Is there any band on this year’s Jazz Fest lineup that at first seemed to be more out of place than No Doubt? Yet there the band was Friday, headlining the Acura Stage at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell, and it finally made sense.
The California pop-ska band has been in relative hibernation this last decade as lead singer Gwen Stefani has been raising a family, engaging in a solo career and hosting a television talent contest. A new album in 2012 announced a comeback, but that fell short, so they’re at it again, and this time it appears to be sticking.
“Hella Good” kicked off the set, driven by one long electro-rock riff, accompanied by a generous volume of bleeping digital candy.
Let there be no doubt that the anchor of this band is Stefani, a relentlessly upbeat frontwoman who started her set getting the crowd going and didn’t relent for 90 minutes. “I love this song!” she shouted before “It’s My Life” started, and then she made the crowd feel the same.
The band frontloaded the set with their hits, including “Underneath It All” (reggae pop), “Hey Baby” (electro-dancehall), and “New,” a ballad that ended with a chorus of samples from “Star Wars,” with big props to R2D2.
Stefani made note it was 13 years since the band last played in New Orleans. “This place feels like a different kind of connection I can’t explain,” she said.
She made up for the absence, briefly, when touring musicians Gabrial McNair and Stephen Bradley pulled out a trombone and trumpet, respectively, and gave the crowd a taste of Mardi Gras with a brass-band “Second Line.”
She later invited a barricade jumper to the stage, scolded her and then invited her to stay. “She wants to dance like a hippie,” Stefani explained, and the girl, crying while bouncing, expressed what many were feeling at that point.
Earlier in the afternoon at the Galactic set featuring neo-soul singer Macy Gray, an Erica Falls show broke out.
Falls is a New Orleans singer who is a frequent guest vocalist with the band, and she’s a highlight on her own as well as when she sings with Corey Henry’s Treme Funktet. But while the show was billed to the more notorious Gray, who appears on the new Galactic album due this summer, it was Falls who provided the set’s musical climax.
Gray started rocky and stayed that way for the first half of the set. Many of her songs were plodding R&B jams in which Galactic sounded muted. “You sure are quiet,” Gray told the crowd, one of several complaints she lodged throughout the set. Wearing a boa and floor-length red and black gown, she didn’t sound connected to the band, no surprise considering that this represented their first public appearance.
Even though she explained that “The Way” was about the healing power ganja can have on personal relationships, she didn’t have to: The slow song kept her and most of the crowd fairly immobile.
After a costume change, Gray returned to do her Grammy-winning hit “I Try,” which prompted a sea of arms in the air and finally gave Galactic an opportunity to dig deeper into more brawny material. But by then, it felt like an afterthought.
Falls made it a different show altogether. Even though she was onstage for only two songs, her confidence, personality and the fire in her voice were energizing. She and the band locked tight: Instead of sounding like a singer backed by a band, the collaboration felt like a band elevated because of its singer.
“I like rowdy people!” she said.
She earned the rowdy reaction.
One of the most compelling sets of the festival so far was by Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, a singer-songwriter and guitarist who performs under his middle name. He is an aboriginal Australian who was born blind and sang in his native Yolngu tongue at the Blues Tent.
The festival date is part of an inaugural U.S. tour, and there was a sense that something special was taking place. Sitting while fingerpicking his lush folk-rock songs, he sang in a soft falsetto that was unlike any other this weekend to date.
His songs are about his heritage, and Michael Hohnen, his upright bassist, introduced each one.
When Hohnen finished, Gurrumul would begin the song. Barely moving from his chair, he created a meditative presence that sounded as if the songs would be just as natural emanating from a shrine or any holy place.