For the 45th year in a row, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival roared its way into the city’s Fair Grounds for two unforgettable weekends of music, parades, and more Southern cooking than any person could tolerate. Although the amenities Jazz Fest offers could satisfy any person looking to get a true feel for the Big Easy, the music has always been the focus, and this year was no exception.
As has been the tradition with Jazz Fest, the festival was divided over two weekends, with the first, held April 25-27, hosting a barrage of national acts (Santana, Phish, Eric Clapton, etc.) along with numerous New Orleans natives like Irma Thomas, John Boutté, and the legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band, all of whom could be found on one of the nearly dozen stages located on the grounds. If someone were to search for a feel of what New Orleans music is all about, these artists, along with many other names, provided the perfect examples.
For fans of the national scene, Jazz Fest has become one of the most respected festivals in the country due to the top-notch acts they bring in year after year. This year’s festivities featured a fiery set by modern acoustic rockers the Avett Brothers, who put in a 90-minute set on the Samsung Galaxy stage to a capacity crowd on Friday night. Around the same time, legendary blues rock outfit Santana took the Acura main stage for a surprisingly energetic performance that spanned their entire career, from early staples like “Black Magic Woman,” “Evil Ways,” and “Oye Como Va” to songs that helped resurrect the band’s career in the late ‘90s, including the smash hit “Smooth.”
Also on Friday night was a performance by hip-hop innovators Public Enemy, who put in what many felt was the best set of the night. For a group who hit its heyday in the ‘80s and ‘90s – and whose hype man (Flavor Flav) has become something of a cartoon character after his numerous reality TV shows – Chuck D and Flavor Flav sounded as fierce and spot-on as they did on the original recordings of “911 Is a Joke,” “Bring the Noise,” “Don’t Believe the Hype,” and the early anthem “Fight the Power.” Considering Public Enemy, the Avett Brothers, and Santana were all on different stages at the same time, the only challenge to Jazz Fest attendees was trying to map out the best way to catch everyone they wanted to see. Although having to miss some performances could be a bit frustrating, it speaks volumes about the quality acts the festival provides each year; sometimes there’s just too many good musicians.
Saturday provided one of the stronger lineups for Jazz Fest, beginning with Phish, who – after an 18-year absence – performed a marathon three-hour set full of highlights, including a tight “Kill Devil Falls,” a raucous “Down with Disease,” which featured some brilliant guitar work from Trey Anastasio, the always-enjoyable “Harry Hood,” and the a cappella “Grind” before encoring with the fan-favorite “Julius.” Across the ground, Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant brought his current project, the Sensational Space Shifters, to the Samsung stage for a bluesy 90-minute set, which included songs from his solo career like “In the Mood,” along with cuts from the Zeppelin catalogue like “Babe I’m Gonna Leave You,” “Going to California,” a reworked “Black Dog,” a spot-on take on “Whole Lotta Love,” and an encore of “Rock and Roll.” While it is a memorable experience to watch Plant sing such legendary songs, the singer’s voice is clearly showing signs of aging, which may be part of the reason he has been reluctant to reunite with his former bandmates.
Also on Saturday night, Robin Thicke performed on the Congo Square stage for a crowd of mostly female fans and brought his soul and R&B catalogue to the festival, including the song you couldn’t avoid last summer, the insatiable “Blurred Lines.”
On Sunday, the fest offered a wide array of acts, including New Orleans staples Galactic, who delivered one of the best sets of the weekend on the Samsung stage. The band has been a fixture at Jazz Fest for several years and has been reaching new audiences over the last few years, including a stop in our area as part of last year’s Peach Music Festival in Scranton. Also on Sunday was a set by the newer alternative act Vampire Weekend, who put in a spirited performance to close out the Samsung stage.
The final act to take the Acura stage was guitar icon Eric Clapton, who made his debut appearance at Jazz Fest a memorable one. While most acts who play Jazz Fest predominately bring their biggest hits to the show, Clapton’s set veered away from songs like “Tears in Heaven,” “Wonderful Tonight,” and “Sunshine of Your Love.” Instead, Slowhand brought a blues set to the festival, beginning with the opening number, the blues standard “Key to the Highway.” Throughout the rest of the first portion of his set, Clapton brought out some of his bluesier minor hits, like “Pretending” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down and Out,” before taking an acoustic guitar and offering up some quieter numbers, including the acoustic version of his most recognizable song, “Layla.” Although it was mostly a blues show, Clapton did pacify fans of his hit songs by bringing an incredible version of the Cream cover of Robert Johnson’s iconic “Crossroads” and ending his set with his unmistakable cover of JJ Cale’s “Cocaine” before departing the stage 10 minutes earlier than planned.
Along with the endless entertainment, Jazz Fest is a unique festival in terms of what they offer the fans, mainly the food. While most other festivals have your standard fare of burgers and hot dogs, Jazz Fest wants its patrons to get a true feel for New Orleans cuisine and offers everything from jambalaya and gumbo, to alligator, crab, and every kind of po’ boy you can imagine, which at some points led to the attendees raving more about the food than the music. Also, with an early ending time of 7 p.m., the festival is the perfect catalyst for the city’s thriving night life, with many of the festivals patrons taking in some of the night shows, which included everyone from Anders Osborne, Rebirth Brass Band, and Particle to people like Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue and George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, both of whom performed at the House of Blues in the French Quarter.
With two consecutive weekends of all the music, food, people, and partying Jazz Fest brings, it’s very tempting to plan a vacation around catching both parts. Even if you can’t make the full run, making your way to at least one Jazz Fest is the perfect early summer trip for any music lover. The only bad part? You have to wait another year to do it all again.