Preservation Hall’s Midnight Preserves series has become its own New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival institution in recent years. Each night of the fest, a festival performer — whose identity is not revealed until the show starts — shares the stage with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
These sets are almost always extraordinary experiences across the board.
There’s a different energy to the audience, being in the hallowed venue after hours, and to the featured guest, too. Musicians, from Jimmy Buffett to Robert Plant to Shovels and Rope, feel honored to play there, and it shows.
Those who paced themselves through a long, hot Friday at the Fair Grounds were rewarded at the stroke of midnight by a particularly special night at the Hall.
After a short set by the house band — the funereal classics “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” and “Didn’t He Ramble,” and the raucous Mardi Gras Indian stomps “Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing” and “Handa Wanda,” dedicated to the late Big Chief Bo Dollis — Sharon Jones strutted to the stage.
Nearly 60 years old and in an on-and-off struggle with cancer, Jones still moves as if every inch of her tiny body is fresh dynamite ready to blow. For the midnight show, she stalked the stage, slinking in between the players.
Her version of “Summertime” was achingly lovely, a slow burner after her own high-octane soul roughed up by Ronell Johnson’s sultry trombone and onetime Mardi Gras Indian Walter Harris’ clatter and thump on the drums.
Jones’ turn on the stage was short, but on Friday, the second night of life in a Princeless universe, there was plenty more to come after she finished. Alone, the Hall band kept the energy high, playing the booming title track of its “That’s It!” album of original compositions and the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back.”
The room felt looser than usual and ready to dance. Members of the Hall staff and band were wearing purple shirts, with purple silk carnations pinned to their lapels, and lamps around the courtyard had been outfitted with purple bulbs.
After the band filed off through the lavender glow, people gathered under a balcony where Hall sax player Clint Maedgen was set up behind a laptop.
Maedgen is a trained jazz player, a former student of Alvin Batiste, but before (and after) joining the Hall ensemble, he led the cabaret rock band Bingo! for more than a decade. His voice and his songwriting owe a lot to Prince in their passion and power.
I had hoped the midnight show might offer Maedgen singing Prince; I don’t know of another local singer who could take on the task as well. But what we saw from below, in the wee hours at Preservation Hall, was more intimate.
Eyes closed, Maedgen played track after track of rare Prince, dancing behind the machine. Occasionally, unamplified, he’d pick up his horn and play along.
If you paid attention, you glimpsed something private and true happening at Preservation Hall early Saturday morning: pure love and soul, flowing through the music.