By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The sun gods smiled on the opening weekend of the 46th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, after heavy rains soaked the area on Thursday, April 22, 2016. But lo and behold, the Fair Grounds Race Track, the longtime home of the festival, was surprisingly dry at 11 a.m. the next day when the gates opened and happy music lovers poured in. The good weather held through the weekend as crowds flocked to the fest to see some of their music idols.
Fans that arrived early on Friday were treated to local trumpet hero Kermit Ruffins and the BBQ Swingers, who did a beautiful version of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” Later in the day Grace Potter and her band played a spirited set of hard rock and passionate ballads. She paid tribute to Prince, who had died the day before, with a soulful rendition of “When Doves Cry.” She also sat in with Gov’t Mule who followed her and closed out the first day on the Gentilly Stage (one of the 12 stages filled with music every day) with a rousing performance of some of their hard-hitting, guitar-centric rock anthems. Potter’s duet with Gov’t Mule front man Warren Haynes on the Fleetwood Mac classic “Gold Dust Woman” was a showstopper.
Michael McDonald was on the big Acura stage that day, playing many of the Doobie Brothers hits that made his voice so distinctively recognizable. After McDonald, Steely Dan closed the big stage with a string of their classic rock Top 40 hits. While guitarist Walter Becker and keyboardist/vocalist Donald Fagen are the heart of the band, the supporting players were excellent. Highlights included “Reelin in the Years,” “Josie,” “Hey Nineteen,” “Peg” and “Black Friday.”
Near the end of the show, the curmudgeonly Fagen announced that the band would skip the “bull…” standard of leaving the stage and returning shortly for an encore. Instead they launched into “Kid Charlemagne,” another classic radio hit. As expected, the band brought out McDonald for their finale. McDonald recorded and toured with the band in the 1970s and toured more recently with Fagen as part of the Dukes of September super group. McDonald added his baritone to another Steely Dan classic, “Pretzel Logic,” the title track from their multiplatinum-selling third album.
Saturday was set up to be a pleasant struggle with tough decisions. The early part of the day’s schedule was overflowing with excellent regional talent filling the stages simultaneously. Soul crooner Nigel Hall opened at Acura with several songs from his new album. Leo Nocentelli, legendary guitarist from the Meters, led an all-star band including Bernie Worrell from P-Funk and The Talking Heads. Galactic’s Stanton Moore manned the drum kit.
While that show was raging, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, led by “Big” Sam Williams performed their version of funky party music at the opposite end of the Fair Grounds on the Gentilly Stage. Anders Osborne followed Nocentelli on Acura. Osborne was joined by P-Funk’s Eric McFadden on guitar and the band wailed through many of Osborne’s fiery anthems.
Another guitar gunslinger, regional swamp blues sensation Tab Benoit, brought his amazing talent to the Gentilly Stage. His set featured some foot-stomping songs and the inevitable presence of his dancing, tambourine-playing mama on the stage. Back on the Acura Stage, Galactic followed Osborne. They brought their unique mishmash of modern funk, rock, jazz and soul. Guest vocalist Charli 2na from Jurassic 5 and Ozomatli joined the band for several songs. Erica Falls, another great vocalist who has recorded with Galactic, joined for a few tunes as well.
Saturday’s closing sets included several international superstars. Maxwell kept the neo-soul fans happy at the Congo Stage. Boz Scaggs packed the Blues Tent with people singing along to his 60s and 70s hits. Van Morrison, a Jazz Fest regular, belted out his classics for an appreciative, singing-along crowd at the Gentilly Stage.
Pearl Jam drew an immense crowd for their headlining set at the Acura Stage and their two-hour-plus show was loaded with hits as well as guests. Chad Smith and Josh Klinghoffer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers, who would be performing on the same stage the next day, sat in for a few songs. Kings of Leon‘s drummer Nathan Followill helped out on tambourine, a job that Eddie Vedder noted he was “overqualified” to do. The Pearl Jam lead vocalist sang passionately throughout the set and the band guitarist Mike McCready raged with extended solos.
About halfway through the Pearl Jam show Vedder reflected on the tragic death of Prince. The band chose not to do a cover of one of his songs. Instead they played “Even Flow” a song covered by Prince. Near the end of the set, Vedder implored the crowd to sing along and their voices were thunderous for “Better Man.” The set-closing “Alive” also was a group sing-along.
The first encore featured a New Orleans horn section including trombonist “Big” Sam Williams, trumpeter Andrew Baham, trombonist Carly Meyers and saxophonist Skerik for a wild cover of The Who’s “The Real Me.” All of that was a preamble to the show closing “Rockin’ in the Free World.” That Neil Young song is frequently covered by Pearl Jam, who have also recorded and performed with Young. Since Young is set to perform at Jazz Fest next Sunday it was a fitting closer and tease of what’s to come.
Sunday was another beautiful day at the Fairgrounds. Crowds were large and spread out throughout the venue. The New Orleans Suspects, a group consisting of former members of The Radiators, Dirty Dozen Brass Band and The Neville Brothers got things going early at the Acura Stage. Voice of the Wetlands All Stars, another band of regional standouts including Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, Cyril Neville, George Porter Jr., Stanton Moore and Johnny Vidacovich played some great rock, soul and swamp blues later in the day.
The last sets on Sunday featured a diverse lineup of global stars. The Herbie Hancock & Wayne Shorter Duo treated fans to a set of modern jazz. Nick Jonas delivered his brand of pop to a screaming crowd of young fans at the Gentilly Stage. British Blues legend John Mayall ably filled in for the late-canceling Johnny Lang in the Blues tent, reminding rapt listeners of the 82 year old’s incredible musical legacy from the 1960s to today with his harmonica, keyboard and guitar virtuosity. Hip-hop star J. Cole excelled at the Congo Stage.
The biggest crowd formed for the biggest headliner at the Acura Stage. The Red Hot Chili Peppers have amazed fans with their live shows since the mid-1980s. With over 80 million records sold, multiple Grammy awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, expectations were high for a wild show. The band lived up to their reputation as Anthony Keidis, Chad Smith and Flea bombarded the Fair Grounds with a loud, energetic set of hits.
The band played scorching versions of “Dani California,” “Scar Tissue,” “Aeroplane” and “Snow (Hey Oh).” Midway through the set the crowd roared as the familiar notes from Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” spread throughout the Fairgrounds. Near the end of the set, the audience joined Keidis in singing “Under The Bridge,” “Californication” and “By the Way.”
Just before the final song of the encore, Keidis paid tribute to the funk legends that have taught the band so much. He introduced Meters founders Joseph “Zigaboo” Modeliste and George Porter Jr. who were accompanied by Ivan Neville from Dumpstaphunk. The expanded band launched into a manic “Give It Away” with Flea and Porter Jr. trading bass licks and the entire mass of people in the Fairgrounds bouncing to the beat. It was an exhausting and exhilarating conclusion to the first weekend of Jazz Fest.
All photos courtesy of Andy J. Gordon 2016©