In 2015, I attended most, but not all, of the major concerts in New Orleans. For instance, I was elsewhere at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival when The Who delivered what was, from all I’ve heard, one of the best sets of the fest. Nobody, unfortunately, can hear ‘em all.
Out of all the “big” shows I actually did see during the past year, these were my favorites, in chronological order:
Elton John , May 2, New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
It wasn’t easy to see Elton John at Jazz Fest, not with tens of thousands of fans with the same goal occupying every square inch of ground within sight of the Acura Stage. But Sir Elton rewarded the effort. He was absolutely on fire throughout a breathless, 21-song greatest hits set. He goosed many of those hits with extended flourishes and saloon-style solos. After a manic freak-out at the end of “All the Girls Love Alice,” he stood up and slapped his grand piano. In “Levon,” he hammered away at the high end, playing fast and hard, madman-style. A long solo excursion prefaced “Rocket Man;” another extra run concluded it. For two-plus hours, he was similarly energized, animated and engaged, clearly having fun. He hammed it up, mugging for the crowd and popping up from his piano bench to milk applause. Clearly, he is his own biggest fan — and with good reason.
Bette Midler, May 16, Smoothie King Center
At age 69, Bette Midler has finally retired Delores Delago, the wacky mermaid alter ego that was a staple of her show for decades. Delores’ absence was not the only evidence of the passage of time. Midler was occasionally breathless after an extended bout of singing and dancing across a broad stage in heels (but really, who wouldn’t be?). She sometimes tripped herself up with a rushed bit of banter. And she sang some passages in a lower register than years ago. All that said, she carried the full weight of a meticulously assembled, multi-platform, highly entertaining presentation that showcased her still-formidable, broad-spectrum talents with sass and class. Her jokes were timely and relevant; when she went blue, she went deep blue. She absolutely tore up Lorraine Ellison’s 1966 soul hit “Stay With Me,” as well as her signature “The Rose.” Midler remains a first-rate, all-around entertainer of the highest caliber.
Rush, May 22, Smoothie King Center
Over the years, I’ve written about my longstanding devotion to a certain power trio from Canada. Since 1984, I have not missed a Rush tour, not even the tours that bypassed New Orleans. Given the band’s formidable musicianship, high standards and consistency, every show along the way was at least very good. But this one was even better. During the local stop on their 40th anniversary tour, bassist/vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and drummer Neil Peart showcased songs from 15 of their 19 full-length studio albums, in reverse chronological order; the stage set evolved to reflect the corresponding era. For the epic “Xanadu,” they went full-on throwback mode with double-neck guitars, tubular bells and a Moog synthesizer. “The Spirit of Radio,” “Subdivisions,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” even “The Wreckers,” from the 2012 album “Clockwork Angels” — all were rendered with passion and precision. No Rush fan should have left the arena disappointed. If this tour was in fact the swan song for Peart and company, they went out on a very high note.
Charlie Wilson, July 3, Essence Festival, Mercedes-Benz Superdome
In March, the indefatigable 62-year-old R&B singer headlined a sold-out Smoothie King Center. Four months later, he returned to New Orleans for what has become his annual coronation at the Essence Festival. Many elements of the two shows were similar, from the “Party Train” opening to the LED suits to Wilson testifying about his redemption from substance abuse. But at the Superdome, the presentation felt even more complete. With one foot in the club and the other in church, he stood tall, holding the whole of the Superdome in the palm of his hands. He crooned Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me.” He detoured “Humpin’,” from his Gap Band days, into the Mark Ronson / Bruno Mars smash “Uptown Funk” (which borrowed from another Gap Band hit, “Oops Up Side Your Head”). The final “Outstanding” felt like a well-deserved victory lap for Wilson and his equally sharp-dressed band, as well as a one-word description of his show.
Wilco, Sept. 28, Orpheum Theater
Wilco’s set on the opening day of the 2015 Jazz Fest was cut short by lightning. They made up for it at the sold-out Orpheum Theater with a 31-song, two-and-a-half hour epic. To start with a live rendering of their entire new “Star Wars” album was to challenge fans’ patience. That patience was rewarded as the set opened up to Wilco’s full range, from twangy alternative country to heavy, triple-guitar attacks and, finally, a long acoustic encore that felt almost like a whole other show. Bassist John Stirratt, who was born in New Orleans and graduated from Mandeville High School, even sang his plaintive “It’s Just That Simple,” before a final audience singalong on the fan favorite “A Shot In the Arm.”
Florence + the Machine, Oct. 30, Voodoo Experience
Florence Welch and the members of her Machine had the good fortune to be booked on the opening night of 2015’s Voodoo Fest. The rain that drenched Ozzy Osbourne’s audience the second night reduced the City Park festival grounds to a muddy bog and forced the cancellation of the festival’s third day altogether, much to the chagrin of fans of the Zac Brown Band and the other scratched Sunday acts. At least the folks who stuck around to the end on opening Friday got a great show. A harp can be a tough sell in a festival setting. But it worked within the context of Florence + the Machine’s dramatic presentation. Backed by a band wearing zombie face-paint to match her own, Welch’s wail soared on “Ship to Wreck” and elsewhere. In constant motion, she was a charismatic frontperson. Caught up in the moment, she stripped away her hot pink jacket and vest, then her white blouse, as she charged down a barricaded runway into the crowd. It was a bravura — bra-vura? — performance.
Paul Simon & Friends, Dec. 8, Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre
To raise money for New Orleans Artists Against Hunger and Homelessness, Paul Simon agreed to share a bill at the intimate Le Petit Theatre with the charitable organization’s co-founder, Allen Toussaint. Initially, Simon was to have performed with just a guitarist, then join Toussaint onstage for a joint finale. In the wake of Toussaint’s death from a heart attack weeks before the show, Simon decided to bring his full, seven-piece band. For the 350 or so lucky folks in attendance, an extremely animated Simon illuminated and illustrated a set of greatest hits, up close and personal. During the Cajun-style barn burner “That Was Your Mother,” with local Bruce “Sunpie” Barnes on accordion, he pantomimed air-rubboard. He sported a broad grin throughout an ebullient “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard,” seemingly having as much fun as anyone. Before Simon, an all-star parade of local favorites — Cyril Neville, Deacon John, John Boutte, Erica Falls, Davell Crawford — showcased Toussaint’s songs, backed by his band. Toussaint’s spirit loomed as large as Simon’s.
Two more solid, if not quite spectacular, shows:
Eric Church, Jan. 8, Smoothie King Center
The double helix of Eric Church’s DNA consists of intertwined strands of hard rock and country. Both were on full display across his two-hour, 24-song set. One minute, he fully inhabited the Nashville nostalgia of “Talladega” and the raise ‘em up singalong “Drink In My Hand;” the next, he and his band riffed on Black Sabbath’s “Sweet Leaf” to conclude his own “Smoke a Little Smoke.” Guitars rode atop a banjo quite comfortably on “How ‘Bout You.” None of it felt forced, contrived or hokey, as country-rock cross-pollinations sometimes do, with the possible exception of the 30-foot-high inflatable Satan that sported a “Nashville” belt buckle. Even for Church, that was a bit much.
Stevie Wonder, March 24, Smoothie King Center
As long as Stevie Wonder stuck to the road map of “Songs In the Key of Life,” his landmark 1976 double album, all was well. His sprawling ensemble of musicians and vocalists — including an unbilled India.Arie — recreated that album’s complex tapestry. Atop it all was the 64-year-old Wonder’s tenor, as expressive, powerful and nuanced as ever. You can’t really go wrong when you play “Sir Duke” and “I Wish” back-to-back. But both before and after the “Songs” showcase, the unpredictable Wonder was either playfully fun or downright confounding. An awkward, way-too-long skit with Wonder, as DJ Tick Tick Boom, trying to verify the authenticity of a $100 bill with an iPhone was excruciating. But he made up for it with a final, bombs-away “Superstition.”