Gettin’ jazzy with it at the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival
More than 200 acts, almost the same number of creole and Cajun food vendors, temperatures into the 80’s, and more than 100,000 people. It’s a combination that can only describe the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which celebrated its 46th anniversary April 22-24 and April 28-May 1.
Set across the grounds of New Orleans Race Track and Fairgrounds, Jazz Fest – as it’s affectionately known – has garnered a reputation as one of the more professionally run music festivals in the country. With a dozen stages to book for eight hours every day, organizers have always made sure the festival goes off flawless.
For the second weekend of Jazz Fest, no matter how precisely organizers run the operation, they were not prepared for an unwelcomed visitor.
A lot of it.
Early on April 28, a few light showers hit, but to the music and food loving crowd, it was nothing more than a pleasant cool off period from the scorching heat. Even the artists didn’t seem to mind. Elvis Costello, who brought along his current band, The Imposters, put in a powerhouse performance of songs beginning with “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding,” and a sing-along “Radio, Radio.” Over on the main stage, the Tedeschi-Trucks Band put on a guitar summit with husband/wife team, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, joined by Jimmie Vaughan and Billy F. Gibbons of ZZ Top, for a set full of fiery blues.
April 29, proved much brighter as skies were crystal clear, and musically, the day provided some of the more diverse acts of the weekend. Guitar virtuoso Gary Clarke Jr. shredded through some dirty blues on the Acura main stage, before the queen of New Orleans soul, Irma Thomas brought the crowd to its feet with one of the best vocal performances of the weekend. Over on the Congo Square stage – known for being the hip-hop stage – ex-Fugee Lauryn Hill put in a laid-back set of hip-hop and R&B, which saw the singer mostly perform sitting down while playing acoustic guitar.
Over on the Gentilly Stage – the other headlining stage – alternative rockers My Morning Jacket thrilled a capacity audience with its heavy blend of rock and blues. As part of the set, MMJ performed a few numbers by Prince including “Purple Rain,” to honor the late musician. If there was a “theme” to Jazz Fest this year, it was “Purple Rain” as it seemed like nearly every act on the bill did its own take on the song.
Back on the Acura stage, legendary songwriter Paul Simon returned to Jazz Fest after he and Art Garfunkel had to cancel a few years ago. Sans Garfunkel, Simon delighted everyone to a tight set full of hits including “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover,” “Me and Julio Down by the School Yard,” “Late in the Evening,” “You Can Call Me Al,” and “The Sound of Silence.” For someone who has been in the business for more than 50 years, Simon still sounds better than most people his age, and seems to find genuine enjoyment out of performing live.
Then Saturday happened.
By the time the festival started on April 30, everyone knew the forecast. A definite clash with torrential winds and pouring rain was set to hammer the region for about 10 continuous hours. For Jazz Fest, Saturday was the “go big” day of the weekend: Stevie Wonder, Beck, Snoop Dogg, and Buddy Guy, among others, were set to headline the festivities.
On the Acura stage, New Orleans legend Dr. John came on to steady rain, and breezed through a few numbers before stage management got involved to tell the band that Jazz Fest was calling it a day due to the weather. Rain began to accumulate in trenches reaching more than three-feet high. Stevie Wonder quickly appeared to announce – via bullhorn – the remainder of the day was canceled. Before he was done, Wonder paid tribute to Prince with (what else) an a cappella version of “Purple Rain.”
There was no Beck, no Snoop Dogg, no Buddy Guy, and nothing else from Wonder.
While Jazz Fest did conclude on a miserable Sunday with performances from Neil Young and the Promise of the Real, and Arlo Guthrie, the weekend was cut short for thousands of Jazz Fest regulars. Regardless of weather, Jazz Fest still provides one of the best getaways for anyone wanting to experience the culture of New Orleans. The music is the heart of the festival, but mix in second line parades, amazing festival food — no hamburgers or soft pretzels — and 100,000 people relaxing and enjoying music, you have two of the best weekends anyone could desire.
Just bring an extra pair of shoes.
Ryan O’Malley is a music writer and photographer who has contributed to the Weekender since 2007.