New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival 2019 1st Weekend: Review & Photos

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Words by: Shane Colman and Wesley Hodges

Images by: Adam McCullough (Except Where Noted)

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival – First Weekend
04.25 – 28.19 :: Fairgrounds :: New Orleans, LA

The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, a cultural buffet known to most patrons simply as “Fest” returned for a special Silver Anniversary, once again taking over the New Orleans Fairgrounds for an expanded eight-day birthday celebration spanning the usual two weekends. As always, this year’s ongoing edition features a wide array of talent from all corners of the globe and only-at-Jazz Fest gatherings (see Midnite Disturbers and Cynthia Girtley’s Mahalia Jackson gospel tribute) bringing disparate sounds from every notch on the music spectrum.

Despite The Rolling Stones’ unfortunate cancellation, fans benefitted overall from the addition of an extra eighth day of the legendary festival. Although the gates on Thursday were delayed by an hour, those who braved the tumultuous weather on opening day were paid off with three absolutely stunning and almost entirely cloudless bluebird days to round off a truly pristine first weekend at the Fairgrounds. While headliners like Santana, Van Morrison, Al Green and Bonnie Raitt drew the largest hordes to the Fest, anyone who’s paid a visit to this American institution knows that the genre tents, local acts (and my god did I mention the food?) are equally essential components to making this a year-over-year landmark event on the global festival circuit.

With the first weekend and the famous outside-the-gates “Daze Between” shows around town in the rearview and weekend two underway, here’s a look into the some of the best of the Fest thus far:

Day One: Thursday, April 25 Words by Shane Colman

Jazz Fest patrons had to exercise patience on the festival’s opening day, after intense early-afternoon thunderstorms delayed the opening of the gates by a few hours and thinned out crowds even further than the usual less-crowded Thursdays. The intrepid patrons who made it to the Fest still had several hours to enjoy short lines, cool and cloudy skies (sunblock would be required the remainder of the weekend) and headlining sets by classic artists like Taj Mahal, Earth, Wind & Fire and Alanis Morrissette.

Cynthia Girtley’s Tribute to Mahalia Jackson (Gospel Tent)

Mahalia Jackson’s legendary Gospel Tent sermons rank high on many Jazz Fest regulars’ all-time favorite moments, so it was only fitting that the first set of the weekend paid tribute to The Queen of Gospel. Cynthia Girtley proved more than capable of filling Jackson’s shoes as she tore through gospel staples from behind her grand piano. The rain just outside the tent picked up steadily throughout the set, with flashes of lightning punctuating Girtley’s rapturous vocals. By the time Girtley was finished, the storm was miraculously letting up and clearing the way for all the newly converted faithful to seek out their next source of musical enlightenment.


Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys (Fais Do Do Stage)

Getting your shrimp boots muddy dancing at the Fais Do Do Stage is a Jazz Fest rite of passage. With a steady drizzle continuing to come down, Jeffery Broussard & The Creole Cowboys led the soggy crowd through zydeco classics with a swagger that swung from mournful to joyful, sometimes within the same measure. Broussard hails from a musical sharecropping family from Lafayette, forming a direct connection to the roots of authentic zydeco. His band of road-tested Creole vets followed his lead with the intuition and instinct that’s only earned after decades of touring the backcountry dancehalls of South Louisiana.


Craig Adams & Higher Dimensions Of Praise (Gospel Tent)

Depending on who you ask, Jazz Fest’s tradition of slotting all of the big-name headliners at the same 5:00 slot is either a cruel act of FOMO-inducing torture or a clever way to guarantee up-close and personal encounters at the smaller stages during that same time. Playing to a sparse but enthusiastic crowd in the Gospel Tent, Craig Adams put on a master class in spiritual enlightenment towards the end of the first day of Fest. Adams started his set with a slow build on his heavenly Hammond B3 as his ace band and 20-person choir (!) filled in the stage behind him. Once everyone was in place, Adams hopped up from the organ, grabbed the nearest mic, and proceeded to shout and sweat with the fervor of a man possessed. The propulsive rhythm section kept the band in constant motion, but the real standout was the backing choir. Made up of young and old, male and female, this was a full-on choir with complex harmonies and a knack for pushing the music higher and higher. It’s no wonder Craig Adams & Higher Dimensions Of Praise gets invited back to Fest year after year.


Day Two: Friday, April 26 (Words by Wesley Hodges)

For my first day of Fest, I scampered around the grounds, bouncing from Gospel to Jazz to main stages and points in between, taking in bits and pieces of nearly a dozen sets throughout the day before parking it on the main stage for the majority of Santana’s stellar headlining set.

McDonogh 35 High School Gospel Choir (Gospel Tent)

Immediately upon entering the festival’s south gate off Fortin Street, I saw one of my favorite and most special traditions of Jazz Fest: a Gospel Tent marriage ceremony, with McDonogh 35 High School Gospel Choir bringing palpably chilling righteousness to a crowd of mostly strangers to the bride and groom. Pure joy in moments like these is the reason to keep coming to Fest year in and year out.


Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe (Congo Square)

Better known around these parts for his tireless contributions to Fest After Dark, the longtime “King Of Jazz Fest Late Night” made a rare Fest appearance with his main squeeze for a peak sunshine midday set that got the entire crowd moving in the hot Louisiana sun early with energized performances of “My Baby Likes To Boogaloo” and “Shake It Out,” amidst a mix of cuts from Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe’s deep and storied catalog.

Although he wouldn’t get his chance to partake in The Rolling Stones’ debut Fest performance, Denson and Co. reportedly paid tribute to his bandmates at his late night Tipitina’s performance, playing a cover of “Under My Thumb” in the wee hours of the night.


Food Interlude: Grabbing a midday cup of Pheasant, Quail and Andouille gumbo from the Prejean’s tent ranks high on my personal favorite food Fest traditions (along with countless others, judging by the swelling lines).


Foundations Of Funk (Acura Stage)

Festival producer and founder Quint Davis always has a knack for pairing current and/or legendary New Orleans-rooted artists as a prelude to the big name acts to follow on the Acura Stage. No matter how disparate the sounds are, the pairings always go down like (don’t say it, don’t say, oh god you’re gonna actually write this) red beans and rice.

First up, Foundations Of Funk has been an evolving lineup over the past few years at Fest (with a few sporadic appearances around the country) as The Meters and Funky Meters have dialed down touring schedules. Always featuring the core of Meters OG members George Porter Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste, this iteration also included a trio of Dumpstaphunk members: bass/guitarist extraordinaire Tony Hall, guitarist Ian Neville and keyboardist Ivan Neville.

Despite playing beloved and familiar songs that fans of the New Orleans music canon have celebrated and boogied to for over fifty years, this outfit breathed fresh life into trusted classics like the ever-expansive “Chicken Strut,” “Hey Pocky A-Way” and the ever-evolving set closer “Fire On The Bayou” — the highlight of the set.


Santana (Acura Stage)

Few if any have the festival pedigree of Carlos Santana, starting with his iconic Woodstock performance 50 years ago through Friday’s Jazz Fest 50 performance, there perhaps couldn’t have been a more fitting headliner for Friday afternoon than Santana. The aging star is still about as nimble-fingered experimental and freewheeling as ever. Santana’s set (along with Bonnie Raitt’s on Sunday), were perhaps the two most representative displays of the very soul of this festival and its unparalleled cultural breadth.

The opening “Soul Sacrifice” instrumental set the table for a set replete with fully-baked covers (including a seam-splitting rock cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine”) and Santana originals. The late afternoon set was a living, breathing timeline of classic fare spanning several generations. The latter portion a quartet of songs with modern NOLA brass royalty and traditional final Sunday headliner Trombone Shorty adding emphatic horns to Jimi’s “Voodoo Child (Slight Return),” Swamp Dogg’s classic “Total Destruction to Your Mind,” Little Willie John’s “Fever” and Earth, Wind & Fire’s “September.”

The stunning roller coaster set meandered through bilingual jazz fusion, blues, latin rock music and cumbia, drifting frequently into lysergic improvisation, while staying “rooted” on the backbeat of Carlos’ wife and Santana drummer Cindy Blackman Santana, who doesn’t appear to have lost a single step over the years.


Lagniappe: Upon leaving Santana a little early to catch some of Jose James’ Bill Withers tribute, the day was neatly wrapped in a bow accompanied by a lasting afterglow, as the Blues Tent sang along to “Lean On Me” while shadows started to creep towards the corners of the festival.

What a day that it was, truly.


Day Three: Saturday, April 27 (Words by Wesley Hodges)

Midnite Disturbers (Jazz and Heritage Stage)

One of the best traditions you can count on every single year, the ever-evolving who’s who of New Orleans horn players known as Midnite Disturbers threw down a well-rehearsed (despite maybe not being rehearsed more than once or twice) set for a large crowd in front of one of the festival’s smallest stages. People who know Fest always know that Midnite Disturbers’ set is a must-see.


Food Interlude: Although the soft-shell crab and Cochon de Lait generally get more ink and attention, for my money NOLA sushi staple Ninja serves perhaps the best po-boy at the festival, a mouthwatering Japanese beef sensation that is equal parts traditional Roast Beef po-boy (messy with spice) and banh mi (savory palate-cleansing veggies provide balance). One of the best bites of food at Jazz Fest.


Sherman Washington’s Zion Harmonizers (Gospel Tent)

Another annual can’t-miss in a festival filled with them, this year’s Zion Harmonizers set was the most memorable I’ve witnessed from the legendary quintet, who perform in the quartet style. The group was celebrating 80 (!) years, performing songs passed down through generations of members as well as traditional gospel numbers and paying beautiful homage to their founder Sherman Washington. The set was highlighted by a showstopping 15-minute cover of Pete Seeger’s “If I Had A Hammer” that was as improvisational and moving as anything I witnessed all weekend. As the frontman moved through the crowd, lending verses to talented volunteers in the audience and absolutely bringing the house down (luckily the new stained glass panes didn’t shatter), this landed high as a peak experience to take away, full of energy, positivity and a connection you can feel but no writer can aptly describe.


Lagniappe: A quick stop at Curren$y’s Congo Square set left me wishing I’d seen a whole lot more. With a slick and funky backing band and an electrifying stage presence, the homegrown rapper was at his best with more hypnotic sounds from the underground, groovy stoner rap fare that played well in the thick mid-afternoon Congo Square air.


Day Four: Sunday, April 28 (Words by Shane Colman and Wesley Hodges)

New Orleans Klezmer All Stars (Lagniappe Stage)

New Orleans’s top Jewish party band closed out the tiny Lagniappe Stage on Sunday with the most eclectic crowd of the weekend – jumping toddlers, hippies in sequins and Rolling Stone editor David Fricke all basked in the glow of the Klezmer All Stars’ original and inventive take on traditional music. With song titles like “Taking The Flower Arrangements Home After The Wedding” and “Dr. Lizard,” it’s clear that this collection of New Orleans heavy hitters is here to bring a raucous party. The double sax attack of Galactic’s Ben Ellman and Trombone Shorty collaborator Dan Oestreicher led the charge while de facto frontman Glenn Hartman jumped from organ to accordion while amping up the crowd. An extended sit-in from Stanton Moore sealed the deal on one of the loudest, tightest sets ever seen within the confines of the grandstands.


Bonnie Raitt (Acura Stage)

Perhaps no weekend one set encapsulated the enduring spirit and musical legacy of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival than Bonnie Raitt’s Sunday afternoon performance on the Acura Stage. Featuring a band with not just one, but two New Orleans modern piano legends (Jon Cleary and Ivan Neville), Raitt positively shone throughout the set, showering the crowd with decades of originals from her storied career, and peppering in covers of recently departed legends like B.B. King (“Never Make Your Move Too Soon”), Allen Toussaint (“What Do You Want The Girl To Do” — featuring a sit-in by Boz Scaggs) as well as the great American songwriting treasure John Prine (“Angel From Montgomery”).

While she referred to American roots music as “an endangered species,” after a weekend like this, the spirit of blues, funk, zydeco, jazz and Americana appears to be alive and well and there’s no better place to sample the gumbo than Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Could Be Worse.