The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival doesn’t usually venture into the teen-idol section of the music world.
It’s not that it offers nothing in between the Kids’ Tent and the Radiators demographic, but its buzz bands tend to come from the roots-music world, like rising stars Jason Isbell, who played in 2014, and Rhiannon Giddens, who delivered a scorching show to a packed and multi-generational crowd at the Blues Tent on Sunday.
Pop stars who appeal to teens inspire a different kind of fandom. It’s more urgent, more ardent, because it’s new. Ed Sheeran’s 2015 show closing the fest’s second Saturday offered a glimpse of that, as young fans, mostly women, were moved to try to climb the Gentilly Stage barricades, just to get a little bit closer.
Nick Jonas’ set on Gentilly this Sunday was slightly more sedate — there was no climbing — but offered the same display of passion. A homemade posterboard sign waving in the crowd read “Nick Jonas for President” in big, bubbly magic-markered letters. From behind me, a youthful voice screamed, “I love you, Nick,” over and over again. One of the most meaningful concerts of my life took place at Jazz Fest — Bruce Springsteen’s cathartic Seeger Sessions set at the 2006 event, its first after Hurricane Katrina — and I was moved to tears. But there’s no way the feelings I had compared to what was going on in the heart and brain chemistry of that girl who loved Nick Jonas so much. I’ll remember that Springsteen show forever but not the way she’ll remember this past Sunday at the Fairgrounds.
The 23-year-old Jonas, who’s been performing in front of screaming kids since he was barely into his own teens, does know how to be lovable. He’s charming and appreciative, thanking the crowd humbly multiple times from the stage; he even offered to buy one particularly enthusiastic fan a beer (“If you’re old enough”). He’s sexy in a safely PG way, pleading, seducing and crooning big, romantic, pulsing pop R&B songs about love, heartache and soul to a demographic that’s just on the edge of starting to learn what all those things really mean.
And as his fest set showed Sunday, he learned how to do that from the best. A cover of second-weekend headliner Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” was pitch-perfectly funky (and not for nothing, a little something for the many parental units in the crowd to dig.)
Then, of course, there was Prince; Jonas had announced at the time that his 2014 self-titled album, his sophomore solo effort, was heavily inspired by the legendary artist who died unexpectedly Thursday, on the eve of this year’s Jazz Fest. The tribute he offered was a gentle and genuinely felt one.
“We’re celebrating a beautiful life and a beautiful legacy,” he said, launching a slow, sad, loving take on Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U,” a big, spiritual, anthemic song that he made tender and personal.
From it, he segued into the chorus of “Purple Rain,” repeating it until he had every fan on the field singing along.
Speaking of an experience that fans will remember forever: The passionate group gathered at the Gentilly Stage on Sunday got a special treat.
Jonas was shooting a music video for a new song, “Voodoo” — a smoldering vocal over a rattling Afro-Cuban beat — and they were all in it.
The excitement remained for the remainder of the set, the slinky “Chains,” a short acoustic cover of Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” the muscular rock of “Who I Am” and a closing version of “Jealous” that featured Trombone Shorty, with whom he’d appeared onstage at the Saenger Theater the previous night.
When he quit the stage, 10 minutes early, exiting audience members had to pause before crossing the dirt track. A clutch of fans waited to wave at the black SUV that, with police escort, took Nick Jonas away.