The 45th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicked off its first weekend with perfect weather and a wonderfully diverse mix of rock superstars, indie darlings, local legends, and music from every corner of the world, not to mention the dizzying assortment of shows — large and small — across town afterwards. Now that I’ve had a chance to stop and catch my breath, here’s my impressions from the first 72 hours of the musical marathon that is Jazz Fest.
As soon as I stepped onto the Fairgrounds on Saturday morning, I instantly remembered why this fest is adored by so many. The first set I caught was modern Brazilian group Baiana System from Bahia-Brazil, whose hip-hop-influenced samba rhythms got everyone shaking and dancing with ease. Getting out there early was (and is) definitely a must, since it enables you to get up close and personal with some great music without trampling someone’s precious blanket real estate.
Next up was Raw Oyster Cult, whose classic Radiators sound was complemented perfectly by John “Papa” Gros‘ enthralling organ playing. After only seeing these guys in the dark halls of The Maple Leaf, I was surprised by how their New Orleans funk and roll worked to set a perfectly festive tone early on under the shining sun.
Although Saturday started like a typical Jazz Fest day, as the day wore on it became clear that something special was in the air. No, it wasn’t just the clouds of funky smoke blowing on the breeze, but something more special and rare: Phish. I’ll admit I’m only a casual fan of the Vermont band, but the energy leading up to the beloved band’s triumphant return to the Fairgrounds was palpable and contagious.
New Orleans’ own jam band royalty Anders Osborne was granted the coveted slot on the Acura stage immediately before Phish, earning the guitarist some well-deserved new fans who traveled from places far and wide for Phish. Osborne tore through songs from his excellent recent album, Peace, including “Five Bullets,” “I’m Ready,” and “Windows,” backed by his usual trio as well as special guest Marco Benevento.
A big part of Phish’s appeal and popularity lies in their unique ability to interact with and manipulate the crowd through their music. This late afternoon show provided the veteran band the rare opportunity to play to an audience that included both die-hard fans and those who had never heard the band before, and their playing and setlist satisfied both groups.
Opener “Kill Devil Falls” had a classic rock feel that eased in the newcomers, followed by an extended jam on “Wolfman’s Brother” that showed off the incredible musical communication between the band. They kept their sound mostly in rock territory, with a few funk excursions, and a rollicking cover of the Son Seals blues jam “Funky Bitch.” By the time the band graciously thanked Jazz Fest for the invite and ended their marathon set around 7:20, those still in attendance looked fulfilled and satisfied by what will live on in some minds as an historic show.
Racing from the Fairgrounds to Downtown is always a challenge (Should I go home and shower? Will anyone even notice if I don’t?), but those who push through the stink and fatigue are rewarded with some of the best music in the city.
The Joy Theater boasted an impressive lineup throughout the weekend, kicking off with the interstellar funk of Bootsy Collins on Friday night. As a member of James Brown’s band and Parliament-Funkadelic, as well as leading his own successful solo career, Bootsy wrote much of the book of funk that guides the best players in the city today. Bootsy’s signature star-shaped bass was a force to be reckoned with at The Joy, as the elder funkman laid down some of the best lines of the weekend as his crack band (all dressed in astronaut suits) got the bodies moving in the classic theater.
Champions Square hosted two big shows this weekend, with indie crooner Lana Del Rey on Friday and electronic band Pretty Lights on Saturday. Pretty Lights, the project of Colorado DJ Derek Vincent Smith, featured a full live band that produced some of the loudest and most electrifying music of the weekend, and a truly impressive light show that played off the walls of the Superdome. Electronic shows can get repetitive for the casual listener, but Smith kept each song fresh with the addition of guests, including the Preservation Hall Brass Band, rapper Talib Kweli, and guitarist Eric Krasno, all of whom brought fresh energy to the futuristic soundscapes.
The late-night jams are my favorite part of Jazz Fest, offering the chance to see some of the best musicians in the world play together in a spontaneous and unpredictable manner. The Maple Leaf offers some of the best experiences of Jazz Fest, with most jams anchored by legendary drummer Johnny Vidacovich and going until sunrise. d.b.a., one of the classier spots to catch some great music, featured Ike Stubblefield’s organ trio late night Saturday, with the jaw-dropping guitar chops of June Yamagishi keeping the energy high as the night stretched on. On Sunday night, Blue Nile hosted the supergroup Worship My Organ, featuring funky Lettuce drummer Adam Deitch, freaky saxman Skerik, TWO organists, and DJ Logic, for two sets of improvisational jazz that managed to be both danceable and adventurous.
In any other city, a weekend like this would be enough excitement to last a full year, but this is New Orleans and this party called Jazz Fest is just warming up. Stay tuned to NolaVie for our picks for best bets after Fest, enter for a chance to win free passes to shows, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram to stay in the know for the rest of Jazz Fest. Happy Festing!