People in New Orleans say hello and goodbye with "Happy Jazz Fest!," as if the two-weekend festival is a holiday on par with Christmas — or Fat Tuesday, which isn't too far off, as local musicians and bartenders estimate that the tourist crowds brought in by the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival are second only to those of Mardi Gras. This year there was a lot to wade through, but over two weeks Rolling Stone found 20 highlights from Louisiana’s most essential music festival. By Paul de Revere
After entering to the traditional Mardi Gras Indian funk jam "Iko Iko," Win Butler introduced "The Suburbs" by claiming that New Orleans "is one of the last places in America that’s its own place but for the rest of us there’s this song" and closed his band’s set by bringing out the Pinettes Brass Band for a second-line through the crowd.
As Jazz Fest cooled down at the end of its first day, Carlos Santana and drummer Cindy Blackman arrived with hot rhythms and funky grooves. The renowned guitarist introduced Blackman as both a part of his band and his better half before she launched into an extended drum solo. "If you go to the zoo, watch and listen when you feed the lions – you hear something like this," Santana said, giving each of his band members a moment to riff and flex their instrumental muscles after dispensing early with classic-rock-radio evergreens "Oye Como Va" and "Black Magic Woman."
Jazz Fest was a bittersweet return home for bounce rapper Big Freedia. After heavy touring and reality show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce gave the MC a huge boost in popularity, her mother, Vera Ross, passed away after a long battle with cancer. Freedia seemed in good spirits, though, looking as fabulous as ever in her first dedicated set. Revved up for the release her new album, Just Be Free, Freedia performed its lead single "Explode" as well as fan favorite "Azz Everywhere," where Queen Free brought up members of her large Jazz Fest crowd to strut their stuff.
Ever cheeky, Vampire Weekend entered to the horn fanfare of "Trophies," a Drake cut off Young Money: Rise of an Empire, a recent compilation from the New Orleans-born label. The band was all business in its set, though, kicking off with Modern Vampires of the City single "Diane Young" and zipping tightly through a catalog that’s gradually deepening in both volume and richness, the buoyant "Holiday" and the Afropop riffing of "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa," both set providing highlights. As Ezra Koenig would say, tongue once again firmly in cheek,"icymi: vampire weekend three albums in stores now."
The three-dollar serving of homemade chili ladled from a crock pot into a bag of Doritos was an informal New Orleans take on Texas’ Frito Pie. Drunk or stoner food at its finest, the dish was advertised on a hot-pink paper sign stapled to a utility pole, across the street from the Jazz Fest fence. That’s how you knew it would be good.
There’s drunk food, but what about hangover food? Miss Linda’s Ya Ka Mein soup is a Jazz Fest staple that has earned the nickname Old Sober for a reason. Like Vietnamese pho crossed with Chinese noodle soup, the meal is a combination of beef, eggs, green onions and noodles in a peppery, spicy, salty broth made with beef stock and soy sauce. Though it has received national coverage Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservation and Food Network’s Chopped: Pride of New Orleans, Ya Ka Mein is not yet ubitquitous within the city, much less outside of it.
It happened near the end of Jason Isbell's set, right when he played "Cover Me Up," the romantic, twangy, bedroom-eyes ballad off his latest, Southeastern. Isbell in fact wrote the song about his band’s fiddle player and now-wife Amanda Shires, so it was surprisingly unsurprising when mid-way through, a pocket of the subdued crowd all turned and lovingly gazed at a couple who had just gotten engaged. Did someone just get married? Isbell asked the crowd. "Congratulations," he quipped. "I hope that song works as well for you as it did for me."
Clapton drew a crowd whose size would rival Bruce Springsteen’s the next weekend, filling up the main stage’s entire field, and audiences really wanted to believe a Santana guitar duel actually might go down. Clapton’s band, however, was plenty virtuosic in and of itself and expertly entertained that crowd with hits like "Layla," "Crossroads" and "Cocaine."
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band are no strangers at Jazz Fest, appearing three times in the past eight years, their an emotional post-Katrina performance in 2006 still spoken of in hushed tones. This year, festival organizers pushed the whole schedule back an hour to give the band more time to play, and the band earned it by running through "Johnny 99" off Nebraska, "Badlands" off Darkness on the Edge of Town, "No Surrender" off Born in the U.S.A. and "Hungry Heart" and the title track off The River in the first hour alone.
Newer E Street Band members Tom Morello and Jake Clemons both nailed solos (the former on "Ghost of Tom Joad," the latter on "Dancing in the Dark") before Springsteen unceremoniously brought John Fogerty onstage for Creedence Clearwater Revival hits "Green River” and "Proud Mary." "I was having so much fun watching, I forgot I was supposed to do something," Fogerty said.
Later, in his own set, Fogerty introduced many of his old hits with the story behind them. Noting that "Who’ll Stop the Rain" is about Woodstock, Fogerty said of the Jazz Fest crowd, "You remind me of it a little bit. Except at Woodstock, everyone was naked and muddy. So I’m gonna turn around…" He turned around, then back around again. Nothing. "Well, it worked in Germany."
Something magical happens to New Orleans, a city already saturated with music, during Jazz Fest: Performers seem to know the world is watching and so unannounced sit-ins happen all around the city. So there’s no reason Scottish post-rock band Mogwai should’ve had the best post-game show after Jazz Fest’s first Sunday, their electronic music deeply mismatched to nearly everything at the festival – but in all likelihood, no one playing in New Orleans that night matched the band’s volume, viscerality and sheer sonic beauty. Plus that light show! Holy shit, that light show!
Jazzfest’s closest thing to an EDM act, the Polaris Prize–nominated trio A Tribe Called Red mixed classic and new rap hits, dubstep drops, dancehall riddims, native tribal drum sounds, a sample from Inglourious Basterds ("I want my scalps!"), an excerpt from Louis C.K.’s Live at the Beacon Theater, turntable scratching and more. It was fun, bracing and – most importantly for Jazz Fest – a modern reclamation of traditional music. More of this, please.
The Baton Rouge-born, New Orleans-residing Better than Ezra had its alt-rock hit with "Good" in 1995, and if you’ve been living outside of Louisiana in the time since, that’s probably all you’ve heard from the band. But if you live inside the Bayou State, there’s a good chance you’ve followed their continuing career all the way up to the eighth, as-yet-untitled record scheduled to be released this summer. At Jazz Fest, Ezra supplemented "Good" with a few of those new tracks (including the horn-propelled, power-poppy "Sunflowers") and guess what? Their crowds were huge.
Deeply rooted in bayou tradition and driven by a sprightly accordion and bright, tight fiddle, French-language Cajun music is, despite its energy, often overlooked at Jazz Fest. That said, the Grammy-nominated Pine Leaf Boys turned some heads induced some two-stepping with a younger, fresher take on the sound doesn’t preclude English lyrics or unorthodox rock & roll covers like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," the breakout hit of fellow Louisianan Jerry Lee Lewis, exchanging solos between fiddle and piano without falling behind the pace of the speedy song.
On the fest's second Friday, Hot 8 Brass Band reconciled and melded the city's rap and brass band traditions, lacing funky grooves with hip-hop slang and braggadocio, even throwing in arrangements of outside rap classics like Outkast’s "So Fresh, So Clean." At best, the group represents a changing cultural landscape in New Orleans, one where the traditional are looking more to the modern and the modern are rewriting tradition.
A New York transplant who mines classic rock, folk and traditional Southern roots music with a small DIY folk-punk trowel, scooping out what she can, Segarra followed Hot 8 by playing songs off her latest, Small Town Heroes, including "The Body Electric," which she called her "response to murder ballads where women are so often being murdered." If Ani DiFranco were a 20-something moving to New Orleans early in life today, she might sound something like this.
Before this year, Mvula had neither performed at the festival before nor been to New Orleans. The British singer made quite an impression, however, with a stage full of digital and quaint physical instruments (harp, numerous forms of African percussion) and a clarion voice evoking, at different turns, Nina Simone, Björk and Sade.
The bonecos gigantes – Brazilian Portugese for giant paper mâché heads, usually crafted by hand – were perhaps the most eye-popping feature of this year’s Cultural Exchange Pavillion, in which a different culture contributing to New Orleans' rich ancestry is spotlighted each year. For 2014, the spot was renamed Casa do Brasil, and a series of Carnival-style parades involving the pictured bonecos – similar in spirit to the Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans, following the same Roman Catholic traditions – took place throughout the festival grounds.
Until fairly recently, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival has had an arms-length relationship with rap music, but as hip-hop gradually grows up, former standard bearers like Public Enemy become – dare to believe it – family friendly, so much so that at one point hypeman Flavor Flav endearingly apologized for accidentally yelling a curse word. Plenty about P.E. is still the same, though: Chuck D still gives rousing calls to political action, Terminator X can still cut up a record like nobody’s business, the militaristic step dancers are still out in force and almost 25 years later, "Fight the Power" can still raise chills on the back of your neck. Hopefully as rap acts continue to grow up and stick around, Jazz Fest will open its arms wider for a full embrace.
Trombone Shorty has played the instrument of his name since he before he was the size of it. Beyond his hometown cred, intense talent and crossover potential Shorty is remarkable for his ability to circle breathe, a technique that allows the 28 year-old to hold a note for an eerily long time. Closing out Jazz Fest’s main stage on its final day, Trombone Shorty held a majestic one – at times quiet, at times blaring – for at least 60 seconds. Oh, and he can also play trombone and trumpet from two different corners of his mouth. You know, no big deal.
In a rare absence, New Orleans R&B legend Dr. John didn’t play this year’s Jazz Fest this year, but the Doctor more than made up for it with the lineup he and Keith Wortman – who has orchestrated all-star tributes to the likes of Johnny Cash, Levon Helm and Gregg Allman – got together Saturday night at New Orleans' Saenger Theatre. There, a who's who of New Orleans and American roots music toasted the elder statesman with a few hours of classic covers and collaborations.