When the Fair Grounds gates open Friday morning, the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival will commence its celebration of an especially exotic country: New Orleans.
Typically, the festival spotlights an actual foreign country in its Cultural Exchange Pavilion; last year, it was Cuba.
But the 49th Jazz Fest coincides with the 300th anniversary of New Orleans’ founding. And so the Cultural Exchange Pavilion on the Fair Grounds infield – it was expanded last year into a full-fledged stage – will host performances and displays related to the Creole, African, Native American, German, Irish, Italian, Vietnamese and Hispanic strands encoded in the city’s DNA.
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“New Orleans is the country we're celebrating," Jazz Fest producer/director Quint Davis said this spring. "We're celebrating us."
But really, every Jazz Fest celebrates us.
The music, food and culture of New Orleans and south Louisiana are very much the focus of the festival. The vast majority of its 500-plus musical acts are indigenous to the region.
Several dozen “guest” artists – aka the Big Name Acts that drive discussions of the festival’s merits – flesh out the roster. For the most part, the hit parade of headliners doesn't look like Bonnaroo, Coachella, Voodoo, Lollapalooza, Outside Lands and all the other festivals that grew up in Jazz Fest’s considerable shadow. Jazz Fest skews more toward “heritage” acts, the Aerosmiths, Rod Stewarts, Stings, Smokey Robinsons and Anita Bakers of the world.
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The festival is owned by the nonprofit New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Foundation, which uses proceeds to fund an array of cultural and educational programs throughout the year. Jazz Fest is co-produced by Davis’ Festival Productions Inc.-New Orleans and AEG Live, one of the nation’s largest live entertainment companies.
Everyone who has an opinion about the festival can list names they wish were, or weren’t, on the schedule. But overall, the 2018 roster is rich in variety while also staying true to Jazz Fest’s latter-day dynamic.
Opening Friday boasts one of 2018’s more unusual main stage transitions: Cajun bandleader Wayne Toups immediately precedes Sting on the Acura Stage. Similarly, esteemed jazz bassist Ron Carter is followed in the WWOZ Jazz Tent by Leslie Odom Jr., who originated the role of Aaron Burr in the smash Broadway musical “Hamilton.”
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real leading into Sturgill Simpson at the Gentilly Stage on Friday makes a lot more sense. Before Nelson, locals Jon Cleary, Eric Lindell and the Deslondes round out a Gentilly roster worthy of staying put all day.
The festival has lost many of its icons in recent years, including Allen Toussaint, Pete Fountain, Buckwheat Zydeco and Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Bo Dollis. This year, Jazz Fest honors another recently departed titan of New Orleans music: Fats Domino.
A jazz funeral for Domino will cross the Fair Grounds starting at 11:50 a.m. Saturday. It concludes at the Ancestors memorial area at the back of the Congo Square Stage field with the unveiling of a Domino totem.
Later Saturday afternoon, an Acura Stage tribute will feature members of Domino's band plus Bonnie Raitt, Jon Batiste, Irma Thomas, Deacon John, Davell Crawford and Al "Lil Fats" Jackson. Raitt will then perform her own set at Acura, followed by Rod Stewart, who stepped in after Aretha Franklin’s latest cancellation.
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Elsewhere on Saturday, rump-shaking Big Freedia is back-to-back with consciousness-raising Common at the Congo Square Stage. Jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd will share the stage for much of his Jazz Tent set with Americana singer-songwriter Lucinda Williams.
On Sunday, contemporary R&B star Charlie Wilson is on Congo Square at the same time smooth jazz guitarist George Benson is in the Jazz Tent. Sunday’s Gentilly Stage roster opens with kids’ music quartet the Imagination Movers and closes with former Talking Heads frontman turned world music explorer David Byrne. Byrne was a big “get” this year; Davis had tried to book the former Talking Heads frontman for more than a decade.
In between the Movers and Byrne are Royal Teeth and Sweet Crude – two of south Louisiana’s best, most innovative young bands – and “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” bandleader Jon Batiste fronting the late Sharon Jones’ band, the Dap-Kings.
Jimmy Buffett, a fixture of the festival even when he's not officially on the bill, will perform Sunday not with his full Coral Reefer Band, but with a smaller, unplugged ensemble dubbed the Acoustic Airmen. It features longtime collaborator Mac McAnally, southwest Louisiana slide guitarist Sonny Landreth and ukulele star Jake Shimabukuro. Coral Reefer Band steel pan drum maestro Robert Greenidge is also an Airman.
"Jimmy's real fans want to be at special things, different things," Davis said. "This will be one of the great musical things that will happen on this festival."
Such marquee headliners aside, you probably won't recognize all the names, or the ingredients, at every stage or food booth. But the possibility – indeed, the likelihood – of discovery is part of what makes Jazz Fest special.
And this year, you might even discover something new about New Orleans.
January's initial release of the 2018 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival's talent roster revealed the general outlines of the fest's 49th …