Before the gates of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival opened Saturday morning, Stevie Wonder and his band spent time at the Acura Stage rehearsing “Isn’t She Lovely” and other songs for their highly anticipated show later in the day.
But Wonder’s Jazz Fest “show” ended up being only an apology and a bit of Prince’s “Purple Rain,” delivered a cappella via bullhorn for soaked and disappointed fans.
At 4:30 p.m., festival organizers canceled the day’s remaining performances, including scheduled headlining sets by Wonder, Beck and Snoop Dogg.
A line of thunderstorms hit the Fair Grounds hard about 3:45 p.m., saturating the grounds. With more severe weather forecast for the rest of the afternoon, and with water already pooling in spots across the festival grounds, the decision was made to pull the plug.
“Due to severe weather conditions, the remaining programming for today at Jazz Fest has been canceled,” the festival announced.
Fans in rain ponchos and windbreakers trudged toward the exits as the Blues Tent and other performance areas began to flood.
The areas in front of stages turned into massive muddy lakes.
Vendors made one last pitch to sell beer and water to sodden festgoers: “You can take it with you!”
The early mass exodus caused logistical headaches for many who stood in the rain outside the Fair Grounds waiting for taxis or Jazz Fest shuttles to take them back to their cars or hotels.
After many years without a weather interruption, the festival now has had performance days cut short two years in a row. The opening day of the 2015 Jazz Fest was halted about 6 p.m when a lightning storm moved over the Fair Grounds, curtailing performances by Keith Urban, Wilco and others.
The first weekend of the 2016 festival remained dry, despite rain the previous week.
Saturday’s heavy rains came as something of a surprise to many fans, even though gray clouds were present all day.
During her midafternoon set at the Fais Do-Do Stage, singer-songwriter Kristin Diable glanced up at the ominous sky.
Up to that point, it had held back its rain.
She started to say, “It looks like the weather gods … ” but the audience shouted her down: No one wanted to jinx what, until that point, had been a relatively dry afternoon.
The rain waited long enough for Diable and her band to finish with a cover of Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can.”
She had to plead with the stage manager for a little extra time: “Can we do 1½ minutes of it?” she said. “Please? Pretty please?”
He relented, and they finished just before the rain arrived.
“We were lucky,” bassist Charles Lumar said later. “We just snuck it in.”
Trumpeter Jamil Sharif tried to be optimistic while onstage inside the Economy Hall Tent: Even as the rain fell outside, he prompted the band to play “On the Sunny Side of the Street.”
But the sun was finished for the day.
Performances on the outdoor stages were halted as the skies opened up. Seasoned drummers Ellis “E-Jo” Joseph and Kerry “Fatman” Hunter took refuge in a small tent near the Jazz & Heritage Stage, helping to close the open flaps in an attempt to keep out the high winds and driving rain.
Inside with them were the rest of the Kinfolk Brass Band and three social aid and pleasure clubs that the band was supposed to play with Saturday along a Fair Grounds path that now looked like a river, they said.
Jazz Fest has had its rainy days, Joseph said, “but this is the worst weather I’ve ever seen out here.”
Music continued for a time at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage inside the Fair Grounds grandstand, which had suddenly become one of the festival’s most popular places to be.
Hundreds of festgoers filled all available seats as singer-guitarist David Shaw and guitarist Zack Feinberg, of the Revivalists, talked and performed acoustically. Monsoon-like conditions were visible through the grandstand’s tall windows, as wind and rain lashed the grounds.
Alexis Marceaux and Sam Craft, of the indie-pop duo Alexis & the Samurai, were next up on the Music Heritage Stage. They had just performed their first song when the stage manager interrupted to announce the entire festival was shutting down.
“At least we got to do one song,” Marceaux said.
That was Stevie Wonder’s total, too.
The National Weather Service said there was a 50 percent chance of more thunderstorms and showers on Sunday.