Before heavy rain and wind rolled over the Fair Grounds Race Course early Saturday afternoon, Tony Hall and the New Orleans Soul Stars launched their funky, horn-powered James Brown tribute under calm conditions. Just a few drops of rain had fallen during the cloudy morning.
Hall and the Soul Stars have been doing their Brown tributes for nine years. Usually, they play May 3, the late soul star’s birthday, at night in a New Orleans club. This year the tribute came to Jazz Fest’s Congo Square Stage. It got rained on but not out.
In addition to the singing, guitar playing Hall -- whose main gig is playing bass in Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk -- the Soul Stars feature Jeff Watkins, a saxophonist who played with the godfather of soul for 12 years. Watkins is also a member of the New Orleans Suspects. Renard Poche, guitarist in Allen Toussaint’s band, joins Hall in recreating the signature rhythm guitar that’s such a big part of Brown’s sound.
Front man Hall reproduced Brown’s raspy vocal outbursts. He let loose numerous “Yea-aa-ahhs!” during the show. The Soul Stars’ tribute also did Brown right by featuring a three-piece horn section. The section grew to four pieces when Poche put his guitar down and picked up his trombone.
A big Congo Square Stage crowd – big until the rain came – grooved to faithful renditions of such Brown classics as “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” “Cold Sweat,” “Super Bad” and the singer’s pleading first hit, “Please Please Please.”
As Hall and the Soul Stars’ kept the funk coming at Congo Square, the rain prompted festival staff to move stage monitors away from the stage, covering them and other equipment in plastic sheets. Even Hall got wet. The Soul Stars’ Brown tribute endured the worst of the storm.