By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
Bad weather really spoiled the second weekend of the 46th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. The four-day event started out with sunshine and great music but concluded on a thunder-filled down note. Thousands of disappointed attendees suffered through horrendous storms (no extra charge for the lightning and thunder), floods and stinky, muddy conditions. Saturday’s forced cancellation caused ticket holders to miss out on seeing Stevie Wonder, Beck, Snopp Dogg and Buddy Guy. Sunday was another day of heavy rain, but the festival went on as planned.
The first day, Thursday, April 28, 2016 started ominously. Showers hit the New Orleans Fair Grounds Race Track, the longtime home of the festival, but the weather cleared in the afternoon. The main Acura stage was set to showcase guitar superstars. Local slide master Sonny Landreth led off the onslaught with his brand of “slydeco,” a unique blend of slide blues and zydeco.
Gary Clark Jr. followed on the big stage and he captivated the crowd with a mix of intense blues, soul, R&B and rock songs from his catalog. Clark and back up guitarist Eric “King” Zapata took turns playing blazing solos. Clark’s sultry vocals and distorted guitar pyrotechnics were on full display throughout the set.
The day’s headliners, Tedeschi Trucks Band, closed the Acura stage with special guests Jimmie Vaughan from the Fabulous Thunderbirds and Billy Gibbons from ZZ Top. It was an amazing set of music that frequently paid tribute to blues greats from the past. The world-class, one-two punch of Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi led a twelve-piece band of immensely talented players that combined to perform a cohesive blend of rock, blues, soul and R&B. When Vaughan and Gibbons joined the mix, musical magic was created.
The set opened with the classic “Baby Wrote Me a Letter” and was followed by Tedeschi Trucks Band staples like “Made Up Mind,” “Idle Wind,” “Midnight in Harlem” and “Let Me Get By.” Tedeschi’s strong, husky vocals and Trucks’ stunning slide guitar work led the band through the brilliant set.
The band welcomed Vaughan to the stage as the first guest. He joined Tedeschi on vocals for a frolicking cover of “Let the Good Times Roll.” Gibbons soon followed. The four guitar masters traded licks on B.B. King’s “How Blue Can You Get” and the Freddie King classic “Living in the Palace of the King.”
Tedeschi’s vocals were impressive throughout, but she also held her own with the other guitar titans on stage. While she, Vaughan and Gibbons executed some memorable solos, it was Trucks that stood out with his haunting slide efforts. Each solo would start with a slow eerie wail and develop into a fast-paced sonic attack.
Once Vaughan and Gibbons left the stage, the core band members were given an opportunity to display their talents – from the impressive flute solos by keyboardist Kofi Burbridge to the soulful lead vocals of Mike Mattison and the sultry saxophone solos from Kebbi Williams. Everyone in this band should be a star – they are all that good. The set ended with a passionate cover of Joe Cocker’s version of the Beatles “With a Little Help From My Friends.” The band came back for the encore with a playful version of Ashford & Simpson’s “Let’s Go Get Stoned,” another song frequently covered by Cocker.
That night, the House of Blues New Orleans hosted an incredible lineup of jazz, blues, funk, rock and soul artists. The fourth annual Shorty Fest, a benefit concert for the Trombone Shorty Foundation, was a blowout that included The Revivalists, New Breed Brass Band, Big Chief Juan Pardo and the Golden Comanche Mardi Gras Indians and Trombone Shorty Academy students. Later, Ivan Neville joined the headliners, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave.
The event raised funds for students in the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and the New Orleans Center for the Gulf South at Tulane University, which houses the Trombone Shorty Academy. Founder Troy Andrews (aka Shorty, so named because when he was young, his trombone was taller than he was) credits the support of his own positive role models in the rich New Orleans music community for his success today. He hopes to inspire the next generation by developing their musical talent and connecting them to the city’s unique musical heritage of great music.
Friday April 29 was damp at the Fair Grounds. Small pools and muddy areas of the track infield were easily avoided so getting from stage to stage was bearable. Tony Hall from Dumpstaphunk led a spot-on tribute to James Brown at the Congo stage. Over at Gentilly, Bonerama did their trombone versions of modern New Orleans funk and rock standards. Their cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Misty Mountain Hop” exemplified their unique approach to classic rock.
Later at Gentilly, Raw Oyster Cult with Some Fishy Friends turned their set into a full-blown Radiators reunion. Since their breakup in 2010, the band rarely performs together. Ed Volker on keyboards and Reggie Scanlan on bass joined former bandmates vocalist/guitarist Dave Malone, guitarist Camille Baudoin and drummer Frank Bua, Jr. about halfway through the set. The last few songs featured the full Radiators lineup along with current Cult members Dave Pomerleau and John Gros.
Later at Fais Do Do, Honey Island Swamp Band did a fun set of their bayou Americana music before handing over the stage to Los Lobos. The Wolves did an amplified, acoustic set of tejano/mariachi folk music. They performed their entire album “La Pistola y El Corazon.”
Back at Gentilly, local heroes The Revivalists performed a high-energy set of their rock-and-soul songs. Lead singer David Shaw bounced around the stage and into the front rows of the audience. His energy was contagious as the crowd went wild.
The last sets of the day were another test of most attendee’s long-distance running abilities. For those ambitious enough to try it, enthusiastic fans could hoof it to catch several headliners performing simultaneously on separate stages. Elvin Bishop played some of his classic songs in the Blues tent, Lauryn Hill was belting out tunes at Congo, My Morning Jacket blasted distortion heavy rock at Gentilly and Paul Simon ran through his brilliant catalog of music at Acura.
My Morning Jacket’s show drew a large crowd of devoted fans to the Gentilly stage. Lead singer Jim James captivated the audience with his haunting vocals and screeching guitar. While James was prancing around the stage, lead guitarist Carl Broemel created immensely distorted sounds with his Gibson Les Paul.
After a poignant version of “Touch Me I’m Going to Scream, Part 2” the Preservation Hall Jazz Band horns came onto the stage to join James and the band for yet another Prince tribute with “Purple Rain.” Preservation Hall Jazz Band has recorded and toured with My Morning Jacket. Also James has done solo work with them, so the New Orleans connection was highlighted for the band. The set ended with their biggest hit, “One Big Holiday.”
Paul Simon drew an immense crowd to the Acura stage. It was his first appearance at Jazz Fest since he and former partner Art Garfunkel performed there in 2010. With over five decades of hits to choose from, Simon could only scratch the surface for the show. He did several popular selections including songs from his landmark album “Graceland” in addition to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” and “Still Crazy After All These Years.” Simon was brilliant in moving between upbeat, danceable tunes to more intimate selections. The encore featured a beautiful performance of Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Boxer.”
Things got insane as severe weather took over on Saturday May 1. Event organizers were forced to cancel in the late afternoon and send thousands of soaking wet fans home to dry out. Prior to the massive storm, the Soul Rebels blended New Orleans brass-band sounds with hip hop. Royal Southern Brotherhood, led by Cyril Neville, played stimulating southern rock and blues music in the Blues tent.
At the Jazz & Heritage stage, Midnite Disturbers formed a monster roster of talented regional horn players – eleven at one point of the set – to put on a uniquely New Orleans display of funky brass music. Kevin O’Day and Stanton Moore took turns on drums. Ben Ellman and Corey Henry from Galactic, Chadrick Honore and Phil Frazier from Rebirth Brass Band, Shamarr Allen, Big Sam Williams and Skerik were just some of the horn masters taking turns blowing solos. Sadly, the rain started near the end of the set and proved ominous.
By the time Dr. John and the Night Trippers with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band horns began playing at the Acura stage, the rain had turned into a deluge. While Mac played his grand piano and sang “Right Place, Wrong Time” lightning strikes could be seen nearby and thunder claps roared. Just a few songs into the set, Dr. John and his grand piano were being pelted by rain. The band left the stage and did not return.
After about an hour of more intense rain and gathering pools of muddy water, Stevie Wonder was escorted out to the center of the Acura stage. He apologized to the soaked, standing-room-only crowd on a hand-held megaphone because the massive sound system had failed during the storm. He performed a short, impromptu, a cappella version of Prince’s “Purple Rain” with the hearty fans nearby singing along. The big video screens posted the disappointing news that the stormy weather forced the cancellation of all remaining programming.
Happily, there was a great show later that night at the beautifully restored Orpheum Theater. JJ Grey & Mofro opened for Galactic. Grey put on a masterful display. He serenaded the sold-out theater with his heartfelt songs about his beloved home in northeast Florida. Guitarist Andrew Trube contributed many fine solos while Anthony Cole on drums and Todd Smallie on bass excelled at keeping a steady rhythm.
The band played sweet versions of older songs like “Ho Cake” and “Everything Good Is Bad.” Grey joked about the lifestyle in New Orleans as he launched into the lyrics including “everything bad is good.” It felt appropriate during Jazz Fest.
Galactic followed with a scorching set. Their instrumentals like “Karate,” “Go Go” and “Cineramascope” showcased the band member’s cohesion and technical expertise. The crowd really got into it when guest vocalist Erica Falls joined the band. She ran through steamy versions of “Right On,” “Dolla Diva,” and “Out in the Street.” When surprise guest David Shaw from The Revivalists joined Falls for a duet on “Hey Na Na” the energy in the room skyrocketed.
JJ Grey also came out to sing with Falls on “Higher and Higher” a song he recorded with Galactic for the 2015 album “Into the Deep.” The band and Falls also did a really funky version of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” The encore featured a thumping instrumental followed by a soulful “Heart of Steel” with Falls.
Sunday May 2 was a flooded, muddy mess as more heavy rains pelted the area. While parts of the day saw stage closures due to the weather, the major scheduled performances took place in front of hearty, small crowds. Bonnie Raitt did triple duty at the Gentilly stage. She joined the tribute to Allan Toussaint along with guests Aaron Neville, Cyril Neville and Dr. John. She led her own set and then participated in the tribute to BB King with guests Buddy Guy, Elvin Bishop, Dr. John, Tab Benoit and Luther Kent.
At the Acura stage, the fans that braved the deep pools of water and mud were rewarded with some amazing music. Dumpstaphunk’s set started forty minutes late, but they played an aggressively funky shortened show. The multi-generational Neville clan has a prominent presence in the city and at Jazz Fest. The band is led by Ivan Neville with Ian Neville on guitar. Twelve-year-old guest guitarist Brandon Niederhauer demonstrated that funky music will live on with the younger generation.
Neil Young + Promise of the Real followed with a set of songs filled with reverb, distortion and delay. Young reached deep into his rich catalog to play “Cortez the Killer,” “Harvest” and “After the Gold Rush.” The entire set featured Young wailing on his guitar along with second guitarist Lukas Nelson, son of Willie. They traded licks for an extended period of time and the surrounding neighborhood got to enjoy the sonic onslaught.
Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave. have the coveted spot of concluding Jazz Fest each year on the big stage. The Neil Young set ran long so Shorty had barely an hour to thrill his diehard fans, who stuck it out in the unending rain and mud. The band hit the stage all dressed in purple in tribute to Prince. Shorty had worked with Prince over the past five years and said he was wearing the same shirt he wore during his set with Prince at the 2014 Essence Festival.
The band started out with “Do to Me,” their usual opener. They also played “Lose My Mind,” Backatown,” “Get the Picture” and “For True.” For an appropriate finish, Shorty and the band broke out “Hurricane Season.” Ever the showman, and with an eye to tradition, Shorty then sang “When the Saints Go Marching In” as the wet and wild 2016 Jazz Fest came to an end.
After several exhausting days of Jazz Fest, it may seem inconceivable to go out once the event has ended. However, the club scene keeps on rolling every night in New Orleans. One of the most popular shows on the Sunday night after the close of fest is at Rock ‘n’ Bowl. They have showcased Tab Benoit and Sonny Landreth with a third opening act on the last night of Jazz Fest for over ten years.
This year’s opener was up and coming blues guitarist Jonathan “Boogie” Long. The 2011 Guitar Center’s “King of the Blues” ripped several scorching songs that proved he earned the title. Landreth followed with a virtuoso slide guitar performance. His technical expertise and swamp blues/zydeco sound had the crowd mesmerized.
Last up was the hugely popular Tab Benoit. Benoit seems to be at home at Rock ‘n’ Bowl – he had four gigs there during Jazz Fest – and put on a stellar show. Near the end of the set Landreth came back out and the two guitarists traded riffs. The late night crowd danced and clapped until everyone was spent and the show finally concluded.
Many people fly out of town on the Monday after the fest ends. For those that stayed for one more day in the Big Easy, another great night show took place at the Maple Leaf Bar. John Gros put together his new band and invited Big Chief Monk Boudreaux to join the party. Boudreaux performed in his traditional Mardi Gras Indian costume and did several chant/raps over the funky beats of the John Gros Band.
By 1 a.m., Big Chief said goodnight to the surprisingly energetic audience at the Leaf while the band played a few more songs before a break. The band came back later for several new Gros tunes that had the fans dancing in the dark, small club. The show may have gone on all night, but we don’t know, as we finally ran out of gas about 2 a.m.. After eleven-plus days in New Orleans and running the Jazz Fest marathon, it was time to call it a night.
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2017 is set to go on April 28 to May 7; look for the lineup in January and the best airfares to NOLA on Southwest then, too. Start saving money now for tickets, airfare, hotels, some good sneakers, shrimp boots and a poncho, for New Orleans is an American treasure that has to be experienced. Wet or dry, Jazz Fest just may be the best music festival in the world and should not be missed next year – we sure wouldn’t think of staying home.
All photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon 2016©.