“That was too dark for Jazz Fest,” Colin Meloy proclaimed after singing “The Rake’s Song” Sunday at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. Perhaps a tale of infanticide would have been too grim if performed by Arlo Guthrie or John Mellencamp, both of whom were performing at the same time elsewhere at the Fair Grounds, but the song’s infectious bounce had the audience singing the chorus-ending “alright.” The set drew heavily from the recent The King is Dead, but “The Calamity Song” and “This is Why We Fight” were greeted with the same excitement as “16 Military Wives,” “This Sporting Life” and the set-closing “The Mariner’s Revenge Song.”
Meanwhile, John Legend and the Roots performed less than a football field away, but there was no irony in their set, which focused on last year’s Wake Up. The album of socially conscious soul from the late Sixties and early Seventies sometimes erred on the side of respectful; live, that restraint seemed classy and elegant. The grooves generated by ?uestlove and bassist Owen Biddle were physical, and as the band approached the end of “Compared to What” and Donny Hathaway’s “Little Ghetto Boy,” they pushed the band – with Legend on piano – to raise the energy level. By the set’s end, that manifested itself in a rave-up, multi-chorus guitar solo by Kirk Douglas on “I Can’t Write Left Handed.”
For the encore, Legend’s “Used to Love You,” he called for New Orleans resident Mos Def to come out for a verse. Then the Roots’ Black Thought started “Let Them Shine,” a beautiful end to a day that also included one of the most generous Dr. John Jazz Fest sets in recent memory. The recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee played a spirited set that showcased his piano wizardry and deep songbook, but the moments that made the deepest impression were nods to others. Although he has performed the Mardi Gras Indian classic “Indian Red” for years, Sunday he used the jaunty arrangement by the late banjo player Danny Barker heard in the season-closing episode of Treme last year. He brought out Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dave Bartholomew – the architect of New Orleans R&B – and gave his classic “The Monkey Speaks Its Mind” a spooky groove that would have been at home on Dr. John’s earliest albums. The version inspired the 90-year-old Bartholomew to some of his best trumpet-playing in recent years and gave the song fresh life.