The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival usually signifies the start of summer in the Crescent City, bringing with it the year's first sunburn. Sunday was a cool, breezy last gasp of spring instead – a fittingly unusual conclusion to an uncommonly wet Jazz Fest that reduced the Fair Grounds to a soupy, shoe-sucking bog for much of the time.
The crisp weather and clear skies were an appropriate setting for Aaron Neville's closing set. Since 1990, the Neville Brothers have closed the festival with performances celebrating New Orleans' R&B history. This year, Aaron wanted to focus on his recent solo album, My True Story, and he finished Jazz Fest with a survey of his musical history, including "Hercules" and his 1989 hit was Linda Ronstadt, "Don't Know Much." His set leaned on elegant doo wop and classic vocal music, accompanied by his brother Charles on saxophone. His burgundy suit, white hat and pocket square were a far cry from the leopard-print muscle shirts he has worn for years, but his voice and vibrato were as pristine as ever on such classics as "Tell It Like It Is" and "Everybody Plays the Fool." Neville ended his set with another kind of standard when he sang "The Mickey Mouse Club Theme," a song he first performed on the Disney tribute album Stay Awake.
At this year's Grammy Awards broadcast, Dr. John and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band joined the Black Keys for a raucous, powerful version of "Lonely Boy." With that in mind, anticipation ran high that they might reprise the collaboration Sunday at Jazz Fest, but it didn't happen. Instead, Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney reminded the audience how powerful they could be on their own. They employed basic rock tools – guitar distortion and pounding drums – to maximum advantage, whether on their own or with a band. The duo were relentlessly physical, with Auerbach hammering his guitar, even during the acoustic "Little Black Submarine," when he assaulted his resonator guitar's whammy bar. By the time they got to "Lonely Boy," it was clear they didn't need any help.
Fleetwood Mac headlined Saturday, the biggest day of Jazz Fest. The first sunny day of the weekend helped, as did the last-hour musical choices: Phoenix, New Orleans-born Frank Ocean, Los Lobos and Fleetwood Mac, who were as physical and relentless as the Black Keys in their own way. Lindsey Buckingham played guitar and sang as if every song was a challenge, and he celebrated the ending a hard, rocking version of "Not That Funny" from Tusk with an emphatic "Yeah!" and a couple of foot stomps. At the conclusion of an extended version of "I'm Not Afraid," complete with a lengthy, aggressive guitar solo, he leaned forward, hands on his knees, to catch his breath.
Their two-and-a-half-hour set was essentially the one the band is playing this tour, including some deep cuts and two from the new Extended Play. Stevie Nicks explained that "Without You," one of the new cuts, was a lost song from the unreleased second Buckingham-Nicks album rediscovered on YouTube, and that Mick Fleetwood and John McVie listened to them for the guitarist.
"I told them they had to take you," Buckingham said.
"Thank you for taking me on the ride," she answered.
In honor of the setting, Nicks performed the chorus to "New Orleans" from her In Your Dreams album, with lines written after Hurricane Katrina. "I wanna sing in the streets of the French Quarter," she sang. " I wanna dress up, I wanna wear beads/I wanna wear feathers and lace/I wanna brush by the vampires."
Maroon 5 and Willie Nelson had the unenviable task of headlining an overcast Friday at Jazz Fest that was an hour late to start, as crews tried in vain the salvage the soggy infield. The clouds never cleared after a morning rain, but the gray day suited much of Nelson's autumnal set. Signs in the crowd celebrated his 80th birthday, and he responded by singing his hits with a jazz vocalist's improvisation and swing.
In recent years, Nelson has been most animated when celebrating the American country songbook, and the same held true at Jazz Fest, where he sang a spry version of Tom T. Hall's "Shoeshine Man" and finished with a rousing trio by Hank Williams – "Jambalaya," "Hey Good Lookin'" and "Move it On Over" – followed by the spirituals "Will the Circle Be Unbroken," "I Saw the Light" and the second-line standard "I'll Fly Away." Marcia Ball and Holly Williams (Hank's granddaughter) joined him for those and what he called "a little gospel song," "Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die."