Review & Photos | Jazz Fest | New Orleans | Second Weekend

Words by: Adam McCullough
Images by: Susan J. Weiand

Jazz Fest :: Weekend Two :: 5.1.14 - 5.4.14 :: New Orleans Fairgrounds :: New Orleans, LA

Check out Adam's review below Susan's gallery!

The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, better known as Jazz Fest, ended its 45th edition with four days of great music, unbelievably good food and most importantly, great weather last weekend. Though mostly thought of as a music festival, Jazz Fest really is so much more. While there are 12 stages that offer music crossing every genre, the festival is a celebration of the city of New Orleans, the most unique and recognizable culture I've ever seen one city have. There were dozens of food choices, but not the usual selections you expect. Each food vendor is from a local restaurant and serve such Fest favorites as Cochon de Laits, Crawfish Monica, Boudin Balls and Mango Freezes. If you don't know what half of those are, that's reason enough to go to Jazz Fest. Local artists bring their works to display and sell, while local craftsmen have tents set up where you can watch them make their wares.

Musically speaking, the headliners of Jazz Fest's second weekend were much more diverse than those from the first weekend. The second weekend of JazzFest always starts on a Thursday, which is typically known as the day most locals go and where lots of local schools are given free tickets, so the next generation of New Orleans youth can get a chance to experience music they may not be able to see and afford at other times. Having arrived a little late, the first stop of the day was at the New Orleans Bingo! Show, which has amazed audiences in years past with their combination of rock music and vaudeville/cabaret show that included choreographed dancers, skits and of course, bingo. But this year those theatrics were mostly removed from the show and focused more on the music that founder Clint Maedgen had created.

Across the Fairgrounds on the Congo Square Stage, Nigel Hall delivered a very soulful set of music featuring a band of local musicians that he put together while spending time earlier this year doing a residency at the Blue Nile. While I've been lucky enough to see Nigel many times over the last few years being from right outside New York City, most of these fans had probably not heard of Nigel and were treated to a nice set of music. Following Nigel on the Congo Square Stage was the hottest brass band in New Orleans right now, the Soul Rebels. Even though the Rebirth and Dirty Dozen Brass Bands are the most known groups of that genre, the Soul Rebels have ascended the ranks by combining the New Orleans street brass band sound with hip hop, r&b and a diverse set of covers that consistently changes. Their set at JazzFest was no different and included a sit-in from another incredibly hot (musically speaking that is) NOLA musician, Big Freedia, who has taken the underground "Bounce" music scene to the mainstream.

After a brief stop by the Jazz & Heritage Stage, which had the DJ trio "A Tribe Called Red", which combines Native American drums and chants with dance beats, I went back to the Congo Square Stage for saxophonist Donald Harrison, whose modern jazz may not be what jazz aficionados consider great jazz, but was enough to get the large crowd at the Congo Square Stage grooving along. At the end of his set, Harrison brought out a group of Mardi Gras Indians and changed out of his typical all-white suit for his own extremely large blue Indian suit that was too big for the stage that was already full, but presented an incredible array of colors and decorations.

Taking a break from the Congo Square Stage, I caught the end of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band's performance at the main Acura Stage. Running through traditional brass band songs and covers, they ended their set with "Dirty Old Man," a song associated with baritone saxophonist Roger Lewis. While the band played through the song, Lewis, who has to be in his 60's, brought two fans from the back and danced their socks off, to use an expression from the 1950's, in a way that guys half his age wish they could do.

As the end of Thursday approached, the national acts took over the stages with The Wailers delivering almost an hour and a half of solid reggae followed by Beyonce's sister, Solange, who combines a very nice voice with an incredibly infections smile. Organist Dr. Lonnie Smith brought his trio to close out the Jazz Tent, which echoed his incredible organ playing and brought the jazz fans to their feet by the end of his set. Closing out the main stage was the String Cheese Incident, whose two-hour set included "So Far From Home," "Let's Go Outside," "It Is What It Is" and ten other songs that got the crowd dancing till the gates closed. They were joined on stage by the Soul Rebels during "Black and White" and the Incident closed out their set with a beautiful version of "People Get Ready" with a sit-in from the Blind Boys of Alabama, who were in town for a Dr John benefit concert.

Friday started off very strong with a great performance by Mia Borders, a New Orleans musician who has gained enough in popularity to graduate from the Gentilly Stage (now Samsung Galaxy stage) to the Acura Stage. Mia's music and voice is rock with equal amounts of blues and soul. The singer mostly stuck to her original music, with a terrific version of "Mississippi Rising" from her Wherever There Is album, but her cover of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" that was surprisingly good. I've always enjoyed Mia's music and that is a very hard song to cover, but Mia did what most artists don't do when they do a cover - she sang the song in her voice, and didn't try to be Marvin Gaye. She took a soul love song and made it more bluesy while keeping the romantic vibe of the song. On the opposite side of the Fairgrounds, another up and coming band from New Orleans called the Honorable South performed on the Samsung Galaxy Stage. I only caught the last two songs. For the group's last song, lead singer Ms. Charm Taylor asked the crowd what they wanted to hear, which drew loads of cheers for "Call," which was one of the first songs the Honorable South recorded and put out as an EP.

After a quick stop by the Congo Square stage to photograph the Os Negoes of Bahia Brazil, a dance and drum group from Brazil, I ended up at Cowboy Mouth for my annual visit. I actually enjoy Cowboy Mouth quite a bit, but it seems that I only see them at Jazz Fest and for only about 20 minutes a year. There are few musicians more energetic on stage every time I've seen them than lead singer and drummer Fred LeBlanc, who combines his great personality with hard rock drumming and bluesy voice. Even when talking or interacting with the crowd, the music is always playing, not allowing the fans to stop dancing with the beats he's laying down. He also seamlessly is able to sing "the name of the band is…" to which the audience is always willing to scream back "Cowboy Mouth" no matter how many times he does it. And no matter how many times I've seen him do it or how many times he does it during the show, it's just a natural reaction to scream "Cowboy Mouth." While most people know the band from their hit in the '90s, "Jenny Says," which Fred joking teased playing, mocking the crowd who "just came to see the band play their hit from the '90s", my favorite song is "I Believe," an absolutely beautiful love song that you wouldn't expect from the hard rock-and-roll band Cowboy Mouth. The song is as much about romantic love as it is the band's love for New Orleans, a city they don't get to spend enough time in because they are on the road playing over 100 gigs a year. Cowboy Mouth was the only male-led act on a day that Fred deemed "Diva's Day" on the Acura Stage as they were sandwiched between Mia Borders, fiddle player extraordinaire Amanda Shaw, Theresa Andersson and headliner Christina Aguilera.

I followed up Cowboy Mouth with a quick visit to the Blues Tent for Big Al Carson. Big Al is a New Orleans staple, one of the few real musicians playing music on Bourbon Street, doing five nights a week at the Funky Pirate. Big Al is one of the reasons I fell in love with New Orleans, so I will always check him out. He's got a great blues voice and combines original songs with classic blues numbers every time he plays, while always smiling, joking and making sure everyone is having a good time. Though the few minutes I saw were typically good Big Al, nothing compares to seeing him at the Funky Pirate. When the crowd is right, it's one of the best times you can have in New Orleans and really the only thing one should do on Bourbon Street.

After checking out a few acts that included Hurray for the Riff Raff, Johnnyswim and Theresa Andersson, none of which I was all that impressed with, I went over to the Samsung Galaxy stage for Alabama Shakes, whose music I've enjoyed, but had never seen live, until the night before when they played a very intimate show at Preservation Hall. For the three songs I was there photographing, the Shakes came out ready to play and they didn't disappoint. Brittany Howard, the lead singer, couldn't stop smiling, I think a combination of playing in front of probably thousands of people on a beautifully sunny day and playing great music. As I walked away, they began playing "Hold On," the only song of theirs I know I've heard on the radio and the crowd got right behind the band.

At the end of the day, I decided to check out Christina Aguilera. Surprisingly, or maybe not, the crowd at the main stage was pretty light and I was able to get pretty close when I got there towards the end of the set. I wasn't expecting much and maybe that is why I came away so impressed with the hour or so of Christina's set. For a woman who is quite pregnant, she moved around the stage quite a bit, dancing and showing off her tremendous voice. It's sad she came up in the Britney Spears era where female pop stars were featured more for their looks and dance moves than their voices and Christina was kinda grouped with them. She ran through a few covers such as Etta James's "At Last" and "The Thrill is Gone," a song she said she has been singing since she was seven. Aguilera also brought out a special guest, Ian Axel of A Great Big World, to sing one of the more popular songs on the radio right now - "Say Something." But the song that impressed me the most was when they started playing Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." I thought it would just be an instrumental tease into another song, but it wasn't and I couldn't believe how well she sang the song. Christina didn't try to replicate Robert Plant's voice, but sang the song with her distinct voice and style and thought it was a very nice fit. She actually split some of the singing duties with her guitarist, but that was a mistake as he wasn't nearly as qualified to sing the song as she was.

While the weekends at Jazz Fest are always busier than the weekday versions, from the moment I approached the entrance to the Fairgrounds on Saturday, I knew this was going to be a busy day. While the last two days I breezed through security, hundreds of people were already streaming into the Fest, even though the gates had been open for a while. Saturday was Bruce Springsteen day, which would mean the largest crowd of the seven days. Opening the stage Bruce would be headlining on was the Louisiana born Marc Broussard, who combines rock, soul and funk to create a sound that has resonated across the country, as Marc is consistently on the road bringing his unique blend of Louisiana music to the country. After running through some originals, Marc brought out the man he said was both his inspiration not only as a man, but as a musician, Marc's father Ted, a guitar player who used to play in another Louisiana band, The Boogie Kings. I knew I would be at the main stage for most of the day, but wanted to get my daily dose of some Brass Band music, so I stopped by the Jazz & Heritage Stage for the Free Agents Brass Band, who as their name suggested was made up of members I've seen in a variety of other bands. Like most of the brass bands that play on the Jazz and Heritage Stage, the band brought their street music sound to the stage and got the rather large crowd to their feet, dancing and waiving their towels and umbrellas in the air as if they were second lining down the streets of the French Quarter. If you ever go to Jazz Fest, do yourself a favor and catch a brass band on this stage, I don't imagine you'll ever be disappointed.

After that it was back to the Acura Stage for Mr. Music, Allen Toussaint. Quint Davis, the producer of Jazz Fest, made Toussaint's introduction and stated he's the only man in the Rock and Roll, Blues and Song Writing Hall of Fames, which one may not understand until you do some research into all of the great songs he has written that others have made famous. Phish fans may not know he wrote the song "Sneakin' Sally Through the Alley," which he played early during his set, along with "Party Goin' On," a very catchy song dedicated to the city and area he was raised in and was such an influence on his music. A few songs later, Toussaint brought on friend and multi- year Acura Stage headliner Jimmy Buffett to sit-in on two songs including an upbeat "Fortune Teller" that you would expect Buffett to sing to. But they followed that with "Wave Bye Bye," a slower, ballad that I wasn't expecting Buffett to sing, but I think he did a really nice job with it. On the opposite side of the Fairgrounds and the energy scale, up-and-comers The Revivalists brought their genre-combining music and extreme energy to the thousands of fans at the Samsung Stage who were baking in the unrelenting sun. Despite the heat, lead singer David Shaw went into the crowd multiple times to sing his songs, high-five fans and get the crowd completely invested in what he and the rest of the band were doing.

After grabbing my sixth Cochon de Lait po boy, a smoked pork sandwich for those not in the know, it was back to the main stage for the last two bands of the day. First was the Voice of the Wetlands Allstars, a New Orleans musician supergroup featuring Anders Osborne, Tab Benoit, George Porter Jr., Johnny Vidacovich, Johnny Sansone and Michael Doucet - just to name a few. The band was created shortly before Hurricane Katrina to help bring attention to the deteriorating wetlands that have been decimated by industry, shipping and climate change. It is believed that wetlands help tame hurricanes and are also a necessity to keep intact for the future of Louisiana and its surrounding states.

After a set of great music that saw each musician take the lead on one song, the chants for Bruce started right after the VOW Allstars's last note. As the stage crew quickly changed over the stage, the sun grew hotter and crowd more restless for The Boss, who they had been waiting hours to see. A few minutes after his scheduled start, Bruce and the E Street Band took the stage and quickly launched into "High Hopes," the first of almost 25 songs Springsteen would play in his nearly three-hour set. Between his lesser known songs and his all-time hits, Bruce always had the crowd right in his hands, putting out as much energy as the Revivalists had early in the day, but at more than twice their age. He went into the crowd on multiple occasions and sang on mini stages that were setup deep in the audience, at one point accepting a beer a fan gave him, chugging it down and throwing the empty to the tens of thousands of fans that were there just to see him. He played a couple songs from his Seeger Sessions album like "Jesse James," on which he brought fellow singer Rickie Lee Jones out to play as well as on "Mary Don't You Weep" later in the set. But the biggest surprise of the set was when former Creedence Clearwater Revival singer John Fogerty came out to sing "Green River" and "Proud Mary" with Bruce and the band after they had taken an encore break. While those two songs would have been good enough for anyone as an encore, Bruce played on, with his mega hits "Born to Run," "Dancing in the Dark," and "Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out," before ripping up the place with an incredible "When the Saints Go Marching In" followed by "Pay Me My Money Down" and finally "Thunder Road." As Bruce thanked the fans and left the stage soaked in sweat, the crowd seemed like they wouldn't leave or stop cheering the 64-year- old musician, who plays every show like it's his last. Whether you love his music or not, you can never say Bruce doesn't give you your money's worth.

On Sunday, the last day of the festival, I spent more time enjoying the actual festival than the music. Visiting a lot of the local arts and crafts vendors and making sure I got as much food as my stomach could possibly hold, as I knew it would be 354 days until I was back at the Fairgrounds. Trombonist Glen David Andrews, who has recently overcome some personal issues, played a really nice set of new music that highlighted his new view and outlook on life and it was refreshing to see someone take bad experiences like he has recently gone through and not only overcome them, but make music out of it to try and influence other people that they can change their lives as well. George Porter Jr. brought his distinct funk bass to the Galaxy Stage with his Runnin' Pardners, followed by my favorite funk band from the crescent city, Big Sam's Funky Nation.

While most will wax poetic about Trombone Shorty, for my money Sam Williams is the nastiest trombone player in New Orleans and he has finally gotten a steady group behind him that are just flat out great musicians. Drummer Chocolate Milk, as he likes to be called, may be the most underrated drummer out of New Orleans, which is only because NOLA has so many great drummers right now. Mixing some of their old favorites and songs from their new record Evolution, which all sounded like more than just funk songs that I usually just think of as filler to get into the funky instrumentals. The highlight of their set, however, and maybe of the festival as a whole, was when Big Sam brought out his girlfriend, who was celebrating a birthday at the time, on stage after the incredibly romantic "Funky Donkey." I think she thought Sam was going to ask her to do his trademark "Funky Donkey" dance, but instead dropped to a knee and in front of thousands of Jazz Festers, asked her to marry him, for which she said yes. It was a wonderful moment and great way to head towards the end of the festival. I learned from his manager he was going to do it before his set and when I was watching him play "Funky Donkey" before he asked her, I saw a smile from Sam that I had never seen in the dozens of times I've photographed the band. After that I must admit I was ready for it to be over and wasn't paying as close attention to the final acts as I should have.

Arcade Fire entered the stage with a group of dancers that were dressed in oversized costumes of famous political figures like Obama, Pope John Paul, Jimmy Carter and many others. They also brought their high energy and unmistakable sound to the Crescent City. Towards the beginning of the set, Arcade Fire performed "The Suburbs," one of my favorite songs and one that really got the crowd roaring. John Fogerty did his best to recreate the CCR sound we all know and love, but his voice just doesn't have that bluesy power that it used to and Trombone Shorty, the new heir to the New Orleans music crown, closed out the main stage with his usual blend of pop, rock and New Orleans funk/jazz. But as the sun was setting on the 45th JazzFest and the crowds started to wander out, the distinctive falsetto voice of Aaron Neville was coming across the Blues Tent, which is next to the entrance/exit to the Fairgrounds. After doing a couple covers that included "A Change is Gonna Come" and "What's Going On," I started to walk out and the band began playing a reggae riff, which turned out to be Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds." I wasn't sure how his unique voice would lend itself to that song, but as he sang the unforgettable "Don't worry about a thing, 'Cause every little thing gonna be all right," it was an almost Hollywood-esque way to walk out on another wonderful Jazz Fest and visit to my favorite place in the world.

JamBase | Jazz Fest 2014
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[Published on: 5/9/14]

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