Two very different songs of the South, sung by two very different Southerners, closed out the 2019 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s second Friday.
At the Acura Stage, Kentucky-born throwback country singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton capped off a sometimes slow set with a sip of “Tennessee Whiskey.”
At the Congo Square Stage, Atlanta native Gladys Knight, following a leisurely introduction of her musicians and security chief, finally climbed aboard a “Midnight Train to Georgia," much to her audience's delight.
Stapleton and Knight concluded a day of revolution and reverence at the Fair Grounds.
Henry Butler, the powerhouse New Orleans pianist claimed by cancer last year, was enshrined in the Ancestors area at the back of the Congo Square field. The detailed, painted plywood rendering of Butler in action even included a festival scene reflected in his sunglasses.
Allen Toussaint’s nearby memorial served as the backdrop for one of Friday’s on-site weddings. Across the grounds, two women got married in what may have been the Gospel Tent’s first-ever gay wedding.
New Orleans transplant Ani DiFranco, accompanied at the Fais Do-Do Stage by singer Princess Shaw, keyboardist Ivan Neville, guitarist C.C. Adcock, drummer Terence Higgins and bassist Todd Sickafoose, asked via song, “Which side are you on?” With lines like, “the curse of Reagan-omics has finally taken its toll” and “c’mon, let’s get a new president,” she made clear what side she's on.
Kamasi Washington did not dial back his forward-thinking, quasi-revolutionary jazz for the Gentilly Stage. The saxophonist and his sprawling ensemble won an ovation with a final burst of hard rock drums and a female vocalist’s repeated refrain of, “We will no longer ask for justice. Instead, we will take our retribution.”
At the Blues Tent, the Crocodile Gumboot Dancers from South Africa wore heavy black rubber “gumboots,” wellington-style boots favored by gold mine laborers. The ritualized gumboot dance apparently developed as a means of communication in the mines, but at Jazz Fest, the dance was one of joy.
Six dancers were accompanied by a vocalist, violinist, acoustic guitarist and keyboardist, all of them in maroon tunic tops. Gumboots make for especially unwieldy tap shoes. But the six dancers, against a droning refrain that stretched for at least 20 minutes, engaged in choreographed stomps, slaps, claps and kicks. They broke out for solo dances before falling in step once again. With a second show slated for later in the humid afternoon, no other performers likely worked harder Friday than the Gumboot Dancers.
Acclaimed singer-songwriter John Prine canceled his scheduled Jazz Fest performances this weekend. But Chris Smither presided over a Prine-like set at the Lagniappe Stage inside the grandstand’s paddock area.
Smither, who grew up in New Orleans as the son of a Tulane University professor, and Prine share a sly, sunny wit and an appreciation for the acoustic guitar. Smither finger-picked a rhythmic set of nimble, gentlemanly country-blues backed by a tastefully understated trio of Morphine’s Billy Conway on percussion, Matt “The Suitcase Junket” Lorenz on violin and longtime producer David “Goody” Goodrich on electric guitar and other stringed instruments.
All four musicians sat for the whole set -- unlike the lone gray-bearded dancer near the stage who, much to the frustration of those behind him, insisted on standing -- enhancing the backporch aesthetic.
Smither, again like Prine, has just enough cragginess in his voice to give such lyrics as “I move so slow my shadow often kicks me from behind” both humor and depth. A song he wrote to describe the “confusing” process of songwriting “came out reasonably confusing,” he said. “But it rhymes.”
An African-American musician once observed of Smither that “there’s a black man in there trying to get out,” Smither recounted. “I had my DNA analyzed, and he was right.”
He tries to select “sturdy” cover songs, defining a sturdy song as one “that can take a lot of abuse and maintain its integrity.” Case in point: Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” which Smither and company retooled as a minor-key ramble that, in fact, maintained its integrity.
Channeling the rolling vegetable vendor that roamed his Laurel Street neighborhood long ago, Smither sang, “I got banana, watermelon, peaches by the pound/Sweet corn, mirliton, mo’ betta than in town.”
“It’s my pleasure to play for you,” he said in conclusion.
And a pleasure to listen.
With his bushy beard, long hair, omnipresent cowboy hat and songwriting sensibility, Chris Stapleton is often compared to the outlaw country icons of the 1970s. But Stapleton’s headlining Acura Stage set was suited more for closing time than cutting up at the honky-tonk.
The inherent soul in his textured, sandpapered voice underscored all the emotion in “Broken Halos.” The loping “Traveler” is a perfect late-afternoon Jazz Fest singalong.
Stapleton, sometimes backed only by his drummer and bassist, sometimes joined by a second guitarist and longtime Willie Nelson harmonica player Mickey Raphael, embarked on long electric guitar excursions. A series of slow strums and picked notes would resolve, then repeat.
He caressed, unironically, the first verse of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Freebird,” then segued into his own laid-back “The Devil Named Music.” Fierce, stormy chords and pounding drums led nowhere.
His appropriately named hit “Parachute” lived up to its name, giving him a way out. He landed on “Tennessee Whiskey,” and the audience drank it up.