Jazz Fest is officially upon us, and with hundreds of musical possibilities, not everyone knows what stage to hit and when. I’ve scoured the bill and categorized acts into three groups: Last Chance, New Artists, and My Picks. Now you can wander with purpose around those beautiful Fairgrounds.
Jazz Fest is saturated with some of the world’s best artists. Among them are a handful of musicians who have had careers not even they could have dreamed of and whose touring lifespans may be winding down. In other words, this might actually be your “last chance” to see them play together. And just to add even more categories to the mix, I decided on the “last chance” label according, but not limited to: age, upcoming touring dates, and touring locations.
This foursome was incredibly difficult to pick, probably the most difficult of the three categories. I’ve excluded some of my personal favorites because I wanted to stay true to the parameters. Here are this year’s four best performances that you need to see before they call it a career.
Jerry Lee Lewis tribute to Fats Domino
ACURA STAGE SATURDAY, APR 28 1:45 PM – 3:00 PM
The labels “Legend” and “All-Time Great” seem to be a bit overused today. Jerry Lee Lewis, however, is more than deserving of such descriptions. In 2009, at seventy-four years of age, the timeless wonder was chosen as the opening act for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert. An inductee in the inaugural 1986 class, Lewis is truly one of the greatest performers ever. His career, now spanning over six decades, has been one for the ages.
A Ferriday, LA native, Lewis’ parents mortgaged their farm to buy the future star his first piano. He is a prime example of what serious devotion and passion for your craft look like. Even at his age, Lewis has continued to produce fresh, new music. On his 2010 album, Mean Old Man, he collaborates with many other all-time greats (see what I did there), is definitely worth a listen. At eighty-two years young, you should jump at the opportunity to see Jerry Lee Lewis perform as part of the tribute to the late, great Fats Domino. It will surely be a special performance.
Listen to Jerry Lee Lewis’s album Mean Old Man:
WWOZ JAZZ TENT SUNDAY, APR 29 5:40 PM – 7:00 PM
George Benson was made for Jazz Fest. More accurately, Jazz Fest was made for artists like George Benson. Benson began performing at a nightclub in his hometown Philadelphia when he was eight years old. Yes, eight. That’s not a typo. Now, the seventy-five-year-old Jazz and R&B performer has been one of the best in the business for over fifty years.
His album Breezin’ hit number one on the Billboard chart in 1976 and is certified triple-platinum. Benson has won ten Grammy awards and has been honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. How he’s not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame is beyond me.
The former child prodigy uses the classic rest-stroke technique. (Which also happens to be my favorite swimming stroke). This technique is perfectly executed on his top hit “Give Me The Night.” Benson has performed at Jazz Fest in the past, and he steals the show every time. The punch of his signature Ibanez guitar combined with his cool vocals have made him a fan favorite. The Jazz Tent will undoubtedly be packed for this performance.
Watch Benson perform “Give Me The Night”:
CONGO SQUARE STAGE SUNDAY, MAY 6 3:30 PM – 4:40 PM
Last but certainly not least we have William “Smokey” Robinson Jr. Robinson is a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class of ’87 inductee. He is most notably the front man for The Miracles, the first group ever signed by Motown Records. Although, he has had a very successful solo career as well.
Robinson has not only had a profound impact on the music industry due to his performing but also because of his songwriting and producing. He worked with and wrote for The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder.
His most recent album Smokey & Friends is an absolute must listen. It is an awesome collaboration with an even better cast of characters. Robinson at the age of seventy-seven, does not currently have anything lined up after Jazz Fest. Regardless, you should definitely check him out and might be in for a treat with some possible guest appearances.
Here’s a look at Robinson’s album Smokey & Friends:
Steve Miller Band
GENTILLY STAGE SUNDAY, MAY 6 5:20 PM – 7:00 PM
Another living legend, Steve Miller was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2016. The band, named for its lead guitarist and singer, has been an absolute staple in classic rock since the early ‘70s.
Miller began as a blues rocker in San Francisco backing Chuck Berry in the late ‘60s. His career quickly took off on the West Coast and within a couple of years, he had his first platinum album in The Joker. The band’s top hits are seemingly endless (“The Joker,” “Rock’n Me,” “Fly Like an Eagle,” “Take the Money and Run,” and “Jungle Love” just to name a few).
Miller has done it all and is simply one of the best rockers to ever play music. He’s pretty high on my all-time favorites list. I love the way he told off the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in his post-induction press conference. With that said, Miller is now seventy-four and does not currently have any scheduled performances post Jazz Fest. Playing on the final day, Miller and Co. would be a great way to close out this year’s festivities.
Check out his rendition of “The Joker,” alongside Billy Joel, from December of 2017:
New/Up and Coming Artists:
Criteria: These bands have to have been formed and found success within the last ten years.
Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real
GENTILLY STAGE FRIDAY, APR 27 3:30 PM – 4:45 PM
Lukas Nelson, son of country music icon Willie Nelson, and Promise of the Real formed in 2008 in Solana Beach, CA. The band actually made its touring debut opening up for the famous singer. They released their first album Promise of the Real in December 2010 and backed Neil Young on his thirty-six studio album. Although, the group did not really make their breakthrough until 2017 on their self-titled, debut album for Fantasy Records. The album Lukas Nelson and Promise of the Real, not to be confused with their first album, has earned the group major notoriety.
Lukas Nelson is now the co-producer of the music for the 2018 remake of the classic Hollywood film A Star is Born. The band is a cool combination of modern-day American rock and country. The songs range from country reminiscent of what his father played to an unapologetic hard-rock. Though, most tracks find a smooth balance between the two. These guys are certainly a unit to keep your eye on.
These are my two favorites: “Find Yourself” and “Colorado”
CONGO SQUARE STAGE SATURDAY, APR 28 5:45 PM – 7:00 PM
Pronounced Kuh-Leed, the twenty-year-old star has been on the rise over the last couple of years. The young phenom got his start in 2015 by posting self-made tracks on the online music streaming platform SoundCloud. Khalid has really burst onto the national scene in the last year since releasing his debut studio album American Teen in March 2017. The album quickly shot up the charts and earned the singer multiple Grammy Award nominations. Additionally, the album was certified platinum in just eight months. The R&B and hip-hop artist was labeled by both the New York Times and Rolling Stone Magazine as this past year’s biggest breakout artist of the year. He is a bonafide superstar and is unquestionably someone you should check out this year, performing on the first Saturday at Jazz Fest.
Here are two of his best, “Let‘s Go” and “Young, Dumb, & Broke”
Tank and the Bangas
ACURA STAGE FRIDAY, MAY 4 1:55 PM – 2:55 PM
Tank is one of the more unique performers at Jazz Fest this year. Heather Rudow of The Washingtonian described the group as a “lively fusion of funk, soul, hip hop, rock, and spoken word.” Clearly, there’s a lot going on here. The band has this special quality in that not one part gets lost in the other.
The local group met and formed here in New Orleans in 2011. They have just one studio album from 2013, cleverly titled Thinktank. However, their 2014 live album The Big Bang Theory: Live at Gasa Gasa gives listeners a deeper feel of what it would be like to experience the group. Honestly, if there is one group that I know of in the entire festival that may be worth going to solely for the live experience, it probably is Tank and the Bangas.
Make sure to listen to: “Rollercoasters” and “Nile, Dan, & Latah” (Live)
GENTILLY STAGE SATURDAY, MAY 5 3:40 PM – 5:00 PM
The formation of The Revivalists is a classic New Orleans story. On his way back from work guitarist Zack Feinberg passed up future frontman David Shaw singing on Shaw’s front porch. Feinberg then brought in drummer Andrew Campanelli whom he had met at Tipitina’s. Weeks later, the group was playing at Tipitina’s under the name “The Revivalists.” As they say, the rest is history. The name is a nod to the revival music scene prominent around New Orleans.
The group released a self-titled EP in May 2018 and gained local notoriety. They came out with a couple more studio albums before releasing their third, Men Amongst Mountains in 2015. Things took off. In March 2016 they were named by Rolling Stone Magazine as one of “10 Bands You Need to Know.” They are not up and coming, or really that new, but I’ll make a slight, slight exception for them because of how big a fan I am. In May 2017 their song “Wish I Knew You” reached number one on alternative rock charts. Making their return to Jazz Fest, The Revivalists should be nothing short of awesome.
Check out their performance of “Wish I Knew You” on the Today Show:
Criteria: Some of my top picks may have been mentioned already in the two groups above. Here are my top four picks of the remaining artists.
GENTILLY STAGE FRIDAY, APR 27 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM
Simpson represents everything that is still great about country music. The native Kentuckian began his career with bluegrass band Sunday Valley in 2004. He briefly took a break from music to manage a railroad freight-shipping yard before deciding to try his hand at a solo career in 2013. I’d say Simpson made the right choice.
A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, Simpson’s third album, was released in March 2016. It didn’t take long for the smooth-talking country artist to gain national recognition. The album won “Best Country Album” at the Grammy’s that year.
It’s hard to try and fit Simpson into a particular box. He’s reminiscent of some of the great Outlaw Country music artists like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Yet, he has some wonderful rock and soul performances as well. Regardless of the genre, Simpson is flawless, smooth, and his country twang just adds to the flavor. It’s as if he’s having a conversation with the audience, but he’s the only one talking. Simpson is a must-see attraction. Yes, even if you don’t like “country.” He’s not country music; he’s Sturgill Simpson.
You can’t go wrong with any of these:
GENTILLY STAGE SUNDAY, APR 29 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM
David Byrne is an icon not just in the music world, but in the art world. Byrne founded new wave sensation Talking Heads in 1975. He was the lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter for the celebrated group. Talking Heads is one of the most prominent and influential bands in music history. The group has four albums on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time” list and three songs on the “The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll.” (Not that Rolling Stone and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame are the be-all and end-all of what’s good music).
Byrne has received awards for just about everything, and from just about everyone: Oscar, Grammy, Golden Globe, and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2002.
He’s known for his avant-garde approach and musical innovation. Byrne is also one of the most distinct voices in music over the years. These two traits have combined make him one of the best and most successful musical performers since he burst onto the scene in the ‘70s. In addition to the laundry list of hits he produced as a member of Talking Heads, Byrne has also had a successful solo career. He just released another new album in March, American Utopia, for the first time in fourteen years. Whatever Byrne does, it seems to come out right. His Jazz Fest performance should follow suit, and yes, that’s a big suit.
Watch Byrne’s rendition of “Burning Down The House” at Talking Heads HOF induction:
Cage the Elephant
GENTILLY STAGE SATURDAY, MAY 5 5:40 PM – 7:00 PM
Cage the Elephant has a wonderful name and an even better backstory. The eclectic group from Bowling Green has come together to form one of the best alternative rock groups around. Matt Schultz, lead vocalist, was a plumber before deciding to quit his job to join the band. The band’s rhythm guitarist, Brad Shultz, worked in a sandwich bar. The bassist, Daniel Tichenor, worked at Lowe’s; while drummer Jared Champion worked in a pet store. All wonderful professions, but it seems like this is what the group was supposed to do. Oh, and the name you may ask. Well, the name comes from a crazed fan who, after one of the bands performances, ran up to the group screaming, “You have to cage the elephant!” I think they’ve done exactly that.
Everyone one of the group’s albums harbors their distinct sound; although, each is noticeably different in its own way. Their fourth album, Tell Me I’m Pretty, took home “Best Rock Album” at the Grammy’s in 2017. Their music is as eclectic as they are, and the live performances are even better. This is one group I’ve actually had the pleasure of seeing live, and they make sure to bring enough energy for everyone.
Cage the Elephant’s live performances are awesome:
ACURA STAGE SATURDAY, MAY 5 5:30 PM – 7:00 PM
I think the first Aerosmith song I ever remember hearing is “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” because it’s part of the soundtrack to the 1993 comedy, Mrs. Doubtfire. (The song was originally written about Mötley Crüe’s Vince Neil, but it works just as well with Robin Williams shredding his broom guitar). It just so happens that Aerosmith has produced a lot of other really good music as well. It’s hard to make it onto every list discussing “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” without having done so.
The bad boys from Boston formed back in 1970, and it didn’t take long for them to explode. Each of their first six albums, all from the ‘70s, are certified platinum and have sold over one million copies. Their self-titled, debut album set the foundation for the rock and roll sound with distinct blues influences. However, it was the third album in 1975, Toys in the Attic, that turned the group into international superstars. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame back in 2001. Yet, the band’s musical reach extends far beyond their own music.
Aerosmith has had major influences on many of the other great rock bands that have followed such as Nirvana and Guns N’ Roses. They’re also responsible for one of the first, and best, rock/hip-hop collaborations. Aerosmith’s re-working of their song “Walk This Way” with Run DMC is just one of their many legendary productions. This will be an awesome performance and the atmosphere on Saturday evening should be rocking.
You might know a few of these:
I could write three more articles with twelve artists each, and it still wouldn’t include everyone I like. It’s impossible when there are so many outstanding artists over the next couple of weeks. With that said, I hope you enjoyed my selections and make sure to get out to Jazz Fest this year!
Alex Abramson is a writer for NolaVie who is a student at Washington and Lee University when he’s not in town listening to music, attending his brother’s sporting events, and updating his playlist. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Please send your thoughts, any recommendations, and info if you have live music playing at your venue.