Before the Allen Toussaint tribute Sunday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival’s Gentilly Stage, a photo of the honoree appeared on the big video screens flanking the stage. Toussaint looked sharp and grinned broadly.
He seemed to be smiling despite, or in defiance of, the persistent rain and gray skies that would remain unwelcoming all day long.
The symbolism was appropriate. Toussaint was famously unruffled, gliding through life without letting its messier aspects affect him.
Jazz Fest attendees needed a similar attitude this weekend.
A mid-afternoon monsoon on Saturday stopped the music cold, scuttling scheduled shows by Stevie Wonder, Beck and Snoop Dogg. Another strong wave of storms broke over the Fair Grounds early Sunday, churning up more mess across the already sodden infield.
The gates still opened, and most of the day’s music went on as scheduled.
But the rain never stopped. It slackened, but it kept falling until the festival closed at 7 p.m.
It is not easy to conjure up Jazz Fest joy when slugging through ankle-deep mud and shivering while trying to stop the wind gusts from inverting your umbrella.
Not surprisingly, attendance was only a fraction of what it would have been for a sunny Sunday. Instead of playing to tens of thousands of fans on the Acura Stage field, Neil Young rocked out for a few thousand.
Nearly as many Storyville Stompers were on the Jazz & Heritage Stage as there were audience members watching them.
Many food and craft vendors had an especially lean day.
You know the festival is sparsely populated when the ever-popular Irma Thomas is onstage at the Gospel Tent, it’s raining outside, and yet rows of seats are still empty.
Leave it to Thomas to see the rose mint tea glass as half-full. “It’s not raining — it’s wet,” she said. “The sun is shining up above those clouds. And we’re gonna have a good time.”
A different kind of Jazz Fest camaraderie develops in such conditions. Those who are at the fest really, really want to be there. We’re-all-in-this-together smiles are exchanged between strangers.
The musicians and festival staffers did their part, keeping the show going under difficult circumstances.
Frankie Beverly and the members of Maze arrived to close out the Congo Square Stage in their trademark white attire, still immaculate, right down to Beverly’s white shoes.
Neil Young and his young collaborators cranked up the guitars to 11, stomping through a “Rockin’ in the Free World” more powerful than Pearl Jam’s version last weekend.
And local musicians represented their craft and culture well, especially when remembering one of their own.
“Thank you for coming to our house,” said Reginald “Reggie” Toussaint at the outset of the tribute to his father. “Because that’s what (Jazz Fest) was to him.”
With that, Reginald, who is also the percussionist in his dad’s band, joined his brother-in-law, drummer Herman LeBeaux, and the rest of the band to revive his father’s songs with a parade of mostly local all-stars.
Aaron Neville lofted “Hercules,” which Toussaint produced early in Neville’s career. Jon Batiste, the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts graduate who now leads the house band for CBS’ “Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” showed off his piano chops and Eddie Bo-like voice on “Working in the Coal Mine,” which Toussaint wrote.
The band’s trio of female singers — Erica Falls and Elaine and Lisa Foster — sassed up “Lady Marmalade,” which Toussaint produced for Patti LaBelle. Cyril Neville put a reggae tinge on “Let’s Live.”
Davell Crawford, in a bold red and blue paisley jacket that Toussaint certainly would have appreciated, stole the show with “Last Train” and “Sweet Touch of Love.” Afterward, he presented Reggie Toussaint with a pair of leather sandals like the kind Allen favored.
And so it went across Jazz Fest’s wet final day.
During his Acura Stage closing set, Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, wearing Prince purple, reprised Toussaint’s "Here Come the Girls."
At the Congo Square Stage, Maze went slightly over time as the final “Before I Let Go” triggered an Electric Slide in the mud. Fans were literally dancing in the face of adversity.
At the Gentilly Stage’s second tribute show of the day, B.B. King’s band backed a who’s who of guest stars: Bonnie Raitt, Buddy Guy – whose own Saturday set was rained out – Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Elvin Bishop, Gregory Porter, Luther Kent, Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Tab Benoit and Jesse Robinson.
As blustery winds gusted, most of them assembled onstage for a finale of “The Thrill Is Gone.”
When it crashed to a close, Jazz Fest producer Quint Davis got on the microphone to sign off on what turned out to be a different kind of Jazz Fest, one that opened a day after Prince’s death and concluded with two of the worst consecutive days of weather the festival has experienced in years.
“Thank you all for sticking with us through hell and high water,” Davis said. “We can’t do anything about that.”
He gestured toward the musicians: “But we can do this.”
And Jazz Fest will do it again next year, come hell or high water.