With multiple stages going simultaneously at the New Orleans Jazz Fest, I often see only bits of performances that make me wish I’d seen more.
Like Brazella Briscoe singing his way to the back of the Gospel Tent as the Zion Harmonziers grooved to “If I Had a Hammer.” And John Fogerty’s energized “Up Around the Bend.” And Irma Thomas owning "Time Is On My Side." And The War and Treaty, a husband-and-wife blues-soul-gospel band from Michigan, earning multiple ovations at a full Blues Tent.
Of the acts for which I stuck around at the 2019 Jazz Fest, these were my highlights:
At 78, he still commands a strong, supple voice. He applied it to a smart selection of songs that suited his station in life (i.e. Leonard Cohen’s looking-back ballad “Tower of Song”). He flashed a bit of his old Vegas self at the Gentilly Stage, but not so much as to be cheesy. And his band, with banjo, horns and a couple of sharp young guitarists, invigorated Jones and the songs. All in all, it was my favorite show at the festival this year.
Over the years, the Revivalists have worked their way up from the 11:15 a.m. slot on the Gentilly Stage to the closing slot. They deserved it. In front of a full field, they showed what makes them different as well as the inherent pop sense that makes them sound so good on the radio. The extended “na, na, na” refrain of “Celebration” blossomed into a communal moment. They pressed the pedal down even harder as “Catching Fireflies” built to a huge crescendo.
“Wish I Knew You,” their platinum-certified breakthrough hit, seemed like the finale. But their surprise, gospel-tinged cover of the Irma Thomas/Rolling Stones chestnut “Time Is on My Side” was even better.
Given that she normally plays theater-size venues, I did not expect the vast throng that spilled onto the dirt track at the Gentilly Stage. Ross gave the people what they wanted, a solid program of hits complemented by a succession of fabulous costume changes. Her final charge through Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” inspired mass singing and dancing.
The pop superstar went above and beyond to structure a special show for Jazz Fest. She spent the day before her performance roaming the Fair Grounds incognito, getting a feel for the event. Her performance the next afternoon was a one-of-a-kind Katy Perry show, from the affirmations by local writer/poet Cleo Wade writ large in pink and lilac across the stage, to the costumes and choreography, to the onstage collaborations with the Soul Rebels and the Gospel Soul Children. Perry’s final mash-up of her “Firework” with the gospel standard “Oh Happy Day” elevated the whole show even higher.
As most seats at the cozy Lagniappe Stage are covered, it’s a great place to take a moment out of the sun, sit and listen – especially when somebody like Chris Smither is onstage. Smither finger-picked a rhythmic set of nimble, gentlemanly country-blues backed by a tastefully understated trio. All four musicians sat for the whole set, enhancing the backporch aesthetic. Smither, like John 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.
Pianist, singer, songwriter and cheeky person Judith Owen turned the Lagniappe Stage into a cocktail lounge. Her “Second-Hand Sex-Bot,” inspired by a real-life Florida man’s elaborate, used sex robot, was a hoot, especially with cellist Helen Gillet providing classy counterpoint. David Torkanowsky then took over at the piano, allowing Owen “to prove that I actually have legs and can stand.” Backed by Torkanowsky and bassist James Singleton, she swung out on Nellie Lutcher’s “Fine Brown Frame.” She caressed “Cry Me a River,” her precise phrasing and pitch more than up to the task of showcasing the classic song’s strengths.
The contemporary Christian singer from Lafayette made her Jazz Fest debut on the Gentilly Stage. Her songs, not to mention her smoky, soulful voice, sense of joy and omnipresent smile, lent themselves to either spiritual or secular interpretations. With her hair piled up in twists and her eyes framed by glitter and gems, she cut a playful figure. The credible reggae lilt of her “Your Wings,” greased by a three-piece horn section, segued into Bob Marley’s “One Love.” She showed off her richly textured band during Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up.” Her trombonist, trumpeter and saxophonist soloed in turn; the groove laid down by her percussionist, drummer and bassist was undeniably deep.
In 2014, the Mavericks performed on the Gentilly Stage ahead of Robert Plant. This year, the finely wrought hybrid of a rock ’n’ roll band and a Mexican dance band closed down the more intimate Fais Do-Do Stage on the festival’s final Sunday. Chronically underappreciated, they once again delighted their dedicated fans. Raul Malo wrapped his sumptuous tenor around a gorgeous “I Should Have Been True” and Freddy Fender’s “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.” They picked up the pace, and the party, with “As Long As There’s Loving Tonight.” Accordion, piano and dual trumpets soloed over a churning, airtight groove that could keep a cantina, or a Fais Do-Do Stage, crowd moving. Ditto a final “All You Ever Do Is Bring Me Down” and its “Back in the U.S.S.R.” coda.
As a longtime Mavericks fan, I’m biased. But they ended the 50th Jazz Fest on an especially high note.