Jazz Fest 2016: A Report

Wesley Hodges on May 9, 2016

It’s roughly 3:30 on the second Saturday of Jazz Fest when the ominous skies do as forecasters predicted, and the dark-as-night clouds burst open during the swaggering “Big Shot” as Dr. John (with special guest Jon Batiste on melodica) grittily played through as rain dumped on-stage and the Fairgrounds began to flood.

Jazz Fest proper has been a daytime event since moving to the Fairgrounds in 1972 (the first two were held at Congo Square). Suffice it to say, the light show provided by Mother Nature and the main stage lighting rig was not something you see in the middle of the afternoon very often, adding an element of visual appeal and mystique to the swampy blues rock selections blaring across the main stage. With not too many places to seek shelter outside of the crowded Blues, Jazz and Gospel tents, fans scurried off to huddle under any covered area that could provide shelter and a big Saturday slate was unfortunately cancelled after Mac Rebennack fittingly wrapped an all-to-brief, but highly memorable set with “Goodnight Irene”. The plug was pulled halfway through Dr. John’s headlining sets by Stevie Wonder, Beck and Snoop Dogg all got turned down.

Those with unused tickets from Saturday’s mess were able to use them on Sundayand the Fest’s final day turned out to be one of the Festival’s most interesting, talent-filled and epochal days in recent memory.The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is one of live music’s most enduring institutions and this year’s festival (on weekend two) required a level of endurance from patrons, patience and the willingness to throw caution to the wind (and thunder, lightning and rain). After a picture perfect weekend one, the skies opened up time and time again for the majority of the final four days (with the exception of a near picture perfect Friday afternoon. While Mother Nature always seems to help tie a festival experience closer to memory, the experiences intrepid fans were able to have rain, storm or shine made Jazz Fest 2016 one for the ages.

Let’s back up a bit and highlight some of the best moments from each day leading up to the memorable break in the action.

Day One (4/22/2016) – The Subdudes return, Steely Dan and Michael McDonald close out the Acura Stage and Prince covers litter the Fairgrounds

The Subdudes in the Blues Tent at Jazz Fest (4/22/2016)

The early portion of opening day at the Fairgrounds was highlighted by the big Fest return of the subdudes to a packed house in the Blues Tent. The Louisiana-bred roots-rock band made the big tented space and stage feel like a campfire gathering at times, playing in close quarters. Perhaps the most foretelling musical moment of weekend one was The Subdudes cover of Cajun-rock legend, Eddie “Papa Dukie” Edwards’ “Papa Dukie and the Mud People,” a hippie anthem that drew the adoration of the silver-haired crowd of adamant fans parked up front for the big set.

Walter Trout in the Blues Tent

Walter Trout grooved out the Blues Tent following The Subdudes, singing “so play on/play your guitar through the darkness,” only months after recovering from a harrowing liver disease that nearly took his life. The guitarist emphatically channeled these dark experiences from his past, playing with the sort of unflinching intensity that can’t be contrived. Trout (the guitarist for John Mayall’s Bluesbreaker played to a sizeable crowd congregated for the strong 1-2 punch of 70s smooth studio rock stalwarts Michael McDonald and Steely Dan on the main stage.

Steely Dan on the Acura Stage

McDonald’s sit-in for “Pretzel Logic” to close out a big set capped off a strong three hours on the festival’s main stage. Highlights from Steely Dan’s headlining set included a soaring “Reelin In The Years” solo, a sonically pristine and note perfect “Black Friday” and the aforementioned sit-in featuring some growling blues vocals from Michael McDonald, the rough and impassioned texture of which wasn’t heard during his festival set (which included an excellent cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine”.

Elsewhere on the Grounds, both Janelle Monae and Gov’t Mule added Prince covers to their sets and Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings held court in the Blues Tent to close out the day.
The Meters at The Orpheum Theater (4/22/2016)

– Kermit Ruffins played the first of countless Prince covers I heard over the course of the ten days of Jazz Fest, playing “Purple Rain” on the Congo Square stage in the early afternoon.

– The original Meters (plus Ivan Neville for the majority of the show) reunited for a special show at the newly reopened and beautifully renovated Orpheum Theater, inviting special guests Warren Haynes, Grace Potter, Bernie Worrell and Trombone Shorty.

– On Thursday night, Skerik, Brian Haas (Nolatet), Nikki Glaspie and cellist Helen Gillet played an improv set at Gasa Gasa on Freret Street.

Day Two (4/23/2016) – Pearl Jam and Van Morrison attract massive crowds to Fairgrounds; NOLA Jazz Fest staples Anders Osborne and Galactic play the main stage
Anders Osborne on the Acura Stage

After such throttling main stage sets in 2014 and 2012, Anders Osborne’s 50-minute was a nice lead-in for Galactic and Pearl Jam but seemed a bit on the short side for the local guitar hero to stretch it out as he’s been known to. Osborne would make the most of his time, playing a seven song set that included “Lafayette”, “Can You Still Hear Me” and a number of traded solos with current touring mate Eric McFadden before his local comrades Galactic took to the stage.

Galactic on the Acura Stage

Galactic’s set was made extra special by the rare sit-in by former lead singer Theryl ‘Houseman” DeClouet on “Bittersweet”. DeClouet was displaced from New Orleans during Katrina and hasn’t made a full return to the city since, appearing sparingly with Galactic at benefits in year’s past. Erica Falls and Skerik also sat-in during the set.

Mystikal on the Congo Square Stage

Galactic sax player Ben Ellman made a quick leap over to Mystikal’s set on Congo Square stage to sit-in for the duration of the fiery and dapper No Limit legend’s set that touched on hits like “It Ain’t My Fault” and “Shake It Fast”, much to the enjoyment of the raucous crowd below. The 45 year old local rapper seemed energized and poised to enjoy a second wave of success in the future, playing with a tenacity of a man hungry for success.

Pearl Jam on the Acura Stage

The combination of two main stage level headliners overlapping on Saturday led to a massive turnout at the Fairgrounds. Pearl Jam was introduced by former Saints player and close friend of the band Steve Gleason. After opening “State of Love and Trust” and covering Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros “Arms Aloft” they would later dedicate “Even Flow” to Prince, who once covered the tune, proclaiming that they hoped to Prince proud, and “play the **** out of it!” A lengthy encore included monster 90s singles “Better Man” and “Alive” before a pair of guest-laden covers (“The Real Me” by The Who with horns and “Rockin in the Free World” with Chad Smith (RHCP), Nathan Followill (Kings of Leon) closed the festival’s second day out in big fashion.

Lagniappe: Marco Benevento played to a crowded and notably rowdy crowd on Frenchmen Street with his trio band (Dave Dreiwitz on bass and Andy Borger), hitting a lot of newer tunes from his 2016 LP The Story of Fred Short and putting on what was hands-down one of the best shows of the entire Fest run.

Day Three (4/24/2016)Red Hot Chili Peppers funky weekend one finale with Metermen guests
Sundays at Fest are best started in the Gospel Tent near one of the festival’s main entrances. The Electrifying Crown Seekers brought angelic sounds in the early afternoon, offering spiritual affirmations with tunes like “Every Day I Wake Up Is A Good Day”. Louisiana supergroup Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars (Cyril Neville, Tab Benoit, Johnny Sansone, Waylon Thibodeaux, Johnny Vidacovich and Big Chief Monk Boudreaux) continued spreading good vibes on the main stage with the fitting “Louisiana Sunshine” during an eclectic and heady mix of genres that hit on swamp and jump blues, straight-laced rock and gritty New Orleans soul sounds.

Red Hot Chili Peppers on the Acura Stage (WATCH FULL SHOW)

Despite being a household name for about a quarter-century, no big name headliner looked more genuinely thrilled to be closing one of the big stages than Red Hot Chili Peppers. Opening with “Can’t Stop,” Flea and guitarist Josh Klinghoffer began a series of frenetically supercharged showdowns, matching intensity throughout the a set that would include “Scar Tissue,” the rare-played “Aeroplane” (which had been shelved since 1997 until recently) and crowd favorites like “By The Way” and “Under the Bridge”. During the encore a superjam unfolded, as Ivan Neville and two Metermen (George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste) joined in for a couple jam sessions based around The Meters “Hand Clapping Song” surrounding a blistering, one-timer version of “Give It Away”.

Lagniappe and Covers:
– Corey Ledet’s Fais Do Do stage performance of “Purple Rain” was as strong and stylistically unique as any I witnessed go down throughout the Fest, you can watch the washboard-infused zydeco version here.

– Better Than Ezra covered Prince’s “Raspberry Beret” with John “Papa” Gros and Big Sam Williams after paying tribute to Scott Weiland with a cover of Stone Temple Pilots “Interstate Love Song”.

– Vulfpeck made their first ever appearance at Tipitina’s after the Fest, you can watch their set here.

Day Five (4/29/2016) – Tony Hall’s James Brown Tribute, a Radiators Reunion and My Morning Jacket/Paul Simon headline the two main stages
Tony Hall’s Soul Stars Tribute to James Brown on Congo Square

Tony Hall’s Soul Stars Tribute to James Brown has become a can’t-miss early afternoon Jazz Fest staple in recent years and this year’s set was no different. The set closing sit in by Brandon “Taz” Niederauer capped off a funky good time, sitting in on the Godfather’s “Get Up”, and doing it justice with a crack band of all-star players.

Raw Oyster Cult with some Fishy Friends on the Gentilly Stage
It was not a big secret at a show billed as “Raw Oyster Cult with some Fishy Friends” that a full-blown Radiators reunion could perhaps be in store and that’s exactly what fans at the Gentilly fan got about midway through the set following Malone’s “16 Monkeys on a See Saw”. At the end of the Rads mini set John “papa” Gros and bassist Dave Pomerleau returned to supplement the full lineup on “Papaya” and one of a quintessential Rads tune “You Can’t Take It With You When You Go”. After headlining the Gentilly stage for decades until 2011’s Jazz fest ‘finale’ (The Radiators have since appeared in earlier slots), it was a welcome treat to see the legendary band return to reign on a sunny day and everything seemed right again

My Morning Jacket on the Gentilly Stage
The day’s big headliner on the Gentilly Stage was My Morning Jacket, who played opposite across the Fairgrounds from 78-year old legend Paul Simon. Simon opened his set with Graceland’s 1986 classic “The Boy in a Bubble” and “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” before MMJ launched their set with “Victory Dance” from 2011’s Circuital fifteen minutes later across the way. My Morning Jacket’s set was heavy on tunes from the latter half of their catalog (“Mahgeetah” and “One Big Holiday” were the only tracks from the first pre-Z to make appearances). You could see Preservation Hall Jazz Band leader Ben Jaffe waiting and watching in the wings and the PHJB would come out for an extraordinary, horns heavy pair of Prince covers, doing abundant justice with a resounding “Sign O The Times” and unparalleled “Purple Rain” that went unmatched through Jazz Fest 2016. You can watch MMJ cover “Purple Rain” here.

-Kamasi Washington provide that he is going to be a major staple on the international festival circuit with a dare-I-say epic showing in the French Quarter at One Eyed Jacks. He’s a boundary-pushing jazz phenom and the majorly-packed turnout for his first of four shows in two nights was indicative of his career’s upward trajectory.

-The Roots played a late late one at The Orpheum Theater, kicking off at 1:45 am at their tribute to Clarence Slaughter, the recently deceased Hot 8 Brass Band trombonist who lost his life at age 26.
-Here is the Paul Simon Jazz Fest setlist.

Day Six (4/30/2016)
April went out with a roar and, as mentioned in the intro to this piece, Mother Nature unfortunately interrupted what was teed up to be a wonderful day at the Fairgrounds with Stevie Wonder, Beck and Snoop Dogg appearing. Stevie Wonder would make a surprise appearance at Irvin Mayfield’s spot in the Royal Sonesta Hotel to play some originals and pay his own tribute to Prince and Beck joined the fun as a fan in the French Quarter at a Second Line with members of Arcade Fire and My Morning Jacket.

Big Freedia with Tank and the Bangas on Congo Square

I just want to have a good time…I came to twerk, twerk, twerk, and work, work, work. – Big Freedia

At the Fest I only caught Big Freedia’s wild set (supplemented by live band and members of Tank and the Bangas) and see her release four purple balloons into the sky before doing her own tribute to the Purple One (while dressed accordingly). As a musical tribute, Freedia led the enormous Congo Square audience in a sing along of “I Would Die 4 U” and again, another poignant rendering of “Purple Rain”. Getting out for Freedia’s set made the extra-abbreviated trip to the Fairgrounds worthwhile – where else will you see wild twerking, gymnastic dance moves, these are the eye-popping things you just don’t see outside of the realm of bounce music, although judging by the size of Freedia’s crowd, the explosion of New Orleans bounce music is no passing fad and here to stay.

Lagniappe: Joe Russo’s Almost Dead closed out a two-night run at the Joy Theatre, you can hear the recording here.

Day Seven (5/1/2016)

The second sacred Sunday, rain or shine, is always a borderline religious experience at Jazz Fest. For those who have made it out for the majority of the Fest, it’s one last chance to hang with old friends, try out the only-at-Fest food offerings (crawfish sack, shrimp and duck pasta, quail gumbo, fried chicken and jambalaya to name a few favorites) and enjoy one last trip through the heavenly grounds in the gospel, jazz and blues tents. The conditions were such that folks were (against better judgment) swimming and paddling around portions of the grounds that were knee-high and the crowd was diminished to about 30% of what it likely would have been had the weather been agreeable. Word even got around outside the gates that the Fest would be shutting down around 12:30, but the bands played on til the last drop and the Second Sunday was one of the best days of music in recent history at Jazz Fest.

Cynthia Girtley in the Gospel Tent
The situation seemed grim as the rain and thunder around 11:30 am mimicked yesterday’s during the shutdown as we entered the gates and we headed straight for a tented show where “New Orleans Gospel Diva” Cynthia Girtley was holding court. Girtley was one of the smallest ensembles I’ve seen in the gospel tent, featuring just Girtley and a small band huddled around her piano front stage right. Although lacking in size and with no backing choir, Girtley held her own and delivered with a powerful voice and gusto to match.

Aaron Neville on the Gentilly Stage

The rain began to lighten to a steady drizzle by the time Aaron Neville’s saintly voice beamed out Neville Brothers classics like “Bird on a Wire” and “Yellow Moon” with his band and brother Charles Neville at the Gentilly Stage. Still looking great on the eve of his 75th Birthday and sounding as magnificent as ever, Aaron’s set stood up with any at Jazz Fest 2016.

Tribute to Allen Toussaint with the Allen Toussaint Band on the Gentilly Stage

Few artists loved Jazz Fest more than Allen Toussaint, whose shocking death reverberated with artists around the globe just five months prior. On paper, this set looked to be as essential to any itinerary as any on the seven-day slate, and the laundry list of performers who sat in made this special day of celebration exceed expectations. Guests included Dr. John, Aaron Neville, Bonnie Raitt, Cyril Neville, Jon Batiste and Davell Crawford all performing Toussaint songs with Toussaint’s always locked-in band. There wasn’t a dry body in the soggy, rain-drenched crowd and at points, probably nary a dry eye as the roving cast sang hits that Toussaint either produced or sang himself. The sharp-dressed and abundantly talented New Orleanian would’ve been proud and seemed to watch over the set with a headshot of Toussaint centrally placed on the bass drumhead.

Punch Brothers on the Fais Do Do Stage
The rains reduced the Punch Brothers otherwise huge crowd to a scattered, manageable and lucky relative few at the tiny Fais Do Do stage. Mandolin virtuoso Chris Thile and his bandmates did the improbable, transforming the soggy outdoor setting into a symphonically note-perfect setting, as raindrops continued to fall. The set was heavy on material from their breakthrough 2015 record Phosphorescent Blues and I heard few things more mesmerizing or moving than live readings of “Julep” or the labyrinthine and complicated “Familiarity” at the entire festival.

Mavis Staples in the Blues Tent

Mavis Staples is a living legend who needs to be embraced and celebrated in the here and now and that’s exactly what fans who packed every inch of the Blues tent on Sunday did and it was a beautiful thing.

The former Staples Singer started her set with “Take Us Back,” and exclaimed We’re so happy to be here with you today!” Her always-vibrant spirit is every bit as soul-lifting as anything one could see in the Gospel Tent and seeing covers like the Funkadelic classic “Can You Get to That?” and her Pop Staples’ civil rights marching song “Freedom Highway” managed to encompass the eclectic, fun and sometimes profound nature of that music that can be found at the Fairgrounds. It was a revival spirit in the Blues Tent even before the set closed with The Band’s “The Weight” and each member of her band was given a chance to sing.

Neil Young and Promise of the Real on the Acura Stage

Neil Young hit the stage a tad behind schedule and rocked through eight songs in two hours, playing what was likely one of the most jam-heavy and improvised sets of the entire weekend. Raw and unfettered as ever, Young and Co. hit on a number of deeper tracks, while throwing in “Rockin in the Free World” and “Cortez The Killer” to appease some of the less adventurous masses looking for some familiarity. The tunes were expansive and fans rewarded with a full blown trip who stuck it out through the raw set.

BB King Tribute on the Acura Stage

Finally, there have been too many essential artists pass since Jazz Fest 2015 and the tributes were in high supply. Again on the Gentilly stage a musical titan was honored with yet another impressive cast of special artists that included the B.B.King’s Blues Band along with Buddy Guy, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, and Elvin Bishop. Despite some of the most apocryphal looking skies and near biblical flooding on Sunday, the good times somehow rolled on and there’s no question, the recently-deceased legends Allen Toussaint, B.B. King and Prince were done proud.

See you in 2017 at the Fairgrounds!

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