Dave Matthews Band, Wilco Spice Up New Orleans Jazz Fest

"New Orleans is the soul of America," Gil Cerezo of Kinky declared. The dance rock band from Monterey, Mexico, was onstage and finishing up the first weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival presented by Shell in exhilarating fashion, merging Wall of Voodoo's "Mexican Radio" with their own.

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Jazz Fest, a two-weekend-long celebration of what festival producer Quint Davis refers to as "the heritage of jazz." This weekend, that heritage manifested itself with approximately 180 acts on 11 stages and two performances by Wynton Marsalis including "Congo Square," an epic composition performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Ghanian percussionist Yacub Addy and Odadaa!

(Don't miss photos of DMB, Wilco and more at 2009's Jazz Fest.)

In some cases, the heritage of jazz was tough to detect. That certainly was the case when the Drive-By Truckers opened their set Friday afternoon with the stomping "Lookout Mountain." It was the Truckers' second show with Booker T. Jones, who they backed on his new album, Potato Hole, and he seemed less at home on their songs than they were on his. Jones unobtrusively accompanied the Truckers' songs of infidelity, contemplated suicides and the consequences of decisions before he led a mini-set from Potato Hole and a version of the classic "Time is Tight" that slowly raved up to an arena scale. His floating, pristine B3 sound gained muscle when supported by the Truckers' three, distortion-rich guitars. When the set returned to the Truckers' songs, the power of riffs and the hard-earned optimism in their songs made them one of the most uplifting shows of the weekend.

At the opposite end of the Fair Grounds, Spoon received a mixed reception. The band's elliptical lyrics and clockwork-like arrangements were a little too far from that heritage for some festgoers despite an enthusiastic performance by singer Britt Daniel. The band brought out members of New Orleans' Dirty Dozen Brass Band to add horns to "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb" and "Rhythm & Soul," but wind whipping across the stage played havoc with their charts, occasionally stymying the Dozen's efforts.

Jazz Fest has stages dedicated to the blues, gospel, jazz, Cajun and zydeco, but Saturday featured local funk favorites Big Sam's Funky Nation, Ivan Neville's Dumpstaphunk and Galactic before Wilco took the stage. The band presented its friendliest, most rootsy face; during the opener, "Walken," Nels Cline on the lap steel channeled Johnny Winter's fluid, electric blues instead of the explosions of dissonance. Throughout, the band's movement from a whisper to a screech happened organically, and led naturally to songs from Mermaid Avenue and an encore of "Box Full of Letters."

At the same time, James Taylor traded in the eternal verities of craft and soul. His voice seems untouched by time, as did many of his arrangements in a hits-laden set that only nodded to his recent album, Covers. The glossy '70s studio band arrangements made "Your Smiling Face" and "Up on the Roof" seem old in a way that Taylor's voice and hairline didn't. Nonetheless, twentysomethings danced joyously to "How Sweet it Is."

The Jazz Fest one-day attendance record is 160,000 in 2001 when the Dave Matthews Band made their first appearance at Jazz Fest. They returned Sunday after recording their upcoming album, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, in New Orleans last February. The set was his first in New Orleans since the death of sax player Leroi Moore, and Matthews gave new sax player Jeff Coffin, trumpeter Rashawn Ross and now full-time guitarist Tim Reynolds a lot of space. "Nice to be here, neighbors," Matthews said from the stage, and he broke out three songs from the new album, "Why I Am," "Funny the Way It Is," and "Spaceman," in which he asked a question appropriate for these recessionary times: "Doesn't everybody deserve to have the good life?"

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