As sheets of rain poured down around him, Big Chief Gerard “Bo Jr.” Dollis stood at the edge of the Jazz & Heritage Stage and pointed at the yellow-feathered image of his famous father that stands at the peak of that stage.
“Rain, rain, go away,” sang Dollis.
Then he jumped into the deluge, singing his heart out for his legendary daddy, Wild Magnolias tribe Big Chief Theodore “Bo” Dollis, a Jazz Fest staple who died in January 2015 at age 71.
Then he stood quietly at his microphone, head down, overcome with emotion.
His mother, Big Queen Laurita Dollis, stepped to the microphone to explain, her suit beaded with images of her late husband.
One time, she told the crowd, they had played a show during similar weather with her late husband. “We played through the rain, and the sun was shining when we were done,” she said. “And we remember that.”
“For a second, for some reason, I could heard Big Bo Dollis singing in my ear,” Bo Jr. said, beckoning singer Tonya Boyd-Cannon to the stage, just as his father used to do with singer Marva Wright, he said.
And together, they sang a heartfelt version of “Injuns, here they come,” with the audience singing loudly along and Bo Jr. pointing at the sky.
What happened next was one of those magical Jazz Fest moments, as Bo Jr. pointed his hand upward and the clouds parted just enough so that the sun was visible behind the clouds.
He was trying to do justice to his dad, Bo Jr. told the audience, recalling how his father loved the festival so much that one year, though hospitalized with pneumonia, he left his bed to play his show by promising his doctors that he’d return afterward.
The rain and clouds just added more layers to a show that already was heavy with emotion.
Typically, Bo Jr. wears street clothes when he leads music gigs with the Wild Magnolias. But he made an exception for Saturday’s Jazz Fest set, starting out his set in the masterful, many-layered suit he had created to honor his father.
Tributes to the tribe’s late, charismatic big chief were everywhere, beaded into every Wild Magnolia suit on the stage.
All of the suits also bore black feathers in an intricate memorial to their chief, who led the tribe for more than a half-century and was one of the first to record traditional Mardi Gras Indian chants and rhythms.
For last year’s festival, the Wild Magnolias wore the suits they’d sewn alongside their late chief, right up until his death not long before Carnival.
But this year, everyone in the tribe seized the opportunity to use beadwork and artistry to honor their fallen chief.
The most spectacular tribute was created by Bo Jr., 35, who started masking and performing with his father as a young child. His big chief’s crown carried a beaded triptych — a self-portrait of himself centered between images of his mother and father.
The back of Dollis’ suit also featured a full-size, three-dimensional bust of his father, sewn into the suit. There were other striking likenesses of Bo Sr. on the suit’s apron, pants and wings.
Alongside the images of his father, Bo Jr. beaded his father’s contemporaries, big chiefs and others who taught young Bo the craft from a young age.
The result was a beaded gallery of legendary Indian leaders ranging from Geronimo Hunters Big Chief Tom Landry, Bo Jr.’s godfather, to Wild Magnolia icons like gangflag Johnnie “Kool” Stevenson and flagboy “Alligator June” Johnson, plus a dozen other local big chiefs.
“Everyone in this suit was like a second dad to me,” said Dollis, adding that, when he’s in the suit, he knows he’s continuing his father’s legacy.
That is the goal of every Wild Magnolia, said Jerome Carter, 42, whose grandfather “Alligator June” held down the flagboy position for Bo Sr. for many years.
“Everything we do is for Bo Dollis Sr.,” Carter said.