New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival 2016
with Stevie Wonder, Neil Young, Paul Simon, Gary Clark Jr, Trombone Shorty, Tedeschi Trucks Band and many more
New Orleans, LA • Apr 22 – May 1, 2016
by Bob Pomeroy
These days, it seems like music festivals are popping up like mushrooms after a good rain. The economics of the modern music industry make festivals attractive; with a basket full of bands, the risk is spread out. The success of big Coachella and Bonnaroo are undeniable. The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is the granddaddy of all these music festivals. New Orleans has been hosting this event since 1970, it has been immensely successful in striking a balance between mass appeal and showcasing the region’s unique cultural heritage and continues to evolve in response to an ever changing audience.
I attended the second weekend of this year’s Jazz Fest, (April 27th through May 1st). I offer these comments and observations to as an impression of the Jazz Fest experience. No two people have the same Jazz Fest experience. There is simply so much to see, hear and experience. Like any big festival, it’s impossible to see everything. You have to make choices; do I see Buddy Guy in the Blues Tent or Stevie Wonder at the Acura Stage? Sometime, circumstances make choices for you. My best advice, go with a plan and be prepared to go with the flow.
The New Orleans Jazz Heritage Festival is held at the Fairgrounds Racetrack, out near City Park. The site features 12 stages featuring different kinds of music and two stages dedicated to regional cuisine. In addition to the stages, there are dozens of food stalls, artist booths, a bookstore tent and two record stores. There are also parades winding through the fairgrounds with Social Aid and Pleasure Societies doing second line and Mardi Gras Indians masking. You never know what you’ll run into.
My Jazz Fest weekend was dominated by the weather. It rained three of the four days I was there. On the day it didn’t rain, it was hot and humid. People were either stomping through rivers of mud or fighting off heat exhaustion. There will be a lot more on the weather as we go along.
I learned that I am not 25 any more on my first day at the Festival. I walked out to the fairgrounds with my brother, who is used to hiking the mountains of Alaska. The three-mile walk from the French Quarter is actually kind of nice, you get to see the Quarter and the streets of the Treme as you work your way through the neighborhoods. The walk wore me out completely so that when we got to the event, all I wanted to do was get some cold water and find a place to sit. The Blues Tent proved to be the prefect spot. While I recovered from the walk, I checked out Spencer Bohren and the Whippersnappers. Bohren is a journeyman bluesman with a sophisticate, jazzy sound. My favorite tune of his set was called “Thin Black Line”, which is about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I’m pretty sure that some of the players in Spencer’s band were featured characters in HBO’s series Treme. The show made a point of featuring real musicians in role as often as possible.
For the rest of the day, I drifted between Blues Tent, the Acura stage and the vendors. The rains started during Sonny Landreth’s set. Landreth is a monster on guitar who came to national attention while in John Hiatt’s band. When he was cooking with his band on instrumentals, he was great. When he stepped up to the microphone to sing, the momentum slowed. Sonny is a fantastic guitar player, but only a so-so front man. Time to wander off and find a poncho.
The General Store tent was doing brisk business in rain gear. Suitably encased in cheap plastic, I set off wandering again. I caught a few tunes by Meschliya Lake and the Little Big Horns back at the Blues Tent. Lake’s band does a faithful interpretation of ’40s era swing band blues. It was nice, but it didn’t hold my attention for long.
Back at the Acura stage, Gary Clark Jr was already into his set. Clark is a strong presence on stage. He is a powerful singer, ace guitarist and he’s not afraid to share the spotlight with his band. His guitar player took almost as many solos as Clark and was impressive. I also caught some of the Corey Harris Band’s set back at the Blues Tent. I got to see Harris playing some mean lap steel on a few tunes, but left when it was time for the day’s headliners to take to the Acura Stage.
Thursday’s headliner at the Acura Stage was the Tedeschi Trucks Band. (I should point out that at the same time, Flo Rida, Elvis Costello and Snarky Puppy were also taking their headline turns. As I said, it’s impossible to hear and see everything). Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks are both accomplished guitarists and their band is an incredible machine. In fact, the band plays so well together and are so good at enhancing each other musically that the special guests Jimmie Vaughn and Billy Gibbons interrupted the flow of the set. Sure, it was cool to see some big name stars sitting it, but it didn’t really add anything. I was actually glad when they left and Tedeschi, Trucks and their band got back to blowing us away.
I learned my lesson walking to the fairgrounds. I took a cab back to my hotel.
Friday was a day for hopping all over the fairgrounds to catch as many flavors as I could. One of the things the Jazz Fest does extremely well is showcase local musical and cultural traditions. The first act I encounter on Friday were the White Cloud Hunters Mardi Gras Indians. The men, dressed in their elaborate feathered suits of pretty, played tambourines, sang and chanted while being backed by a rhythm section giving the songs a funk groove.
From the White Cloud Hunters, I drifted over to Economy Hall for a few songs by Paulin Brothers Brass Band. The Paulin Brothers are one of the traditional brass bands that you’ll see at second line parades and jazz funerals. They don’t spice up the tradition for a concert audience the way younger brass bands like the Hot 8 Brass Band will. The Paulin Brothers played brass band favorites while members of one of the Social Aide and Pleasure Societies lead a parade through the audience. It wasn’t the same as being in a street parade, but you get the general idea.
Outside Economy Hall, I ran into another Mardi Gras Indian tribe doing their walk the way they would on St Joseph’s Day or Mardi Gras morning. The Indians sing, chant, dance and confront bystander while clearing the path for their Big Chief. The heat seemed to be getting to them though. Those suits can weigh 100 pounds and this gang looked a bit wilted. (Hell, I looked a bit wilted too).
Over at the Gentilly Stage, I caught Bonerama killing it for a hometown crowd. I saw this band, which is fronted by three trombone players, a few years ago in Tampa. At an away gig where they were pretty much unknown, they underwhelmed. In their own environment they brought the funky, jazzy, horn centric tunes to life. A highlight of their show was a Led Zeppelin cover featuring the next generation of Boners. Sons of band members joined their Dads playing guitar and adding a 4th trombone to the sound. That’s the way the tradition is passed on in New Orleans.
I took refuge from the heat in the jazz tent to check out Nicholas Payton and the Afro-Caribbean Mix Tape. Payton is a stand-out trumpeter in modern jazz. His current project features DJ Ladyfingers on turntables and samplers. The tasteful set was spiced with sampled dialogue and funky keyboards, but with a name like Afro-Caribbean Mix Tape, I was sort of expecting a rambunctious rhythm fest. What Payton delivered was definitely more for contemplating than dancing.
The clerk at the Louisiana Music Factory (a fantastic record shop on Frenchman Street) had talked up the Honey Island Swamp Band, so I checked out some of their set over on the Sheraton New Orleans Fais Do-Do Stage. The band came together in San Francisco when they were all Katrina exiles. They band play jammy Southern Rock in the Allman Brothers mode. One of the guys from Bonerama was in the horn section supporting Honey Island Swamp Band. Jazz Fest is a busy season for New Orleans musicians. The same players were popping up all over the fair grounds sitting in with other bands.
I met up with my brother at the Acura Stage for Irma Thomas set. At 75 years old, Irma still commands the stage. She’s a force of nature with a great backing band. She took a playful dig at Mick Jagger when she played “Time Is On My Side”, a song she recorded first with the late Allan Toussaint but the Rolling Stones made famous.
The Jazz Tent was my refuge from the sun and heat. I cooled out for a few songs with The Joe Lovano Us Five. When I walked in, Lovano was playing something spirited with captivating rough edges. He is known for moving effortlessly between free jazz and more traditional sounds. After that first song, he shifted into NPR safe post bop modern jazz that was altogether too mellow for my mood. Time to head back to the Acura stage
The headliner on the Acura stage on Friday was Paul Simon. Simon is a legend and I figured I’d better take advantage of this chance to see him. I wasn’t expecting to be blown away by his set, but I was. Simon played mostly familiar tunes from across his long career. His band leaned heavily on players from the Graceland period with tunes from that album being standouts from the set. What I really didn’t expect was that a new song, “Wristband”, would be one of the highlights of the set. As my brother said, the little guy’s still got it.
The heat became a factor during Simon’s set. We had staked out a spot by the soundboard and struck up a conversation with a retired schoolteacher from South Bend, Indiana. In the middle of Simon’s set, he collapsed. He wasn’t the only one security lifted over the barricades during the set. The medical tent was kept busy. Remember to stay hydrated, folks.
It seamed like the show was over and a lot of people had already headed for the gates, unexpectedly, Paul Simon came back out with just is acoustic guitar. “The Sound of Silence” was a perfect ending to a day filled with perfect moments.
The weather report last night predicted another nice day, but the sky was grey and cloudy. It didn’t look like it was going to be all that nice. I stashed my poncho in my camera bag and headed out to the fairground.
The first band I caught was an up and coming local indie rock band called Sweet Crude. The seven-piece band is rhythm heavy with three percussionists and two keyboard players. With their alternating male and female lead vocals, the band suggests the sunny day descendants of the Remain in Light incarnation of the Talking Heads. I liked their set and it keeps growing on me. This is a young band to watch out for.
The rain started during Jon Batiste and Stay Human’s set. Batiste is the bandleader on Steven Colbert’s incarnation of the Late Show. The man is a born showman. His set mixed funky jazz originals, classical piano interludes, a tuba summit and a silly sing along. I never expected to hear “If You’re Happy and You Know It” outside of a preschool. Batiste moved between a grand piano and an amped Melodica, which kind of summed up his range from the sublime to the ridiculous.
The rain that started during Batiste’s set got steadily worse. By the time Dr. John took the stage, the ground around us was turning to a muddy soup. Trouble began soon after the set began. We got good versions of “Walk on Guilded Splinters” and “Right Place, Wrong Time” (with Jon Batiste on Melodica). The techs were scrambling during “Big Shot”, covering the Farfisa in plastic and closing up the Steinway. On the big screens flanking the stage, we could see rain bouncing off the piano. We could see that the rain was slicking the stage all the way back to the drum rider. Out in the audience, sheets of rain feel dense enough to obscure the stage. Six songs into the set, the Doctor was hustled off. The front line gear was pushed back to the dry corners of the stage. That was the end of Dr. John’s set.
The rain didn’t let up. If anything, the storm got worse. We huddled against the barrier in front of the soundboard getting hopelessly soaked. In front of us, a small pond was growing. We could no longer see the grandstands at the other end of the fairground. By the time Stevie Wonder’s set was supposed to start, the water in front us was over ankle deep. The cables connecting the stage and soundboard were under water and the techs were clearing the electronics from the stage. Still, we stood in the downpour, hoping that somehow, Stevie Wonder would find a way to make things work.
The rain won. Flash flooding and tornado warnings forced the Jazz Festival to shut down. None of the headline acts on any of the stages were able to play. There was ankle deep water in the Blues Tent, and that was were people headed to take refuge.
We did see Stevie Wonder, even if we couldn’t hear him. The PA system was shut down. Wonder used a bullhorn to try to talk to the audience. We could see that he was trying to get people to clap along to something, so we knew he was trying to sing something. Later, we found out that he led those in earshot in an impromptu chorus of “Purple Rain”.
Leaving the fairground on Saturday was a slog through water and mud. Behind the sound tent at the Acura Stage, a small lake formed that was knee deep in places. Ducks landed on the pond as we were exiting.
Sunday didn’t start out well. Gail force rains lashed our hotel before the festival gates opened. It seemed highly unlikely that the show could go on with the weather so bad. On social media, images of people wading through mud filled the feeds. The official Jazz Fest app posted a severe weather advisory. But were bands playing?
We decided to take a chance and brave the rain. It wasn’t hard to find a cab to take us out to the fairgrounds. The rain never stopped, but the heavy gales passed. The ground was saturated and there was no chance at all of keeping dry, but the stages were up and running.
Nothing was exactly on schedule. The earlier downpour cut short some act and pushed others back. Terrance Simien and the Zydeco Experience were playing to a packed Blues Tent. Simien is a good-natured goof on stage, playing to a hardcore bunch of music junkies. The fair-weather fans stayed home.
Dumpstaphunk gave us another lesson on how music is a family tradition in New Orleans. Dumpstaphunk is lead by Ivan Neville, (son of Art Neville of Neville Brothers fame). The regular band was augmented by Papa Funk (Art) on keyboards, Uncle Cyril Neville sat in on vocals and one of the Wild Tchoupitoulas brought some of the Mardi Gras Indian spirit to the set. At one point, there were four generations of Nevilles on stage when teenage guitar prodigy Taz joined the band for a few songs on lead guitar. Dumpstaphunk’s passionate set to a soggy gang of fans was one of the highlights of the festival.
After the Dumpstaphunk set, I took refuge from the elements in the Blues Tent with Marcia Ball. Ball plays in the tradition of New Orleans blues piano that flows from Professor Longhair. It was appropriate that one of the tunes Ball played was Randy Newman’s classic, “Louisiana 1929”. It’s a song about a long ago flood couldn’t have felt more timely. “Louisiana, Louisiana, They’re trying to wash us away.”
The ultra soggy conditions did have an upside. The crowds were thinned out so that we weren’t crushed by a mob when Neil Young and the Promise of the Real took the stage. Young is currently touring with a band of folks less than half his age that includes Willie Nelson’s sons. Neil seemed to relish pushing the sonic envelope with his tight, young band. “Cortez the Killer” stretched out on waves of fuzzy, feedback guitar riffs. Young is still a contrary cuss. He didn’t like the stage lights shining in his eyes, so he had them unplugged. It didn’t matter to the music. Neil joked about his Canadian guitar going out of tune in the humidity before launching into a take down of Monsanto and their patented GMO seed. It illegal for farmers to save seed Monsanto seed for planting next year. Grouchy Uncle Neil thinks seed is a gift from god. He’s got a point there. The set ended with a rave up version of “Rockin in the Free World”. Then, even though he was out of time, he came back for a seven-minute encore of “Powderfinger”. The mud larks loved it.
The days schedule was already off because of the morning rains, and Neil Young’s overtime set pushed festival closer Trombone Shorty up against the noise ordinance curfew. Troy Andrews, as Trombone Shorty is otherwise known, responded with a focused, rocking set. Even though the set was abbreviated, Andrews gave his band and featured guest Art Neville, plenty of time in the spotlight. The emotional kicker of the set came when Shorty jumped off stage and played his was through the audience. When he made it back to the stage, he commented, “I’m not afraid of a little rain.” The rave up Hurricane Season was transcendent.
Trombone Shorty went past the noise ordinance curfew to close out the 2016 Jazz Fest with a rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and a promise to be back next year.
One of the things you should be aware of is that Jazz Fest is a season in New Orleans. It’s a rite of spring that can’t be contained by the fairgrounds and the official schedule. While the official schedule is overwhelming enough, at night every club and theater in town seems to have some kind of event going on. I caught cellist Helen Gillet at the Circle Bar my first night in town. I’m glad I did because I missed her set at Jazz Fest. Gillet plays solo and loops samples to make it sound like she’s a band. Her songs ranged from instrumentals, to French pop songs and even a Velvet Underground cover.
On Saturday night, after the washout, we saw The Arcs at the House of Blues. Dan Auerbach’s psychedelic side project is every bit as good as the Black Keys. The all female mariachi band, Flor de Tolache opened the show and joined the Arcs on several songs.
If you wanted to, you could probably stay out all night, every night catching unique acts. Warren Haynes and Don Was led an all star tribute to the Band’s Last Waltz for two nights at the Saenger Theater. The core band included John Medeski, George Porter Jr, Mark Mullins and a host of other guests. It would have been cool to see the show, but I was too knackered after a day at the fairground. The shows were sold out anyway.
Other after shows I missed included Stevie Wonder sitting in with Irvin Mayfield’s New Orleans Jazz Orchestra at the Sonesta Hotel on Saturday night and the House of Blues on Sunday. Wonder wasn’t going to let anything like flash floods and tornado warnings keep him from connecting with his fans is New Orleans. I’ll leave it there. If I started listing all the cool things I didn’t get to see, this article might never end.
My last comment is a big thank you to my brother, Richard, who let me tag along on this adventure. Thanks for the experience.