By Jenny Peters and Andy J. Gordon
The 48th annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival began its second weekend on Thursday, May 4, 2017, with unseasonably cool, windy conditions. The popular festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course features twelve stages of music spanning seven days over two weekends and this year drew over 400,000 people.
The first weekend had some challenging weather, so there was great concern about weekend two. Last year’s horrendous weather forced the cancellation of the much-anticipated sets by Stevie Wonder and Snoop Dogg. Both were invited back for this year’s fest and many additional big names also scheduled for the second weekend led to high expectations.
Although Thursday was cool and breezy, the following three days of the festival were progressively more beautiful. Fans enjoyed sunny, pleasant weather that was perfect for long days enjoying live music performed by stars from around the world.
Thursday at the large Acura Stage got underway with one of New Orleans’ heralded trumpeters, Irvin Mayfield. He began his set with impressive horn work, but surprised the crowd with an exploration into electronic and hip-hop selections. Legendary bassist of The Meters, George Porter Jr., followed with his band Runnin’ Pardners, who were joined by the Bonerama horns for some funky tunes.
Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars brought their important message about preserving the Louisiana wetlands through music to the big stage with a lineup of regional stars including Tab Benoit, Anders Osborne, George Porter Jr., Johnny Vidacovich and Johnny Sansone. Meanwhile, Marcia Ball was at the Gentilly Stage on the other end of the Fair Grounds track. She played her high-energy, piano-focused blues and it kept the crowd bouncing. Singer-songwriter Corrine Bailey Rae enthralled the Congo Square Stage crowd with her beautiful voice.
Thursdays headliners did not disappoint. Herb Albert and Lani Hall packed the Jazz Tent. Tower of Power’s incredible horn arrangements thrilled a big crowd at Congo Square while Darius Rucker delivered country tunes mixed with some of his Hootie and the Blowfish rock classics from the ’90s at the Gentilly Stage.
Widespread Panic have been coming to perform at Jazz Fest for many years and always get a large time slot to close the Acura Stage. The jam band seems to love the festival and their fans came out in force to enjoy over two hours of Panic classics. The band kept the energy high for the diehards that stuck around through the blustery, cool evening.
Friday, May 5, 2017, might have been the most pleasant day in the history of Jazz Fest. With temperatures in the low 70s and slight breezes blowing, the crowds enjoyed great music with the mild weather. The choices were abundant throughout the Fair Grounds. The early crowd at the Acura Stage was treated to local horn focused group Bonerama. Their trio of trombonists take a unique approach to blending original New Orleans arrangements with choice covers like the Allman Brothers “One Way Out.”
Alvin Youngblood Hart wowed the audience in the Blues Tent with some explosive guitar work. The Ron Holloway Band featured fine saxophone stylings by Holloway, whose group played a selection of rock tunes in the Jazz Tent. Sonny Landreth used his incredible finger work on the fret board for his signature slide-guitar, swampy blues at the Acura Stage, while Lake Street Dive and their wonderful vocalist Rachael Price captivated a large crowd at Gentilly.
The Revivalists were named entertainers of the year by a local New Orleans publication and their exposure on national radio has brought them much deserved recognition. Lead vocalist David Shaw and the band put on a fiery afternoon show at the main Acura Stage before a rowdy audience. At the same time, local blues-rock star Anders Osborne played his guitar-driven songs at the Gentilly Stage. Recent Grammy winning soul singer and songwriter William Bell charmed the crowd in the Blues Tent.
Once again, the day’s headliners presented great options. Alt-rock band Wilco inspired a large audience at the Gentilly Stage. Singer, violinist and banjo player Rhiannon Giddens brought her Grammy-winning country, blues and old-time music to the Blues Stage. Earth, Wind and Fire presented their classic R&B, soul and funk to a big crowd at Congo Square.
The closing slot at Acura was reserved for Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds. Matthews has performed on the big stage at Jazz Fest several times over the years with The Dave Matthews Band. This year, the stripped-down show featured just Dave and Tim on amplified acoustic guitars. They pulled it off brilliantly by playing several Dave Matthews Band songs as well as other selections.
The big surprise of their set was an unannounced guest appearance by another fest veteran, Jimmy Buffett. Buffett came out with an acoustic guitar and joined Matthews for a duet on Buffett’s “A Pirate Looks at 40.” After Buffett departed, Matthews introduced Dave Matthews Band trumpeter Rashawn Ross who came out to play solos on a few tunes. The trio finished with an encore of “What Would You Say” that turned into a sing along by several thousand.
The great weather continued and drew hordes of attendees on Saturday, May 6, 2017. Many set up camp very early near the Acura Stage, where Stevie Wonder was scheduled to close the day’s festivities. Getting there by noon meant festgoers got a real treat, as local trumpeter and master entertainer Big Sam Williams led his band Big Sam’s Funky Nation through an upbeat set on the large stage.
Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk followed with some dirty, double bass infused funk. The Soul Rebels modern brass band, mixed with hip-hop, had the crowd at Congo Square gyrating to the beat. Perhaps New Orleans’ hottest band at the moment is Tank and the Bangas and they put on a lively, fun-filled show at the Gentilly Stage, complete with funny costumes and the big soulful voice of bandleader Tarriona Tank Bell. Back at Congo Square, Los Van Van, one of the most recognized post-revolution Cuban big bands exhibited elements of rumba, rock, pop, funk, disco and hip hop as well as salsa rhythms.
What was surely the largest crowd of the weekend assembled at the big stages for the headliners at the end of that sunny Saturday. Meghan Trainer performed retro R&B, pop and soul at the Gentilly Stage, while Snoop Dogg made up for last year’s forced cancellation and had many dedicated fans singing along to his melodic rhymes at Congo Square. Louisiana guitar prodigy (and now an established star) Kenny Wayne Shephard played some masterful blues-infused rock guitar songs at the Blues Tent.
No one drew a bigger crowd or higher expectations than Stevie Wonder. He arrived on the big Acura Stage to thunderous applause and kept the audience engrossed throughout his lengthy set that included many hits from his long career. Wonder chose to use his prime time on stage to make a few political statements that were critical of “Mr. 45.” He also played recorded snippets of hit songs by artists that died in the recent past (David Bowie, Glen Frey, Prince) rather than cover their songs with his band.
Those were merely side notes. The bulk of the set included stellar versions of songs from his illustrious catalog. Wonder sounded great and his band was super tight. The audience sang along on songs like “You Are the Sunshine of My Life,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Signed Sealed Delivered” and “My Cherie Amour.”
Late in the set, Wonder invited Corrine Bailey Rae, who had performed on Thursday, to join him on “Living for the City.” Rae looked on as Wonder closed out the amazing show with the mandatory “Superstition.” The pain of last year’s cancellation was replaced by the joy of his 2017 performance.
The last day of the festival is always a mixed bag of emotions. The marathon that is Jazz Fest comes to an end as attendees feel the exhaustion as well as the exhilaration that seven days of fabulous music can produce. Sunday, May 7, 2017, was the hottest day of the weekend and a surprisingly mid-sized crowd spread out to catch the final acts of the fest.
Cowboy Mouth took the early afternoon audience at the Acura Stage on their usually explosive rock roller coaster. Young gun Jonathan “Boogie” Long played some fiery blues in the Blues Tent. Galactic was at the Acura Stage for a super tight set of modern funk rock. They were joined for their entire set by trumpeter Shamarr Allen and percussionist Mike Dillon. Erica Falls showed off her fabulous vocals on several songs. Preservation Hall Jazz Band kept the traditional music alive at Gentilly.
The choices grew tougher as the day progressed. Attendees had to select between sets going simultaneously by blues legend Buddy Guy at Gentilly, contemporary rock hit makers Kings of Leon on the Acura Stage, legendary singer Patti LaBelle at Congo Square and Louisiana blues dynamo Tab Benoit in the Blues Tent.
The final sets of the day included world-class musicians as well as those with regional connections. Maze featuring Frankie Beverly brought their classic soul to the Congo Square Stage and Blues Traveler played many of their southern rock-and-soul infused songs in the Blues Tent.
The Gentilly Stage closed with New Orleans’ own The Meters, one of the originators of funk music, which influenced many bands that followed. The group broke up in the 1970s and make rare appearances together, most notably at Jazz Fest. The fans in the audience may have seen the last appearance by the legendary funk band.
The other home-grown talent that has been given the honor of closing the festival on the biggest stage is Trombone Shorty & Orleans Ave. Troy Andrews, 32, has been known as Trombone Shorty for years. He has performed in front of audiences since he was smaller than his instrument. Shorty has developed an incredibly likeable style as a bandleader, singer, trombonist, trumpeter and performer. His band consists of great musicians he has known since childhood and all of them hail from parts of New Orleans. Their music blends the best aspects of jazz, rock, hip hop, soul and funk.
The band just released a new album, Shorty’s debut for Blue Note Records, “Parking Lot Symphony.” They played a few of the new songs along with some songs from their previous albums. Shorty and his group displayed incredible energy, musical chops and infectious spirit throughout the set. They were joined for the entire performance by Alvin Ford Jr., the usual drummer with Dumpstaphunk, and Glen Hall, Shorty’s cousin and regular trumpeter with Rebirth Brass Band.
Shorty displayed his unique talent with both his trombone and trumpet. His over-expanded cheeks filled with air as he blared insane horn solos. Shorty generously called out his bandmates by name as each took turns displaying their chops on solos. As the show ended, the crowd begged for more, but festival producer Quint Davis came out of the wings to bid farewell to another successful Jazz Fest.
It was a fitting conclusion to the 2017 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Homegrown stars left an indelible impression on the thousands in the audience that had traveled from all over the world to experience the unique magic that is Jazz Fest. Many will go home and tell tales about their amazing time in New Orleans and inspire new fans to attend the festival in the future. We strongly encourage all who have not made the pilgrimage to do it next year. The dates are April 27 – May 6, 2018, so mark your calendar now.