It was a sobering way to enter the weekend. On April 26th, the day before the 49th annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival opened at the Fair Grounds race track, the news broke around town of the death of Charles Neville, the saxophonist and second eldest of the Neville Brothers, at 79 of pancreatic cancer. Then there was the story on the front page of the New Orleans Advocate, warning festival goers to be prepared for a new security measure at the gates – metal detectors. It is now official: The whole world, including the bon ton sanctuary of Jazz Fest, is now one big airport.
But the lines at the metal detectors were easy rollin'. And on the shuttle-bus radio to the Fairgrounds on the first morning, Neville's daughter Charmaine – an acclaimed jazz singer and a Jazz Fest institution in her own right – was on WWOZ thanking the city for its condolences and encouraging everyone to celebrate her father's life the way he lived it: in music.
The 2018 Jazz Fest was my 31st – I first covered the event for Rolling Stone in 1987. The festival was then still small enough that an out-of-town star like Richard Thompson could be seen performing under a gazebo in the center of the race track. I also recall, in that era, piano giants Allen Toussaint and Dr. John holding forth in an unforgettable duet of interview-performance at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage – set up, for some bizarre logistical reason, in the Fair Grounds' stables.
Other loss was palpable this year. This was the third without Toussaint, who died in 2015, and tributes to Fats Domino abounded as artists at nearly all of the 13 stages covered hits by the singer-pianist, who died last year. But Jazz Fest, which continues this weekend, opened in robust health, under azure-blues skies. As singer-pianist Jon Cleary pointed out in the final number of his April 27th set, citing New Orleans' superiority in funk, food and egalitarian good times, "What we got/Is more hipper/Than what you got."
Here are a few more reasons why:
New Orleans Guitar Masters, Lagniappe Stage
There are more than three guitar masters in New Orleans. But this Friday afternoon session was a rare chance to catch as many – Cranston Clements, who plays with Cyril Neville; the blues and jazz stylist John Rankin; and Jimmy Robinson of the long-running New Orleans fusion band Woodenhead – in such intricately arranged, jubilantly soloing proximity. There was no rhythm section. The interplay came with its own propulsion, in an acoustic-electric blend that recalled the three-way dynamics of John McLaughlin's early-Eighties collaboration with Paco de Lucia and Al Di Meola. A Ventures medley, in memory of their late guitarist Nokie Edwards, rolled like flamenco surf; a cover of Dave Brubeck's 9/8 jazz classic "Blue Rondo a La Turk" was closer to the storming prog-rock of the 1968 version by the Nice – with extra spirited quoting of Led Zeppelin.
Jake Shimabukuro, Fais Do-Do Stage
This Hawaiian ukelele star noted from the stage that while this was his third Fest as a private citizen and guest jammer (he first sat in with Jimmy Buffett and the Radiators in 2007), this Friday set was his debut as a featured artist. It was also my first time catching him in a full performance, and it was the right setting. Opening with a smartly arranged, vigorously delivered instrumental version of the Zombies' "Time of the Season," Shimabukuro honored the invitation and showed his worth. Rock-star converts to the ukelele, such as George Harrison and Eddie Vedder, seemed to embrace it as a retreat from the guitar's manly stereotypes. For Shimabukuro, it's a deceptively compact testosterone engine. He covered its tonal range – from Celtic harp and mandolin to high-pitched rockabilly Telecaster – with the pinpoint verve of Jeff Beck and a strong rhythmic confidence. Flanked only by electric guitar and bass, Shimabukuro was his own drum kit as well as the principal soloist. And he kept proving his adaptable flair over the rest of the weekend, taking guest-star turns with Cajun slide guitarist Sonny Landreth on April 28th and Buffett again on the 29th.
The Tin Men, Allison Miner Heritage Stage
This is some of what I learned during my Heritage Stage interview on Saturday with this uniquely funky power trio – singer-guitarist Alex McMurray, sousaphone player Matt Perrine and Washboard Chaz Leary. Perrine's horn weighs 25 pounds but is easier to play than a tuba because you wear the former over your shoulder. McMurray wrote his local hit "You've Got to Be Crazy to Live in This Town" – featured in the third season of HBO's Treme – in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, after getting one too many flat tires from the roofing nails that littered the city's streets. And Leary took hip-hop scratching back to its real roots – in pre-war blues and jazz – when he cut up the beat of Herbie Hancock's "Rockit" on his washboard, hitting accents on two attached cans and a hotel-desk bell. The Tin Men – who have been going in New Orleans for 15 years – also covered Led Zeppelin's "Misty Mountain Hop" as if it had been originally recorded by the Mississippi Shieks. Find both covers, along with McMurrary's witty, original blues and earthy ballads, on the group's latest album, Sing With Me.
Bonerama, Gentilly Stage
Founding member Mark Mullins reminded the Saturday crowd that this year was the trombone-front-line band's 20th anniversary. I go back as far as 2002, when Bonerama's Jazz Fest set that year inspired me to describe their air-powered hard rock and funk as the "ultimate in brass balls." This year, Mullins added bloodline to the show, introducing his son, also a trombonist, on stage, then letting him have the ultimate in vocal fantasy – doing Robert Plant in Bonerama's rousing take on "Bring It on Home to Me" from Led Zeppelin II. There was also a 'bone-tornado ride through the Allman Brothers' "Whipping Post" – the slurred riffing sounding like a wall of guitars with smoker's cough – and a hearty Domino homage with "I'm Walkin'." Not in this set: Bonerama's bold overhaul of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android," which can be found on their latest album, Hot Like Fire (Basin Street) and makes total funkin' sense, I swear.
Tribute to Jelly Roll Morton, NOLA 300 Stage; Treme Brass Band, Economy Hall Tent
At a Sunday salute to the founding genius of New Orleans piano, Dr. Michael White, a renowned clarinetist and teacher here, led a vibrant sextet through modern-purist readings of Morton standards such as "Buffalo Blues" and "Pearls." Henry Butler, the session's guest star, only sat at the ivories for a couple of numbers. But one of them was "Buddy Bolden's Blues," recorded by Morton in 1938 for the Library of Congress and named after the legendary, star-crossed cornetist who died in 1931 – depleted by alcoholism and insanity, known only from a single photograph because he never recorded. Butler soloed with Morton's energy but sang of Bolden's cruelly dimmed life with a profoundly weary soul, as if reminding the crowd that the art and party central to Jazz Fest have typically come at a steep price for the innovators.
An hour later, the Treme Brass Band – founded in 1990 but spiritually born much earlier, in New Orleans' funeral-march and street-parade traditions – picked up the Fats work, honoring the widespread force and joy of Domino's records and legacy. They covered Professor Longhair's "Go to the Mardi Gras" with a Domino-like shuffle – the horns mimicking Domino's mighty left hand on the piano – then went straight into "My Blue Heaven," a Ziegfield Follies number covered by Domino to swinging effect in 1956; his 1961-hit spin on Hank Williams' "Jambalaya"; and the brass-band standard "When the Saints Go Marching In," given the Domino stamp on a 1959 B side and sounding, in this vintage exhiliration, as if we were all still marching back from saying farewell at the cemetery.
Jon Batiste with the Dap-Kings, Gentilly Stage
Across the field on the Acura Stage, shortly before Irma Thomas' Sunday show, George Wein and Quint Davis – the Jazz Fest founder and its longtime producer, respectively – announced the countdown to the festival's 50th anniversary in 2019. At the same hour, Batiste all but guaranteed he would be back next year – as a headliner. Armed with the Dap-Kings' retro-soul expertise, Batiste combined his cheerful R&B showmanship on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert with a wide-ranging vocal flair that he doesn't get to spread out on television. Batiste whipped through his share of Fats – "Ain't That a Shame" – and effectively braked into a "St. James Infirmary," capping the song with a piano solo steeped in the combined piano athleticism and exploration of Toussaint, Longhair and Thelonious Monk. Batiste's best moment, though, started with him alone at the keyboard, softly walking into the Louis Armstrong standard "What a Wonderful World" and coaxing the crowd into singing for him. Then, with the Dap-Kings back in stage, he jumped into the affirmation funk of Toussaint's "Yes We Can," switching between Hammond B-3 and piano and hammering the latter's low end as if to emphasize the work ahead. It was hearty entertainment with a protest spine, a challenge to honor Armstrong's song of fragile hope with committment and bond. Colbert should let Batiste do it on Late Night, so the rest of America can get the message as well.
David Byrne, Gentilly Stage
It was a classic Jazz Fest moment – further proof that no matter where music comes from, it has some New Orleans in it somewhere. "You may find yourself/Living in a shotgun shack," Byrne suggested during his Sunday headlining set, entering the Afro-space romp "Once in a Lifetime" from Talking Heads' 1980 album, Remain in Light. Shotgun houses are, of course, a primary form of residential architecture in New Orleans; for many locals in the overflow crowd, there was no maybe in that lyric.
Already the toast of Coachella, Byrne's new road show was a knockout here as well, to the point that he made the front page of the next day's New Orleans Advocate, photographed as he sang the opening number – "Here" from Byrne's latest album, American Utopia – holding a pink, plastic brain. Byrne sang it alone on stage to a pre-recorded track. But, as he told the crowd later, everything else coming out of the PA was absolutely live, performed with a mobile 10-strong troupe (including five drummers) that buoyantly acted out the trials and optimism common to the new songs and the Talking Heads material that framed them, including "I Zimbra" and "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)." "Every day is a miracle," Byrne sang without irony – a chorus from American Utopia that, like "the shotgun shack," carried a unique resonance here. In a city still coping with the consequences of Katrina, struggling with violence and corruption yet stubbornly exuberant and welcoming, every day has the capacity for miracle. And it usually comes with music.