Jazz Fest, in all its wonder and glory, has come and gone once again, sending the happily sunburned and exhausted masses back home to the real world. Maybe it was the perfect weather for all seven days, or the appearance of some of the biggest artists in the world, but something felt special about this one. Big Sam Williams proposed to his girlfriend onstage, John Fogerty jammed with Bruce Springsteen, and Arcade Fire second lined off the main stage. If this is what the 45th anniversary looks like, then I’d hate to be the one who has to top it for the big 5-0.
Depending on who you talk to, the most anticipated performance at Jazz Fest 2014 was either Phish or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. And while the jam band from Vermont has a less than storied history with the city (which thankfully seems to be well behind them), the rocker from New Jersey has all the respect of a minor deity in these parts. Saturday’s show proved The Boss is only getting better with age, as he tore through songs from across his 40-year career while keeping the crowd wrapped around his finger with surprises and top-notch showmanship.
Last week, I marveled at Phish’s ability to read and respond to the crowd, something Springsteen does equally well (if not better). After an opening run that included “Badlands” and “Hungry Heart,” Bruce bravely veered away from the setlist in order to incorporate songs from the roots-influenced Seeger Sessions project, featuring horn parts that sounded right at home in the Crescent City. The E Street Band is as powerful as ever, with new guitarist Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) adding jaw-dropping solos to the band’s distinct sound. Morello’s explosive playing on “The Ghost of Tom Joad” injected an energy that stayed with the band for the entire second half of the set, including an appearance by John Fogerty for rollicking takes on CCR classics “Green River” and “Proud Mary.” By the time Bruce started the finale of “Thunder Road,” the weight and power of deliverance through music was palpable across the giant crowd.
Arcade Fire’s Sunday afternoon set on the Acura Stage was just as epic as Bruce’s. The Canadian band took the stage to a recording of “Iko Iko,” with dancers wearing giant papier-mache heads of the Pope and Barack Obama before seamlessly launching into the Haitian grooves of “Here Comes the Night Time.” Frontman Win Butler lead the 11-piece band through songs from all four of its excellent albums with the swagger and confidence that has brought them to the biggest stages in the world. The songs from their recent album Reflektor somehow sounded right at home in New Orleans, mixing island sounds with post-rock dance beats that kept the bodies moving as Butler uttered heartbreaking lines of love and loss.
Late in the set, Butler’s wife, Regine Chassagne, took over vocal duties for the one-two punch of “Afterlife” and “Sprawl II,” proving herself more than capable of running the show. As the band began the anthemic opening of “Wake Up,” the chants of the crowd carried the song upward into the ether to cap off a triumphant set. Just when the band seemed to have finished, Butler grabbed a megaphone, leapt down into the crowd, and met the Pinettes Brass Band for a hushed refrain before leading a second line through the masses. Only at Jazz Fest.
The shows continued late into the night across town, and I tried to hit some venues I missed during weekend one. On Thursday I caught a show at City Park’s Botanical Gardens, which felt like into a super-exclusive VIP section of the Fair Grounds. The garden was only a short walk from the Fair Grounds, but the illuminated oak trees and expansive grassy area felt worlds away from the hot and crowded fest. Thursday’s show featured former Robert Plant chums Lil Band of Gold and local supergroup Royal Southern Brotherhood, both of whom delighted the tired crowd with Cajun-fried blues. Royal Southern Brotherhood effortlessly ripped through the Rolling Stones’ classic album Exile on Main Street, amping up the blues sound for a foot-stomping good time.
The Maple Leaf Bar celebrated its 40th anniversary last week and, once again, offered some of the rowdiest and best shows of Jazz Fest. For anyone who complains that Jazz Fest has become too corporate, all it takes is one trip to the delightfully dirty Leaf to get a taste of authentic New Orleans. The annual James Brown birthday party on Friday provided some of the best JB covers I’ve ever heard, followed by the funk supergroup The Nth Power. The scene in front of the bar was just as rowdy, as the all night block party raged until sunrise.
Throughout the fest, there was always one player I could count on to leave me speechless: Marco Benevento. The superhuman piano player kept himself extremely busy, playing up to four shows a day and popping up unannounced on stages all around town. Benevento wore many hats throughout the week, including nailing James Booker covers, bashing out his original raucous dance rock, and contributing a certain je ne sais quoi to jams with some of the best players in the city. After playing with Big Sam Williams at Blue Nile on Sunday night, Benevento laid down the 3 AM set at the Leaf for what was likely the very last show of the entire fest. After all his hard work on the NOLA circuit, Benevento has certainly earned the honor.
While it seems more folks gripe about the price and crowds than actually attend the fest, once you step onto the Fair Grounds it’s nearly impossible not to have a good time. With countless genres represented, some of the best food in the world, and no shortage of incredible art and cultural displays, this truly is an amazing celebration of what makes Louisiana so special. Pair that with some of the most diverse and entertaining late-night shows in the world and you got yourself a party like no other. Only 354 days until Jazz Fest 2015!