April 27 – May 6, 2018
Best Jazz Fest ever? It’s a tie between the last one and the next one. Jazz Fest 49 was no exception. Seven Fest days and 30 minutes of rain. Unheard of. Unexpected discoveries? Check. Food I’m still working off? Check. Love in an Elevator? Never mind.
Yes, Aerosmith at Jazz Fest had some folks head scratching when announced, but they went over big at their only gig of the year. And, as any Fest vet knows, it ain’t about the BNAs (“big name acts”). While this year was solid with the likes of Sting, Rod Stewart, Beck, Jack White et al. who knew the place would be abuzz over Socks in a Frying Pan from Ireland? Aah, but I digress…
This photographer is fortunate to have a few ease in days ahead of Fest and we got in the mood Thursday night with Tony Hall, Terence Higgins, Roosevelt Collier and Jonathon “Boogie” Long funking up Jimi at NOLA Brewing on Tchoup. Fueled by a bellyful of BBQ pork and house brew, this was a boatload of fun with plenty of room to move in the beer warehouse by day room. The playing was loose, but kicking, with Collier’s sacred steel, and Boogie being Boogie, tangy punctuation to Hendrix (and a “Down by the River” thrown in).
Now, I‘ve been shooting for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival & Foundation Archive since 2008. With the Fest on the cusp of 50, the Archive’s mission is nothing short of remarkable and a 366 day a year deal. I take a lot of pride in contributing to this historical effort, as I did again this first weekend.
The passing of Charles Neville, the “horn man”, the day before Fest started, was ever present on the Fair Grounds. Another loss (not unexpected, he had been quite ill with pancreatic cancer), that reminds us how damn temporal it all is (yet, again), and as a photographer, the importance of capturing something special along the way. Few musical families are as tied to Jazz Fest as the Nevilles, and the twisting, dancing sax lines of “Yellow Moon” will always remind us of Charles’ ease and grace both on and off the stage.
The pace of covering multiple stages on the 1-mile track in every kind of weather is exhilarating and exhausting. But when temps are in the 70s with a breeze, there’s no better place on the planet for this photographer. My Archive assignment had me staked to the Acura Stage and the Jazz Tent, with multiple laps to roam when I could.
Friday moments that struck me…The Dawesish energy pouring out of Lafayette’s GIVERS on the Acura Stage. Recent New Orleanean Samantha Fish and her band taking no prisoners in the Blues Tent, with horns and fiddle in tow. The hypnotic pull into the Blues Tent from Side Toure of Mali. The next generation of Jesse McBride and the UNO Jazz Guitar Ensemble in the Jazz Tent. Christian Scott Atunde Adjuah sharing a human perspective on what binds us and divides us with his words and his horn. Wayne Toups setting the table for Sting on the Acura Stage, and Sting busting out the really early stuff deep in his set while I’m grabbing shots from deep in the crowd. The elegant jazz master Ron Carter leading his trio in the Jazz Tent. Sturgill Simpson swarmed by the 610 Stompers’ “ordinary moves of extraordinary men”, over a stinging fusillade of Telecaster runs – a visual-musical juxtaposition that cannot be unseen – in a good way.
Rod Stewart was Saturday’s big draw, but I just had the most fun at the Tribute to Fats Domino, a rare occasion where I stayed for the whole set. But first…Trumpet Mafia has been described as “a wrecking crew of New Orleans based trumpet players making waves around the world“, and the sight and sound of so much three-valved brass on one stage is pretty damn cool. The Fats tribute featured a number of players from his band and a calvacade of guests behind the ivories including Davell Crawford, Jon Cleary, Jon Batiste and Al “Lil Fats” Jackson. Deacon John and some Dirty horns kicked things off and Bonnie Raitt and Irma Thomas made the most of their one song appearances, especially Irma, telling it like it is with “I Hear You Knocking”. Big Sam’s ‘bone was growling in the horn section and Shannon Powell never stopped smiling behind the kit. It’s a rare Fest day I don’t catch up with the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars or Bonerama, but I wouldn’t have stumbled on Sona Jobarteh’s Kora driven band from Gambia in the Blues Tent, otherwise (the Kora is a “21-string lute-bridge-harp”). Both Bonnie Raitt and Rod Stewart were closed except for a very short list of photographers, but the collaboration between Charles Lloyd and his Marvels with Lucinda Williams, in the Jazz Tent, continues to be, well, err, a marvel indeed, and Lucinda was in the best voice I’ve heard in years. Jake Shimabukuro sat in with Sonny Landreth, and while I missed his Fais Do-Do appearance, I’ll never hear the uke the same way. Dark and dangerous, right at home next to Sonny’s slide. Stewart’s set was rather schmaltzy from what I heard, but self deprecatingly satisfying. Instead I was good vibing it with Jack Johnson on the Gentilly Stage at the other end of the track, with a closing lap past Blues and Jazz for tastes of the Delfayo Marsalis’s Uptown Jazz Orchestra and the Fabulous Thunderbirds with Kim Wilson.
The first weekend run of improbably good weather continued through Sunday, a day capped by Jimmy Buffett at one end of the Fair Grounds and David Byrne at the other. Amanda Shaw was as exuberant as ever on the Acura Stage. “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, is a signature fiddle stomper in her hands, and topped by a rainbow of tassles with the horse hair flying, she was eye candy for the lens. Whiplash to the remarkable 83-year old Edward “Kidd” Jordan in the Jazz Tent with his Improvisational Arts Quintet. Creation and deconstruction, there and back again, over and over. From chaos to unscripted beauty. Many run the other way with no boundaries jazz, but I found this pretty magical. Steve Riley joined the Ragin’ Cajun, Doug Kershaw, at Fais Do-Do and George Benson hadn’t lost a step with his crowd pleasers in the Jazz Tent. David Byrne was perhaps my most anticipated performance of the Fest and the first three I covered were insanely memorable. The stage was near naked, not a mike stand or amp in sight. Just a desk, a chair and a plastic replica of the human brain. Byrne took a seat with a wireless headset, as if ready to launch into a Ted Talk performance piece, but instead began to sing “Here” from his recent American Utopia record, regaling us with neurological schooling and putting his instructive prop to good use. I caught a Cheshire glint coming from Byrne, appreciating the absurdity of the moment. The stage swelled with the band in matching suits, wirelessly untethered and in constant motion. This was one of the most inventive performances I’ve experienced at Fest, albeit too short for me, as I had to make my rounds. But off to the Blues tent I went for 84-year old British blues legend John Mayall, who still looked in fighting shape. That guitarist/singer Carolyn Wonderland just joined Mayall’s band, took it way higher (unfortunately, Mayall recently had to cancel the rest of his tour due to health issues). My Sunday closed with a dive into the deep end of the Parrothead pool (no pit for many photographers). Buffett is no stranger to Jazz Fest and this year’s Acoustic Airmen version brought the full Margaritaville experience to a very happy Acura crowd (with another appearance by Jake Shimabukuro). I’m not fond of the whole corporate smell of the thing, but damn, if Buffet-Margaritaville didn’t deliver a two hour vacation. Yes, I left with a happy face.
The “daze between” Fest weekends are a chance to rest up (just kidding). Mondays you’ll find me at Tipitina’s Instruments A’Comin’, a fundraiser for the Tip’s Foundation to further their mission of getting instruments into the hands of kids who might not otherwise afford them. IAC shuts down Napoleon Avenue for a battle of the young bands, and a silent auction, with an open bar and food stations from some great eateries for those who went the extra yard for a VIP ticket. The 17th edition featured a familiar but stacked lineup of Galactic, the New Orleans Suspects, Honey Island Swamp Band, Bo Dollis Jr. and the Wild Magnolias, Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes, Naughty Professor and Nth Power. While the acts haven’t changed much the past few years, the vibe is always up and the show, super generous.
Tuesday was the Threadhead Patry at the Old Ironworks in the Bywater. The Threadhead community is another post altogether, and this year’s Patry, another 10-11 hour relaxed come and go gathering of the tribe with the Porter-ama mashup of George Porter, Jr. and the Bonerama horns, the Stanton Moore trio with guest Erica Falls, to name a few. Boatloads of crawfish (okay, canoes), Zatarains gumbo and plenty of hugs to go around.
Wednesday, Jim Brock Photography, had a little thing at Revel Café & Bar, a favorite Mid-City spot where a small collection of open edition prints are on display (and for sale, plug). Thanks to all who stopped by.
Second weekend Thursday is typically lighter in attendance, easier to navigate, with a jam band slot often closing out Acura (Widespread Panic, Tedeschi Trucks Band, String Cheese Incident and Phish come to mind), but not for Fest 49. It is a great day for Festers to discover more local acts, and for food and culture immersion. With the Archive assignment behind me, I was a free range shooter able to cover more of the Fair Grounds. More Gentilly and Fais Do-Do time, in particular. My Thursday had a distinct roots-Americana flavor, but began with the Cajun rhythms and voices of Bonsoir Catin (“Goodnight, Doll”, loosely translated) at Fais Do-Do. The rest of the day was largely Gentilly-centric, starting with Paul Sanchez and his ever Rolling Road Show. A buoyant set of poignant moments, including an on-stage down on one knee marriage proposal by guitarist Justin Molaison, and a big shout with “Life is a Ride” to Chris Joseph, the Threadhead honcho (and friend) who’s had a hell of a few years (and co-wrote the lyrics), taking it in from the side of the stage. Wanted more time with Hot Rize, the pickers and stringers redux at Fais Do-Do, with a little nose thumbing to those drumless-upright bass traditionalists. Old Crow Medicine Show were a total delight and a glove in hand table setter for Lyle Lovett at Gentilly, who came on 20 minutes late due to some unspecified technical issue, but smooth as ever. Jazz Fest is the kind of place where Toots & the Maytals at Congo can follow Lyle Lovett, Archie Shepp in the Jazz Tent can follow Toots, and Lionel Richie has you singing along “All Night Long” at Acura (don’t hold the last one against me).
Friday the crowds thickened. Sheryl Crow and Beck were the big stage closers, but Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, and Hiss Golden Messenger had me cheering long before. A friend described Tank & the Bangas as Earth, Wind & Fire meets Zappa. Not sure how I’d put it, but it was all kind of crazy and they had the Acura crowd going early. The Preservation Hall Jazz Band has really gelled these days with the addition of drummer Walter Harris and trumpeter Branden Lewis. There is a propulsive energy wrapped around traditional sounds that is kind of thrilling. Jason Isbell has been heaped with praise for some years, and deservedly so IMHO. His set with the 400 Unit was another one I stuck around from start to finish, getting what shots I could from the crowd. “24 Frames”, and especially, “Flying Over Water”, get me every time. MC Taylor and Hiss Golden Messenger won me over at Fais Do-Do. As was the trend, both Sheryl Crow, and Beck had very limited pits. So back into the Gentilly crowd for a nice chunk of Sheryl Crow, who still spins hit after hit with warmth and ease. By the time I got to Beck (with a too brief stop for Ruthie Foster in the Blues Tent), he was winding down and the hard shell of the crowd was tough to penetrate. An “ego” ramp (as one artist put it) extended from the main stage into the crowd and that’s where Beck took most of his band for the “Where It’s At” closer, with band intros serving as a musical tour that touched on the Doobie Brothers, Gary Numan and some delta blues. It was seriously cheeky (or was that cheekily serious?).
Rain was in the forecast for the first time on Saturday, but not of the severe weather sort that has scrambled so many Fest days. I kicked things off with Blodie’s (aka, Dirty Dozen’s Gregory Davis) Jazz Jam in the Jazz Tent. Look forward to these brass band guys playing the straight ahead stuff every year. A brief, but steady rain arrived on cue, and Walter Trout seemed to play to the elements at Acura. Trout is another Mayall alum (during the ‘80s) and his house burning down fretwork and rubber face are indelible. When he sings “It’s Gonna Hurt Like Hell”, you know he’s been there. Jazz Festers can set their watches to Dumpstaphunk and Astral Project (making their 41st straight appearance), and both units rose to the occasion. My semi-stumble upon of the day was the end of Leyla McCalla’s Lagniappe set, “A Day for the Hunter, A Day for the Prey”. Stirring, powerful and just beautiful. Amidst the volume to come later, this was quietly memorable. Hometowners, The Revivalists, have had quite the year. Not a lot of bands could ratchet it up before Cage the Elephant at Gentilly. Good call on this one, Quint. Uh, they were up to the task. No Aerosmith pit for me (yes, I detect a theme here), but I was all in for these Cage guys. Knocked my socks off. Exceptional stage design and lighting to go with relentless energy. Oh, and very camera friendly. Anita Baker started almost 30 minutes late at Congo, which was packed. No worries for outgoing mayor Mitch Landrieu, who was all smiles in the pit. Worked my way over to Aerosmith finishing at Acura, by way of Delbert McClinton in the Blues Tent. Their Fest performance was very well received, but I couldn’t penetrate the masses for a good shooting position. I will say after the white grand piano was rolled down the ramp, for “Dream On”, it was a personal Fest first for smoke/fog/whatever pots used for high drama in broad daylight. Seriously though, I’ve only seen the band once before a few years back, and they owned every bit of the swagger they brought to the stage. Rock. Stars. Even if they can’t stand each other. Festy? You decide.
By Fest day 7, the dogs were barking, as they do, and the temps were rising. Sunday started with the full Anders Osborne set at Acura. My kind of brunch. Osborne had a fresh band including bassist Ron Johnson, Chad Cromwell on drums and David Torkanowsky on the B-3, as Carl Dufrene, Brady Blade and Eric McFadden have moved on. The short (for Anders) set leaned newer and softer, but dude was in full Crazy Horse mode for an extended “Different Drum” before dropping into the lilting and lolling “Back on Dumaine”. Galactic followed Osborne at Acura while Ellis Marsalis and Glen David Andrews were nearby at Jazz and Blues. By the time Galactic and Erica Falls wrapped with “Ooh Na Nay” and “Going Down Slowly”, Mr. Sipp started to take down the Blues Tent. The so named Mississippi bluesman was even more of a powerhouse than last year, all stinging leads, skinny ties and duck stepping with the band. John Boutte did some damage to an innocent tambourine in the Jazz Tent before I skedaddled for another lap including stops for The Radiators at Gentilly (they’re back! again), a big dose of nostalgia with Smokey Robinson at Congo (look, there’s Mayor Mitch, again) and the very end of Terence Blanchard and his E-Collective back at the Jazz Tent. No pit for me at Jack White, either, so, into the throng I went for his “Seven Nation Army” closer and not the coolest of fans. One last turn around the track for some Steve Miller at Gentilly (no pit, duh), who sounded refreshingly good running through familiar ground. Which brought me to Buddy Guy at the Blues Tent. This 81-year old Guy ain’t slowing down. He pulled out all the tricks and licks, from drumsticks to an extended solo beyond the crowd and in to the sunshine, to the surprise of those walking by the Blues Tent. Heck, he’d do the same thing on 5th Avenue, if he could. Through “Damn Right, I’ve Got the Blues”, to “Hoochie Coochie Man”, “Cheaper to Keep Her” (which he seemed to be playing directly to another photographer) and “Feels Like Rain”, this felt like the right way to bookend Fest, rather than racing to Acura for the rest of Trombone Shorty (of course, I slid over to Shorty for the last five minutes or so anyway).
Through the seven days at the Fair Grounds, I ate oysters the size of my fist and lived to tell the tale, had cochons and po’ boys of every kind, discovered the equivalent of a Japanese Philly cheesesteak, had me some Crawfish Monica, because, well, I could, and drank enough lemonade of the strawberry kind and otherwise, to fill up a truck. Ran in to friends, old and new, over and over. Elizabeth, my partner and love, made sure I got to the right stages on the clock and pointed out shots I was missing. She’s good that way (and so much more).
Best Fest ever? Yeah, til the next Fest. Especially the next Fest. Jazz Fest 50.