New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival celebrates music, food, Creole culture
With the onset of warmer weather, many people are looking forward to the kickoff of festival season. While many festivals will be taking place with numerous acts set against a backdrop of picturesque woods full of campers, one unique festival which celebrates the music, food and culture of the South recently wrapped up another successful two-week run.
The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival – which ran the course of two weekends from April 28 to May 7 – saw 200,000 people visit the Crescent City for the annual gathering that features an eclectic mix of everything from rock and hip hop, to Cajun and zydeco music. The second weekend of this years’ festival was no exception, with the likes of Widespread Panic, Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds, Stevie Wonder, Snoop Dogg, Kings of Leon, and Patti Labelle providing hours of entertainment across a dozen stages.
On a muddy May 4, Widespread Panic – a band who has a devout following in the South, and who will be at The Pavilion at Montage Mountain as part of the Peach Music Festival – delivered a jam heavy set of blues rock on the Acura Stage, while rock-turned-country star Darius Rucker provided a fun time across the way on the Gentilly Stage with his mix of pop-country and staples from his other band, Hootie and the Blowfish.
May 5 offered diverse acts on multiple stages at the same time (the only problem with Jazz Fest is picking and choosing which acts you want to see, and understanding you may not get to see everything you want). Earlier in the afternoon, New Orleans funky horn ensemble Bonerama rocked the Acura Stage, while Sweet Crude, another Southern Louisiana band making waves for their use of the French language, delighted the crowd at the Gentilly Stage.
Later in the afternoon, New Orleans natives The Revivalists delivered one of the best sets of the weekend on the Acura Stage. The roots rockers gave a commanding performance with front man David Shaw engaging the crowd throughout the duration of the set — including jumping off the stage and coming through the crowd so the sea of people in the back could join the festivities.
The evening sets on May 5 proved to be challenging with Dave Matthews and Tim Reynolds bringing one of the largest crowds to the Acura Stage, while alternative rock outfit Wilco had its own massive following on the Gentilly Stage. To add to the tough choices, legendary funk pioneers Earth, Wind and Fire, had a capacity crowd dancing throughout a lively set on the Congo Square stage. It was at this point that some in attendance took refuge in the Blues Tent with multi-instrumentalist Rhiannon Giddens, or the Jazz Tent with saxophone virtuoso Boney James.
May 6 provided a music fan’s highlight in terms of diversity. The afternoon started with sets from two New Orleans staples, the immensely fun Big Sam’s Funky Nation — which has made its way from the Congo Square Stage (typically known as the hip hop/R&B stage) to the Gentilly Stage (alternate headlining stage) to this year’s appearance on the Acura Stage (headlining stage) — and the Soul Rebels, a younger funky band who delivered a fine set on the Congo Square Stage.
Ivan Neville’s Dumpstaphunk, a driving funk outfit featuring a member of the next generation of the legendary Neville family, gave a groove heavy performance on the Acura Stage, before making way for the Queen of New Orleans Soul, Irma Thomas, who performed with a tight backing band known as The Professionals, turning in one of the best vocal performances of the weekend.
When the headliners hit, so did the tough decisions for everyone in attendance. Within the same 45-minute time frame, legendary funk/soul master Stevie Wonder, hip hop icon Snoop Dogg, pop music songstress Meghan Trainor, and blues guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd all took to various stages.
The crowd for Wonder’s set was easily the biggest of the weekend. With a set full of hits like “Higher Ground,” “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Superstitious,” Wonder’s set had everyone singing along for nearly two hours. In between songs, Wonder often took to the microphone to discuss unity and sharing love rather than hate when talking about the current state of the country, and referencing our current administration as simply “Mr. Number 45.” For anyone wanting to change stages, trying to leave the Acura Stage during Wonder’s show was nearly impossible due to the massive crowd.
Across the grounds, Snoop Dogg had his own sizable audience at the Congo Square Stage for an hour-long performance that saw the gangsta rap original deliver some of his most famous songs (“What’s My Name,” “Gin and Juice,” and “Drop It Like It’s Hot”) mixed in with covers of other legendary hip hop artists including “Hypnotize” by Notorious B.I.G., “Two of Americas Most Wanted” by Tupac and “The Next Episode” and “Let’s Get High” by Dr. Dre. Just a short distance away, Trainor provided a dance-heavy performance on the Gentilly Stage, including her signature hit, “All About That Bass.”
Like the other days, May 7 offered an array of top-notch artists performing at the same time. Rockers Kings of Leon, blues legend Buddy Guy, and the elegant Patti Labelle all gave memorable performances in the mid afternoon. The festival wrapped with New Orleans natives Tromobone Shorty and Orleans Avenue closing out the Acura Stage with a raucous blend of rock, funk and blues, while New Orleans funk gods The Meters closed out the Gentilly Stage, celebrating their 50th year together.
Aside from the vast array of music, Jazz Fest is also known for the food it offers. A quick walk around the grounds can cause any person to suddenly develop an appetite when they see red beans and rice, soft shell crab po’ boys, gumbo, jambalaya, and just about every other kind of Cajun food imaginable available everywhere. Mix that with a bevy of second-line parades crossing the grounds complete with tribal outfitted marchers, and you get a feeling for the culture that the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival celebrates every year.