The skies were a clear, radiant blue across the first weekend of the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival – April 22nd through 24th – but there was purple everywhere else as the city, its homegrown performers and visiting stars paid homage to Prince after his sudden, shocking death on April 21st. The singer never appeared at Jazz Fest – he didn’t do daylight well. But Prince had an extensive history on local stages, making his New Orleans debut in 1979 at a club called Ole Man Rivers; packing 50,000 people into the Superdome as a headliner in 1985, following the success of Purple Rain; and headlining two Essence festivals here in 2004 and 2014.
The first purple T-shirt I saw came out on Jazz Fest’s opening Friday, at 11:30 in the morning at the Gentilly Stage, under the long, broad beard of singer-guitarist Johnny Sketch of the funk-roots-and-jamming band Johnny Sketch and the Dirty Notes. The last, in the closing hour of April 24th over at the Acura Stage, was on Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer. And I’m fairly certain that the first Prince cover of the weekend came on Friday at about 1 p.m., during an interview I hosted at the Allison Miner Music Heritage Stage with singer-guitarist Tommy Malone and singer-pianist John Magnie of Louisiana-born roots-rock band the Subdudes.
Shortly before we went on, Malone mentioned to me that he had been fooling around with the chords to “When Doves Cry” after hearing the news of Prince’s passing. When I suggested that he play ’em for the folks – Malone claimed he hadn’t figured out the whole song and didn’t know all the words – the crowd picked up the rhythm, sang along with as many words as they knew and filled the Fairgrounds grandstand with classic New Orleans mourning: the celebration of life and memory that always follows loss and burial.
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And so it went, in ways that were surprising, locally eccentric and elliptically revealing. Jam-band siren Grace Potter was sexy and commanding in her April 21st cover of Prince’s “Kiss,” detonating the song in her modern-Janis Joplin power-blues set with exact-replica force and a jolt of gender turnaround and empowerment. The next day at Congo Square, the African reggae singer Alpha Blondy led his band through an extended quote, to a Jamaican offbeat, of the riff in “Power to Love” by Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsys, marking the parallel lines that ran through Prince, back to Hendrix and Bob Marley. Next door, at the Fais Do-Do Stage, accordionist Keith Frank stepped into a tantalizing slice of “She’s Always in My Hair,” the B side to Prince’s 1985 single “Raspberry Beret,” rewiring the beat as zydeco hip-hop.
At their Acura Stage blowout that day, Pearl Jam acknowledged a debt of honor by playing “Even Flow” from their 1991 debut LP, Ten, with singer Eddie Vedder noting that Prince had recently covered the song with his female power trio 3rdeyegirl. “He played the shit out of it,” Vedder told the crowd with blunt awe. “We’re going to try to play the shit out of it in his memory.” They did, too, with lead guitarist Mike McCready channeling both Prince and Hendrix – particularly the latter’s streaks of aerial-bombardment feedback in Band of Gypsys’ “Machine Gun” – during his long, explosive solo.
It has been a year of continuing losses in music at every level, and Jazz Fest acknowledged its own with gratitude and joy. At our interview, then in their Blues Tent set that afternoon, the Subdudes marked the April passing of a close friend and Cajun-rock legend, Eddie “Papa Dukie” Edwards – a musician and road manager with ties to Sun Ra and the psychedelic-R&B band Rhinoceros – with performances of “Papa Dukie and the Mud People,” the rousing account of a real-life hippie community that challenged the redneck conventions of rural Louisiana in the late Sixties and early Seventies.
On April 23rd, in the Economy Hall tent, traditional-jazz trumpeter Gregg Stafford, leading the latest edition of the 78-year-old Young Tuxedo Brass Band, paused to mention that group’s own loss – saxophonist Joseph Torregano, who died in October – and the death that same month of the New Orleans drummer Smokey Johnson, who worked with Fats Domino in the Fifties and Sixties and kept the R&B-bedrock time on classic records by guitarist Earl King and singer Johnny Adams. Stafford also gave the out-of-towners in the audience a lesson in New Orleans grieving: the slow-hymn march out to the graveyard, then the second-line strut of “Didn’t He Ramble,” a roaring return-trip euphoria of collective improvisation.
Six months after his death last November – as sudden and shocking to this city as Prince’s last week – the late singer-songwriter-pianist-producer Allen Toussaint remains a titanic presence in New Orleans music and especially at Jazz Fest, where he was an exhilarating, annual attraction for many of its 47 years. On April 24th, the singer-pianist Henry Butler – a masterful descendant of the piano traditions established and refined by Domino, Toussaint and Henry Roeland Byrd, a.k.a. Professor Longhair – devoted virtually his entire hour to the Toussaint and Longhair songbooks.
Butler went long on his solos in the former’s “Get Out of My Life, Woman” and “Working in a Coal Mine” – both originally written and produced for singer Lee Dorsey – and noted Toussaint’s pointed skills as a social commentator, covering the still painfully relevant “Freedom for the Stallion” (“They got men making laws that destroy other men/They’ve made money God/It’s a doggone sin”), first cut by Dorsey in 1971. But when Butler turned to Longhair, it was with the jubilant defiance that always rolls through the Latin tinge and robust syncopation of “Go to the Mardi Gras” and “Big Chief.” Prince – like Toussaint, Longhair and the other spirits continually summoned across the first weekend of Jazz Fest – was remembered the way everyone passes through the sorrow and party of New Orleans mourning: with the certainty that no one really leaves as long as their songs are in the air.