The sun evaded the Fair Grounds on Saturday until late in the day, when the rain stopped, the clouds cleared and The Who launched into a lengthy suite from their rock opera “Tommy.”
The British rock survivors steered their 50th anniversary tour toward New Orleans to headline the Acura Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, and they played a procession of hits, although guitarist-songwriter Pete Townshend was loath to call them that.
“This set we’re touring on is supposedly ‘hits,’ but truth be told, we haven’t had that many,” he said.
Instead, he suggested the songs that comprised the nearly two-hour show should be considered an “academic treatise” for the generations that have come along in the years since the band’s glory years.
Indeed, Townshend and singer Roger Daltrey hit all phases of the band’s career, from its earliest years banging out three-minute British R&B songs (“I Can’t Explain,” “The Seeker”) to its rock opera years, which included two songs from “Quadrophenia” from 1973 and a longer suite of “Tommy” songs from 1969. Singing the latter, Daltrey made a gesture to resemble the title character he portrayed in the 1975 film, unbuttoning his shirt to the navel and shaking two tambourines.
Dressed in a black skullcap with two large chains around his neck, Townshend jigsawed his legs while playing, banged his guitar and delivered many requisite windmills on his guitar. For “I’m One,” he switched to acoustic guitar and gently fingerpicked.
Later, he needled the festival’s name: “Bit of a legend for us, the New Orleans Jazz Festival. And in a minute, I’ll be playing a bit of jazz, and you’ll hate it.”
Daltrey played to the crowd and a few times lassoed the microphone cord up, behind and around his body. At age 71, he has grown into the husky voice that has always sounded as if it came from his chest. On “Love Reign O’er Me,” he roared up to the vocal peak the song requires, but at the closing primal shout, he brought his voice down again.
The band hit a few snags when Townshend started “The Kids Are Alright” and Daltrey had to explain that it had been struck from the set list to save time. The same thing happened after the guitarist introduced “Pictures of Lily” with a story — no matter, Townshend performed it anyway. For a set so finely calibrated, it became one of the act’s few impromptu moments.
Elsewhere, rain pounded the Fair Grounds many times during the afternoon. Those who found shelter in a tent hosted by the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts were rewarded by a performance by trumpeter John Michael Bradford and his band the Vibe, all graduates of the school. Their set was the underdog success of the afternoon, as the band played a winning dose of heavy funk and R&B, as well as Nicholas Payton’s “Six.”
Bradford temporarily put his instrument down to sing some Stevie Wonder, and when he picked it up again, that was a good thing. His voice speaks strictly through the trumpet, and it’s a potent one.
The New Orleans hip-hop label Cash Money hosted a reunion, with one of its biggest stars and its house producer reuniting for an hour of catalog hits and prime irreverence.
In their set together at the Congo Square Stage, Juvenile and Mannie Fresh strolled out to a rendition of “Rich Niggaz” that featured a recorded cameo by Lil Wayne, the label’s biggest star. “I wish he was here,” Juvenile said.
From there, the duo joined the crowd in a string of past hits: “Get Your Roll On,” “Ha,” “Gone Ride With Me” and others from “400 Degreez,” Juvenile’s Cash Money debut from 1998. He made note of the years with tongue in cheek: “Mr. ‘400 Degreez’ in the building, y’all!” he said. “I’m hot. But I got a little stomach, so I’m a hot potato.”
Fresh played the hype man, adding vocal clicks and sound effects while clutching a fat cigar.
Wearing a camouflage jacket and Boston Red Sox cap, Juvenile reserved the raunchiest parts of his songs for the audience to sing and later chided them: “You all gotta stop that cursing. This is rated PG.”
Raindrops appeared 20 minutes into an early set by Tommy Malone, not that it shut him down. “I’m playing things twice as fast to beat the rain,” he said. Malone, a co-founder of the subdudes, played a set with his trio at the Gentilly Stage. His slide guitar was prominent throughout the 50-minute set of slow-burning Southern R&B.
Malone, who has appeared at Jazz Fest over many years in various incarnations, including with his brother Dave Malone of the Radiators, has released successive solo albums that show a maturing of his song craft to reflect big questions and sobering truths. “God Knows,” which he directed to his late mother, was followed by “Word on the Street,” a slow soul song he powerfully brought to a whisper.
He ended his set with a tribute to Johnny Ray Allen, the bassist and songwriter for the subdudes who died last year. Harmonizing with his bassist and drummer, Malone sang “He’s Got You on His Mind,” an Allen original. By that time, the sky broke open and the rain fell hard.