The heart of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival may be the local talent, like piano player Jon Cleary, who on Friday brought out Mardi Gras Indians to help preview his upcoming tribute album to the great Allen Toussaint and jazz saxophonist Donald Harrison. But the big news on the fest's kickoff day had to be simultaneous sets by Jeff Beck and Mumford and Sons. Beck played a highly technical, very electric set at one end of the Fair Grounds, while Mumford and Sons performed a spirited, exuberant set at the other. Beck looked every bit the rock star — of a mid-Eighties vintage — and reflected Jazz Fest's affinity for the legends of rock, blues and soul.
Much of the audience for Mumford and Sons, meanwhile, probably hadn't been born when Beck started releasing jazz-rock fusion albums like Blow by Blow (1975) and Wired (1976). Marcus Mumford announced that the band was eager to get back in the studio to cut the follow-up to 2009's Sigh No More, and that it was trying out some new songs live. "Some of these are so new they don't have proper titles yet," he explained as they started in on "Lover's Eyes."
The Avett Brothers followed Mumford and Sons. Their punk energy almost obscured the beauty of their songs, but the lyrical themes were thoughtful, and the stage patter was plenty friendly. "You can't ignore it when someone says, 'I love you,'" Scott Avett said from the stage after someone in the crowd yelled exactly that.
Robert Plant, who last played Jazz Fest in 2008 with Alison Krauss, centered his Band of Joy set around reimaginings of Led Zeppelin classics. "Misty Mountain Hop" became a psychedelic boogie, while "Houses of the Holy" went honky tonk. The set ended with a version of "Ramble On" that tapped into Zeppelin's indulgent side as it stretched out to include a bouzouki breakdown.
As the last notes of set closer "Gallows Pole" died away, you could hear Wyclef Jean's DJ set. Wyclef interrupted the Jackson 5's "The Love You Save" for shout-outs to Michael Jackson and Lil Wayne, then jumped from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles to "Smells Like Teen Spirit," telling people to know their culture — an eccentric though not inappropriate way to close out a diverse day of music.
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