Saturday night, Dr. John made his only New Orleans appearance during the 2014 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, not at the Fair Grounds but at the Saenger Theatre for an all-star celebration of his music.
In recent years, the changing of the guard at Jazz Fest has become noticeable with the loss of the Radiators and the Neville Brothers as festival closers, and this year Allen Toussaint, Irma Thomas and George Porter Jr. were among the few old-guard funk and R&B musicians to play full sets.
Still, Jazz Fest 2014 ended on a very New Orleans note, with Trombone Shorty on the Acura Stage.
It took Mayor Mitch Landrieu and festival producer Quint Davis to bring Shorty to the stage, where he presented his version of New Orleans music for 2014.
He and his band, Orleans Avenue, played Fats Domino songs and second-line rhythms. They shouted out to the downtown wards and celebrated the traditions that shaped him. His funk was harder and heavier than that of generations before, but just as playful.
The 45th New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell passed without rain or even terribly hot weather, and it got more good news when Shell announced Friday that the company would renew its sponsorship for another five years. That meant the biggest news was on the stages, where Bruce Springsteen returned to Jazz Fest with the E Street Band for the second year in a row.
His appearance caused traffic jams early Saturday as people tried to get to the festival in time to set up camps on the lawn in front of the Acura Stage, and the show stretched for almost three hours, including a guest appearance by John Fogerty for a couple of Creedence Clearwater Revival songs before Fogerty’s own Sunday show.
Remarkably, this year’s Jazz Fest also saw the festival debut of guitar hero Eric Clapton, who let his guitar do the talking even more than usual, and the return of Carlos Santana, who got a pass for running more than half an hour long because producer Davis was on stage with him.
This year’s festival also saw the return of jam band Phish, which in 1996 scarred festgoers with their psychedelic, nomadic approach to their surroundings. Seventeen years later, those fans preferred the comfort of hotel beds to grassy patches on the banks of Bayou St. John or else didn’t show up at all, making the band’s appearance on the first Saturday simply a musical one.
Many of the festival’s highlights came from local acts.
Americana band Hurray for the Riff Raff, based in New Orleans, has received critical praise for its recent album, “Small Town Heroes,” and people seeing the band out of curiosity or because they were waiting for Alabama Shakes clearly reveled in the discovery. Alynda Lee Segarra was an endearing singer and frontperson, but it was her songs and songwriting that were the clear stars of the show, as she made century-old folk songs speak to life in New Orleans today.
On “locals Thursday,” the Soul Rebels brass band played a joyous, covers-heavy set with its personality clearly stamped on every song, no matter who wrote it.
Like good funk, the songs stretched out or flowed together so that the groove was the star, but the set got an additional jolt of energy from another rising star, bounce rapper Big Freedia, who joined the Soul Rebels for a high-energy version of Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.”
Pop acts are often a source of controversy at Jazz Fest as the faithful question the acts’ relationships to either jazz or New Orleans’ heritage, and Robin Thicke and Christina Aguilera both gave critics fodder for such complaints this year, as conventions in their world seemed out of place at the Fair Grounds.
Thicke’s slick, contemporary R&B set on the Congo Square Stage was good fun and showed why he was a star before “Blurred Lines” became a hit, but he finished the show 30 minutes before the end of his allotted time, leaving many to wonder why he couldn’t bang out a couple more songs.
Aguilera, on the other hand, kept her crowd at the Acura Stage waiting for more than 15 minutes, something also not done at Jazz Fest. She tailored her show to the festival to the degree that she could, adding some blues to her set list, but her efforts at recreating her usual show in Jazz Fest’s theatrically austere circumstances were as awkward as her singing was impressive.
Jazz Fest ended Sunday with performances by R&B legend Bobby Womack, Texas country-folk singer Robert Earl Keen and New Orleans jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard, who was joined for his closing set in the Jazz Tent by students from the Henry Mancini Institute at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.
Rock and Roll Hall of Famer John Fogerty played a crowd-pleasing set of hits from the Creedence Clearwater Revival songbook with guests and Cajun fiddle player Joel Savoy.
Arcade Fire polished its New Orleans credibility when it second-lined off the stage and into the audience with the Pinettes Brass Band as its musical escort to end its set.
“This is one of the last places in America that’s its own place,” Arcade Fire singer Win Butler said in admiration of the city.
Trombone Shorty brought Jazz Fest to a close shortly after 7 p.m. with a high-powered version of “Hurricane Season.”
Afterward, Quint Davis took the microphone to declare this year’s festival over.
“That’s how we take it home,” he said of Shorty’s show. “God bless everybody and see you next year.”