fantastic as they blasted through some blues originals and standards.
The headliners at the end of the day created tough decisions for the thousands in attendance. While Sturgill Simpson, Steel Pulse and Bobby Rush were playing on other stages, Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Sting had the honor of closing the Acura Stage, the biggest one at the festival.
Sting’s band included a father-and-son guitar duo, along with a young accordionist and four Tejano background vocalists. His set included several songs from the Police catalog and his solo hits. Fans sang along to “Message in a Bottle,” “Walking on the Moon,” “So Lonely” and “Roxanne.” The encore included “All I Want To Do” and “Every Breath You Take.”
Saturday, April 28, was another beautiful day with great music. Nigel Hall opened the Acura Stage with a set of soul, funk and R&B. Eddie Cotton, an old-time Delta blues singer and guitarist lit up the Blues Tent. Leah Chase sang and scatted in the Jazz Tent.
A major tribute show took place on the big Acura Stage. The city and the world lost Fats Domino last year when he died on October 24 at age 89. The legend was a lifelong New Orleans resident and the festival organizers pulled together members of his orchestra along with an all-star guest list, who together paid tribute to the man who ruled the R&B and pop charts from 1949 until the early 1960s.
Several guests sang and played some of Fats’ tunes. Deacon John sang “I’m Walkin’.” Duvell Crawford played piano while Irma Thomas sang “I Hear You Knocking” and “Blueberry Hill.” Jon Batiste played piano and sang “Ain’t That a Shame.” Bonnie Raitt played guitar and sang while Jon Cleary played piano on “All by Myself.”
While the Fats tribute show was happening, Common was performing on the Congo Stage and Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars were playing at Gentilly. The closing shows included Khalid on the Congo Stage, Jack Johnson at Gentilly and The Fabulous Thunderbirds featuring Kim Wilson in the Blues Tent. However, the biggest and most anticipated show took place at the Acura Stage.
Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Rod Stewart was not originally scheduled to perform at Jazz Fest. Aretha Franklin, who was booked for the show, cancelled a few weeks before the festival and Stewart stepped in. His show was a revelation. Not only did Stewart sound incredible, but the production and choreography of the band was more like a Broadway stage musical than a rock concert. Stewart was accompanied by two guitarists, keys, bass, drums and an outstanding group of female musicians that sang, played string instruments and danced throughout the set. There were multiple costume changes and the entire show had a 1960s Mod Rocker vibe.
As for the songs, Rod Stewart brought out all his hits from his long career. He opened with “Infatuation” and ran through amazing versions of “Some Guys Have All the Luck,” “Tonight’s the Night,” “Forever Young” and “Your Heart Can Beat Tonight.” The band also mixed in a few classic covers that have long been part of Stewart’s repertoire, like Sam Cooke’s “We’re Having a Party,” Tom Waits’ “On a Downtown Train” and Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready.”
About halfway through the set, the band brought out acoustic instruments and Stewart crooned “First Cut Is the Deepest,” “You’re in My Heart” and “Have I Told You.” After going back to electric instruments for “Stay with Me,” Stewart made like one of his soccer players (he owns a team) and kicked balls into the crowd. The amazing show ended with “Maggie Mae,” “If You Think I’m Sexy” and “Sailing.”
The first weekend of Jazz Fest hit the trifecta with perfect weather on Sunday (April 29). The crowds were not as big on Saturday, but it did get congested by the end of the day for the headliners. Early in the day, fans could enjoy the fantastic soul, funk singer Erica Falls at the Congo Stage. The Magnificent 7, an all-star group of excellent musicians, played regional rock on the Acura Stage. Late in the afternoon, Jon Batiste was joined by the Dap Kings for a raucous, funky set on the Gentilly Stage.
The headliners that closed the first weekend of Jazz Fest traversed a diverse group of musicians. Blues legend John Mayall held court in the Blues Tent. Guitar wizard George Benson dazzled fans in the Jazz Tent. Charlie Wilson, the former lead vocalist of The Gap Band, performed on the Congo Stage. Jimmy Buffett, a frequent performer at Jazz Fest, closed the Acura Stage.
David Byrne, the vocalist, founding member and principal songwriter of the Talking Heads, closed the Gentilly Stage. Byrne has performed infrequently in the past twenty years. His Jazz Fest show was part of a new tour that has been highly touted for theatrical elements and roving musicians – and the show lived up to our expectations.
Byrne wore a wireless microphone and sounded like he has been in a time capsule, exactly like the old days. The ten-piece band were rigged with portable instruments and wireless mics as well, so they were able to follow choreographed marches as well as dance steps along with Byrne throughout the performance.
While Byrne mixed in some of his solo material and songs from his recently released “American Utopia” album, it was the classic Talking Heads material like “Life During Wartime,” “Slippery People,” “This Must Be the Place” and “Burning Down the House” that got the crowd energized. He closed the show with an updated version of Janelle Monae’s “Hell You Talmbout,” which included the recital of the names of victims of police violence.
As the thousands of fans filed out of the Fair Grounds, many could be heard discussing the amazing performances, fabulous weather and hope for a repeat coming on weekend two.
Our recap of shows that took place during weekend 1 is here. Our recap of the NOLA Crawfish Festival during the days in between Jazz Fest weekends is here. Our recap of the second weekend of the festival is available here. Our recap of Shorty Fest is here. Our recap of shows that took place around town during Jazz Fest weekend 2 is here.
Additional photos below: