NEW ORLEANS — The second weekend of the 46th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival offered the best weather in memory for the 12-stage extravaganza.
Elton John’s star power (Ed Sheeran’s, too) packed the place on Saturday. But the mood stayed sunny as the skies, where every day is Halloween or Mardi Gras, where the streets are full of music and folks plan lunch and dinner over breakfast and where everybody identifies with a favorite bar.
Country artists drew big crowds with strong shows: Alison Krauss, Eric Lindell and Sturgill Simpson on Thursday; Kristin Diable and Gal Holiday and the Honky Tonk Revue (touted by transplanted Springfield-ian Marc over po’boys at the Parkway on Wednesday night) on Friday.
Local heroes represented home: the Meters, Dr. John, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, John Boutte, Irma Thomas, Galactic, Davell Crawford, the Radiators, Kermit Ruffins, Trombone Shorty, Donald Harrison, Erica Falls, the Night Crawlers, Terrance Simien, Germaine Bazzle, Bonerama, Steve Riley, generations of Marsalises and Nevilles and many more.
No Neville Brothers reunion at Jazz Fest though a big-ticket farewell/reunion played a downtown theater on Saturday. At Jazz Fest, Cyril led his reggae band and guested with the Meters featuring brother Art while Aaron played solo. Some never tour, but are giants here.
Cajun and zydeco dominated one stage; blues, jazz and gospel had their own tents with traditional (Dixieland and Mardi Gras) music in their own venues. But in New Orleans, everything is everything: My compadre Dennis found himself dancing next to avant-funk star Trombone Shorty to Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. & the Zydeco Twisters.
Age and race may mean less at Jazz Fest than anywhere. Hipsters discovered 79-year-old talents rock wildman Jerry Lee Lewis, frail until he attacked the piano, and tireless blues blaster Buddy Guy. They saw 92-year-old still-funky pianist Henry Gray, and watched the venerable Preservation Hall Jazz Band just explode.
Older fans must feel hopeful finding jazz in the capable hands of the sensational Cecile McLorin Salvant, keyboardist Kyle Roussel, who looks about 15, or young Marsalises; while the nonstop dancers-of-a-certain age-at the rootsy Fais Do-Do Stage fell in love with the zippy Cajun kids of Feufollet.
Avoiding mainstream draws Elton John, No Doubt, Chicago, Lenny Kravitz and Widespread Panic, I rediscovered The Word (Robert Randolph, the North Mississippi Allstars and John Medeski), let the funky R&B of Walter “Wolfman” Washington, the Meters and Dr. John wash over me; marveled at Salvant yet again; was detoured by Mariachi Jalisco USA in maroon suits and sombreros wide as Jackson Square as I chased a cold beer; rolled back the years with saxman Charles Lloyd, who played the second great jazz show I ever saw (Brubeck was the first), in 1968 and collided with a parade of social aid and pleasure club folks wearing more feathers than a poultry farm.
Plenty of tributes
Tributes abounded, as usual. Pianist Davell Crawford’s Fats Domino echo was the strongest, the best show I’ve seen him play and one of the best of Jazz Fest. Kermit Ruffins’ Louis Armstrong homage was authentic and soulful while Dr. John mutated Armstrong’s music into neo-funk spiced by guests: the Blind Boys of Alabama, the McCrary Sisters, Randy Brecker and Wendell Brunious.
Club shows were dessert or appetizers for the next day; while a free show Wednesday night in Lafayette Square was the best I ever saw Marcia Ball play.
When Alejandro Escovedo turned up at our hotel Thursday night after a thunderous, intense show at Chickie Wah Wah, Stones’ and Bowie covers alongside his soul-deep originals, I told him nothing I’d seen at Jazz Fest that day was as good.
Kermit Ruffins’ extra-loose Rock and Bowl set featured a dapper, big-voiced older gent Ruffins called the “Sleeping Giant” in some gritty Ray Charles tunes, and singer Nayo Jones’ dramatic, soulful “At Last” upstaged both Ruffins and Rock and Bowl owner John Blancher.
Ruffins found his groove after a ragged start; earlier he’d been filmed for an A&E feature on legalizing marijuana. He supports it. A terrific trumpeter/bandleader/singer and a very silly dude, Ruffins filled the stage with fans as super keyboardist Yoshitaka “Z2” Tsuji rocked the house. Energetic, quickly and enthusiastically topless, Blancher sang and danced with Ruffins. The St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus sang beautifully at Buffa’s, especially on “I’ll Fly Away.” And Levon Helm’s “Bound For Glory.”
-- When Ruffins sang “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” he changed “. . . rich as Rockefeller” to “. . .rich as Trombone Shorty.”
-- Leading his Runnin’ Pardners band onstage at 11:15 a.m. on Sunday, bassist George Porter Jr. said, “I recognize some of you from four o’clock this morning!” He also played with the Meters on the same stage two hours later. The next day, he gave Davell Crawford’s Fats Domino tribute a deep funk undertow, and probably played a handful of club gigs in between. Walter “Wolfman” Washington played Jazz Fest Sunday afternoon and the Maple Leaf that night.
-- Erica Falls first sang her own set and then with Galactic; Jason Marsalis led his quartet, then a tribute to his father, pianist/patriarch Ellis. Both were virtuoso performances; the second was also touching for its grateful acknowledgement of heritage and tradition.
-- Hyperbolic Jazz Fest impresario Quint Davis claimed Jimi Hendrix would have played trombone if he’d grown up in New Orleans as he introduced Bonerama, a New Orleans band armed with three of them.
-- Charmaine Neville (Charles Neville’s daughter) brought two of her daughters into the photo pit to watch the Meters; and when the Meters brought out Cyril Neville to sing, she cheered uncles Art and Cyril and cousin Ivan (Aaron’s son) playing keyboards.
-- Allen Toussaint drove up to the Jazz Tent on Sunday as a revered guest in a Rolls-Royce, license number “PIANO.”
Reach Gazette Columnist Michael Hochanadel at [email protected]