On Day Two of Jazz Fest, dozens of artists, from local brass band the Soul Rebels to indie-crooner Feist, played under a hot sun to an animated crowd full of typical Jazz Fest characters. There were Mardi Gras Indians in full garb, ladies in purple feathered hats, babies everywhere, and tattooed old-timers with permanent smiles. In the midst of it all, a stylistically varied midday set from Cee Lo Green preceded a long-awaited appearance by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, who played Jazz Fest for the first time to a maxed-out crowd.
Cee Lo started off his set with songs from 2010’s The Lady Killer. His backing band was classic funk: three excellent female backup singers, a bassist, a guitarist, a drummer and a keyboardist. Cee Lo sang his gaga deep-fried Southern soul expertly, but the tightly packed crowd of onlookers seemed detached. Between songs, Cee Lo screeched comments like “Show me your titties!” – a reference to the stereotypical debauchery of Mardi Gras that was undoubtedly distasteful to locals and visitors alike. A funky cover of David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” got the crowd going, and later the other three members of Nineties hip-hop group Goodie Mob joined the stage. Performing four tracks in total, including the classic “Cell Therapy,” Goodie Mob transformed the stage into an all-out, fun-loving dance party. Cee Lo closed with Gnarls Barkley’s huge hit “Crazy” and his solo jam “Fuck You.” The rendition of “Crazy” was particularly awesome, highlighted by heavy-hitting horns early on and featuring a song break into Vera Hall’s old ditty “Trouble So Hard” (better-known as the vocal sample on Moby’s hit “Natural Blues,” from Play). Probably by official request, Cee Lo didn’t sing the expletive chorus lyrics in his closing track, but the crowd did a pretty good job for him.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ set was a delightful departure from the band’s usual live show. More than two hours long, it featured an array of lesser-known tracks, several covers, and inventive renditions of fan favorites. These were interweaved with a solid presentation of hits, all of which were played with exceptionally precise musicianship. 61-year-old Petty’s scruffy hair and beard contrasted with his sharp blue pinstriped suit, and he sang and played with a magic close to flawlessness, as did the entire Heartbreakers crew, a rarity for a band with a nearly 40-year history.
The audience, which was crowded all the way to the back of the vast expanse in front of the Fest’s biggest stage, was thrilled to indulge in the first few well-known songs (“You Wreck Me,” “Won’t Back Down,” “Listen to Her Heart”). The band is a natural choice for Jazz Fest, whose stages are consistently graced with artists of their maturity and prestige. “We’re so excited,” Petty said, “We’ve been trying to come to Jazz Fest for years and years.”
The first notable deviation from the usual hits saw Petty giving props to his Eighties supergroup: “I dedicate this to all the Traveling Wilburys, wherever they’re traveling right now,” he said, before launching into “Handle With Care.” They played “Lover’s Touch” next, a deep cut from their 2010 album Mojo. They did a twanged-out version of Bo Diddley’s “I’m a Man,” which they’ve incorporated into recent tour set-lists, and a frolicking cover of “Travelin’ Light” by J.J. Cale, who Petty called one of his favorite songwriters.
Acoustic versions of “It’s Time To Move On” and “Learning to Fly” were refreshing: small excursions away from the studio versions you know so well, making room for subtle instrumentals such as a slight but effective piano break from Benmont Tench on “Learning.” “Let’s do some headbanging now, if we can,” Petty said next, introducing another Mojo track, the low-down banger “I Should Have Known It.” Petty twirled around in circles, then grabbed a tambourine and paced the wide stage, hammering it around.
A pungent presentation of “Refugee” came before encore tracks “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and “American Girl,” which the band played over their allotted time, to the delight of the crowd, gleeful for the relief of those favorites. You never quite knew where they were going to take you next, but on a ride as smooth and expertly crafted as Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, it was easy and fun to just go with it.